Expert level timemanagement for freelancers

Time management is a subject very important to us here at ZimTik, as it is a crucial skill to master if you want to fully enjoy the freelancing experience. Conversely, failure to master time management will certainly make you miserable. In this post we'll cover all you need to know to reach expert level.

Why Time management is so important

If you are not in full control of your time, someone else will be. That means you'll get into all the situations you hoped to avoid: Feeling stressed during or even after work, coming in late on deadlines, missing important calls that could have brought in more business.

Simply put: Time management skills are essential to your success and happiness.

#1 Diagnosis

Important for everyone, difficult for most, but why?

I think the main reason is simply that you can forget all about this skill and work hard for years without ever noticing that many of your problems stem from a lack of time management. After all, 24 hours pass each day no matter what we do.

Ask yourself: Do you have an effective strategy for managing time?

Consider all the tasks that you're currently working on and should be working on. Try to place them in this matrix:

Intuitively you'll likely understand, that the top left is something you should be working on right now, while the bottom right (which is neither urgent nor important) can be postponed.

What you might find surprisingly difficult is to figure out which tasks go in which box.

An example I've seen a few times is a customer emailing me about a wildly important issue - for them. The tone, the colors, the font size, everything screamed at me that I should get busy right now.

The issue itself was some formatting on a report that they had messed up and wanted corrected before sending the report.

In this situation the client thinks this issue is both important and urgent and if you don't actively consider your circumstance, you'll put this directly into the top left box.

At that particular time I was helping another client launch a new platform, which we both believed to be very important - So to decide which is most important, you simply put a price-tag on it. I told the client with the report, that I'd be happy to duck out for an hour or so to fix the report, but that I would have to bill them 250$ for my time.

Their reply, in an email-thread that actually had sentences in all caps and colored read was :

"It's fine, don't worry about it, we'll figure something out"

"Important" and "Urgent" are cheap words to throw around if you're not paying for them. Make sure you have an opinion on how to gauge both of them, otherwise you'll be tossed around like a kite in high winds.

#2 Tools

The matrix above is a good tool, I use it everyday. I don't actually fill out a paper version but it's a mental backdrop to every decision I make.

Things that are important & urgent are what I'm working on right now. Important meaning it aligns with my main goals in life, urgent because they lose significant value if not completed today.

"Not Urgent but Important" to me actually feels like the most important box. This blog post is an example of something from this box. Nothing is lost if I don't finish it this week, but it's an important topic for me to reflect on and share thoughts about. Working on Strategy, new marketing/feature ideas, etc - all go into this box. These are usually big-ticket items are must not be forgotten due to the pressures of "urgency".

The trickiest box is "Unimportant & Urgent". An example of this is replying to an info email. Its not important, but it's polite and let's people know you've absorbed what they've sent you - It's urgent, because if you reply 14 days after everyone else you've basically said that you're either sloppy or don't care.

Personally I spend the last 20 minutes of (almost) every day reviewing things like this, cleaning my mailbox, etc. It's not exactly unscheduled time, but I'm very relaxed about what happens during this time. Sometimes I just drop comments on LinkedIn, Hacker News or IndieHackers.com.

A big-win-sort-of-gutsy trick here, is that if you do not manage these tasks that are urgent (ie. lose significant value if not done today) but unimportant you do 2 things

  1. Move them to the last box: Unimportant / Not urgent
  2. Delete everything in that box

When I started doing this about 6 - 7 years ago, I had quite a bit of FOMO. I worried that I was somehow "outside the loop" or slacking in some horrible way. Turns out nobody cares. Everyone knows this stuff isn't important.

I still to this day, have colleagues that routinely send (and plan to send) emails on a Saturday night at 8pm just to signal how hard they're working. I doubt anyone cares - I certainly didn't when I was managing teams. I cared deeply about the stuff that went on from 8 - 5pm, but nothing outside that.

#3 Eliminate distractions

No no no, I'm not talking about your Facebook account. Although I could be.

Distractions are anything and everything that prevent us from working off a completely rational time management strategy. This is perhaps the most important item on the list and it's also one area in which you should prepare to fail - Or at least accept 90% clarity as a success.

A big takeaway from #2 should be to clearly discern important from unimportant and urgent from non-urgent. Think this through to the end. When has someone contacted you with something truly urgent via email, messenger, Signal, etc?

