Productivity Hacks

11 Productivity Hacks and Time Management Tips for Freelancers

Lauren Bonk

There’s something to be said for a 9-5 in terms of time management. Now, before you start emptying water jugs and throwing toner cartridges at me, hear me out.

When you’re working in an office environment, you’re on someone else’s time. You’ve got your breaks scheduled out, someone else in charge of your assignments, and probably some kind of software policing your social media usage.

None of this is ideal; I understand that. But it does take a good load of the responsibility off of your shoulders.

When you’re freelancing, you decide when you get out of bed and when you get to take a break from work. You are responsible for setting your own deadlines and making sure that 75 minutes of your workday isn’t spent watching cat videos.

Okay, so you want to watch 75 minutes of cats nonchalantly batting cups of coffee off of countertops? No problem, me too… but cat videos are much more enjoyable at the end of the day with a chilly beer and the sweet feeling of having your to-do list wiped out.

It’ll definitely take some practice, but hopefully some of these time management tips for freelancers will help you form a plan.

1. Just say yes (to routine).

While you may feel like a freelance maverick with an appetite for life and an unquenchable thirst for the unknown, the truth is that you should probably establish a daily routine for yourself. With routine comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes the ability to focus on what you need to. After a few weeks of waking up and starting work at the same time each day, both your body and mind will be ready to settle into your projects.

2. Start each day with a list.

Lists are important. While they obviously provide direction and structure to your workday, they also act as an inherent source of motivation. Each time you cross a task off your list, you’ll feel the satisfaction of getting real work done, as well as get a visual reminder of how close you are to the end of your day.

You’ve got to make sure your lists are realistic, though. Acknowledge what you’re genuinely capable of, and stick to that. Having to move three or four items to the next day’s to-do list is an exquisitely deflating activity. Set goals that will help you move forward in your work without causing unnecessary burnout.

3. Move the big boulders right away.

There’s no better time to tackle your most labor/brain-intensive items than after you’ve had a hot shower, a hot breakfast, and a hot cup of coffee. Intimidating projects are significantly less daunting when you’re feeling fresh and ready to take on the day. Chances are, if you let those big tasks sit till 2:00 pm, you’ll end up telling yourself you should tackle it the next day… when you’re not so tired. That’s what we call a never-ending cycle.

4. Rip off unpleasantries like a band-aid.

Every freelancer reaches a time when they have to make an uncomfortable phone call or send an awkward email to a client or business partner. Even though those things may only take 10 minutes, it’s easy to procrastinate and dread them all day. Stress can absolutely affect the quality of your work, so you might as well just do a few jumping jacks, knock back a shot of… espresso, and tackle those problems as soon as you can.

5. Attend to thy sleep.

Sleep is one of the most important productivity tools you’ll ever need. When you’re well-rested, the alarm clock isn’t quite as piercing, and you’ll be better able to focus and create throughout the day. Whether it means going to bed earlier or waking up a little later, you (and your clients) will be much happier that you did.

Similarly, try not to work when you’re exhausted. The work you put out when you’re desperately trying to keep your eyelids open will almost always need to be overhauled the next day. Why not spare your keyboard from drool damage, and cut down on editing time, by going to bed and picking up where you left off in the morning?

6. Drive away from distractions.

I don’t know about you, but this one is the kicker for me. Between listicles about 80s cartoon revivals and articles on avoiding procrastination, the internet is the arch nemesis to my productivity.

Finding effective ways to abolish (or at least manage) distractions is essential.

My favorite of all the time management hacks out there is treating social media as a reward. Submitted an article? Sweet. Time to watch the new Star Wars trailer again. Smashed a deadline in 45 minutes flat? Cat videos it is. If you deliberately schedule breaks throughout your day, you’ll be less likely to experience a 2:00 pm burnout.

When it’s time to roll up your sleeves and finish a task, take a few moments to put your phone on silent, turn off any other notifications, and close the email tab in your browser. Find a good instrumental playlist on your favorite streaming service, and hunker down.

7. Carve out time for correspondence.

One of the easiest ways to get off-track is to get sucked into your inbox. There are always emails that need answering, and if you continually tend to them throughout the day, you’ll never get anything done. Set aside specific chunks of your workday to deal with email, and leave your worktime email-free. You’ll find your inbox more organized, and your deadlines closer to being done.

8. Take care of yourself.

Get enough sleep, exercise a few times a week, get some fresh air, eat healthy food, meditate about the meaning of life, talk to your plants, or sing a song to your fish… whatever it takes to nurture your body, mind, and emotional health is important and necessary.

If you are suffering, your work will, too.

9. You have the technology… use it.

There are countless apps and websites out there designed to help you streamline your day. Sites like Toggl help you track the time you spend on different tasks, and programs like Freedom and Anti-Social actually restrict your social media and web-browsing capabilities during designated time periods.

There’s no shame in admitting you don’t have the willpower to avoid all of those mug-swatting kitties. There’s an app for that, you know?

10. Break a huge project into bite-sized pieces.

Another big hurdle for me is getting over the intimidation of large projects. I’ve been known to mentally paralyze myself over big projects for weeks, simply because the size of them seems so difficult to tackle.

The best way to overcome this is to break the project into manageable chunks you feel confident in accomplishing. My favorite way to do this is by using the Pomodoro Technique. By the time you’ve completed a few of these tasks, the entire projects will seem to shrink in size, and you’ll be able to finish it out like a champ.

11. Just say no (when you need to).

Man, making money is awesome, right? And when someone approaches you wanting to pay you more money for a new project? Even more awesome, right!?

Well, when it’s three hours before deadline and you haven’t made a dent in that same project, it’s not going to feel quite so awesome. All of the productivity hacks in the world aren’t going to be able to save you if you’ve taken on too much work.

Respect your business, respect your time, and be aware of your capabilities so that you can say no when you need to.

Assess your needs and find what works.

You value your time enough to trade in the cubicle for a home office, so it’s important to make sure that time isn’t squandered.

There are millions of time management tips for freelancers out there, and not every one of them is going to be right for you. Finding the productivity hacks that work for your business involves a lot of honest self-reflection. What are your weaknesses when it comes to distraction? What kinds of things make you feel inspired and refreshed? How can you take better care of yourself so that you can bring your A-game every day?

And most importantly, what’s it going to take for you to be able to watch those cat videos guilt-free?

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