Freelancers live and die by time management. Whether you need to keep the meter running or beat the clock on a fixed-rate project, controlling your time is key! But it’s also hard to do.
When I started freelancing, I consistently over or under-scheduled myself. And I am very much past the days I could pull an all-nighter to pick up the slack! It was a mess. After some trial and error, I created a system that keeps me booked, productive, and not overwhelmed (most of the time).
In four easy steps, here’s how it works, with suggested reflections for you.
1. Think units of energy, not time
Most of us think of our workday in terms of time. But our raw material isn’t time, it’s energy.
Anyone who’s ever done their own taxes knows that not all hours are created equal. I’m a writer, and my nemesis is SEO landing pages. I can literally feel my soul leaving my body. But when I’m cruising through revisions on a blog post, time flies.
So the first step is to stop scheduling yourself for a set time and switch to an energy-unit day. (Tip o’ the keyboard to Maggie Karshner for the energy unit concept.)
An energy unit is the amount of time you can stay focused. When I’m writing a blog post on a topic I love, a unit is 2 or 3 hours long. Scheduling a dentist appointment uses up a unit in about 5 minutes!
Pro tip: Maggie recommends planning for 5 units a day. For me, that’s too many. I average around 3. Pick the number that reflects your desires, capacity, and work style. The 40-hour workweek is made up anyway!
Your turn: What’s your shortest unit? Your longest? How many units do you have available on an average day?
2. Understand your energy types
Even after I switched to using energy units, I felt overcommitted. Why? Well, it turns out that not every energy type is created equal.
For example, first drafts kill me. It takes a lot to confront that blank page. I only have one unit of that high-focus energy daily, and if I don’t use it by noon, it expires!
But I have at least two units of regular-focus energy. Research, revisions, invoicing; if it doesn’t require all my attention, regular-focus energy works just fine.
Your turn: Do you have different types of energy? Are there things you can only do at certain times of the day? What else affects your capacity?
3. Put your self-knowledge to work
There’s no app for this, unfortunately. I had to go DIY to create my system. Here’s what I did:
- Get four pieces of cardboard (about 36”x 12”). Each represents a week; divide it into 7 sections and label the days. Then pin them up on your wall. Shazam: you just made a four-week rolling calendar. (I used old La Croix boxes.)
- Block in your units with blank post-its. Stick 3 blank post-its on each work day (or however many units you have), using colors to represent your energy types. I used fewer post-its for days with high-energy personal tasks.
- Use the post-its to plan your work. Let’s say you’re writing a blog post. It’s Monday, and you need to finish by Wednesday. Label two post-its; stick one on Tuesday (first draft) and the other on Wednesday (revise + submit).
Now imagine your client asks you to do a second post. Stick up post-its to see if you can! They’ll warn you about bottlenecks before you’re trapped in them.
- Rotate your calendar weekly. At the end of each week, unpin your cardboard pieces and move the other weeks to the left by one place. Put the past week into the open space at the end and refill it with blank post-its.
Your turn: Try making your own calendar. You don’t have to use La Croix boxes, but they are cheap and effective!
4. Don’t panic!
Seeing my work (aka, rent-paying) capacity laid out in post-its was not a vibe. It didn’t look like nearly enough. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)
It was understanding exactly what I had to give that empowered me. It pushed me to raise my rates and rebrand to attract clients who could pay them. It helped me decide whether to keep freelancing or get a full-time job. Ultimately, it allowed me to see my situation with clear eyes so I could make informed decisions.
If you’re feeling frustrated with time management, give my method a whirl. Feel free to experiment until it’s the perfect fit for you. I hope it puts you back in the driver’s seat of your time and energy.