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
Simon Perkins

@Jill: I use it for managing tasks (which can be assigned to one OR multiple people (which is fairly unique among PM apps)), milestones, key files (particularly shared resources managed by Dropbox or Google Docs), notes and any resources (websites and other links).

You could you it for personal stuff but I'd probably only recommend that if you're a one-man band, otherwise you're effectively taking up 1 project (called say "Personal") which your employer is paying for.  If your company is happy with that then go for it - I wouldn't feel comfortable though.

Holly MacDonald

We've had a similar conversation in the forums before http://community.articulate.com/forums/p/10246/61199.aspx#61199 - I've opted for a simple timer that is associated with clients and billing called fanurio (it's linked in the other post). Honestly I was trying to get away from the SaaS options I wanted a solution that was actual software not cloud (fixed cost). I like the timer part, I just click "start" and then it tracks time and then I can allocate it to a project/task, etc. For $60 it was a good option for me. I have a category called "online" and I can track it that way. I'd guess I spend about an hour a day, depending on the day. 

I also saw this from mighty deals this morning: http://www.mightydeals.com/deal/thymer.html?ref=awnews, which looks like a nice "bottom up" tool that groups tasks rather than a top down tool that requires you to develop a project/work plan.

I've never found my perfect solution to track leads ->sales->projects->tasks->billing. 

Jill McNair

These ideas sound great for staying organized within a project.  How about everything else (personal stuff, leads, portfolio-building, etc.)?  Does anyone use Evernote, and if so, how?  Starting to play with it.  Looks like it would be wise to have a strategy for the info that you add so that you do not create hundreds of notebooks.  It makes more sense to me to have a few strategically-named notebooks, and use great tags.

Simon Perkins

@Jill: Yes, I've been using Evernote for 4-5 years and have over 1500 notes now!  It's a great place to 'dump' a load of stuff for future reference so long as you organise it as least fairly well.  That said, the search function is great (images are OCR'd too) so even if you just throw stuff in you'll likely still end up finding what you need.  

Some people go minimalist re number of notebooks and tags while others have absolutely loads.  I'm now somewhere in the middle (maybe 12+ notebooks and 60+ tags) but that includes storing notes for both personal and work.  I throw a lot of tips/tutorials as well as blog/news articles in there - sometimes for immediate use, sometimes for a rainy day.

It's a very customisable app plus you can access it on the fly from pretty much any device.

The free version probably is enough for most people too.

Jill McNair

Thanks Simon,

I came across this site that gives a great strategy for setting up Evernote: http://www.thesecretweapon.org/

I don't use Outlook (this site shows you how to tie it to Evernote), but I am trying out the notebook structure and tagging scheme that is proposed here. I want to be as digital as possible.  I'm trying to get rid of all the papers and organize all my ideas in one place.  So far, so good, but I can tell that I'm going to have to remind myself (until it becomes a habit)- 'Jill, put the pen down and use Evernote."  

Simon Perkins

Hmm, that looks interesting Jill - just checked out the first vid.  I can see this working more for freelancers and those that work in more of a self-contained way as opposed to collaborating.  I may be seeking the wrong solution but IME I've yet to find the latter to work well within EN - hence why TeamworkPM (and many other such tools) is so useful.  This might be a good place to expand on that though.

Simon Perkins

For the record, two of my biggest bugbears with EN are:

  1. Lack of decent formatting.
  2. It's pretty one dimensional in a visual sense, i.e. notebooks and tags are kind of flat and make it hard to see the big picture of any particular project (or group of projects).  That said, some people love this styling or else they find a way to make it work for them.  I've tried using it for task management in the past and it was a nightmare.  I 'need' something more visual ... but that's just me
Jill McNair

@ Simon - I agree that Evernote could never take the place of a full blown project management tool, but I'm using it for example, to collect resources for an upcoming meeting with a client.  I haven't used it long enough to have any gripes about it yet  

@ Mike lol - time flies when you are having fun!    

Trina Rimmer

Good questions! Loved reading all of the great ideas and perspectives on a topic very near and dear to my heart.

