Freelancers - how do you manage your time?

OK, how do you do it?  How do you manage your time and still have a life?  Designing, developing, researching, meetings, posting on the forums, drumming up new business, making screenrs and demos, creating an online portfolio, tweeting, blogging . . .  Does your family ever see you?  Do you ever take vacations?  How do you handle multiple clients at once?  Do you set office hours?  I would love to hear how members of this community make it happen with the same 24 hours a day that we all have.

62 Replies
Bruce Graham

OK - here's the downside of freelancing....

At the moment, (and for the next 3 years of my business plan, minimum...), I do not have "...a life" outside of this job. That is the target that I have set to grow my business and my skills. My family are completely aware that this is a sacrifice, however, they benefit from it too, so everyone is OK with that. Saying that, my wife and I have always worked those hours, so it's not really different from anything we've done in the last 15 years.

When I "had a life", I was learning and then going out earning money as a close-up magician.

This is really just the same thing, it seems like a hobby to me, surely we are not allowed to have this much fun whilst working?!

My family does not see me much, although we have some planned "downtime".

We always take vacations somewhere in UK where I have access to high-speed WiFi.

Office hours - 0800 - 2230, minumum 6 days a week, and 3 hours on Sundays. That means a get about 1.5 weeks for everyone's "normal" week. People often wonder how I achieve so much - it's not hard to work it out really!

Every day I have a "To Complete" list, (more likely that it will get down than a "To Do" list).

Multiple clients are handled using the skill of compartmentalisation - you have to be able to bring something to a conclusion, park it, then move onto the next part of the next project with the next client.

Think that's about it!


Sarah Minnick

Now I do not freelance, but I am a cyber teacher that primarily teaches from home(not as cushy as you may think).  I will be entering my 9th year doing this and separating 'office' time from 'home' time is something I struggle with.  Before having my son, it would be nothing to work for hours upon hours straight.  A typical week would be around 80 hours or so(including weekends). I knew then that it was insane the hours that I put into my work. 

As time went on however, I had to become more diligent in structuring my time and making a hard line between when I was 'in the office' and 'when I was home'.  It's not like I could turn off the lights and close the office door.  It's all about discipline.  I found actually getting away from it all has helped immensely.  It wasn't enough to just go for a walk around my neighborhood.  One of the best things that I did was join my local gym.  Great stress reliever mentally, not to mention the physical benefits, but found that when I did get back in front of the computer, my mind was clearer and I approached lesson plans or answering emails with a more positive outlook and was more creative.

Holly MacDonald

Jill - I think we're all juggling as fast as we can! 

My family sees me more than when I was an employee because my office is in my home. I don't bother separating things out, it's all my life and sometimes I spend more doing work than others, but other times I decide I just don't want to work so I don't. It's my choice.  

I don't have artificial weekdays/weekends. I don't do set office hours, although I find that I still stick to the usual for the most part. Often I start earlier in the day b/c there is no commute, and some of my writing happens in the evening. Bottom line is, if I need to work, I work. But, I do do this new-agey thing regularly where I do a "wheel of life" assessment - thinking about how balanced my life is and when it doesn't feel balanced I do something about it (confession, I almost always feel like I don't get enough physical exercise, it's a given). My husband and I are great planners, so we also plan what we want to do each year, we have a "summer" list which includes things like: go to the lake x times, eat at our favorite fish and chip restaurant, etc (so not big stuff, but enjoyable stuff). We plan trips in advance, have had a great experience with house exchanges so are lining those up in advance. If my kids were younger it would be harder I think (they are 10 & 14). 

The biggest challenge I have that you described above is the timing - multiple clients at once - when that happens I just buckle down and put on my PM hat and focus on deliverables. That's when I don't blog, tweet and only check my email twice a day like the productivity experts say we should!

I'm not sure that was what you were looking for, but maybe it helps to know that others struggle with it as well. Except Bruce, who is all smoke and mirrors!


Jackie Zahn

I agree with many of Holly's comments.  "I don't bother separating things out, it's all my life and sometimes I spend more doing work than others, but other times I decide I just don't want to work so I don't. It's my choice."  My main client is a large corporation 8-5 so I "try" to stick to those hours but sometimes my most productive hours are in the middle of the night.  When on deadline, I've been known to work for a few days straight, fall asleep at my desk publishing to my LMS, and awake to that wonderful "ding" once the course is published. But then I'll take a day or two off and all's good again.

Lots of other great advice here such as working out and getting a dog (I have 3).  What works for me is having a desktop and a laptop and using Dropbox to share files in case I feel like working offsite.  Also, when I run into a fabulous article or interesting tweet, I file it away in Evernote for easy retrieval.

Hope this helps -- good luck!

Jill McNair

I appreciate all the food for thought.  It's so great (and indeed necessary) to be dedicated and pour ourselves into our work.  It also way too easy for work to completely engulf your life and serve as an excuse not to be "in" on the rest of your life.   I find that sometimes I can use the  phrase, "I've got to work" as an excuse to get out of doing more unpleasant or monotonous things like exercising, from taking my daughter to the pool on a 111 degree day in Phoenix, or keeping my house as clean as I'd like, etc.  

