How to Manage Time as a Freelancer

By Jeff Smith
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freelancer at work

So you're a freelancer. Maybe you do some side work, maybe it's a full-time gig for you. Maybe you're the entrepreneur behind a small startup, still functioning like a freelancer.

In these and many other cases (I'm looking at you, workaholics who don't stop when you get home), people often have trouble managing time.

This article looks at some of the main time management challenges freelancers (and others) have to face, and considers some practical solutions.

What, Exactly, is "Work"?

It's important to understand the difference between work and leisure.

You sit at your desk flipping through Twitter; or skimming articles as you research a topic; or maybe note-taking; or contributing to an open-source project; or helping a colleague with a problem.

These activities can look like leisure activities—not only to outsiders, but even to yourself. Of course, in some cases they are! But often, they help to further your skills or career goals, and aren't simply for entertainment.

Redefine Your Concept of Work

If your activities help to boost your online presence or portfolio, or enhance your ability to make money or generate leads, then they're related to work. They are work. So treat them like work.

Maintaining a Discipline

Of course, you still have to prioritize. Do these activities have a higher priority than other work? Than leisure activities? Than family time? You need to work out a realistic balance between all these.

juggling many tasks

It's a difficult balance, as a freelancer or other working professional, because these "grey area" activities creep into your life. With social networking applications, news and email on our mobile devices, we can literally be working anywhere, at any time, in one way or another.

Setting clear boundaries of what is work, and then stopping work when it's time to do so—for however long you intended—is very important. Give yourself a mental break before returning your nose to the proverbial grindstone.

The Elusive Work-life Balance

This leads into a topic that many of us know and love—the elusive "work-life balance". In the United States, a 2014 Gallup Poll says that the average work-week is 47 hours. That, unfortunately, is not including the random, off-the-clock work done at home. And it definitely isn't the norm for freelancers or entrepreneurs, who may work many more hours than that! So how do you balance these things?

Don't Confuse Work for Leisure

Firstly, define what your work involves. Be clear about this, so that you don't fall into the trap of working when you're supposed to be relaxing with the family etc. (Are you sure you're relaxing with that phone in your hand?)

Schedule It

Secondly, plan ahead. If you want to have a bowling night, movie outing or date, schedule it. It makes it more real to you, and the time really seems blocked off, preventing you from filling it with other stuff.

Saying No

Thirdly, learn to say no. This is an age-old adage, but it's a good one to remember. And it applies, most of all, to yourself.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs are often constantly busy—either because it's in their nature to be, or because it's in the nature of self-employment.

Say no. Set aside time to manage the other areas of your life, and don't put any more tasks on this day's list. Say no to yourself, and to others, and begin filling another day.

Task Management Systems

It's crucial that freelancers and entrepreneurs manage tasks effectively. Yet many of us don't, or at least don't do so effectively.

When tackling the exciting—but daunting—adventure of working for yourself, or starting your own business, you may find yourself with much less free time than you previously had. It can help to manage all of the various things on your plate—both work-related and not—using a task-based rather than time-based approach.

managing tasks

I recommend that you use a task management system to organize your schedule. Examples of these include Todoist, Wunderlist, OmniFocus, Trello, Asana. I currently use a combination of Todoist and Trello.

If apps aren't your thing, at least use a pen and paper system to organize yourself. Either way, take some time to assess the options and choose one or more that work for you. And once you've make your decision, try to stick with it, at least for a while.

Of course, once you've chosen a system, you can adapt it to your way of working. Decide when you'd like to organize yourself—be it first thing in the morning, or last thing before bed—and start doing it.

To get the most value out of a task management system, create tasks for everything, including work, online activities, family things, chores, and overhead for your business.

Also, limit your tasks in a day. At some point, draw a cutoff and stop adding more things to your plate. You can only do so many things in a day!

The Non-billable Time Problem

Let's talk about the implications of non-billable time, what it is, and the different methods you'll need to consider to deal with it.

For most freelancers, non-billable time can really be classed in two ways: as business overhead, and as an illusion.

Business Overhead

"Business overhead" can include a lot of things: admin tasks; checking on your services (hosting platform, social media accounts, any number of things); dealing with your accountant or attorney; marketing for your own business; networking; and much more.

Get a realistic picture of how much of your working week you spend on this sort of overhead task. Time-track yourself if you must. Then make a note of it. The most important thing to remember about this type of non-billable time is that you should account for it when doing estimates or quotes, or when figuring up an hourly rate.

An example of incorporating non-billable time

You deduce that you spend approximately 20% of your time on non-billable business overhead. You have a job in your queue that you are about to quote, estimating that it will take 100 hours, at around $50/hour. So you're quoting the project at about $5000.

What you may be forgetting, though—as a business—is that you have to account for that overhead somewhere. So you should either add time to estimates, or raise your hourly rate to cover that extra 20% of time required to run the business.

Illusory Non-billable Time

Secondly, and perhaps just as important, is the amount of illusory non-billable time you spend on client projects. "Illusory? What does that mean?"