I'm relatively new to feelancing (2.5 years) so after my first year of learning everything the hard way, I did a "Lessons Learned for New Consultants" session at DevLearn '11 to try to help others considering the 'lifestyle' to avoid making some of the same mistakes I've made. On my website I've organized a ton of resources, books, articles, and links that I discussed in the session: http://trinarimmer.com/devlearn-11-resources/  Hope these are helpful!

Time management continues to be the thing I struggle with the most. My most trusted tools include Evernote, the project timer in my Billings app, my to-do list (residing in Asana these days), and my Google calendar. I'm a big believer in aggressive calendar management so I purposely book myself for appointments for everything - 'busy' when I need to focus on work stuff and 'out of the office' when I need to take care of the family/life stuff.

As others have stated, I also have a give & take attitude about my schedule knowing that the cost of scheduling flexibility is almost always the occasional late-nighter (or even all-nighter). As tough as the juggling can be, I wouldn't trade my independence for anything!

Kevin Thorn

As the youngest member of the freelance community - just over three months now, my take is still in the learning phase.

First, I've never been a big fan of the clock rather just getting the work done. However, since I don't go to an "office" at a specific start time or an end time, I'm forced to manage a calendar like Trina suggests. 

If you're starting out you need a solid plan for sure. Bruce mentioned it early on in this thread where he has a 3-year heads-down all out plan. And his family is aware and supportive. This brings up the time-honored success principle: What do you want? When do you want it? What are you willing to give up (sacrifice) for it? The first two questions are easy to answer, but the last question takes real discipline. 

My "hours" today start around 9:00 AM and I just run through the day until about supper-ish time. Usually break for 2-3 hours and then back to work until midnight or so. I don't count the hours I'm 'working' but I do log my time against various projects and admin functions for purposes of knowing how much and where I am spending my time. If I work 12 hours today I may work 6 tomorrow, 18 for the next three days, and then take a day off. 

Comes down to priorities. I've dropped of forum postings and Twitter recently due to a big project deadline. Once I get that behind me I'll re-engage in the larger community. The challenge is knowing I "should" engage periodically to keep pace but I haven't learned how to manage that part yet because of project focus.

Family time balance is always top priority over projects. My wife is home with me, too so we often slip out for an ice cream break in town, or we'll sit on the patio in the evening sharing a bottle of wine while we have a biz budget/planning meeting - she's my COO.

To put perspective on the way I manage my time - novice-still-learning-the-ropes - approach:

- Mornings: Reading, email, 'busy tasks', etc.

- MId-morning through Supper - Client calls, project work

- Early evening after Supper - admin work, planning, etc.

- Late evening through midnight or later - project work

That's pretty much my daily structure. Again, since I'm not a big fan of the clock those start/finish at various times and are also dictated by the amount of work/tasks that need to get done.

Probably the single-most important thing of going freelance is not having to wear socks!

Bruce Graham

Kevin Thorn said:

As the youngest member of the freelance community - just over three months now, my take is still in the learning phase.

First, I've never been a big fan of the clock rather just getting the work done. However, since I don't go to an "office" at a specific start time or an end time, I'm forced to manage a calendar like Trina suggests. 

If you're starting out you need a solid plan for sure. Bruce mentioned it early on in this thread where he has a 3-year heads-down all out plan. And his family is aware and supportive. This brings up the time-honored success principle: What do you want? When do you want it? What are you willing to give up (sacrifice) for it? The first two questions are easy to answer, but the last question takes real discipline. 

My "hours" today start around 9:00 AM and I just run through the day until about supper-ish time. Usually break for 2-3 hours and then back to work until midnight or so. I don't count the hours I'm 'working' but I do log my time against various projects and admin functions for purposes of knowing how much and where I am spending my time. If I work 12 hours today I may work 6 tomorrow, 18 for the next three days, and then take a day off. 

Comes down to priorities. I've dropped of forum postings and Twitter recently due to a big project deadline. Once I get that behind me I'll re-engage in the larger community. The challenge is knowing I "should" engage periodically to keep pace but I haven't learned how to manage that part yet because of project focus.