I read a phrase once that stuck with me (can't remember where I read it), "No one on their death bed ever wishes they spent more time at the office."  I also realize that my 9 yo daughter is only young once - no do-overs there.  So it's really a matter of carving out time for what is truly important to you.

Allocating time when you've got deadlines to meet is a no-brainer - you do what it takes.  It's those other times - do you work out or make some forum posts? . . . do you work on that portfolio piece or clean the bathroom? . . . do you catch up on your reading or call your parents who live in another state? . . .   Choices, choices, choices!  Priorities, priorities, priorities.  I know there is no "one-size'fits-all" answer here, and it's great to hear how you carve out time for things that are important, but not urgent.

Belen Casado

@Jill, that phrase is by Stephen R. Covey,, since I've used it several times when training.

I'm more a supporter of Ernie Zelinski and his Since we're here talking about our passions, looking for the joy of not working gives an open espace of creativity, joy and humor in those tasks we love to do. Only having fun is how this "freelance" thing doesn't lose the word "free".

What do you think?


Cynthia Haan

I typically don't work more than 5 hours a day. I think most people are too focused on money and goals. I just don't need as much to live on either, by design.

When I am busier, I either work on Saturday morning or I have some longer work days, but it usually evens out. I am lucky in that I have been building contacts for 12 years in the business, so when I get very slow I just put the word out and work comes in. If I get too busy, I farm it out.

I have been self-employed for 7 years using the philosophy of working fewer hours than we are brainwashed to work. One of the reasons I left office life is the relentless expectation to work more than 40 hours, weekends, on vacation. Personally, I think 40 hours are too many. I do have clients that expect this, and I do respond to it sometimes, when their emergency becomes mine, but I find that those jobs usually have bad project managers or the jobs aren't scoped or bid properly. 

I always have time to do other things, hang out with my other self-employed peeps during the day, clean the house, take trips, etc. If you reduce the amount of money you need to live on, you just don't have to work as many hours. If your clients have unreasonable expectations of contractors, find new ones.

Personally I need time to recharge, stare at the ceiling, do absolutely nothing. You don't have to fill up every spare minute thinking about what you 'should' be doing. I agree totally with Belen. I want to be free, as free as my financial responsibilities allow.


Cynthia Haan

My dreams don't involve jobs. It's just a different perspective. If you don't have enough time to spend hanging out with family or friends, or have days off, I don't see the point in having a larger income. I love what I do; I'm an artist and love to make art too. I just like having time for everything.

Jill McNair

It's great reading about all these different approaches!  I love Belen and Cindy's point of view - I too want balance, freedom and joy in my life, yet I also see the absolute passion of Bruce's singular mindset, and how his focus is moving him rapidly to the top of this new field.  There is something to said for all points of view.  It all comes down to: what do you want?  Then you have to believe that it's possible.  Then you take one step and then the next, and then the next,...

@ Sarah - I wish I could get myself to they gym!  When I do pull myself away from the computer, it's hardly ever to exercise.  

@ Belen - I'll have to check out that book!  Thanks for the link!  And I loved what you said about keeping the "free" in freelance!

@ Holly and @ Jackie - from what I've read so far, I think I am the closest to handling things the way that you do.  Thanks for giving me some new ideas.

@ Cynthia - love the way you're making it happen!  I'm still fairly new in this field, so I'm still building everything - skills, network, client base, etc., so I'm dedicating more time than I hope to in the future.  By the way - we are both in Phoenix - whereabouts do you live?  I'm in Ahwatukee.

OK folks - tell me - how much time do you spend on social media each day . . . the forums, tweeting, LinkedIn gorups, . . .  It seems like a person could spend the entire day just on social media!  But of course that will never pay the bills!  Also, how do you monitor them?  Do you check in once/twice/ten times per day?  Any recommendations?

Bruce Graham

I just wanted to add something here....because I may be coming across as something of an arrogant twonker (?)

Yes - I am passionate about what I do, and I will absolutely go full tilt at this - for the next 5 years.

I see the current time in training as a fantastic opportunity here for the "little(r) people" to carve out a hugely rewarding career in Instructional Design.

It used to be that only the larger "training companies", with large budgets, and large staff numbers, and large design departments could sensibly for compete in this space. Now they seem to be continuing, with the largest projects because only those largest projects can support their large infrastructure. There is a place for that, I acknowledge, however, smaller is more nimble, so long as you can deliver, and now is certainly a time in our World economy to be nimble.

Now - with tools like Storyline - and pulling on your trusted colleagues, there's a place 1 or 2-person bands to compete. That's where I want to be - I want to be at the hub of a community of course builders. People who freelance, people who have ID as an income-generating interest.

We keep costs low(er), we produce excellence, and we bring back some of the passion and customer service that used to be in the sole preserve of the corporate big-boys.

I just had lunch with an (Articulate Presenter) client, (annual net revenue well over $10m). I explained this vision to him, and he loved it. I just got one course from them + another 10 or so to come when they are written, and they are happy to move over to Storyline because we are going to go "video and branching" heavy.

