In 2020 and 2021, 36% of the U.S. workforce freelanced full-time. Upwork revealed that freelancers contributed $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy’s annual earnings in 2021. The freelancer workforce is growing rapidly and is a crucial part of the workforce. And with 56% of non-freelancers considering freelancing in the future, it’s essential to equip novice and experienced freelancers alike with the skills they need — like time management — to help them succeed.
Freelancing is about freedom and flexibility, but it can be hard to maintain and achieve both without solid time management skills. In this post, we’re sharing seven tips (and some tool recommendations) for how to effectively manage your time as a freelancer (backed by freelancers themselves).
1. Set a schedule that works for you (and your life).
One of the perks of freelancing is that it comes with the freedom and flexibility to set your work hours and build your schedule the way you want. Take advantage of the flexibility and design a work schedule you love. As a freelancer, you don’t have to work a traditional Monday-Friday 9-to-5 workweek if you don’t want to. But try to set a regular schedule and stick to it as much as possible. For some, that might look like a four-day workweek with typical workday hours. Perhaps a late start at 10:00 am feels more natural and productive for others. Identify your ideal structure and build your work schedule around it from there.
Freelance writer Nichole Talbot suggests building your workdays around your creativity. “Know your creative window and arrange your time around that. For example, if you’re more creative in the morning, schedule your primary development/output production between 8-noon and your administrative tasks in the afternoon,” Talbot said.
Another way to think about it is to analyze when you’re most likely to accomplish the most deep work and plan your schedule around this timeframe. Set aside time for administrative tasks, networking, and meetings within your routine when it makes the most sense. Freelance writer Jenn Jouhseik considers deep work as part of a three-step process for optimal schedule creation.
Jouhseik’s full process:
1. Figure out what time of day you’re most creative.
2. Determine the length of time you can do deep work without getting distracted.
3. Block your time based on your answers to 1 and 2.
Clockwise creates more Focus Time in your schedule, so you can easily reserve space in your day for deep work.
There’s no correct answer when it comes to setting a schedule that works for you and your freelance business. But remember that you are your own boss and are in charge of your time, so determine the productivity cycle that works for you and run with it.
2. Create sensible to-do lists.
Without the structure of a corporate job description and predefined tasks, you need to find ways to keep yourself focused and accountable each day. In a traditional 9-to-5, many employees have to plan their to-dos around team meetings, one-on-ones, and other recurring tasks. Freelancers are entirely in charge of their to-do lists. And the best part is that you can create reasonable to-do lists in the way that works best for you. Freelance copywriter Tasmin Lofthouse recommends writing a to-do list the day before you plan to do the work. On the other hand, freelance marketer Ashley Mason prefers creating hourly to-do lists to understand what she needs to do and when she will do it.
Whether you plan out your to-dos hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, the goal is to avoid creating a never-ending and overwhelming to-do list. It can be discouraging to feel like you aren’t making any progress or unintentionally put too much work on your plate. One strategy to help you create better to-do lists is to utilize the SMART goals framework and break down your goals into smaller milestones. Then, spread the tasks leading up to your smaller milestones across your to-do list.
Another way you can avoid feeling bogged down by your to-do list is to use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your tasks.
This task prioritization method can help you ensure you’re working on high-impact tasks (the client work that pays the bills). It can also help you understand what tasks truly can wait, which is an essential step for setting boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
3. Track your time.
While it might not seem like the most exciting activity, consider tracking your time. Time tracking tools like Toggl, Harvest, Harlow, and Indy make it easier than ever to track your time. Developing a solid understanding of how much time your tasks take to complete is essential for a few reasons.
Time and money depend on one another.
The time it takes you to complete a new project directly impacts how much money you make. For example, let’s say you’re a freelance graphic designer and you’re going to design a logo and develop a branding kit for your client. Your client is going to pay you $750 for the project. If it takes three hours to complete this project, you’ll make $250 per hour. But if it takes you ten hours to complete this project, you’ll earn $75 per hour. It could be worthwhile to reconsider your pricing and charge more next time in the latter scenario. And if you prefer to work for an hourly rate instead of a project-based one, tracking your time can inform your hourly pricing structure to ensure you’re charging enough for your work.
Time tracking reveals opportunities.
When you track your time, you have a clear understanding of what tasks and processes consume most of your workday. This data provides an opportunity to identify areas for improvement, streamline processes, or delegate tasks if it makes sense. You might even find that you have so much work on your plate that you can subcontract part of your business to other freelancers.
Tracking your time helps you visualize your workload.
