I never quite know what to say when asked whether I freelance “full-time.” I certainly don’t work 40 hours a week, nor do I earn $50,000 a year. (Though if I did the former, I would probably surpass the latter.) But freelancing is my only source of income, so I guess I am full-time in the sense that my business is my main gig rather than a side hustle. More important to me than punching a time clock or even getting a paycheck, though, is whether the time I spend working is fulfilling. Is that time full of things that fill me with joy, accomplishment, creativity, and money?
I work about 15-20 hours a week, by choice. The flexibility and freedom of freelancing are worth the decrease in income. But in order to make it all balance out, I’ve had to learn to use my work time very efficiently and productively. Here are my favorite time management tips for freelancers, entrepreneurs, and especially work-at-home moms.
Track your time, at least for awhile.
If you’re serious about getting the most out of your work time, I recommend tracking your daily time usage for at least a week. You can use an app like Toggl to track how much time you spend on each task, or use a notebook to write down what you’re doing every fifteen minutes. Just like you need a baseline account of your spending when setting a budget, you also need a general idea of how you usually spend your time if you want to look for ways to be more productive and efficient.
Time tracking is also very helpful when you are first establishing your rates and prices. While you may not charge an hourly rate, knowing how long it takes to edit a photography session or create a piece of custom jewelry will enable you to price yourself profitably and sustainably.
Use task-batching to be more efficient and cohesive.
Try to group similar tasks together and complete them in one (uninterrupted, if possible) sitting. One thing that used to drive me crazy in my previous life as an administrative assistant was the nearly constant switching from one task to another. “Jenn, fill out this contract! Call a plumber for this house! Where’s the file for this client? Hey, is that contract ready yet?” One study found that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after a disruption. Ain’t nobody got time for dat!
Theme your days to keep your priorities in order.
I used to prioritize client work above all else. Why would I spend unpaid time on marketing when I could be doing paid work? But what ended up happening was that I’d bust my ass on a project for two months, and then when it was done, scramble in terror to find a new project.
I would also procrastinate things like updating my website or reconcile my bookkeeping, because again, no one was paying me to do that. And then I would scramble in terror to throw together a service menu for a potential client or get my numbers over to my accountant for tax time.
Building in a day EVERY WEEK to generate new business helps me avoid the boom-and-bust hamster wheel that plagues so many freelancers. So now I have Marketing Mondays.
Having a day set aside EVERY WEEK to work ON my business means I don’t have to spend four entire days fixing something that has finally fallen apart. So I also set aside Operations/Admin Fridays.
This shakes out to 3 days a week of paid client work, and 2 days a week of unpaid marketing, admin, and business development time. Keeping this structure (with some flexibility) means I have time to maintain my business but don’t completely go off the rails redesigning my website while neglecting income-producing activities.
(Failing to charge enough for the 3 days of paid client work to cover the 2 days of unpaid work is one of the main reasons freelancers and business owners end up undercharging and burnt out!)
Keep your most productive time sacred.
I’m a morning person, so I reserve that time for work that requires the most brain power and uninterrupted concentration. I leave tasks that don’t require as much concentration for the afternoon.
One particular form of task-batching that has been really helpful is scheduling all my weekly client calls on the same day. Now for an introvert like me, doing this is not an insignificant drain on my mental energy. But it would be harder to get back on track after one phone call every day than to just call it a day after three phone calls in an afternoon and a productive morning. (Of course, if clients need to reschedule, it’s not a big deal, but for the most part I try to stick to this system.)
Build in productive breaks.
Even the most dedicated task-batcher can only focus for so long. While I don’t adhere strictly to the Pomodoro technique of timed productivity periods, I do keep a list of “designated distractions” handy for when my attention wanders. These are small, discrete to-do’s that don’t take long to accomplish but that haven’t found a dedicated place in my schedule. I also call them junk-drawer tasks: making an appointment, putting something back where it belongs, buying something on Amazon. (Or, what I should do, is get up and walk around my house or hop on the elliptical for a few minutes.) This way my brain gets a break, but I’m still taking care of something that needs to be done rather than vegging out on social media.
Eliminate Minimize interruptions and distractions by setting boundaries.
One of the best things I ever did for my business was create time and space for me to work. We’ve rearranged the house so that my office is, uh, also my bedroom. But if I’m working with the door closed, everyone knows that I’m off limits unless the house catches fire. (Whether they always respect that is…another question, but it generally works.)
Boundaries have to work in reverse too in order to be truly effective. I have set my business hours and try not to respond to e-mails or otherwise work on projects outside of those hours. It doesn’t always happen because snow days make daycare go away, children get sick and can’t go to school, appointments run long etc. But having that structure makes the time I do spend working more efficient, and the time I don’t spend working more fun.
Eliminate Reduce the noise.
I know the work-at-home moms are probably laughing at me right now. While physical quiet is important, I’m mostly talking about digital and distraction noise. I have an app called StayFocused on my phone that keeps from accessing everything except phone calls and text messages. I also deleted the Facebook app from my phone entirely. There are various browser add-ons that can block our access to specified distracting websites. And of course, noise-canceling headphones are very helpful.
Whether you work 40+ hours a week or 4, time is precious. I hope these time management tips for freelancers, entrepreneurs, and work-at-home moms can be helpful for those of you who are building a business and managing a home at the same time.