7 Ways to Better Manage Your Time as a Freelancer
As a freelancer, you've taken control of your career. You can scale your workload up and down as you see fit, but how do you effectively manage yourself without losing a step? Kevin Casey, a Null Media author, and Jerome Iveson, who founded project management site Solo, discuss how a freelancer can best manage their most valuable resource—time.
One of the great allures of the freelance life is the opportunity to gain more control over how you spend your time. But making that dream a reality while building a successful, sustainable business can prove to be a challenge.
For starters, there’s the nagging anxiety that if you’re not working you’re not making money, which is, unfortunately, largely true. There’s no such thing as paid time off in the freelance world. Working for yourself revives the old cliché that “Time is money.” Mismanaging your time can become exceedingly expensive and sidetrack an otherwise promising career. This fact becomes even more apparent when you factor in all the mundane but necessary non-paying tasks of running your business, such as invoicing, courting new clients, and paying taxes.
So what are the best ways to maximize your time as a freelancer? We asked Jerome Iveson, founder of Solo, an online project-management suite designed specifically for freelancers, to share his thoughts. He offered some straightforward advice for how to manage your most valuable commodity and to avoid common time sinks.
1. Overestimate your time. Freelance pros who don’t take steps to adequately understand how much time a project or assignment will require set themselves up for major management headaches. If you ever take on work thinking “piece of cake,” take a moment to be sure it’s not a schedule drain in disguise. “Underestimating how long something will take is a killer. Always overestimate,” Iveson says. “This is especially the case if you are attempting something new that may be just outside your comfort zone. Learning on the job is all well and good, but it will take longer.”
2. Charge what you’re worth. Bad morale—or flat-out apathy—can lead to the deadly sin of procrastination. (For more on that, see #6.) This problem can appear under various guises, one of which is low pay. “Make sure you charge what you are worth. Never undercharge,” Iveson says. “Working too hard for too little will sap morale.”
3. Learn to say “no.” It’s easy, especially when you’re just starting out as a freelancer, to say “yes” to everything. Perhaps this is because you won’t get far if your clients are unhappy. But you need to set limits, too. “Clients will sometimes be testing, wanting results quicker or cheaper. Try to stick to your guns. Be firm and fair,” Iveson says. “One needy client can impact the rest of your schedule.” Decline jobs that aren’t worth your time or energy.
4. Make a project plan. Good time-management starts with a written plan, whether you prefer the latest digital tools or old-fashioned pen and paper. “Have a plan of what you want to achieve in a certain given timeframe,” Iveson says. “It doesn’t have to be detailed or rigid; a simple to-do list will work fine.”
5. Don’t beat yourself up. No one is perfect. Even if you’re a freelancing veteran, you’re likely to make mistakes every now and again. Whether you miss a self-imposed deadline or make another misstep, don’t compound the issue by wallowing in it. “Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get something done on time,” Iveson says. “Learning from your mistakes and understanding how to improve is better than punishing yourself.”
6. Don’t put things off. We know, we know—that’s easier said than done. But procrastination will waylay your profitability. Chuck those bad habits and devote your work time to, well, working. Develop an action-oriented mind-set around moving projects toward completion and making smart, efficient choices. Iveson notes that that doesn’t mean you should always be in a rush. “Make timely and informed decisions. If you aren’t sure about a decision, sleep on it, reassess, and then act.”
7. Track every minute of your time. No matter how you bill clients, you can’t become more efficient if you have only a vague sense (or no idea whatsoever) of how you spend your days. You need to quantify the time you invest in projects and clients to determine whether any given one is boosting—or killing—your bottom line. To this end, track your time in a detailed fashion by whatever means works best for you. “Religiously track your time, even if you don’t charge per hour,” Iveson says. “It’s very easy to spend time doing something you love. But, if you don’t know how much time you’ve spent, how do you know if a project is profitable? If you keep spending more time than quoted on a certain task, it may be time to adjust your quote accordingly.”
Fortunately, the online era has spawned a wealth of new tools that can help maximize your resources. The web abounds with smart tools for the modern freelancer, such as project management software, virtual assistants for those non-revenue-generating tasks, and marketplaces like Elance to help you find work.