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Time Management Fundamentals for the Busy Freelancer

I was a bit bored to write a design article today, so instead i will talk about the most useful skill i ever learned as a designer: Time management.

Sad as it is a week has only 168 hours. And if you find yourself wondering more than once were they have gone, well you are not the only one. As our daily life become more and more demanding from us utilizing efficient time management is more crucial than ever. This is truer if you are a freelancer or work from home. Your work hours and your free time can blend to a point where you no longer are able to draw the line.

There are many people who avoid using time management techniques, claiming they find it restricting or going against being spontaneous. In reality though, they most likely have tried it at least once, and quickly abandoned their time management system because it couldn’t work.

The main problem behind time management systems that fail are most often that they are unrealistic. Time is like money, you can’t spend more than you have. If you try squeeze more activities than your time budget allows, most likely you will become exhausted, or alienate friends and family, and eventually lose every interest in managing your time, since it won’t be working as you expect.

In addition to that people most often forget that time management is to help them have more free time while still doing more things than before. Going to the other side and allocating every second of your newfound free time for work would lead to an unbalanced life eventually, and again cause your time management system to fail.

If you need effort to manage your time you are doing it wrong.

Every journey begins with the first step…

For the purpose of this short guide we’ll start with a time study. To start planning your time, you must first know how you are spending currently your time. Dedicate a week in recording your daily life; observe where and how you spend more time. Resist the urge to judge yourself just observe and record for now. Try to keep track of everything you did during the day even the most mundane things like eating, or taking your newspaper break, or randomly meeting an old friend and talk in the bus stop. And the most repetitive things you do routinely like, surfing the internet or watching TV, going to work or for shopping etc.

You can use an Excel Sheet to track your time or a special app in your smartphone. Personally I am using Google Calendar since I can access it and update it from both my desktop computer and mobile devices.

Whatever method you choose to use by the end of the week you should have a clear idea of where you have been spending most of your daily time. You might find for example that your 5 hours daily gaming in Facebook can be a real time sinkhole. Or you waste too much time on meetings, or maybe with transportations to go from place to place. The more accurate and detailed are your records of your previous week the more accurate you can assess where your time have gone.

Now you can evaluate what you have learned.  It would be easier if you grouped logically these activities. For example meetings, appointments, daily tasks, work, study, unexpected events and so forth. Try the following questions to help you get started with your evaluation:

Are there things that take too much time? If so what you could change to reduce the time spend in that area?

Are things that you thought were taking you less time, but actually take more? Why is that and what you can do to fix it.

Are you spending time in unnecessary things that you could have avoid doing, and instead have used this extra time with your loved ones or to furthering your goals?

Ok, if by that point you wondering: Goals? What goals? Who needs them anyway? The answer is you need them. Keep reading to find out why.

Without a compass you might get lost in the jungle…

Before we get down to planning our time, there is another extremely important factor you need to think and consider. What would you like to make with this extra time? How will it help you accomplish your Goals? And most importantly what are your Goals?

Sounds like logical questions to begin right? Strangely though, most people are not setting any goals. There several reasons for that. They either think that it’s not something important. Or they might be afraid that they will fail, and so maybe thinking better not to even try than try and fail.

So let’s see why it’s important having goals. Goals are like your roadmap in life or a compass, if you don’t know where you want to go, you can never get there. They can give you a clear sense of direction. A sense of meaning and purpose in everything you do. And every step toward them will make you happier and more confident in yourself and what you can do. They are not meant to dictate how you live or what you do in your life.

Do not confuse the sense of direction, with narrow-mindness. Just because you decided you want to go somewhere today, doesn’t mean you should feel the same way tomorrow. And neither should mean you should shut off your eyes to any other opportunity.

Also try not to confuse goals with day dreaming.

What are the key elements that define a Goal?

Let’s examine some key elements that describe a successfully goal. You must probably have heard at one point or another that goals need to be SMART. This is an acronym that can take different meanings for different people. But however you translate the initials that form the word SMART the bottom line is this:

  1. Goals must be clear, specific and written down. Make lots of money or meet the love of your life is not a goal but a dream.
  2. Goals must be measurable. We must always be able to track if our goal is progressing well or not, and adjust our plan accordingly.
  3. Goals must have a deadline. Setting a deadline can help you determine the realism of your goal and to adjust it accordingly if ends up feeling unrealistic.
  4. Goals must be challenging. Always try to aim high (but also be reasonable), know what you can do now, but try to take it a step further day by day.
  5. Your goals should be balanced among several important aspects of your life, like career, family, health etc. Pursuing one thing and ignoring everything else won’t do you any good in the long run.
  6. Best practice is to have a major goal for every life aspect and sub-goals that support the major one.