In order to set a schedule that works for you and prioritize your to-do list effectively, time tracking is a must. According to freelance writer and marketing specialist Meira Gebel, “Freelancers who are just starting out may not have a sense of how long certain work-related tasks take. For the organizationally inept, or those who crave structure, a time tracking app can also help visually calendar block your day.” While time estimations sometimes work, our guesses don’t always take Parkinson’s Law or the planning fallacy into account, making it challenging to visualize your workload accurately. If you find yourself having to estimate how long a new project will take, freelance writer Rochi Zalani recommends overestimating. “Always pad your deadlines—have some buffer into your days. Things always take longer than we think they will (planning fallacy),” Zalani wrote.
4. Split up your work.
There will always be more work to do as a business owner, which makes it challenging to organize and spread your work out. It’s essential to balance as little context switching as possible and conquering your to-do list without feeling drained. Freelance writer Amy Suto leans into the power of time blocking to find this balance. “My biggest productivity hack is time blocking. I put my entire to-do list on my calendar, so I know when I’m too busy for meetings,” Suto wrote.
Splitting up your work using time blocking is straightforward. Here’s the process from our guide in three easy steps.
1. Create your to-do list. (See #2 above.)
2. Estimate how much time you’ll need to complete each task. (See #3 above.)
3. Add an event on your calendar for each task. (Google Calendar is a great choice for this step.)
To take time blocking a step further, consider color-coding your calendar. One way to do this is to designate a color for each of your clients. Or you could use one color for client work and another for time spent working on your business. Don’t want to block your time manually? Let Clockwise help. Below is an example of what a color-coded calendar might look like:
5. Automate and create templates for your business.
Have you ever spent longer than you want to admit searching for a previous email so you could copy the verbiage from it? Manually completing the same tasks over and over again is a time-waster. Don’t reinvent the wheel and spend more time than necessary working on tasks and projects that you can either automate or create templates for. Zapier is one of many tools to help you create automated workflows and streamline your small business.
Some examples of automation and templates you can create for your freelance business include:
- Automate social media posts (and other marketing efforts such as newsletters)
- Automate invoices and reminders for late payments
- Automate appointment booking
- Automate appointment reminders
- Email templates and responses
- Proposal templates
- Contract templates
- Onboarding process guides
- Project templates in your project management tool
6. Utilize a project management tool to stay organized.
Staying organized and keeping track of your projects is key to your success as a freelancer. Project management tools like Asana, Trello, Harlow, and ClickUp can help you compile all of your assignments in one centralized location. You can also build your project management tool into your onboarding process so that clients interact with you through your tool of choice. Freelancer Curtis Jackson uses Trello and has seen a tremendous benefit from the tool. “Move all your clients onto a project management platform like Trello. The time it takes to get them up to speed will easily be offset by the amount of time it saves you responding to dozens of daily emails,” Jackson wrote.
Another perk to using project management tools? Many of them integrate with other tools so that you can set up syncs with your calendar. For example, you could sync your Asana tasks directly to your Google Calendar. This integration allows you to sync any project or item from your My Tasks list to your Google Calendar (making your to-do list planning significantly more straightforward). And for bonus points, you could use the Clockwise and Asana integration to manage your calendar most effectively.
7. Take regular breaks and get up and move.
When employees work in offices, they get up to use the restroom, grab food, go for coffee runs, visit coworkers at their desks, and more. Freelancers aren’t always privy to the same environmental reminders that spark much-needed breaks. But it’s important to take regular breaks, get up and move around (or sit if your work requires a lot of movement and standing). Freelance writer Cody Wheat can attest to research suggesting that walking boosts creativity. “Echoing others, taking time to walk around and make sure I’m not spending so much time sitting down. Some of my best ideas come on a walk around a park, not hustling at my desk,” Wheat wrote. Use your free time to your advantage and do things that will help you do better work when you return from your break.
If you need other ideas for regular breaks, try a coffee nap, read a book, or indulge in social media for a set period of time. An easy way to guarantee brief, regular breaks in your schedule is to use the Pomodoro Technique (which includes a 5-minute break after 25-minutes of work).
And on the topic of breaks, be sure to give yourself more extended breaks when you need them. If you need a day off to rest and rejuvenate, don’t forget that you’re in charge of your schedule and can take a long weekend if you need it.
Time management is critical for success as a freelancer. It’s imperative to create a work schedule that works best for you and organize your day within it using to-do lists, project management tools, and time blocking. And since your freelance career comes with a dose of freedom, don’t forget to take advantage of it by taking regular breaks throughout the workday and longer stints of time off when needed. Let Clockwise help you create a schedule and freelance career you love.