Family time balance is always top priority over projects. My wife is home with me, too so we often slip out for an ice cream break in town, or we'll sit on the patio in the evening sharing a bottle of wine while we have a biz budget/planning meeting - she's my COO.

To put perspective on the way I manage my time - novice-still-learning-the-ropes - approach:

- Mornings: Reading, email, 'busy tasks', etc.

- MId-morning through Supper - Client calls, project work

- Early evening after Supper - admin work, planning, etc.

- Late evening through midnight or later - project work

That's pretty much my daily structure. Again, since I'm not a big fan of the clock those start/finish at various times and are also dictated by the amount of work/tasks that need to get done.

Probably the single-most important thing of going freelance is not having to wear socks!


That sounds like a relatively good way of doing things to me

I do have a "Project Actions" .doc, where all latest actions go, and I have a very specific way of using my email that help s me plan, however, it's important to maintain flexibility in what you do and how you do it, 'coz things always change.

I like to try and get all admin done before 0900hrs so that I know what the day holds, and never go to bed without a plan for the next day. Apart from that, it's all "busking" really.

Now that I have a working "office" at the bottom of the garden (when the desk and acoustic foam arrive..), it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of "home" and "work" time change...

Bruce

Belen Casado

@Trina, thanks for sharing this ton of resources, I liked it!

I also like the way @Kevin puts it. One has to see how he/she manages once the office is at home.

In my case, I'd organize myself more like @Bruce, doing admin things in the mornings and then the rest. 

One has to find the better moments to concetrate, or make calls, or read email or collaborate in a community like this. This isn't possible if the work comes organized by your department/boss, etc., but I think that for me this is the "free" of the word.

But I have to say that I love the place @Bruce has at the bottom of the garden... it's great!!!

I think that the physical espace is very related with how time is organized, and the balance between private and professional lives, too.

Adrian Dean

Hi all,

I like Bruce's viewpoint the most. Cynthia has a great viewpoint as well. Bruce recognizes that he is building a business doing something he loves and is willing to do anything and everything to make it happen. Very few people like him exist. They are the ones who change the world.

Cynthia has developed a network, so that in a downturn where work is slow, she can call upon them to get more work coming her way. A great thing to have.

I have always followed the processes put forth by Michael Gerber and John Jantsch. They call for systems for your business and marketing respectively. It's these systems when built and fleshed out that allow for scalability. You basically want to turn yourself into a McDonald's and franchise yourself out. Not sell franchises, but automate things or turn things over to other freelancers or virtual assistants, so that you can do more with less time and effort. People do this, but while I have systemized things, I find it hard to take the next step and turn over control of things I do to someone else.

I do freelance tech support/web design/marketing, not instructional design as Bruce calls it. Still the same things apply.

However, recently I have read a book called "Quitter" by Jon Acuff. It has changed how I view things and I find myself looking for a full-time job. Why, because being self-employed, at least for me brings too much uncertainty that it outweighs any freedom I get from working for myself. The idea of freelancing, of working for yourself is appealing. But for me, it is a dream that I am not ready to continue to explore at this time, and probably not for the future either.

Sure there will be side projects that I might do, to bring in extra money, to have fun with, to break the monotony that is life. But I have been doing some soul searching if you will, and have found that I find more enjoyment and stability from working as an employee. Especially, when the job connects you with your passion. I like helping other people. Helping others to understand things better, helping them solve their problems, has been something I have done since I first started working for money fifteen years ago.

It's only now that I understand that, and because of that, the right job is no longer a job, but a calling. I believe I have found such a job now, and if things continue as they are, a part of the plan that is my life will finally fall into place. I can't ask for much more than that.

As far as freelancing goes, I have found that just doing something everyday focused on your work will bring you one step closer to realizing your dream. You can read, and study, and practice all you want, but it is the doers that get things done. It is the doers that accomplish the stuff you only dream about.

Probably too much philosophy, but that's what I have found out for myself, since becoming self-employed in 2006. Balancing one's

life is about priorities. If your priorities are more about having a life outside of work, then maybe you shouldn't be working for yourself.

