Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many readers have asked me for time management tips. It seems that many of us have real problems with procrastination and managing our time.
I see myself as being fairly good at time management. I never miss deadlines, and end most weeks happy with my overall level of productivity. But I’m still susceptible to the myriad distractions that face us in the modern world. I readily accept that there’s always room for improvement.
And the truth is that improving your time management skills can have a huge impact on your personal achievements – and your income.
In a moment, we will run through 17 time management tips for freelancers and home workers. They will help you take control of your time, and free up more of each day for genuine productivity. But first, let’s illustrate just how much of a difference this stuff can make.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE: Check out our list of the advantages and disadvantages of freelancing.
- An Example of the Importance of Time Management
- 1. Start with Some Serious Honesty
- 2. Get The Data
- 3. Find a Workflow that Works for YOU
- 4. Start Each Day the Evening Before
- 5. Estimate the Time for Your “Must Do” Tasks
- 6. Don’t “Over Fill” your Time
- 7. Build in Flexibility
- 8. Allow Yourself a Bad Day – But (Ideally) Not Two
- 9. Eat the Frog!
- 10. Worry More About the Weeks than the Days
- 11. Try Pomodoro or Other Focus Techniques
- 12. Don’t Be Scared to Close Your Email and Messaging Apps
- 13. Be Protective of Your Boundaries
- 14. Ensure You GET Some Downtime
- 15. Use Your Downtime to Advance your Business
- 16. Talk to Somebody
- 17. Be Wise to Distractions
- While You’re Here
An Example of the Importance of Time Management
- Let’s imagine that you “squander” just 30 minutes of each working day – time that could be spend on productive work.
- We will assume you work full time, for 48 weeks of each year – that’s 240 working days.
- Losing just 30 minutes of each of those days means wasting 120 hours each year.
- 120 hours is equivalent to more that three entire working weeks!
But – in fact – it’s way worse than that.
Research suggests that people actually spend an average of 122 minutes per day procrastinating.
Breaking that down:
- 122 minutes X 240 working days = 29,280 minutes per year.
- That’s 488 hours or nearly 14 working weeks!
But let’s step back from the hyperbole for a moment.
You may not waste as much time as that, and you’re never going to be able to “reclaim” every moment. I, for one, will always want to check Twitter, Facebook, the news headlines. But it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of time there ready to be taken back – almost certainly the equivalent to additional productive weeks each year.
Think of what you could do with that time:
- Start a lucrative side hustle.
- Take at least one course to learn some new marketable skills.
- Get out there and spend time in nature, on fitness, on hobbies.
With all that in mind, let’s move onto our list of time management tips. While they’re written with freelancers and home workers in mind, there’s plenty of wisdom here that you can benefit from, even if you don’t fall into one of those categories.
1. Start with Some Serious Honesty
Begin with some soul searching as a first step. How bad at time management are you, really?
- Do you miss deadlines and hand work in late?
- Are you one of those people with a reputation for failing to reply to messages and emails?
I’m going to deliver a dose of brutal honesty here: If you answer “yes” to either of those questions, your time management is BAD.
You may kid yourself that your clients, colleagues and friends accept your disorganisation as “one of your quirks,” but – back in the real world – it’s more likely people compare you negatively with your more reliable counterparts, and use the word “flaky” in the same sentence as your name. You NEED these time management tips!
Even if, like me, you view yourself as fairly efficient, the chances are there’s still plenty of room for improvement. You can uncover some of the inefficiencies by being honest with yourself, or you can go one step further, and actually “get the data.”
2. Get The Data
The image below is a screenshot from the “Screen Time” app on my iPhone. You can get similar apps for other mobile devices, and for computers.
These apps can be hugely enlightening, and force you to admit how much time you’re really spending on unproductive tasks.
However you do it, it’s valuable to establish some kind of baseline when you’re looking to get better at time management. Merely using some kind of Screen Time app can help by itself. If you know you wasted an hour to social media yesterday, you can try to waste less time today.
If you’re not yet using one of these apps, try it out – you may be shocked by the results.
