Work / life balance for freelancers

5 Time Management Tips for Freelancers

By Brennan Dunn

Most of us quit our jobs and become freelancers because of the allure of being free. Historically, a freelancer was sort of a medieval mercenary. In a time of serfdom and allegiance for life, they were free of any master.

Modern mercenaries who slay code or battle the dragons of design often switch one master (their former boss) with many (their clients). Unless we’re careful, it’s too easy to give up newfound freedom in exchange for many masters, and the biggest culprit is usually an inability to manage time.

Here are a few steps that can help you put the free back in freelancer.

Limit information intake

Information comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s frivolous – like browsing Hacker News or Reddit. Sometimes it can appear important, taking the form of a conference call or meeting. The fact is, it’s almost impossible to multitask. I often tell my clients, especially when there’s something they need as soon as possible, that I can’t work if I’m on the phone talking about what needs to get done. Information isn’t necessarily bad, but going on a diet is a great idea. When you’re trying to work and produce focus on doing just that.

Eliminate distractions

Email, Skype, Twitter, IM. All of these are productivity killers and cause you to lose time and focus. Try to limit checking email to once or twice a day (morning and evening). This will also encourage your clients to realize that not everything in life is urgent and worthy of an immediate response. Our civilization somehow managed to survive before the advent of cell phones and email-everywhere, and it still can.

Work in short bursts

The Pomodoro technique is what I use to work, blog, or even research. The idea is simple: Work 25 minutes at a time (and do nothing but work), and then break for 5 minutes. Stretch, brew some tea, or look out the window for these five minutes, but don’t think about your work. This allows us to detach ourselves from our work, and to turn on or off our working minds at our own leisure.

Practice saying “No”

We all want to please people, but we shouldn’t sacrifice our own happiness to do that. Usually things that need to be done right away can wait a bit. I respect firms like Pivotal Labs because they have a very strict 9am to 6pm office hours policy, and refuse to do anything outside of those hours. Too many freelancers and consultants carve into their scheduled free time, sacrificing their time with friends and family, to satisfy. Trust me, people respect those of us who don’t respond with “how high?” when asked to jump.

Treat freelancing as a job

This probably sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. I’ve been doing client work for years and have been through a lot of great times and a lot of rough spells. My family life has suffered at times because I had a really hard time of “leaving” work. I worked from home, my laptop was my toolbox, and it was with me everywhere. I was my work. Setup office hours with your clients, confidentally explain the way you work and why, and stick with it.

The only way to achieve freedom as a freelancer is to establish a system and to educate your clients on how it works. Otherwise, your clients will continue to influence you with how they want to work. Remember this: Time is like money. If you don’t earmark and manage it like you would your budget, it will disappear.