As a Freelancer, staying on top of your projects, and working efficiently is critical to making the most of your time. It’s one of the most important skills we need to learn. If you’re able to effectively plan and manage your time, you can avoid over-committing, delaying projects, and upsetting clients. In this article, I’ll share my proven time management tips for Freelancers.

I’ve been freelancing for well over a decade now. When I first got started, time management was something I always struggled with. It’s still a battle today. But what I’ve found is that by following these tips, I’m able to enjoy my work more, avoid overwhelm and ultimately earn more money doing the things I enjoy. I’m going to share my first tip right here, so if you don’t want to read any further, just take this one thing with you: It takes a lot of discipline to manage your time as a Freelancer. No amount of time management tips for freelancers will take away how difficult it can be. But hopefully, the rest of this article will help you on the right path.

1. Your time is yours, and yours alone

This is arguably the most important time management tip for Freelancers that you need to remember. We own all our time. I’ve known this for a while, but it was Ali Abdaal that made the idea stick in my head. He said something like…

At any given moment, you’re doing what you most want to be doing.
Ali Abdaal

Now I don’t know if that’s actually something he came up with, I suspect it isn’t. But it’s a powerful truth. If you really think about it, it’s 100% true. Your time is entirely within your control. If I don’t want to finish writing this article, I don’t have to. If I want to spend the next 5 hours reading, I can do that. Whatever I choose to do with my time, it’s always my choice.

There is a flip side to this, and something we need to carefully consider. Although our time is completely ours, we can do with it as we choose, we also have to accept that there will always be consequences. The reality is, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, but you do have to live with the consequences. If I choose to read for the rest of the day (spending my time as I’d like), I have to accept that this article will not get written (and a bunch of other stuff won’t get done… consequences).

This rule rings true in all areas of life. Think about it… there really is nothing that you have to do, so long as you’re prepared to live with the consequences. So when it comes to time management for freelancing, the first step is to recognise that we are always doing exactly what we want to be doing at any given moment. If we think about this a little more, we quickly realise that when we say ‘We don’t have the time to do something’, what we really mean is ‘I have the time to do it, it’s just not a priority’.

2. Track your time

If you’re serious about improving your time management as a freelancer, then one of the first things you need to do is understand where you’re time is already going. There’s a bunch of different ways you could do this. You could go old school and carry a notebook with you, logging everything you do and how long it takes you. Write down how long you spend getting ready for work in the morning, how long it takes you to get caught up on emails, how much time you spend responding to clients.

My preferred approach here though is to use an app like Toggl. Toggl has a whole bunch of really good features, but this article is about time management tips for Freelancers, not about Toggl. So the only feature we’re interested in for now is the basic time tracking. I have it everywhere (on my computer, my phone, installed on the browser). It means no matter where I am or what I’m doing, at the push of a button, I can start recording my time.

Regardless of the method you use to track your time, the main goal is to get a good understanding of where you currently spend your time and how long tasks take you. You can use this data to better inform future tasks and cut back on the things that aren’t worth doing. Knowing how long it actually takes you to write a detailed proposal, for example, can help you plan the time you need for the next one.

3. Rethink and use your t0-do list

Your brain is incredible for certain things. But it’s also pretty bad at other things. For example, creative thinking and coming up with ideas is something your brain excels at. But retaining short-term information? Not so good. I found one of the biggest issues I had in managing my time is that I just couldn’t remember what the steps were to getting something done. The idea would stick in my head just fine, but the tasks related to that idea often eluded me. So as simple as it sounds, another big time management tip for us freelancers is simply to have and use a to-do list.

Maybe you’re thinking ‘But I already have a to-do list and it’s not helping’. If that’s the case, then it’s time to think about what’s actually on your list. For this, I like to use the SMART technique.

SMART to-do lists

You’ve probably heard the acronym SMART before. It stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s usually used for goal setting, but can absolutely be used for the humble to-do list too. Without going into too detail, I like to apply a SMART test to anything that goes on my to-do list. For example, a task like ‘Write project proposal’ doesn’t really pass the SMART test… however ‘Write first draft web design proposal for Jerry by 2pm today’ is a much more actionable item to list.

Write More Stuff Down

Another part of rethinking your to-do list is just writing more things down. Remember, your brain is not designed to retain short-term information for long periods. You know it as well as I do, and it’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. If you rely on your memory, you will forget things. So I keep a notebook next to me at all times. Throughout the day, I’m constantly scribbling things down that I want to remember. You can use these scribbles later to remember what it is you need to work on.

4. Block time on your calendar

Calendar Blocking is not a new technique, you’ve probably heard of it before and might even use it. But I can’t understate how useful it is in managing my time as a freelancer. Anytime I need to get something specific done, I’ll block the time I think I need for it out in my calendar. I don’t do this for absolutely everything, just the biggest and most important things.

So if I have 5 or 6 ad-hoc tasks on my to-do list that need doing today, I won’t block time out for each task. Instead, I’ll block out time to tackle my to-do list itself. I might block out 10 till 12 on my calendar specifically for this. But if I have a proposal to work on, or a specific area of a project to finish up, I might block time out for that. So 10 till 12 is blocked for my to-do list, and 12 till 2 might be blocked out to stress test a client website.

