Image credit: Lily Padula
Poor time management can get you in all sorts of trouble, from health problems to a bad reputation for your business, all of which are terrible things. Unfortunately, once you find yourself spinning out of control with missed deadlines, disgruntled clients, and more and more unanswered emails it seems like the only way out is to just put your head down and power through that to-do list (and whatever backlog of to-do’s you’ve accumulated). This mindset is ok if you’re only slightly behind and can catch up in a day or so. But the longer you rely on willpower alone the less willpower you’ll have left to keep chugging along (see myth #2 here).
The good news is that there are simple things you can start doing right now to get out of your time management rut and to avoid having one in the future. Even better, you’ll have more time to spend with your family, friends, reading books, being happy and actually loving your work again!
In order to solve any problem we must first define it. If the following points sound familiar then you have a time/project management problem:
- You’re working longer hours than your non-self-employed friends. It’s a myth that freelancers and small business owners must work ridiculous hours, we just need to be better at managing our time.
- You’ve missed a deadline in the past few days (or had to work past your normal work hours to meet a deadline).
- You’re not only taking longer to answer emails but are forgetting to answer some emails all together.
- You might know what needs to be done but there is no realistic, written plan outlining your deadlines and all the tasks that must be completed to meet them.
- You’re stressed out and are starting to take it out on your employees, clients, family.
- You’re missing meals and not getting enough sleep.
Oy vey! You’re in a time management rut, my friend. But fear not, below you’ll find easy and effective ways to get yourself back to normal, productive work hours and keep yourself from falling into this rut again.
1. Organize your project information the right way
Different organizational approaches may work better for different people, however in my experience it all starts with having a written plan of action that is organized as follows:
- First and foremost, write everything down in the same place. Cut down on guesswork, time wasted trying to find information about projects, and emails/phone calls for information you already have. This also cuts down on the stress you put on your memory, and in return your overall stress levels.
- Keep a notebook or order log for all projects with meticulous notes. Something that may seem obvious while you’re taking to a client may not seem as obvious when you get down to fulfilling the project. It’s better to have too many notes than to miss an important point and look unprofessional.
- Keep a deadline/task/work calendar. As in an actual calendar with deadlines and tasks clearly marked. It can be a calendar app, or a Google calendar, or a good old wall calendar but it has to be separate from any other calendars you might keep (no social events, birthdays and the like) and it has to be close at hand at any given time in your work day.
2. Add items to your calendar as they come in
Yet again, don’t rely on your memory – write everything down! If there’s a new task for tomorrow (or today, or a week from now) – write it on your calendar right away or you might forget about it all together. Period. Done.
3. Keep regular work hours
I know it may seem easier said than done, but it’s actually quite simple: it doesn’t matter if you work a 9-5, or a noon-8 as long as it’s the same time every day. Don’t schedule tasks outside of these hours. If you’re not in a habit of keeping work hours it might take you a few days to figure out how much you can actually get done in a day. That’s ok, we’re going to give ourselves a bit of a time buffer in item #5 so you’ll have time to adjust.
4. Set project milestones
Most projects are comprised of multiple steps. Breaking down each project into milestones may seem like more work, and more items on your to-do list but what it actually does is it breaks down each project into small, manageable tasks. Do this before starting each project and add your milestones to your work calendar. Some examples of milestones are:
- ordering supplies (and receiving them)
- sketching out a design before digitizing it
- doing research about a particular aspect of a project
- phases of a project (design & development)
- receiving feedback from your client (yes, if this is part of a project then it’s a milestone just like the tasks you have to complete)
You know your business better than anyone else, if there’s a way to breakdown a project into steps – these steps should be your milestones. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself, the point here is to have a clear idea of the major steps involved in any project and being able to schedule these individual steps within your deadline timeframe. This will improve your focus and reduce the strain on your mental faculties in trying to remember “what’s next?”.