3. Find a Workflow that Works for YOU
Some people make written lists; Some use apps like Trello and Evernote; Some people have Post-It notes strewn over every surface.
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 must find something that DOES work to help you manage your time.
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.
Here’s the “workflow” that I use personally (keep in mind that MY way is far from the ONLY way):
- Every quarter, I set goals (business AND personal), to ensure I have “high level” focus on what I’m doing. (I describe the process I use in detail in my Freelance Kickstarter course).
- I use several Trello boards to track projects and capture ideas.
- I make heavy use of Microsoft Outlook’s Calendar and Task functionality to plan and track what’s happening day to day and hour to hour.
- I use a calendar app called BusyCal (linked to the same accounts), almost entirely because I prefer the aesthetics and the way my online calendar and tasks appear in the same view.
I should emphasise that I didn’t arrive at this workflow by accident – it was improved and refined over many years. Throughout those years, I tried and rejected countless apps and time management techniques before establishing the best way for me.
What I’ve landed up with works incredibly well. It’s also completely logical. The goal setting exercise gives a bird’s-eye-view of priorities and objectives. Trello is the organised “dumping ground” for everything that’s going on, and my calendars and task lists to keep me on track day by day.
If you don’t yet have a similar “system” that you’ve designed to work for you, the chances are that investing some time in creating one will pay some immediate time management dividends. Just don’t expect it to “click” right away. The key is to actually change the things that don’t work, rather than coast along with them.
In my work as an IT consultant, I’ve heard so many people complain about software they “hate using.” All you have to do is head to Google to find something that suits you better.
It’s worth spending a little time on this now to save a lot of time in the future.
4. Start Each Day the Evening Before
This time management technique is one I started using routinely a few years ago, and one I wouldn’t want to be without.
Armed with an accurate calendar and “to do” list, you can start to prepare for each day at the end of the day before. This is a time management tip that only takes a few minutes at the end of each working day, but it’s completely worthwhile.
All you need to do is scan your list for the next day, and start to form a vague plan in your head of what you’ll be doing, and in what order. You’ll immediately know:
- If the next day’s going to be a decent one or a “shocker.”
- If you’ll be doing mainly mundane tasks or something more exciting.
- If you’re required to speak to anyone on the phone or on a video call.
- If you’re doing any work for any brand new clients.
- If you’re doing anything that will be unusually mentally taxing.
Best of all, it means that your subconscious can start to whirr away at some of the next day’s work.
Knowing what you have on your plate for the next day can also help you to act appropriately the evening before. If you know that the day ahead is going to be particularly taxing, it might be a good reason to have an early night and skip the wine!
5. Estimate the Time for Your “Must Do” Tasks
A useful side-effect of thinking ahead to the following day is that you can vaguely add up in your head how many hours of work you have lined up on your to do lists. For example:
This is especially helpful, because it will tell you if you’re potentially overstretched, or if you have some “spare” time to bite off some additional work, or to plough into a side project or some training.
However, it’s important not to “allocate” every minute of every day.
6. Don’t “Over Fill” your Time
If you have an eight hour day, and allocate eight hours’ worth of important tasks to it, you’ll almost certainly end the day stressed, overwhelmed, and with jobs uncompleted.
Why? Because that doesn’t allow for unexpected phone calls, urgent tasks, 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.
It also doesn’t allow for the fact that while you may have – for example – eight hours available to you, your brain will only be geared up for “deep work” for a proportion of that time.
I generally plan around an eight hour day, but try to ensure that my list of tasks only adds up to about five hours – maximum. If I rocket through them and have time left over, that’s great. I can grab something from the next day’s to-do list, do a “bonus” task that I didn’t plan for – or simply head outside for some fresh air.
It’s a way better time management system than allocating yourself a solid eight hours of work, and never finishing it. You just constantly feel like you’re not making the grade or doing something wrong.
7. 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. (Although, of course, that very much depends on the type of work you do. Freelancers tend to have much more freedom than those who have a “traditional job,” and may need to do more things at a specific time).
