Many freelancers feel busy, overwhelmed, and stuck in a cycle of constantly doing, doing, doing.
When you’re working for yourself, working 9 to 5 goes out the window sometimes, and there is always more to do! There are a thousand ways to optimize your productivity. Experts and gurus have built systems and created apps to help you become more productive.
Different systems, hacks, books, and apps work well for different people. Your unique situation and skillset will determine which of these works best for you.
So, although I can recommend various systems, you’ll have to try different ones until you find the perfect one for you.
Today, instead of suggesting a system, I want to share universal principles of effective work with you so that you can plan your day effectively as a freelancer.
Effective ≠ productive
People get these ideas confused. Often they look and feel similar. After all, if you are doing a lot of things, aren’t you being effective?
Effective work is productive work in that you need to get things done. But, it is more than just productive work.
Productivity is simply a way of tracking how much you do and how quickly you do it.
Effective work is whether you are doing the right thing at any given moment.
Productivity is important.
But, if it isn’t the right work, all you are doing is moving quickly in the wrong direction.
Your goal as a freelancer isn’t just to work quickly (though this is a byproduct of effective work), but it is to find (and do) the right thing at the right time to deliver the results your clients need when they need them.
So, with that spirit in mind, let’s talk about how to plan your day effectively.
And, to be clear, the lessons here work for you whether you are a full-time freelancer, part-time freelancer, or are working for a larger company.
Let’s dive in.
Principle #1: Plan your day
If you start your day by figuring out what you need to do, you’ve already lost.
An effective freelancer has a plan because she has already decided on what is important.
But, never confuse deciding what is important with doing what is important. These are two separate tasks.
Deciding what is important involves weighing a wide range of factors.
- The time you have to work
- Approaching deadlines
- Whether or not you are waiting on anyone else
- Your mood
- How focused you are
- What you have going on before and after work
- What tasks you enjoy and what tasks you don’t
If you’ve been up all night with a sick child and have a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, what you can and will do is different than if you have a full and uninterrupted day after a night of great sleep.
Or, if an important client is late for a meeting and you have back-to-back meetings scheduled for the day, what you are able to do is different from what you may have initially planned.
Often, much of this task of selecting, sorting, and prioritizing your work is automatic (and even sometimes out of your control), but you can improve it with some of the other ideas we’ll talk about later.
However, regardless of whether or not your day goes exactly according to plan, having a plan is crucial to working effectively.
Often, the best thing to do is to create a plan at the end of the previous day. That way, you can get up from your desk, knowing you can “hit the ground running” the next day.
How should you plan? Keep reading, and I’ll give you some more principles.
Principle #2: Use your calendar (the right way).
Does your calendar stress you out? Is it out of date, inaccurate, or full of things that don’t matter?
Let’s fix that.
First, consider why you have a calendar.
There are certain things that must happen ON a certain date or BY a certain date.
Appointments and deadlines.
These could be big and important things (like major project deadlines, or your child’s birthday).
Or, they could be smaller, more routine things (like sending a weekly project update each Thursday, or scheduling lunch with a friend).
These are the only two things that should be on your calendar: appointments and deadlines.
Real appointments and concrete deadlines.
Stuff happens. You get sick, a client calls panicking over a bug they just discovered, or your laptop gives you the blue screen of death.
You don’t always know when you’ll get something done. And, whether you get it done today or tomorrow (or in the morning or afternoon), doesn’t really matter.
Too often, we fill our calendars with artificial due dates, thinking that if we decide it’s due by some arbitrary day on the calendar, we’ll feel obligated to do it.
But, often, that doesn’t work.
We know it’s not real, so we don’t abide by it. Then, we either have to reschedule it (creating more work for ourselves) or forget about it.
But, if the only things on your calendar are real due dates and hard appointments, you’ll always be able to see what is going on at a glance.
So, you may be asking, where do I store and track my tasks?
Let’s talk about that next.
Principle #3: Embrace the list
A “list” can be a lot of things, ranging from a project management program to a few bullet points on a post-it note.
No matter what medium you use, the list is key.
A list has a wide range of benefits:
- It always helps you stay focused on the next task
- It gives momentum to your day
- It keeps you from wondering where you are going
- It gives you a blast of dopamine every time you check things off
- It helps you “keep score” on the day, giving you a sense of accomplishment
Everyone from CEOs of major companies to freelancers like us use lists to keep ourselves organized and productive.
The important thing is getting it out of your head.
Holding onto ideas takes brainpower, draining your finite mental resources. It is hard enough just doing the work. Don’t make it harder by splitting your mental energy.
Working from a list that is up-to-date and contains the things you actually need to get done frees up subconscious room to simply focus on the task at hand, largely because you know you won’t forget to reply to that email or make that phone call (because it is on your list.)
Whether you write it down on a piece of paper, use a digital note taking or task management app, or invest in a major project management software, break your day down into a list of things to accomplish and you’ll move faster, get more done, and feel more accomplished at the end of the day.
Principle #4: Limit your interruptions
We’ve all been there.
You are in the flow, time has stopped, and you are flawlessly writing code. Everything is perfect.
Then, you get an email or someone stops by your desk.
“Can you take a look at this really quickly?”
“Can you give me a call? It will only take a minute.”
“Help! I need some assistance!”
Your day is ruined, isn’t it?
You can’t find the flow-state again. Or, even worse, someone else’s priorities have hijacked your day.
