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One of the first lessons you learn as a freelancer is the importance of effective time management. We all have limited time in each day, and figuring out how to get the most work done in the time available is a big part of building a sustainable and profitable freelance business.
But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in years of working for myself is something that I hear a lot less about in freelance circles: the importance of energy management.
In addition to the limited hours in the day, many of us face the bigger limitation of having fewer productive hours we can put in before we’re worn out. And that’s especially true if you provide creative services that require a lot of focus and thought.
The research behind energy management
You feel like you should be able to do eight hours of focus-intensive design or writing work every day, and feel a little guilty about it when you take more breaks or end the day sooner than that. But if you struggle to manage eight productive hours a day, know that it’s not just you; research is on your side here.
The eight-hour workday became the norm over a century ago in part because research showed productivity decreased after 40 hours a week. Working more hours a week doesn’t produce more results, and it brings the risk of lower-quality work because of worker burnout.
But the old research was based on factory labor. Newer research shows that for information workers today, we’re only productive for around three hours a day on average.
Different people have different abilities, so you may genuinely be able to pack more productive hours into a day than that. But many of us are trying to force our brains to do more than we can handle. Have you noticed the work becoming harder and slower at a certain point in the day? Or do you often feel (misplaced) guilt when your brain increasingly wanders toward social media the longer your workday drags on?
If your focus so far has been exclusively on time management, you’re missing an opportunity to improve your work and life by shifting your thinking to the related, and just as important, practice of energy management.
5 Tips for better energy management for freelancers
I became something of an expert on energy management when I starting experiencing health issues that caused frequent fatigue a few years back. When your energy levels dip far below your previous “normal,” you figure out a way to optimize using whatever energy you do have.
What I learned in the process can be just as beneficial to others balancing work with a chronic illness as to those that are healthy, but hoping to avoid freelance burnout.
Track your time:
While I started out this post by positioning energy management as something different from time management, the two things are linked. Tracking your time is an important first step in helping you understand your productivity. Knowing where your time goes enables you to perform an analysis of how you spend your energy each day as well.
Analyze where each activity you do falls on the energy spectrum:
Freelancers all do a range of work tasks. In addition to the services you offer clients, you also have to do all the work of running your business—marketing, accounting, networking, etc. Some of those tasks require different amounts of energy than others. You’ll benefit from understanding where on the energy hierarchy they all fall.
For example, as an introvert, in-person meetings are at the top of the hierarchy for me, eating up a lot of the energy I have for the day. Writing falls somewhere in the middle (what I spend the bulk of my day on), with tasks like proofreading and accounting being at the bottom. know I can only fit so much writing into my day before I’m tapped out, and that amount decreases considerably on days I have meetings or long phone calls.
Determine your high- and low- energy times:
One of the great parts of being a freelancer is working on your own schedule — no more trudging into an office at 8 AM if you’re not a morning person. To get the full benefits of creating your own schedule, it pays to understand when you work best.
Your time tracking will help with this. Pay attention to how long comparable projects take when you do them at different times of day. If the work is faster and easier in the late afternoon, then those are your best work hours and you should approach each day expecting to get your most important work done at that time.
Also pay attention to how your energy levels change throughout the week. If you tend to have a hard time getting going on Monday, that’s good to be aware of. Or if you’re routinely worn out by Thursday after working three full days, then you might want to reconsider how you spread your work out through the week.
Organize your calendar for optimum efficiency:
With your analysis in steps two and three, you can start planning out your days and weeks so that you’re doing your most important work at the times you’ll be most productive. For example, I’ve found that late morning and early afternoon are my best high-energy times, so I plan on doing most of my writing then. I keep phone calls to the afternoon as much as possible, so I don’t run through my energy before I get my writing done.
You may need to do a little experimenting to figure out exactly what works best. Many freelancers find success with productivity techniques like the Pomodoro method, or can make their energy go further by changing up their work process. As you try out different approaches, keep tracking your time so you can see how each change affects your productivity and energy levels.
Protect your calendar:
Organizing your calendar to get the most done with the energy you have is just half of the equation. You also have to know when to say “no” to work and obligations. In the energy hierarchy you figured out, are there items high on the list that aren’t crucial to your business? If you can get away with cutting inessential high-energy tasks out of your schedule completely, or at least minimizing how often you do them, you’ll have more energy for the work that matters most.
It’s ok to block off days that are just for writing or design — no meetings. And it’s OK to let yourself take time off or stick to low-energy tasks during the times you aren’t as productive anyways. As freelancers, it’s hard to give ourselves permission to do what feels like less work, even if by scaling back we end up able to get more done during the time we spend working. Reframe how you think about it: you’re not being lazy, you’re working smarter to get more out of the energy you have.
Use your energy wisely
The culture around us measures the value of work in hours more than anything else. As freelancers, we don’t have to see it that way. We choose the way we organize our lives and schedules, and taking a smarter approach to when and how we work can lead to greater efficiency, better work, and an improved work-life balance.
Kristen Hicks is a freelance content marketing writer who specializes in helping online marketing and B2B tech companies produce high-quality blog posts and longform content pieces. Learn more at: http://austin-copywriter.com/