If you are a freelancer, the key to having maximum flexibility is always agreeing sensible deadlines. “Underpromise and overdeliver” should always be the freelancer’s mantra! So, when you agree deadlines with clients, agree on due dates that give you plenty of time to get the work done allowing for unexpected things to happen.
So – for example – if you’ve agreed to hand in a piece of work on Friday, put it on your to-do list for Monday. You then have several days when you can “push it back” if the need arises.
Personally, I go one step further and try to “overpromise and underdeliver” on my own personal projects – even if there’s zero consequence for putting them off.
Employing this time management tactic means you almost always have 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 your way.
8. Allow Yourself a Bad Day – But (Ideally) Not Two
Bad days are inevitable. And in the times we live in, we’ve all become used to unexpected events throwing our plans into disarray.
Sometimes it’s OK just to “throw the towel in” if you’re struggling to get into the right frame of mind for work – although, again, that places this particular advice in the freelance tips for freelancers category. If you’re an employee, you may not benefit from the same flexibility.
If you do have the freedom to do it, taking a “duvet day” can sometimes prove a very wise short-term tactic to support your long-term productivity. Battling through it may seem noble, but it can be a bad idea.
I employ the “mental health day” tactic myself sometimes. But I try to draw the line at letting it happen two days in a row. Obviously, the exception is when I’m properly ill. 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 – if you’re a drinker – no hangover!
Nobody’s good at time management if they’re burned out. A guilt free pause could be what you need.
9. Eat the Frog!
“Eating the frog” means completing the task you are least enthusiastic about first thing in the working day. The theory is that your day can then only get better.
It’s an incredibly effective time management technique – but it does take considerable self discipline.
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of “eating the frog.” On the days that I do it, I not only get to enjoy my preferred tasks in the afternoon, I also carry them out with a sense of achievement from ticking off the thing I didn’t fancy doing.
I won’t claim I always manage to “eat the frog,” but it’s always rewarding when I do.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can utilise this time management tip over a weekly or monthly timeframe, as well as each day. If you know you have a day of dull and repetitive work, it makes far more sense to “rip the plaster off” and get it done on Monday or Tuesday, rather than spend the entire week dreading it, and then having a miserable Friday.
I’m trying to teach my seven-year-old son a similar thing. He spends entire meals looking grimly at the tiny portion of vegetables he’s obliged to eat, while he polishes off all the unhealthy stuff on his plate. He’d enjoy the meals much more if he just ate those peas at the start!
10. 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 employ some of the time management tips here, you should have the flexibility to shuffle and readjust your weeks as you go along. This should mean that you’re (largely) 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.
11. Try Pomodoro or Other Focus Techniques
No list of time management tips for freelancers would be complete without a mention of the Pomodoro technique.
In case you’ve not heard of it, the Pomodoro technique involves giving yourself uninterrupted time blocks – periods of focus on specific tasks, followed by small breaks.
For example, if you were working on an article, you could set a timer for a 30 minute time limit and do nothing but work on that article for that period. No checking email, no flicking onto Twitter or the news headlines, no nipping to the kitchen for a snack.
It’s a highly effective technique, and one that’s been rather fashionable over recent years. There are Pomodoro timers on the market, and lots of apps designed to help you focus on important tasks – some going as far as blocking your access to social media for the time you define. Apple has even built focus features into recent releases of the MacOS operating system.
The general principles of Pomodoro may be enough to help you with your time management, without the need for a gadget or some software. However, it IS worth thinking about the software you have open.
12. Don’t Be Scared to Close Your Email and Messaging Apps
Some high-profile CEOs view how rarely they check their email as a badge of honour.
I don’t share that view. Replying promptly to clients is something I pride myself on, and something I’ve been complemented for. However, there is a healthy middle ground where you don’t need to be seeing and acting on every message the moment it comes in.
If you’re somebody who has all of your apps running at all times, why not try giving yourself some periods of “deep work” where you close your WhatsApp, your Facebook Messenger and your email applications?
Studies have show it can take over 23 minutes to restore full focus after a distraction. Is it any wonder that, in an age packed with notification windows, so many people struggle with time management?