That's my passion, it's actually not about the income, (though of course, that helps!).  I will commit every waking minute I have to making this a reality, for the next 5 years, creating a "virtual instructional design co-operative", with me calling on other trusted colleagues with appropriate skills who share my belief (dream?). I will certainly then throttle-back a bit - but I think it needs that sort of time and committment to make a vision a reality.

A huge powerhouse of ID excellence, using Articulate Storyline, without the "shackles" that come with everyone being a member of a swollen corporation

Just my 2p worth - hope it makes sense.


Jackie Zahn

Hi Jill,

RE: social media, I spend about 90 minutes/day in 5-10 minute increments. And social media CAN pay the bills -- I've found projects through Twitter and received referrals through LinkedIN (nothing w/FB).   I used to blog but I found that didn't bring in the money.  Best time to tweet = end of the standard workday (4pm).  Best time for FB: evenings.


Holly MacDonald

That's a great perspective to have Cynthia - I applaud you for living your dream! That's a great point about why you chose freelance. It may seem like we are all a bunch of workaholics on the face of it. And you are right about living on less too. I'm not looking to be rich or famous, just financially comfortable and able to enjoy life. I have a financial plan that maps out big ticket items that I want to spend on and I have no debt. 

Working nearly full-time on my business right now is part of my grand plan and it will taper off. My dream was to start a business and allow my husband to retire before I do and work part time for longer rather than full time and take early retirement. Still saving for kids' education and wanting to afford things like travel and a boat (I live on an island) means taking lots of work at the moment and I'm ok with it. I do live 5 minutes from a beach on an acre of land with a fabulous view on a semi-rural island, so when I do take a break it is right into nature. I am also mortgage free, so socking a lot of money into the bank right now for the rainy days.

Jill, I have someone who comes and cleans my house once a week so I never have to decide if I should clean the toilet! I like to cook/bake, so a break from a task might be in the kitchen or garden.  My kids do a lot of chores as well. Do I have a great portfolio that I've spent hours working on? Nope, but I typically am approached for a project or I am looped in because I know the person or have had a personal introduction. So I *should* but I don't. My website needs updating. I have fallen off the blogging wagon. Blah, blah, blah. You do make your choices to suit your circumstances, and it changes all the time. Summer means very little working, and lots of time off to enjoy life. 

I make a plan each day and I've started playing with 3 columns: have to do, want to do, should do (the least favorite). If I do all the have to's and some of the want to's, then I don't feel as annoyed with the should do's. I don't know how it will work, but thought I'd throw it out there if you wanted to try it with me!


Jill McNair

@ Bruce - you are NOT coming across as arrogant, or a twonker (England has the best slang).  I admire your talent and ambition, I salute the countless hours you dedicate to your craft, and hope to one day be considered one of your trusted colleagues.

@ Jackie - thanks - right now my problem with social media is that I'm slow - I spend a lot of time wordsmithing my posts. . . gotta cut that down somehow!   Also, I have not started tweeting yet- I want some kind of strategy instead of randomness.

@ Holly - we could keep each other accountable - a "TO DO" buddy - I like it! PM me.

Simon Perkins

Task/project management becomes key whether you're working freelance or for someone else.  Okay, we each have our own way of working, but IMO having a 'system' that helps you juggle (ahem, manage) multiple projects/clients is the way to go.  For some, it has to be paper-based, for others it could be a desktop app (e.g. Outlook tasks), and for everyone else it might just be an online app that gives you on-the-fly access wherever you are.

Over the last year I reckon I've trialled at least 30-40 apps.  The only one that comes close to offering all the relevant bells and whistles is Teamwork PM.  They really know their stuff, offer feedback/support (usually) within minutes, make their roadmap public, post updates, and above all have a damn fine PM app that improves collaboration and time management across the board.   An awesome piece of kit.

Jill McNair

Thanks for the link Simon, I've looked at their site and it looks like a great product.  I'm going to try it.  I am still experimenting with the best way to keep track of everything digitally.  My old method of using a legal pad and listing everything on it, then creating daily to do lists from that does not seem like the best way any more.  Simon - do you use it just to keep track of client information, or is one of your projects "you" and your business?  Seems like that would be a great way to track personal goals and milestones.  

Does anyone else have a great way of keeping track of all your To Do's, projects, client information?

Cynthia Haan

@Jill - I live in central phoenix!

I spend a lot of time on social media, but I mostly use it for personal stuff. I do use it to network when I need more work. I don't track how much time I spend on it though, it feels like a lot - a lot more than I used to, b/c I just love twitter so much. I'm on the computer for long stretches for work, and when I take breaks it's usually on FB, Twitter, or Pinterest. :) When the weather's good I break in the middle of the day to go hiking for a couple hours. 

@Holly - I'm jealous of your house on the island! So cool... 

@Bruce - not at all arrogant! You are really passionate about what you're doing, and that's very cool. :)  I was thinking about getting another dog b/c I spent a lot of time in the park with my old dog (we have a park behind the house that is owned by the neighborhood) and automatically was outside more. Dogs are a great reminder to get off line. 

Thanks for the to-do organizing suggestions. I still haven't found one I like a lot.