Something I’ve been asked for a LOT recently is time management exercises and tips. It seems that plenty of people have difficulties managing their time and avoiding procrastination.
Well here’s some irony for you: Yesterday when I sat down to write this article I was feeling glum and gloomy, and just couldn’t get off the starting blocks. I had a pretty major moment of self-doubt and wondered what on earth qualified me to discuss time management exercises when I was floundering around myself.
Thankfully I feel better today. I’ve talked before about how everyone gets stuck sometimes, and yesterday just wasn’t my day.
On reflection, I think I AM in a reasonable position to give some advice on time management. I’ve been working freelance since 2004, and (subject to some incredibly rare agreed extensions), I haven’t missed a deadline. I’ve remained motivated through times of recession, depression, and horrific cashflow, and while I do have the odd bad day, I try not to ever let that turn into a bad week.
So with all that in mind, here are some time management exercises and strategies that work well for me:
1. Time Management Begins with the Right Workflow
There’s no hard and fast rule, and it’s definitely a case of whatever works for you – but the key thing is that you find something that DOES work. So if your current workflow results in you “dropping the ball,” forgetting to call people back and missing deadlines, the most important of all of these time management exercises is to establish a flow that works for you consistently.
Personally, I’m quite “traditional” with the technology! I’m a “power user” of Microsoft Outlook. I maintain a calendar, which contains all my “in the flesh” appointments, holiday dates, and details of where my two children are (kept up to date thanks to constant calendar invitations from my wife!)
I also use Outlook “Tasks” to remind me of what I have to do each day – this could be starting or completing an article, phoning the bank, issuing an invoice or chasing a decision from a client. I use alarms on some of these items to make sure I don’t forget anything. I’ve even gone so far as “plumbing” all of this information through a calendar app called “BusyCal,” because Outlook didn’t give me a single screen view of my appointments and tasks all on the same screen.
I sync the whole thing to my iPhone and iPad, courtesy of my Office 365 account, so everything is always in the same place, regardless of which device I’m using.
I know this is a rather detailed description, but it’s important, because all of my other time management work would be worthless without these foundations. Before I settled on BusyCal, I tried numerous other calendar apps until I found one that slotted into the way I do things. Finding the right combination of things for YOU is half the battle.
2. Start each day the evening before
Armed with an accurate calendar and “to do” list, you can start to prepare for each day the evening before. This is a time management exercise that only takes a minute at the end of each working day, but it’s completely worthwhile.
All I do is scan what I’ve got to do the next day, and start to form a vague plan in my head of what I’ll do in what order. I’ll immediately know:
- If the next day’s going to be a decent one or a “shocker.”
- If I’m doing mainly mundane tasks or something more exciting.
- If I’m required to speak to anyone on the phone or on a video call.
- If I’m doing any work for any brand new clients.
- If I’m doing anything that will be unusually mentally taxing.
Sometimes these factors will influence how I spend the evening! If, for example, I’m doing work for a brand new client and have several video calls, that will usually dictate an early night and abstinence from any “weekday wine!”
Another useful side-effect of this time management exercise is that you can vaguely add up in your head how many hours of work you’ve got for the next day. For example:
- Article – 2 hours
- Catch up on invoicing – 1 hour
- Work on client website – 3 hours
This is especially helpful because it will tell you if you’re potentially overstretched. I tend to work a seven or eight hour day (and – naughty naughty – don’t stop for lunch). If the stuff on my list adds up to six or more hours, before I even start, it could mean I’m in trouble.
Why? Because that doesn’t allow for unexpected phone calls, new work requests from existing clients, replying to lots of emails and social media comments that arrive overnight, or any one of 100 other things. If you go into a day knowing your workload is achievable, it’s far easier to manage your time. If you’re overstretched you just flap (or at least I do!)
By making this a regular exercise, you know if you’re OK each day or if you’re stretched – in which case it might be worth an early start.
3. Build in flexibility
Just because you have a super-organised list of tasks, it doesn’t mean you can’t move things around continuously throughout the week or month.
The cornerstone of having this flexibility is making sure you agree on sensible deadlines. “Underpromise and overdeliver” should always be the freelancer’s mantra! So, when you agree deadlines with clients, agree on dates that give you plenty of time to get the work done allowing for unexpected things to happen.