I’ve only recently started doing this, but I do find it helpful. Doing something complicated? Close your email for an hour. It could make more of a difference than you think.
13. Be Protective of Your Boundaries
I was terrible at protecting my boundaries in the early days of my freelance career – and I paid a heavy price for it.
My phone never stoped ringing, my holidays were often interrupted, and I gradually became more angry, more bitter, and more burned out.
Thankfully, I learned my lesson.
If you’re always bending the rules for your clients and your bosses, two things happen: Firstly, people come to expect it and take it for granted, Secondly, you end up with your business and personal life blending into one – and that’s toxic for time management.
An example: If you’re ready to be assertive, say “I don’t work weekends,” mean it, and stick to it, “they” will only ask once or twice – and (if they’re worthy of your time) “they” will respect you for your ability to set professional boundaries.
Those boundaries protect your downtime. And that downtime allows you to recuperate and give your all during your work time. Simple stuff that plenty of people get wrong.
14. Ensure You GET Some Downtime
Here’s another misguided badge of honour: Basing your self-worth on “hustle,” and how little time off you take.
It doesn’t take an expert in psychology to understand that a whole bunch of stuff gets compromised if you never switch off, from your mood to your ability to make decisions.
So don’t think you’re a hero if you never take a day off, or if you reach the end of a year without using all of your leave. There’s nothing heroic about burning out.
15. Use Your Downtime to Advance your Business
Just because you take downtime, it doesn’t mean that that free time needs to be entirely unproductive.
Here’s a quick list of things I’ve done (and enjoyed doing) in the past, while “on holiday:”
- Listened to business podcasts.
- Read articles related to my work and businesses.
- Read business books (or listened to them on Audible).
- Sketched out ideas for new projects.
- Made notes of new ideas and flashes of inspiration.
- Done research on competitors’ websites and businesses.
- Put periods of deep thought into new ideas and priorities.
The reality is that certain activities come more naturally when we allow ourselves to relax. The answers to existential questions around what you want to focus on next don’t tend to come while you’re frantically busy doing the actual work. They come unprompted when you’ve been floating in a pool or relaxing on a lounger – allowing your brain to unfold.
Obviously it’s really important not to let work take over your life. The bulk of your downtime should definitely be spent doing “non-work” stuff. However, mixing in a bit of work-related reading and research does no harm to your work-life balance.
16. Talk to Somebody
Struggling with time management could be indicative of a deeper problem.
Everybody procrastinates and has “not feeling it” days. Everybody has tasks they enjoy and tasks they endure. But if you simply cannot motivate yourself when all the other boxes are ticked (rest, environment, work you enjoy etc.) perhaps there’s something more significant in play.
I’m a huge fan of therapy. I’ve completed counselling training and undertaken counselling myself, and my life is richer (and much simpler!) for it. Don’t be scared to reach out if the help you need goes beyond an online list of time management tips.
17. Be Wise to Distractions
I once worked with somebody who used to watch Netflix on a second screen whilst “working.”
Fair play to them if they were genuinely able to concentrate on work, but it seems unlikely to me – and science suggests that multitasking is a myth.
Personally, I have to proceed with caution, even when it comes to background music. I certainly can’t write with music on, something that’s quite frustrating as a huge music lover.
I can perform basic daily activities with music on, but – if I’m honest – it doesn’t help. Vocals are a particular problem, so if you like to listen to music while you work, consider something instrumental instead.
Your mileage will vary, and some different tasks will be more susceptible to the impact of interruptions that others. But the time management lesson here is that it’s important to be honest with yourself about distractions.
Have you always worked with music on? Why not try a few days without, and at least be open to the possibility that you may find you’re far more focussed.
Do you think you have good time management skills? I’d love to hear from you if you have any other time management tips and best practices to share. Please feel free to pass on your wisdom in the comments.
While You’re Here
You may also enjoy articles on:
- How to get “unstuck” when you’re lacking motivation.
- The Best Jobs for People with Depression.
- Making the Most of Working from Home.
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.