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Kids, Clients, and Avoiding the Chaos: How to Master Time Management as a Freelancer

It’s no surprise that you’re here, reading a blog post on time management. You’re a freelancer, and freelancers have a weird relationship with time. Time is money, time is precious, time is yours to do with it what you want.

In a freelancer’s life, however, there’s usually more to that relationship than just you and time. There are spouses, children, dogs, cats, bros, gal-pals, and tropical fish. There’s book club on Wednesday and a big game on Saturday, and you took on one too many projects this month.

You’ve embarked on this freelance journey in order to enjoy your life to the fullest potential, right?

That’s why time management is so hard: you’ve got a lot of life to enjoy, and it doesn’t do all that well at compartmentalizing itself. Things get messy. Bills get forgotten every once in awhile, and sometimes you find your favorite pen taking a dip in a monkey-shaped glass of orange juice.

You’ve got figure out how to balance everything when you’re a freelancer… not just deadlines.

Line up those priorities.

When life gets frustrating and work gets overwhelming and your water heater takes a dive halfway through your morning shower, it’s not hard to lose focus (and your composure). Suddenly things like, “Ugh, I’m going to need, like, five new clients to pay for this,” or “They had showers at my OLD job,” start popping into your head.

If you quit the 9-5 in order to spend more time with your family, make sure you’re spending more time with your family. Take a few deep breaths, make a pot of coffee, and remind yourself of your priorities. Make a tangible list of what is most important to you, something you can refer to when you start to get stressed out. Make sure you address your personal priorities, your business priorities, and your family priorities.

Give “planning” its own timeslot.

You, like many other freelancers, have goals for your business. Whether they’re big goals like “make x dollars this year” or small ones like “call accountant,” you’ve got to have time to think about and plan them.

The same goes for the rest of your life. Kids (and freelancers) need to go to the dentist, bills need to be paid, grocery lists need to be compiled, and about five million other things need to get taken care of… and that’s more than okay.

Give each portion of your life the respect it deserves by granting it its own time.

Schedule an hour or two, once or twice a week, to dedicate to your household needs. This will allow you to focus on your domestic tasks, get them done, and push them out of your brain when it comes time to work.

Your business also needs specific time for planning. Administrative things like printing out expense reports, ordering new business cards, and calling your accountant can be equally as distracting as remembering to order a graduation gown at the last minute.

Be realistic, and be kind to yourself.

I could be wrong, but you’re not a super-speedy, highly-efficient, future-viewing superhero, are you?

If you are, color me impressed… if you’re not? Color me more impressed, because balancing life and freelance work is not easy when you’re a mere mortal. Remember that you’re human, and that, if you don’t take care of yourself and your expectations, you’re not going to be able to function enough to work at all.

Sometimes you’re going to have days where you simply can’t create anything that works. The more you try, the worse your product is, and the worse your product gets the more you start to beat yourself up. That’s not a good cycle to get caught up in, and the best way to deal with it is to pull yourself out of the situation. You’re a freelancer, remember? As long as you’re prepared for them, a “write-off day” is absolutely acceptable. Take the afternoon off and go to a movie. Buy the fanciest damn coffee available from that extra-smiley barista. Bring some flowers to your mom or aunt Suzie… whatever refreshes your brain enough to tackle your project with renewed vigor.

Schedule your meetings with clear boundaries. Keep them short, sweet, and effective so that you can use the extra time to finish more work or enjoy an extra 30 minutes of kayaking before dinner.

Try to establish work boundaries with your family or friends. Let them know when you’ve got big deadlines, and let them know when you’ve suddenly got some extra free-time. Being open about your work needs is a great step to help the people around you understand your unique situation.

If you’ve got little kids who don’t understand your work needs yet, finding a quiet place with outlets and wifi (my public library is my favorite “second office”) can be a fantastic way to get some quiet privacy, providing you can find a sitter or spouse to watch the munchkins.

Make sure your needs are taken care of. Are you drinking enough water? Moving around enough? Getting enough sleep? Think of your body and mind like your trusty computer; if you don’t take care of basic maintenance and upkeep, it’s going to get so buggy and slow that you might as well not even use it at all.

Be aware of your distractions.

Alright, let’s be realistic here. Almost every time management article you read will tell you to “eliminate or reduce distractions.” That always sounds super-effective, right?

This (or something similar) happens to me every time I read a freelance time management article:

  1. Read article. Feel energized and inspired.
  2. Obtain at least three new time management apps.
  3. Shun any and all contact from the outside world that might prove distracting.
  4. Do really well for 30 minutes. Pat self on back.
  5. Answer phone call from elementary school about lunch money balance.
  6. Check bank accounts, make payment for more chocolate milks.
  7. Remember 400 other things that urgently need to get taken care of.
  8. Remember time management article, feel shame.

I don’t want you to feel shame. I want you to get your work done and feel like you’ve got everything urgent taken care of, and the only way to do that is to be realistic.

First of all, yes, find yourself some time management apps to help you make the most of your work time. RescueTime, Freedom, and Anti-Social are all time management apps designed to either help you evaluate how your spend your time or actually block distracting applications from your devices. When you’re juggling multiple parts of your life, you’ve got to be prepared for inevitable distractions, so making the most of the time you spend working is essential.

A good supplement to a distraction blocker is a productivity technique. I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique, which mostly involves working hard for a certain period of time and taking short breaks in between. Other people hate that technique, though, so it’s up to you to explore your preferences and limitations. You can try Marc Andreessen’s “anti-to do list,” a method from Jerry Seinfeld called “Don’t Break the Chain,” or the “must, should, want” method from Jay Shirley.

Or you can come up with something yourself. Pay attention to your habits, recognize your faults when it comes to productivity, and start implementing some structure that will help you get your work done efficiently… because you are going to get a phone call or email or tap on the shoulder at some point during your workweek that will make you wish you had used your time more wisely.

Don’t let disorganization become a distraction.

The goal, as a freelancer, is to have enough clients to make a living, right? The problem with having that many clients, however, is that it gets hard to keep track of projects, correspondence, deadlines, and ideas. Sure, you can record and save everything in a document or a spreadsheet, but there are options out there that are significantly more efficient and user-friendly.

I’ve got three words for you: Freelance project management.

That may look like a blip of freelance jargon, but what it actually is is survival. Freelance project management software can be a lifesaver when working with multiple clients and team members. You can create checklists for yourself and others so that progress monitoring is a breeze, and you can share files and keep them in one place, which is fantastic for teams separated by geography.

I’ve used a few of these options, and Trello is, by far, my favorite. It organizes projects and deadlines in a visually pleasing way that is easy for my brain to process. Basecamp is another incredibly popular option, along with Slack, Asana, and Wunderlist.

Do some research, find out which format you like best, and enjoy the feeling of being a little more organized than you were before.

This is a long blog post.

I’ll stop typing soon, I promise. Bottom line? Be realistic, be prepared, be good to yourself, and for goodness’ sake, make your freelance life easier and more streamlined by using some of that technology all those crazy kids are using these days.

Success!