How we can set a Goal?

So now that we clarify how a goal should be like, let’s see how we can set one:

  1. Make sure it’s something you really want for yourself intensively, and not something that someone else wants for you. You can never be excited for something someone else wants for you, nor work as hard as it might require.
  2. You must absolutely believe in your heart that your goal is achievable. That translates that is something you can do if you work hard enough. By achieving small but challenging goals one at time will help you build confidence and determination.
  3. I mentioned before that a goal must be detailed, clear and written; you should be reviewing your goals at least weekly. That will ensure they are still something you want to achieve and will also help you refuel your determination.
  4. Wonder why you haven’t already accomplished that goal, these obstacles or barriers might still be in place so you must think of actionable steps to overcome them. That might include additional skills, or help from other people etc.
  5. Determine where you are now and where you want to go. Write down all requirements and resources that you will need. That includes time, effort, money and probably some other unique to the goal, requirements.
  6. Determine if it something you can do and you are still willing to pay the “price” of the requirements.
  7. Make the plan that will help you achieve your goal. Write down the objectives you need to accomplish and the actions you will need to make to achieve those objectives along with their deadlines. Also think of how you will measure if the goal has been successful or not.
  8. Don’t give up no matter the odds, repeat the steps and re-evaluate your goal at any point you think its necessary.

It’s time for action

To start out scheduling and planning your daily life in accordance to your goals, you will need some sort of a calendar. Whichever you choose the important thing to look for, is for it to have hours in the daily format. If it doesn’t have hours you will be having to adding them yourself, so not very good thing to do on daily basis. Your calendar need to be accessible at all times, so if you don’t use the traditional paper planner but a digital one, make sure that it can sync across all your devices.

Here are the basics to get you up and running quickly:

  1. I assume you already have figured out your goals and the objectives you need to accomplish to get to them. So it’s important to start working on those objectives immediately. Set a time every day to do just that. And work on your objectives. Even if it’s for a bit, eventually it will add up.
  2. Set some time aside for unexpected events, and I think the name is a bit oxymoron, since we should always expect them to happen! That contingency time is best to be 1 or 2 hours daily. Of course if nothing unexpected happens you can always put something from your task list there. But it’s far better practice as you will see to have a contingency spot, than fill your whole calendar up, and when the unexpected comes all your tasks will left behind and stack up.
  3. To better organize your casual tasks for the week or day you can divide them in four categories A, B, C & now.
    • A-tasks are those you must absolutely do, either because they’ll be due soon, or because they further your objectives, or because they return you the biggest reward with the least effort. Put A-tasks on top of your todo list.
    • B-tasks are those that still need to be done, but can wait to do them later. They don’t have major consequences and are not going to be due any time soon. Put B-tasks below A-tasks in your todo list.
    • C-tasks are those that if you won’t do neither you nor anyone else would care that much, or tasks you wait some action from someone else. Put C-tasks in a drawer, and remember to check it out every week or so.
    • As you complete the A-tasks, B-tasks become A-tasks & C-tasks become either B-tasks or remain in the drawer.
    • Now-tasks are tasks with duration to complete less than 1 to 5minutes, so simply do them now.
    • When you schedule appointments take into account the time you will need to transport to the appointment place as well.
    • Always set deadlines and time-boxes for your tasks.
    • Finally remember that your daily schedule is a living thing, you might need to relocate times, extend or contract tasks duration, and add items if your contingency spots remains unfilled and all your other scheduled tasks are completed.

Know thy enemy

Time management won’t do you any good if you keep up on postponing the difficult or boring tasks that are essential to achieve your goals or are crucial to finish.

The term most commonly used is procrastination, which derives from Latin procrastinationem (“a putting off from day to day,”). In other words do it tomorrow or the day after or never.

