Time management: the secret to being a successful freelancer

On set recently for 3 weeks of intensive indie film making for The Holly Kane Experiment.

On set recently for 3 weeks of intensive indie film making for The Holly Kane Experiment.

Life as a freelancer can sometimes be a little crazy. You can be working solidly for weeks on end, being so busy that you don't have time to eat or sleep and the thought of having a social life seems like a distant dream. Your emails begin to pile up, your to-do list gets longer day by day and it becomes so overwhelming that you prepare to go into meltdown. Then one day it grinds to a halt and suddenly, as if you've just been hit by a tsunami, everything goes quiet. Jobs fall through, clients change their mind, contacts go on holiday..all the factors that are beyond your control seemingly affect you all at once. Now you may have spent the last few weeks praying for a bit of free time to do fun things and catch up on the household tasks that have been gradually building up but now that you're faced with the prospect of indefinite free time you get a little scared. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Lets face it, it can be a strange existence for us freelancers and the lifestyle choice does not suit everyone, but for those of us that brave it, how do we survive this insanity and achieve a good work life balance? After a particularly busy period myself, I've realised that being able to manage your time effectively is an essential skill for survival. I'm not claiming to be the best at it (it's an ever developing skill!) but there are a few ways that we can all manage our time better, regardless of the field we work in so that we can keep our clients, our loved ones and of course ourselves happy. So, how can you do it?

Through discipline

Easier said than done of course. Anyone who has ever had to work from home will know that it takes discipline to get things done without getting distracted by social media, Youtube and whatever we enjoying doing in our free time. When you don't work the regular 9 to 5, you don't have the pressure of getting out of bed at a certain time so that you can get to the office on time. It's easy to get slack and become lazy and in doing so our productivity suffers, which could spell disaster further down the line. You're your own boss and that means only you can motivate yourself.

How could one become more disciplined? Through self appointed goals. Realistic targets that you know you'll be able to achieve. These could include:

  • Getting up as early as you can on 'work' days, regardless of whether you are leaving the house or not.
  • Making a to-do list every day. Include absolutely everything you need to get done, both in a work sense and personal sense. Make it as big as possible so it scares you a little bit!
  • Prioritizing your workload and planning ahead. What can you do to speed up a job further down the line?
  • Keeping logs of when you start and stop work. This is useful in seeing how much you're actually getting done each day and allows you to plan future tasks more effectively.
  • Setting ground rules that you must abide to without question. These could be anything, from no Facebook use during working hours to allowing yourself a minimum set time for lunch. You're your own boss after all.

 

Taking advantage of down time

Too much down time can suck, especially if you are self motivated and thrive off a bit of pressure in your work. However, not having any work on can actually be great as it gives you time for many other great things and a bit of recovery after a busy spell. Remember, part of the reason why you probably chose to freelance was the flexibility on offer. Make the most of it, and you can do so in a number of ways:

Getting some stock footage on a day off - a productive use of down time.

Getting some stock footage on a day off - a productive use of down time.

Can your target audience find you?

Can your target audience find you?

  • Enjoying off peak times - avoiding rush hour traffic, shorter queues at the shops, fewer people at the gym..being able to do everyday work or personal tasks is so much easier when you're not doing it at the same time as the rest of the world. Make the most of it when you can!
  • Doing some marketing - Maybe you could benefit from evaluating your competition or working on your website. Are people finding you on Google? There's always something productive to be doing in this area.
  • Learning a new skill or take on a side project - Now you have time to do it, this could actually make you more employable. I for one started this blog and it led to paid work!   

 

Knowing when to say 'no'

There are all manner of reasons why you might have to say no to work. It can be very hard at the best of times but it's important to know when saying 'no' could actually be doing you a favour. This is something that you can only truly learn from experience.

Dazed and confused - you'll look something like this if you take on too much!

Dazed and confused - you'll look something like this if you take on too much!

If you're too busy already then saying yes to a new job could have a negative impact on the quality of your work. It's much better to have one happy client than two unsatisfied clients and the reality is you can't be in two places at once. Sometimes you may get lucky however and a client may be willing to work around you. 

Even when you're experiencing some down time, if a client offers you far too little for your services, saying yes to the work could spell trouble further down the line. If you work too cheaply for them do you think they will ever pay you your full rate? What if a last minute job comes in that is paying fairly? If you cancelled on the first job do you think they would hire you again? 

Don't forget your family and friends, for your sometimes erratic lifestyle may be having an effect on them too. Hopefully they'll be understanding that sometimes you may have to pull out of social occasions, but there will be moments when there is no excuse. Saying no to certain jobs actually allows you to enjoy life a little bit. Otherwise, what's the point?

Looking at the figures to make predictions.

There is definitely an art to managing your diary as a freelancer

There is definitely an art to managing your diary as a freelancer

As a freelancer you'll already have to fill in a tax return. Why not use some of the data that you've accrued over time to make fruitful business decisions? This is another good use of down time that could help you to evaluate (and possibly refine) your future strategy. For example, which month of the year do you usually do the least amount of business? Is this the time for your annual holiday or do you need to source other work here to make ends meet? Do you find yourself taking bookings months in advance or last minute?

Looking for any signs of regularity can take some of the stress out of freelancing. In video production for example, the Christmas period is notorious for being one of the quietest times for work. Having a backup source of income for these periods may be a sensible idea. It may be hard doing this, especially if you take on work that you're over qualified for but it'll keep your momentum going. In fact living a double life can take you to some pretty interesting places.

 

Ultimately effective time management requires a certain degree of self motivation, hard work and an element of trial and error. See what's right for you and if something doesn't work, change it. Embrace the opportunities that freelancing brings and remember, it's your life - make it work for you.

 

Other articles you may be interested in:

Freelancing: living the double life

How one man turned his redundancy into a successful production company