Tracking Your Time as a Freelance Writer
I'd say that one of the hardest things to figure out when I first started freelancing was time management.
When you're working as someone else's employee, your time is structured according to their schedule; you have a set shift with a start and an end time, you have specific tasks that you have to do within that shift, and your pay is set based on those hours.
When you're a freelancer, your time is entirely your own. You decide when you work and for how long. Sure, you still have things that you need to get done for your clients, but you're in control of when those things are done, which can be both exciting and terrifying.
I've learned that as nice of a luxury as setting my own hours is, I do have to keep regular hours if I really want to get anything done, and I have to know what I'm doing during those hours to avoid cramming everything into one mad dash at the end of a deadline (freelancing =/= high school English papers).
So, I thought I would share my tips for fellow freelancers about time management - your time is money, so maximizing your time maximizes your money. Go figure!
Organizing Your Work Week
One of the first things I learned to do was set up an organizational system for my work week. This is essentially the same thing your manager does at a more standard job, except you're the manager and your employee is you.
The basics of organizing your work life are to keep running calendars (yes, multiple) of your activities and plan ahead to ensure that you've got the time you need to finish your projects to the best of your ability.
As weird as it sounds, I keep three different calendars:
- A digital calendar - I use Google - for long-term event planning and reminders
- A physical whiteboard calendar - mine covers one month at a time with room for notes - to keep track of short-term event planning and make quick adjustments
- A physical daily planner book - I designed one of these that you can use! - to keep track of my work day hour by hour and set up my to-do list for extremely short-term goals I can accomplish in one day
Keeping my calendars this way helps me not only make daily progress but also make progress toward longer-term goals that I have for myself and my business. It also means that I've got redundancies at work for me; with so many calendars in place, I'm bound to have everything written down on at least one of them.
For example, say I'm working on a novel (which I am), I have five clients that I regularly work with (which I do), and I also have several one-off projects to track (which I usually have).
When each of those projects comes up, I mark down the important dates in my digital calendar - what day I want to have my first draft finished, when invoices are due, and what the deadlines are for individual projects.
Then, on the first day of the month, I'll create my physical whiteboard calendar with all of those important dates, as well as any holidays, appointments, or special events; I'll use this as a reference when scheduling meetings, so that nothing conflicts.
Finally, on Mondays or Sunday nights, I set aside time to write out a daily schedule for the work week (Monday - Friday) in my daily planner, which checkboxes for each recurring client and to-do list items for my one-off projects.
I also make sure to schedule in administrative tasks like emails and social media in my to-do list so that I can keep up with all aspects of my productivity. It's nice to have at least a few things I know I can check off easily to get me motivated to do the rest, and believe me, physically checking things off gives you some motivating satisfaction.
The big reason that my three-calendar system works for me is that it allows me to plan ahead far enough that I can effectively manage my deadlines and know what I need to work on and when. I estimate this based on how long it takes me to complete certain projects, and I do that by breaking my projects down into steps.
For example, if I have a 1500-word article due for a client, I know that the steps to creating it are:
- Research and outline the piece.
- Draft the piece.
- Submit the piece and invoice the client.
- Make revisions (if necessary).
So I know that I need at least four blocks of time dedicated solely to this project. Those times will vary; I might dedicate an hour to research and outlining, two hours to drafting (which often includes more detailed research), 15 minutes to submission and invoicing, and an hour to revisions.
That means this project will take up 4.25 hours of my time - which is a good chunk of my workday if I do it all at once, but if I break it up over two or three days, allows me plenty of time to work on other things as well. Maybe I'll edit another client's work between outlining and drafting or plan content for my blog between submission and revisions. I'm still making progress, but I'm making progress on multiple things at once, which is especially important when you've got a lot of deadlines to juggle.
Breaking your work into manageable chunks makes it easy to meet deadlines, and mixing and matching those chunks into your available work time means that you're maximizing your productivity while minimizing distractions and avoiding the burnout that comes with working on one project for an extended stretch of time.
Tracking Time for Contracts
In this line of work, one of the most popular charging methods is per hour (per word is also a favorite, but that's another discussion). This means that you'll need some way of tracking the hours that you work so that you can accurately bill your clients. You can do this in either a spreadsheet or a time-tracking app.
Time Tracking Spreadsheets
When I say spreadsheets, I'm including both physical spreadsheets in things like business planners and digital spreadsheets that you keep on your computer. Both are relatively easy to set up.
A very basic time-tracking spreadsheet will look something like this:
While you can definitely track all of your time in the same place (as I do in the above example), I'd highly recommend tracking each client in a new sheet in the file or page in your planner. This will make tabulating time significantly easier, and make it so that you can't accidentally bill one client for time worked on a different client's project.
You may also choose to include other information in your sheet; for example, it might help you to include your rate for that particular contract or the amount earned during that time. If you're creating individual sheets for each client, you can customize your methods for each contract.
Time Tracking Apps
If you want more specific time tracking, you might choose a time-tracking app. These essentially do exactly what it says on the tin: they track the time you spend working on a particular project. That being said, apps also tend to have additional features such as automatic timetable creation, project labeling, and integrated rest periods.
Here are three tracking apps I recommend.
Toggl is one of the most popular time-tracking apps for freelancers because it has a free plan and a simple-to-use desktop app. With the free plan, you can track and save your time, label tasks, integrate rest periods, and work with the desktop app offline. If you want additional options, like reporting and analysis as well as integrations with calendars and other business apps.
Pomofocus is a free browser-only app that lets you split your time according to the Pomodoro method - a sequence of short bursts of intense focus followed by short breaks, with a long break every fourth focus period. You can fully customize your timing, color theme, and notifications, as well as label your tasks and view reports of your time. That being said, there's no offline version, which can be inconvenient.
If you already have an Upwork freelancer account, then you can download their time-tracking app to your desktop and use it for the hourly contracts you accept through their service. This app lets you select the contract you're working under and then label the task you're working on. It then tracks your time in 10-minute increments, taking screenshots at the end of each increment to validate your time. This tracking automatically adds to your contract's work diary and auto-bills your client at the end of every workweek. However, you can't use this app for non-Upwork contracts, which is frustrating.
Keeping track of time is an incredibly important aspect of freelance writing, but it's one that tends to catch people off-guard when they get started. It certainly took me quite a long time to figure out what works for me.
If I can pass on my hard-earned knowledge to other freelancers, then it's all the better. Learn how to manage your time, and go make your money.
Hey, by the way, if you're brand-new to freelancing and you're not sure how to keep your records straight - or even what records you need - consider checking out my 3-month business planner for freelancers. It has everything you need to keep your business in order for the quarter, including business contact pages, income and expense tracking, client lists, and, of course, time management tools in the form of hourly log pages and planner pages for each month, week, and workday.