Adrian

Jill McNair

@ Trina - that was a really helpful link!   I'm checking out the wealth of information there.  Thanks!  I think that most of us will always struggle at least a little with the time management question because there is no perfect answer - each one of us needs to find a system that works for us.  That's one of the main reasons I started this post was to see what some of those ideas are so that I can try some new things.

@ Bruce - I do find that making that list at night for the next day works best for me too.  Love the new office.  Having a view can really help when you are in one place for a long time.  I get to see the bright blue Arizona sky and some palm trees swaying in the breeze peeking over the top of my monitor.  

@Adrian - job or self-employment is such a personal choice, and as you have shown, changes with time.  We are always evolving as human beings.  Congratulations on your new position!  

Greg Martin

Interesting and relevant discussion here. If I could chime in, I am a freelancer myself and I've also been handling freelancers all over the world.

The thing about working from home is the fact that the line between 'work' and 'home' could become thinner. No matter how you try to concentrate (I've even set up my own office at home), there will always be those 'home' tasks that pop up in your mind that you think you could do for a while. Aside from that, the advantage of having a flexible time could also be your disadvantage. 70% percent of the time I always think I don't have time for anything already. It seems like I've been busier now that I am working from home. It makes me wonder because I'm supposed to have no commute time, etc.

From years of experience, I could say that it all boils down to discipline. I've tried to condition my mind that even though I am at home, I will make myself feel like I am still in an office environment. No thoughts about the house should ever come across my mind.

On a daily basis (on weekdays),  this is what I do and what I've taught my team too. This drastically helped us become more productive. It should help you too:

1. The night before the workday, I plan the tasks I need to accomplish on the following workday.

2. I make sure I've set a time to do each. Be realistic.

3. The hardest part is to stick to your plan. So, you need focus. I use productivity tools like Time Doctor to keep track of my work time and help make me stick to my tasks.

4. At the end of the day, I evaluate what I've done for the day and then I go back to step 1.

I work around 8 hours a day. 40 hours a week. I still have time at night for my family. I have the weekends to enjoy myself with all my hobbies along with my friends too.

Bottom line, it's just about balancing your time and most of all, discipline.

Sheila Bulthuis

Great discussion!  Time management is always important, but I think it becomes even more important (and possibly more difficult) when you work for yourself. 

I think Kevin really summed it up:

What do you want? When do you want it? What are you willing to give up (sacrifice) for it? The first two questions are easy to answer, but the last question takes real discipline.

There’s never enough time for everything, so you have to decide what your tradeoffs are.  For me, the tradeoffs have shifted over time, not just because of my priorities shifting but also because of my life circumstances changing.  Right now, the most important things to me (related to work) are liking what I do, and flexibility.  I don’t mind working a lot of hours, but I do mind having to work them on a 9-5 type of schedule.   And I absolutely have to have time to hang out with my family, and to have  vacations when I’m not working at all.  So some days I work 15 hours, some just 4 or 5.  Some weeks I work 30 hours, some weeks I work 70.  During the school year I almost always take a 2-3 hour break in the afternoon, after my daughter gets home from school.  And I take about 6 weeks of vacation a year.  

The key for me has been planning and tracking tools and processes.  This is particularly important because I use a lot of sub-contractors.  I keep a master project plan using MS Project that includes every project I have going on (and those I think are coming) and its schedule – this helps me see at  glance (in Calendar view) what is being worked on or due at any given time; it helps me figure out whether I can take on more work in a given timeframe when I’m approached about a new project; and it helps me see how my subs are allocated to projects and which projects still need to be resourced.  I use the Journal function in Outlook for keeping track of my time worked, both for projects with hourly billing and also fixed fee work (so I can use the info later to estimate time on other fixed fee projects).  And I use MS OneNote, too – I think it’s similar to EverNote.