Trust me, tomorrow the task will be looking more daunting, because the requirements remain the same, your time to accomplish it has shortened significantly, you are stressed and you feel guilty for putting it off. Congratulations, by postponing the task you made your life more difficult and killed your creativity.

So why people keep evading things they really must do, by escaping to Facebook or Pinterest? Why we keep procrastinating knowing the consequences in stress and the futility of our evasion.

Let’s see the common reasons and some advices for to counter them.

1. You are not really committed on the task at hand

You might think that it’s not something you should be doing. Or that is a waste of time. Or that you have more important things to do.

The real question is why you do have to complete this task in the first place? What will you gain if you do? And what will you lose if you don’t? That train of thought might give you some important insights or motivation to actually go ahead and complete the task. If you still can’t find motivation or reasons to do it, then don’t! Just remove it from your task list permanently and consciously.

2. You are afraid of the task

You might be afraid that you will fail. So you think it’s better not to even try at all.

Or you might be afraid that you will succeed, and then the boss will keep giving you this boring assignment or everyone will be having more expectations for you and so on.

Finally you might just be afraid reaching the end result, not knowing what will happen next, or what should you do after finishing this task.

Remember that everyone is afraid, and fear never goes away. Give it a name & embrace it like an old friend. After all being brave is not the lack of fear, since that would make bravery insignificant. It’s moving forward despite your fear.

3. You don’t know how to do the task

If you feel that you lack the training or the information to work on task at hand then simply get the information or the training. Break the task in smaller more easy to finish tasks. If you are not willing to do so and meet the requirements, then you are not committed to the task so read again advice 1.

Sometimes you actually know how to the task even if you don’t consciously believe it. The advice in this case is “fake it till you make it”. Start working on the task pretending to yourself that you know what you are doing, the results will surprise you in most cases.

4. You put the task low priority and always end up postponing it

That usually happens when the task is boring or when you prefer doing something else instead. Well you would do the task if you were pressed, and eventually you will do it. So you think: why do it now? Let’s leave it for tomorrow or if there is time after everything else is done.

Try to redefine the task in terms of benefits and losses as discussed in 1. If you still find no need to give it higher priority over and over then the task is obviously unimportant for you. Consider removing it from your list, or finding someone else to do it for you.

5. You find it difficult to concentrate

You think I’ll get to the task, but maybe I can check Pinterest a bit first? Hmm let’s also read one more Facebook update! That video is so nice! Let’s watch that too. Oh! That reminded me of a lol-cat photo that I wanted to post for so long in Google+. Let’s tweet it too! Oh and looks like I have new mentions, lets chat a bit! And before you know it, the day has passed…

Take the initiative to confront your concentration issues. Set time reminders, and use a stricter time policy in using the social media. If you really can’t resist, Google for a service that blocks the procrastinate-friendly sites at specified time intervals. Or make this distractions your reward for completing a difficult and boring task.

Nike had it right all along. Just do it!

There are many systems that can help you prioritize and organize tasks, like GTD , The ABC analysis, Eisenhower Method, Pareto analysis, POSEC method and countless others plus their combinations. All can work as easily as not work. Don’t let procrastination stop you.

The key point to remember is this simple truth: having a task list is to prioritize things to DO, so as long they are done the method you follow is irrelevant. For most people, the best method is the one working for them and they consistently use. Searching for the perfect system to organize your life, reading every article on time management like this one, won’t do the tasks for you.

So stop searching for the one perfect system or app that will get you organized and start doing things today! But before that take a few moments to comment below with your own tips, tricks and tools to stay organized and get things done!

Resources

2 comments
frettcarla
frettcarla

Nicely written. A freelancer always strive out to have the time managed properly as the that is the only key factor which gives them the actual pay. But again the reports to be submitted to the client makes better sense in the process. Procedural manner of the time tracked and managed makes a better sense as such to get the best out of it. So far as I am concerned the technology based time tracking makes a better sense for time tracking and management. And for that very reason I have been using Replicon's time tracking software ( http://www.replicon.com/time-tracking-softwares.aspx ) which is cloud based and featured with calender based and user friendly interface.

sthalassinos
sthalassinos moderator

@frettcarla Glad you enjoyed our article. Indeed there are several applications  that can definitely make our lifes easier and help us track time more accurately. No matter what we use though, the important thing is to actually do it, sometimes spending the time to find the perfect software to do something can be counter productive.