In my neck of the woods, if it's truly important we phone each other or show up. If it's the same for you, don't keep your email inbox visible throughout the day. Given the opportunity it will steal entire days from you.

Have you ever come across something truly urgent in a Facebook feed or twitter timeline? I know I haven't. These services are a form of entertainment, open them consciously when you need to be entertained for a while, but don't let them be distractions always roaming in the background.

Always work off Plan B

As a freelancer, no Plan A lasts until noon. You start a job, you inch towards completion, suddenly the phone rings. The house catches fire. The cat runs away. Your deadline is quickly approaching and you know you won't make it. Now you start cutting corners, you call the client and ask for an extension, you spill coffee all over yourself, you're stressed.

Avoiding this is very simple: Always work with a buffer - Always make it at least 10% bigger than you think you need.

Worst case: You get more done in a day than you planned.

We have a blog post planned about optimizing your finances, but I'll spoil it now: You don't need to work very much to make a good living as a freelancer, so get those buffers in. (and make sure your contracts are in order)

Be honest with yourself

How long can you work at a time while fully concentrated? If you don't know when I recommend that you time it - Or if you're using ZimTik, have a look at your work logs at see where you peak.

If your maximum is 90 minutes, then break your day into 90 minute intervals. Both in practice but also while planning.

From 9 - 5 you have 8 working hours. That gives you about 4 sprints of 90 minutes + 30 minutes for lunch. To recharge between each sprint, you'll need maybe 10 minutes of down-time. Since your total recharge-time is 4x10 + 30 minutes, that leaves you with exactly 90 minutes of unallocated time at the end/start of the day.

The 90 minutes at the end are not enough for a full sprint, since that would either extend your workday by 10 minutes or put you into a 180 minute sprint. Neither of these are terrible options, which is where we want to be: Choosing between good options. Most of us will have enough various tasks to fill out that space, like answering emails, phoning up contacts etc, but if not: Simply add a 60 minute sprint and call it a day. Here's an example of what that might look like:

Lets say you've sold a project of 100 hours and you need to put a deadline on it.

Assume you're starting Monday morning and this is the only project in your planner. We start by adding a buffer of 20% and split the resulting 120 hours across 6 hour/days = 20 working days.

You can confidently tell your client that you'll be done Monday 4 weeks from now. There is a very low chance, that you'll be stressed and close to 0% risk that you'll fail to meet your deadline. If this is your default, you'll do well.

There's also a good chance, if your estimates are solid, that you'll deliver 3 days earlier. Notice how starting on Plan B makes Plan C look a lot more of attractive. Our failures here are in creating too much space. This is a much easier problem to work on than "Im burning out, Im stressed, I cant meet all these deadlines". If you have to fall, make sure you land soft - You'll be doing this for many years I hope.

Does the 20 day process time seem excessive to you? Most regular workers put in 160 hours/month or so, but unlike us they are not paid by effective hours, just total hours. And unlike us, they don't suffer massive penalties if they come in late.

I find the clients usually have a great deal of respect for my planning. When others say "I can get it done in 10 days if I work the weekend", any sane client will intuitively know that it won't be the same product. Working 16 hours/day including weekends lead to burn-out. And burn-out does not come rushing towards you like a raging bull, it sneaks up on you.

So be honest: How much can you work - not just without feeling stress or pressure - but with enjoyment and high levels of energy?

That the exact amount you should put in, no more, no less.

#3 Putting the pieces together

My recommendations for time management are as follows:

  • Consciously & rationally manage your time: Don't use the auto-pilot
  • Prioritize sharply: Important/Urgent vs Unimportant/Not urgent
  • Always work with buffers: The pay-offs are huge, the cost is minimal
  • Be honest: Figure out your optimal workload and don't exceed it

This is the 100ft view of time management. In future posts we might explore tooling more deeply as there are many excellent ways to optimize your desktop/laptop/OS environment for even higher productivity, but more on that later.

Happy freelancing!

About the author

Lau B. Jensen is a Danish Freelancer / Tech entrepreneur. He's worked mostly with Software Development and management consulting all across Europe. In 2015 he took a 5 year break from freelancing to be the CEO of a VC funded SaaS start-up.

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