Anyway, that’s my two cents…  Now I’m off to work in my garden before it gets too hot, knowing I can just work late tonight to get done the things that need to get done today.  =)

Sheila Bulthuis

I thought of something else…  Try to take on clients/projects that align with your time management approach, whatever that is.  If you’re someone who really tries to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, maybe you try to avoid projects that sound like they’re going to be very erratic in their time requirements.  If you do better with planning ahead, try to focus on projects that allow that – if you like to fly by the seat of your pants and the idea of managing to a detailed project plan gives you hives, try to work with clients who don’t care about formal project plans.

Seems obvious, but looking back I seem to have forgotten this bit of wisdom a few times, and I always regretted it…

Bruce Graham

Sheila Cole said:

I thought of something else…  Try to take on clients/projects that align with your time management approach, whatever that is.  If you’re someone who really tries to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, maybe you try to avoid projects that sound like they’re going to be very erratic in their time requirements.  If you do better with planning ahead, try to focus on projects that allow that – if you like to fly by the seat of your pants and the idea of managing to a detailed project plan gives you hives, try to work with clients who don’t care about formal project plans.

 

Seems obvious, but looking back I seem to have forgotten this bit of wisdom a few times, and I always regretted it…

 

Can be difficult if you have clients that are 49% US and 50% European.

As I have just taken on Israeli client, they work Sundays!

Saying that - the point is very valid - set expectations and have a good understanding of each other's work patterns. One useful tip is to try and agree a time when you can ring "...without disrupting you", (perhaps early morning, or later in the day). This can be seen as a great "value add", as you drive the updates and project.

Bruce

Bruce

Holly MacDonald

Great  points Sheila. Types of projects will definitely influence things. Those that don't have hard/fast deadlines (they do exist, I've worked on several) might suit you if you are disciplined and crave flexibility while those that are tied to a system roll-out will be fraught with deadlines, challenges, demands for your time. However you might work better with fire under your feet. Knowing what you take on is so important. I usually try to have a mix of clients (in that ideal world), and try to only have one time-sensitive project at any one time. You could also develop limits to the number/type of clients you take on at any one time. And if you do find yourself in a project that is causing challenges with your time - make sure you talk to your family and support system to get you through tough times. Being a freelancer is a family commitment, I think.

Bruce, I love the idea of "best time to reach". Working across timezones means you will be working at erratic times. Right now for one project, my SMEs are in the UK and S.America (I'm west coast of Canada) and the best time to meet for all of us is 7 am my time. So, calls are usually then. Some people might find that frustrating, but it's reality. 

One of the things that I do in life is a "balance wheel" - this might be useful for overall balance and while I hadn't thought of it before, you can create a different one for your business time: billable time, business development, professional development, administration, etc...http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_93.htm.

I don't know if that adds much to the discussion, but glad to still be mining some nuggets from this thread.

Holly

Daniel Brigham

Hi, Jill:

To keep things simple, I have set hours--usually 8:30 to 5 p.m. Of course, sometimes your slammed and working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes your slow. My goal is to be so damn good and developing and voiceover that I can charge a hefty fee and work no more than 40 hours per week, of course with some exceptions. I'm not quite there yet, but closer than I was last week. --Daniel

Sheila Bulthuis

Holly,

I  love love love the balance wheel!  Don't know how I've gone this long without seeing/hearing about that.  I'm going to spend some quiet time in the next few days doing that for both my life as a whole and for my "work life" specifically.  I particularly liked that the article pointed out not everything *should* be a 5 - you have to set your own priorities and tagets.

Thanks for sharing!

Sheila

Holly MacDonald

Sheila - I'm so glad you found it useful. It's a common coaching thing.

On the sort of managing time thing - I saw this today which seemed helpful if you are overwhelmed or just if you need some insight into how you are doing things: http://www.davemadethat.com/2012/08/09/overwhelmed/ - it struck a chord with me.

Holly

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro

Jill, thanks for starting this discussion. It certainly engaged the community. And tx, community, for sharing your insights and approaches.

Trina, thanks SO much for sharing this page. I've added it to my resource list. Speaking of which, this is one of the things that helps to keep me organized.

I read in this thread, and frequently read in other places, about how wonderful Evernote is. Question: is it that much better than OneNote (by Microsoft)? And "if so", can anyone explain "how so?"