There are multiple benefits to blocking out time, including

  • Always knowing what I should be working on at any given time
  • Preventing other tools like Calendly from being able to add distractions to my calendar
  • Seeing where my time went at the end of the day
Time Management Tips For Freelancers
Blocking out time in your calendar for all the important tasks in any given week. Use repeating tasks for those things that happen frequently.

5. Set Deadlines For Everything

We’ve all heard the saying ‘Work expands to fill the time allocated to it’. So if I give myself a whole day to work on a wireframe design for a client, it’s going to take the whole day. But if I only gave myself half a day to do it, it’s still going to get done, but in half the time. So I like to set deadlines, for everything I work on. Even if they are just artificial deadlines.

What does this look like in practice? If I take on a new project for a client, chances are, I’ve already got a deadline. But it’s going to be for the project, rather than the tasks I need to complete for that project. So what I like to do is add deadlines to the individual tasks that all feed into the overall project deadline. This helps keep things focused and on track. I can absolutely move those deadlines if I need to, but it gives me something to work towards.

6. Learn to say no

This is another lesson I picked up from Ali Abdaal, who also got it from the book ‘Hell Yeah or No’ by Derek Sivers. The title of the book pretty much sums up the thinking here. The idea is pretty simple, if an opportunity presents itself, if you’re first thought is anything other than ‘hell yes’, then it should almost always be ‘No thanks’.

Taking this a bit further, learning when to say no to things is game-changing in making the most of your time. Realistically, we might not always be in a position to say no. But so long as the bills are all covered, you have the freedom to say no to anything that’s not a ‘hell yes’. Getting comfortable with saying no can ultimately stop your time being filled up with things you don’t actually want to do, or things that aren’t going to contribute to your long-term goals. Over the last decade, I’ve said no to at least three times as many projects as I’ve said yes to. And this extends to the rest of life too. If you’re at a crunch point with a project, getting comfortable saying no (even to friends and family) can be the difference between crossing the line and delaying a project.

7. Batch your work

One of the biggest productivity killers, and something that can have a detrimental effect on your time management, is task switching. So I like to batch similar tasks together. When you’re dealing with client work, there’s going to be an element of task switching no matter what you do. But if you’ve got several things to do for the same client, and you also need to do some of those things for other clients, I’ll batch the similar things and do them all at once. Sure this means I’m switching between client work, but I’m staying focused on the type of task I’m doing. So if I need to optimise images for 3 different clients, I’ll do them all at once.

The biggest upside to working like this is the amount of time you can save by not switching to a task that’s entirely unrelated to the previous one. Taking the image optimisation example again, I usually do this in Photoshop. Once I’ve optimised the images, I usually have to upload them, replace them on the website, sort the titles and tags and a bunch of other things. That involves switching to multiple programmes and getting my head in the right place to complete each part. Once I’m done with one client, I have to go through the same process for the next.

By batching though, I only need to open Photoshop once. I get all my images optimised for all clients. Then I switch to WinSCP and upload them (by which point, I’m done with Photoshop and don’t need to go back to it). Working this way keeps my head exactly where it needs to be and gets the job done in less time.

8. Automate what you can

As a digital freelancer, most of what I do is online. Which means automation is possible for a lot of stuff. Looking back, I used to spend countless hours trying to find the perfect time for a client meeting. Back and forth with emails trying to align on a time. Now if I need to meet with a client, I just send them my Calendly link. It automates the entire process. The client can see exactly when I’m free and book a meeting time that suits both of us, without 5 or 6 emails.

You can take this as far as you want. I’ve automated so many different aspects of my freelance work. I’ve even gone as far as automating the lighting in my office for Zoom meetings. Granted this probably only saves me a couple of seconds, but the minute I open Zoom for a meeting, my lighting changes to exactly what I need. That’s probably more automation than you need, but every second makes a difference.

If you want to get really into automation, there are a few tools I recommend trying out including Zapier, Calendly, and IFTTT

9. Outsource and delegate

You can absolutely do everything yourself. But if you take this approach, you’re going to quickly run out of available time. This can limit the work you can take on and your earning potential. One of the hardest things I did was start outsourcing certain tasks, but it’s also one of the best time management tips for freelancers I can offer. The first step to outsourcing and delegating is to figure out what your hourly rate is. Even if you bill per project, it’s important to know what your time is worth. If you didn’t bill per project, what would you charge?

Let’s imagine you set a rate of £50 per hour. You could spend 4 hours editing and optimising images for a client project. That’s going to cost you £200. Alternatively, you could go to Fiverr or a similar platform and find a freelancer who’ll do the same work for £50. You just saved yourself 4 hours. You can take those 4 hours and work on something else, something you’d enjoy more. If you work on a per-project basis, you could spend those 4 hours on that project and get it over the line sooner. Sure you’ve earnt £50 less than you would have if you did it yourself, but you’ve given yourself an extra 4 hours to do something else and earn more.

Time management tips for freelancers – summing up

Managing your time as a freelancer doesn’t have to be difficult. All the tips I’ve shared here are time management tips I genuinely use every day, and you can too. It takes commitment, discipline and (ironically) time to really get the most out of your time. But following these simple tips can lead to a huge difference. Just remember…

  • Your time is yours, and yours alone
  • Track your time… what get’s tracked, gets managed
  • Use your to-do list effectively
  • Block your time on your calendar
  • Set deadlines… for everything
  • Learn to say no, even if it’s uncomfortable
  • Bath similar work together
  • Automate everything you can… seconds add up to minutes
  • Don’t be afraid to outsource and delegate