It means that this kind of non-billable time is only not billable in our imaginations. Many freelancers and entrepreneurs are simply short-changing themselves.

Are you doing research for a client project? Add the time to the total, or account for it when you estimate.

Are you having meetings with the client? Does that involve travel time? What about quoting and estimating time? You need to account for all of that.

There is no such thing as non-billable time spent on a client project; there's only time you are choosing not to be paid for.

Tracking your time spent on projects is a good idea, even on non-hourly projects. The more time you track, the better you'll be able to estimate in the future. When building, say, a simple WordPress site for a client, with 5–10 pages and no special features, you'll already know from the last three similar projects roughly the amount of time it will take—including any project overhead that you may not have included previously.

You Have More Time Than You Think

freelancer relaxing

You don't have an infinite supply of time, but you probably have more than you think.

Using the methods I've covered—defining what "work" is to you, creating a work-life balance, organizing your life, working with task management, and using careful time tracking to eliminate non-billable time—you can create more free time, and/or get more income out of the time you have.

You have to eat, sleep, and get things done, though. So the last piece of advice here is simple. Remember that there are only so many hours in a day. Don't overload yourself. If a task can't be done today, put it on tomorrow's list. If a project won't fit in your schedule, don't take it on.

Anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, under-performance on jobs and damaged relationships won't help your freelancing career!

Be mindful how much you allow on your plate at once. Don't overload it, but also don't stop looking for ways to do things more efficiently and thus maximize the value of your time! Good luck!

How have you dealt with the challenges mentioned here? How easy do you find it to manage your time, balance work and non-work, and to avoid too much non-billable time?

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  • In my early beginnings I was a freelancer… and it was really hard. Everything mentioned here is true.

    You need to find a balance between your life and work… yet it’s hard because they are always interfering with each other. I always liked to think that I could work whenever I want, and that work is subjected to me – WRONG!
    I had an illusion that I can do whatever I want and work whenever I wanted to. When I sorted it out with myself, I got better results and spent much less time working.
    When I agreed myself loosely around working hours I did much better.

    This is great article to read… Jeff… why didn’t you write it few years ago while I was freelancer :P

    • Hah, thanks. Glad you liked it! It seems like a really common problem, that’s why I was interested in writing this one.

      • Yes… this is really good… mostly people become freelancers, not knowing anything about it. But soon, they are overwhelmed with everything… many of them are just not ready for it!

  • rduinmayer

    Let me help you set a better mindset. Just say to yourself, everything is work. Making a logo = Work, gardening = work, walking with wife = work.

    Stop the split. Everything you do is work.

    • Ralph Mason

      Ah yes, dealing with a wife—hard work indeed! :p

      But seriously, some things you do for love, some for money; and it’s easy to give short shrift to those activities that don’t pay a salary, like spending time with the family. So consciously budgeting for non-pay activities is pretty important.

  • Amin saleh

    Thanks for tips that are good not only for freelancers but also for people doing any type of business online.

  • Ugh… the forever struggle that is Work-Life Balance. I agree, put your phone away during quality time, especially if it’s with your family. Turn off your laptop and walk away from it; stop checking for emails. Yeah, it would really help if leisure time is scheduled so you won’t think of it as wasted working hours. I use task management tools, too, and find that they’re effective. It feels good to have ticked off all tasks at the end of the day.

    Thanks for the tips especially for the non-billable time. It really helps since quoting is forever my problem. :)

    • Thanks for the comment! I find that quoting is often my problem as well, so it comes from the heart for sure.

      • I’d love to read more articles like this. Keep them coming, Jeff, and thanks again.

  • Dhaval Chheda

    Going to start my freelancing from next week .It’s definitely going to help me out .Especially with my College work and Project Work . :)

    • Glad you liked it! Good luck with your freelancing endeavors!

  • My number 1 tip for managing your work-life balance is turn off the notifications on your phone! Makes the world of difference.

    And I mean turn them off for everything. Check Twitter when you decide to check Twitter, not when it tells you to.

    • Ralph Mason

      Couldn’t agree more, Laura! There’s a time for everything, but those constant distractions are deadly for productivity.

    • Agreed.

      And on the computer. Turn off Slack, Glip, Twitter, email etc.

      On the phone, turn it into a “dumbish phone”. Turn off data and WiFi. Do that when you go out for dates and other leisure too. Not only do you not get interrupted, but you don’t get tempted to pull it out and check scores, find information etc.

    • Absolutely. If we don’t control the input we’re receiving from our technology, it controls us!

    • Anh Ho

      If you manage several Social Network fan pages that help you sell your items, notification should be turned on constantly…I do hope know what I mean! Anyway, your tip is helpful! Like it!

  • Nicki

    Thanks for this! I’ve been freelancing for almost 10 years, and I’m still a little squeamish about billing for all the time I’m actually spending on a client. I have to keep reminding myself not to work for free.