I go one step further and do the opposite thing with work I’d like to get done towards my own personal projects (like this site!) If, for example, I want to review a new service, I’ll stick in a task to do it fairly quickly, knowing that if priorities change, I can always push it back.
Employing a combination of these two tactics means always having some room to shift things around. This can be for as simple a reason as looking at the following day and thinking “hell no, I’m not doing that tomorrow!” But on the other hand, it can also enable you to squeeze in a lucrative extra job you didn’t know was coming.
4. Allow yourself a bad day – but not two
As I said at the beginning, bad days are inevitable. One of the things I wrote in a previous article about getting unstuck when you lose motivation is that sometimes it’s OK just to “throw the towel in” if you’re struggling to get in the right frame of mind for work. Having the ability to do this is, after all, one of the main benefits of working for yourself.
But try to draw the line at letting it happen two days in a row. Obviously, the exception is when you’re ill, but all the rest of the time I try to work to a rule that if I’ve had an unproductive day, there’s NO WAY I’m going to repeat it the following day.
This means going back to the task list, moving things around to make sure everything’s still on track, and ensuring that next day starts off right. That means a good night’s sleep, proper food and no hangover!
I feel in a good position to be my own “social proof” of how effective this is. Yesterday was miserable, and really wasn’t my finest hour – but today, I’ve smashed it – despite piling work onto myself – and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it too.
5. Eat the frog!
It’s basically all about doing the task you least fancy first thing in the day, so it’s all uphill from there.
It takes some serious discipline to do it every day (and I won’t claim I am that disciplined) but it works. It really does.
6. Use your downtime to advance your business
If you’re a freelancer, presumably you’re doing work you enjoy, and pursuing a career you’re keen to develop? (If not, you may have problems that go beyond the need for time management exercises!)
In most cases, there’s lots of reading and research you can do to take your business forward. For me, that can mean reading articles about SEO, working through training courses, finding new software and services to read for this website, or even looking what other competitors in my niche are doing. For you, perhaps this kind of “work” could include reading articles on this website?!
These are all tasks you can do in your downtime.
Now, it’s really important not to let work take over your life. If you’re lying in the bath, out in the garden, or in bed in the early hours, a fair proportion of this time should definitely be spent doing “non-work” stuff. However, mixing in a bit of work-related reading and research does no harm.
This is a time management tactic I only employ when I feel like it, but I feel awfully virtuous when I do! I enjoy my work, and sometimes I’m just as happy to spend evening and weekend time listening to business books on Audible or reading interesting freelancing articles on my iPad in the bath. It’s like getting extra, non-pressured time to spend on your freelance business, and it leaves those core “working hours” for the real, productive work.
7. Worry more about the weeks than the days
It’s easy to beat yourself up for having an unproductive day, but life does get in the way. I have two children, and it’s fairly rare to get through a month without having to adjust some plans around an illness or some other drama.
However, if you’re doing your time management as advised above, with time left to shuffle and readjust as you go along, you should (largely) be able to respond to the unexpected twists and turns.
Rather than feel down about days that don’t go to plan, focus on trying to end each week feeling like you’ve done as much as you’d hoped – and give yourself a break if you don’t manage it every single week.
One thing I personally do to help with this is to never plan in too much work for a Friday. In fact, I always have a vague intention to finish “early” on a Friday. Last Friday I was able to do just that, and delighted my eldest son by surprising him and watching his dance class!
But it’s actually very unusual for me to finish early on a Friday – despite the best of intentions. However, those intentions mean I can use Friday as a bit of a “catch up” day, giving me a reasonable chance of finishing the week off right, even if a couple of the days of that week haven’t quite gone to plan!
Reading back these time management exercises has made me wonder if maybe the key to managing time is really just about working around where you know you’re likely to falter and mess up! But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
If tricking yourself into submission is what it takes to ensure that you constantly stick to deadlines and keep your clients happy, then so be it. I hope that some of my time management exercises particularly help those of you who asked me to share them!
Recommended further reading: How to get “unstuck” when you’re lacking motivation.