5. Set realistic deadlines
We’re all eager to please our clients and show off our skills, but you must be sure that you can actually meet the deadlines you set. This is how having project milestones allows you to better evaluate the job at hand and each task that comprises it. Once your milestone schedule is written out, you can see more clearly the most reasonable deadline for the entire project.
Always allow time for unexpected complications when setting a deadline by calculating in a time buffer for things like illness, complications with concurrent projects, technical difficulties. Most projects won’t have any complications and you’ll be able to finish them before the deadline – clients love that! But if there are complications, you won’t have to scramble to meet your deadlines since you’ve set aside some time for just such a scenario. So give yourself a buffer of a day or two to cover life’s little mishaps.
6. Don’t overbook yourself = learn to say “no”
Don’t book too many projects at the same time. If you’ve been in a time-crunch situation before then you should have a good idea of how much work you can actually do in one day (without having to pull an allnighter). It’s easy to get greedy and take on every project that comes your way in fear of a dryer time to come. The thing is, the quality of your work and customer service will suffer when you’re overbooked, ensuring that you won’t get stellar client referrals, bringing on that dry time even faster and, possibly ruining the reputation of your business for years to come.
Here is where your deadline calendar will come in handy, yet again – it will allow you to say that you are booked up until a certain, specific date. It is then up to your client to either go with another service provider, or to book you for a future date. If you’re not running around crazy you will be able to be more attentive to prospective clients, and if they feel like you care they might move their deadline to be able to work with someone they feel has their best interests in mind. You just might end up lining up work for the future while keeping your sanity!
If you’re overbooking yourself to meet expenses it might be time to reevaluate your lifestyle. It’s the same concept as living within your means – work within your means too. We all want to have nice things, go on adventures, and provide for our families but there’s no shame in a bit of frugality for the sake of a happier emotional life for you and those around you. As your business grows you will be able to hire help and take on more projects. But if you’re not there yet, don’t take on projects as if you have all the help in the world and simplify a few things in your life so you’re not in debt while carrying a normal, healthy workload.
7. Set aside time for email
It’s important to be easily reachable however, it’s also very easy to lose focus on answering emails while working on your main tasks. It may seem like the best way to start your work day is by answering emails accumulated since you left the office yesterday, however, this is actually less productive. Start your days by being proactive and checking off a few times off of your work calendar then move on to emails and you’re getting that mid-day sluggish feeling. This will also allow you to get a little break from actual work.
Most freelancers aren’t dealing with life and death situations, so just try to keep that mind. No one will die if you answer an email an hour from now as opposed to immediately. But do make sure to set aside time to answer emails each and every day. Even if you’re swamped, you can always shoot off a quick “Sorry, I’m swamped today but I will get back to you by such-and-such time tomorrow”. Clients, and people in general, don’t like to feel ignored and unimportant and it really doesn’t take much effort to avoid making them feel that way.
8. Set up your work day the day before
At the end of each day take 5 minutes to look over your calendar for tomorrow, check off tasks you completed today, and come up with a plan of attack for tomorrow. This lets you have a clear idea of what’s ahead of you tomorrow and will allow you to focus right away when you start your day tomorrow.
What can I do right now?
So what can you do right now if you’re already feeling the time crunch? Start from the top, my friend. You’re already behind, taking 5 minutes to write out EVERYTHING you’ve got on your plate and starting that work calendar is the best thing you can do to make sure that you get out of this rut as smoothly as possible. Once you’ve got your milestones and tasks squared out, figure out which deadlines will have to be moved and exactly to which days. Sorry, this is the unpleasant part – now let your clients know when they can actually, realistically expect their projects to be completed. Stop stringing them along with vague promises or no communication at all. Some might fly off the handle and terminate their contracts (um, can you blame them?), but most will probably appreciate the fact that you’re being forthcoming. Now, stick to good time management practices to keep those lovely clients, and yourself, in good spirits!
I really hope this helps you to get organized and sets you up with some ideas on how to best manage your time. Everyone has their own time management styles and techniques that work best for them. The earlier you start the better but it’s never too late. On forth my friends!