As a freelancer, you have control over your time and should exercise that control to your benefit.
So, let’s talk briefly about the different types of distractions you face and how you can limit them.
Effective communication is an important aspect of freelancing, but left unchecked, it can quickly take over your time and derail your progress.
Stop the endless email train by answering emails once or twice per day, say only after lunch or only first thing in the morning (you decide when).
Also, establish hard rules about communication with your clients, shaping what they expect. Limit open-access to clients (like slack, text messaging, etc). If your client knows you only respond to emails first thing in the morning, they know not to expect a reply the same day if they send you one at lunch.
Turn off notifications when you are in the zone! If you’ve set aside an hour or two to finish a project, protect that time and space by silencing those pesky notifications. You’ll only be tempted to stop working and check every time you hear that “ding.” So, give yourself the freedom to check them later, after you’ve accomplished the task at hand. I promise, they’ll be there when you’re finished.
Learning to effectively manage communications will save you time and minimize frustrating distractions while you work.
Like communications, meetings are another important part of freelancing that, if mismanaged, can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Limit how many meetings you will take in a day or limit all meetings to a maximum of 60 minutes. They may not like it, but if clients know they only have 60 minutes of your time, they’ll make better use of that 60 minutes than they would if you give them 3 hours.
You can also make a habit of establishing a pre-meeting agenda or creating artificial limits on when clients can meet. Does your entire week go well if you can spend the day on Monday systematically working through as many things as possible? Tell your clients you don’t take meetings on Monday. If they ask why or push back, gently (but firmly) remind them that they pay you for work not for meetings and that every minute you sit in a meeting is a minute you can’t work.
Set clear goals for each meeting. This may be an agenda you type up or simply notes you’ve jotted on your tablet, but have a clear idea of what you need to accomplish. This will help you not to get distracted and lose more time because a meeting gets side-tracked.
Meetings should work for you not against you. YOU are in charge, so take control.
Of course, every freelancer has seemingly endless tasks to accomplish every day. The trick is to find an effective system to manage them.
Group tasks by either type of tasks (replying to emails) or by how much mental energy they take (hardcore coding in the morning when you are fresh).
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how urgent a task is because if you simply don’t have the mental horsepower to tackle it, you can’t (at least not effectively). So, do tasks that are mentally draining or taxing when you are at your sharpest. Leave tasks that are easier or no-brainers for when you are tired.
Take simple, repetitive tasks that are annoying, unpleasant, or always fall to the bottom of your list and try giving them to someone else. Will a few bucks a week to someone on Fiverr open up a few hours of your time to do something that moves the needle for your clients? The tradeoff is easy. If you can free up that time to do more work that generates more income, why are you doing it yourself?
Principle #5: Give yourself more time than you think you need
Like me, you are probably an optimist. You expect to get a task done in 30 minutes, so you mentally budget that time.
But then, something happens, and you get to it late. Or, there is an unexpected problem, and it takes twice as long.
Suddenly, you don’t get as many things done as you expected, and you feel like you are falling behind.
A simple rule to help avoid this scenario is to always expect things to take twice as long as you would expect.
If they don’t, you’ve just freed up extra time to work (or play!) If they do, you have budgeted the extra time to do them.
So, if you think a project will take one week, tell your client it will take two. This principle is true no matter the scale.
For some more practical advice about time and project management, read Project Management as a Freelancer .
I want to finish by expanding on two things I said earlier.
Everything about your freelancing career depends on your mental resources. For all of us, you included, these resources are limited.
On the best of days, you only have so much mental power, no matter how many cups of coffee and energy drinks you ingest to keep going.
The more you press and the longer you go, the more deeply you will deplete your resources.
Your job is to guard, maximize, and monitor those resources because when they are gone, you are done, whether that is for a day or for a lifetime.
To that end, keep two additional things in mind.
First, prioritize sleep and hydration.
Coffee is great, but it’s a temporary fix. Drinking enough water and getting a good night’s sleep will do more for your output and mental health than any amount of coffee.
So, prioritize sleep and start your day with a big glass of water. A good practice is to drink one glass of water for each cup of coffee you drink. I know, I can hear your groans, but just try it and see if you don’t feel more energized!
Second, monitor your mental horsepower.
Some days, you’ll be ready to take on the world. Other days, you won’t have enough fight in you to do much more than stare at the screen.
That is just how life is.
Trying to do intense, mentally taxing work on the days and times when you feel like a zombie is a recipe for frustration.
Instead, keep a list handy of “low-energy” tasks. So, even when you feel off your game, you can still knock things off your list (and get a needed boost of dopamine!).
The items on that list are different for everyone. Maybe prepping a pitch for a client is hard, but sending emails out to potential clients is easy.
Or, if you don’t feel up to writing code, prep some invoices. That way, you are still getting stuff done even though you aren’t at your best. You can still be effective.
Remember: your goal isn’t just to do a lot of things. Your goal is to do the right things at the right times.
Following these 5 principles will help you to focus on working effectively which will, in turn, help you be more productive.
- So, make sure you have a plan.
- Use your calendar and task-management systems in the right way.
- Limit interruptions by setting boundaries.
- And, manage projects by giving yourself more than enough time to complete them.
- Planning your day effectively as a freelancer is the key to avoiding unnecessary frustrations that can quickly derail your ambitions.
Remember, an effective freelancer is both productive and successful!
Thanks for reading!