Managing your time when you're self-employed
Back when I worked 9-to-5 and in between jobs, I’d go to a nearby coffee shop and work on my passion project: my fiction. With complete control over my schedule, I’d work whenever the mood struck. I had the freedom to take a midday lunch break to run errands.
Ah, this is the life, I thought to myself. I had the autonomy to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I could devote myself to working on what inspired me the most.
Fast forward to a few years later, when I became a full-time freelancer. Managing my own time wasn’t so fun and effortless. Instead, my days felt like a non-stop show of time misspent. At times I would get up at four in the morning to meet a deadline. I often felt exhausted and spread thin with my social commitments. I didn’t know what happened to my day. To boot, I hadn’t accomplished much.
When you’re self-employed, you have the freedom to structure your own time the way you see fit. On the flip side, managing your own time comes with its own set of challenges. It’s far too easy to let work bleed into personal hours. What’s more, you’re prone to becoming less productive and efficient with your time. In turn, to make up for lost time you end up spending more than 40 hours “working,” and waste time dawdling on social media. And it’s hard to “leave your work at home,” especially when your home office is your dining table.
After trial, error, and a lot of ups and downs, I’ve become a bit better at managing my time. And because of that, I’ve been able to spend more time focusing on career development, and balanced my client workload with volunteering and having a social life. Even more importantly, it’s also allowed me to achieve greater self-care. Here are the strategies I used to turn things around (at least for the most part).
Know your productivity style
Carson Tate, productivity expert and author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Productivity Style, presents four different personality styles: The visualizer, the arranger, the organizer, and the planner.
In a nutshell, the visualizer can see the big picture, has a holistic way of thinking and is a master at creative solutions. The arranger’s preferred way of working is rooted in emotional thinking and they can anticipate how others might feel. The planner—as the name implies—operates primarily in a sequential, list-centric manner. Last, the organizer is analytical, logical, and their fact-based thinking precedes emotional-based thinking.
While most people have a dominant style, your way of thinking and working might bear hints of the other styles. And knowing your style(s) can help you figure out how to best approach your work. For instance, if your dominant productivity style is visualizer, it could be ideal for you to group your tasks by day. My partner, who is an artist, is primarily a visualizer. He works best by grouping his tasks by general themes: he might devote one day to admin tasks, another to creating art, and another to buying materials. I’m more of a planner and organizer, so I rely on lists to get through my tasks and complete assignments.
Of course, knowing your productivity style and structuring your days accordingly won’t automatically turn you into a diligent worker bee. However, it can give you a strong foundation and help you find ways to deal with other productivity challenges. For example, when the imminent distractions of social media, and the danger of falling down an internet rabbit hole, loomed … I used my planning skills to find a solution: setting up web blockers.
Lean on your cohort
Your freelancing friends are likely going through the same struggles. My freelancer colleagues (who I have met through mutual friends, conferences, and freelancer meetups) and I help keep each other accountable for our projects. From working on courses, to getting certified, to meeting deadlines, we’ll check in on one another and make sure we’re on task.
Worried this might be a distraction or just another to-do on your list? I’ve found that checking in with colleagues helps me stay more focused and productive on my other goals. For instance, my friend Sarah and I are both studying for a financial coaching exam. About once a week we’ll check in on each other’s progress. And when I was working on my first book for freelancers last summer, my friend Tristan was also working on his first book. We’d email each other word count updates.
Create a routine that works for you
Early in my freelance career, I took too many liberties with my schedule. I didn’t think twice about signing up for professional mixers or saying “yes” to social outings during working hours. I would lie to myself, thinking that I could leave for a few hours and get back to my work afterward. The truth? It would take me a long time to regain my focus and motivation.
To stay on top of my work, I committed to setting firm work hours each day. Toggling between tasks is draining. I also learned to adjust my schedule to match when I was most productive.
Making the switch to a firm routine wasn’t easy: Some of my friends who were side hustlers or in-between jobs took the liberty of dropping in, unannounced, in the middle of the day. I made sure to let them know that I had deadlines to meet, and wouldn’t be available to hang out. It’s hard to turn down an invite to cavort with good friends. But I had to hold a hard line or suffer the consequences.
Now, I get a jump on work in the morning and ideally wrap up client work by the early afternoon. To power down my computer at a decent hour, I set up my browser extension so that my screen dims at the same time each day. Sure, I give myself a bit of leeway when I am burnt out or have a friend visiting from out of town. But making those middle-of-the-day outings the exceptions, not the rule, has allowed me to maintain focus.
Respect your brain’s patterns
When you’re creating a routine, schedule your tasks based on when you feel most cogent, alert, and able to do your best work. That way you can set a schedule that’s in sync with when you’re most productive.
The ideal routine is intensely individual. I’m an early riser; I bounce out of bed and feel like I can solve world problems. Others are night owls and prefer to start their days in the afternoon and burn the midnight oil. Some people prefer to mix up their hours; I find that keeping to the same hours each working day helped me get into a routine.
There’s certainly no hard-and-fast rule with your schedule. It could be a compromise between how and when you work best with your other commitments—caring for your kids, making time for your partner, or volunteering.
Find the right work environment
One way you can create more structure in your day and set firm hours is to work away from home. You might consider working out of a co-working space. Yes, it’s an additional business expense. And the price of a coworking membership, depending on the tier and space, could hover anywhere from $150 to $500 a month. But if it bolsters your productivity, helps you meet fellow freelancers and offer greater work-life balance, it could be worth it.
Of course, you can also work out of a coffee shop, bar, or dining area of a grocery store. As long as you have access to wi-fi, a comfy seat and the place isn’t keen on kicking you out after a stint, you can work almost anywhere—and after all, that’s one of the biggest benefits of being self-employed.
Make your time work for you
The reality of managing your own time is a prime example of how the privileges you earn when you work for yourself can turn into a burden or a curse.
The onus falls on you: if managed wisely, your time can be spent and structured in a way that allows you to deliver killer work, get more done, and make time for the things that matter most to you.
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