Did you know that our success as freelancers depends on our ability to effectively create an efficient schedule and workflow? A well thought out schedule can be your doorway to success, allowing you work more professionally and accomplish more than you could have otherwise.
That's why it's important to really examine your schedule and make sure it's optimized for accomplishing your goals. Let's look at how you can do that and make sure your schedule is right for you.
1. Get Your Projects and Yourself Organized
The first step is to get your work organized - chaos is rarely efficient! It should take about one day to accomplish this step. By keeping a clean work space and well organized materials, you'll be able to achieve more and work faster. This is the perfect time to get everything cleaned up and start with a fresh slate.
List and Prioritize your Tasks
This means making a list of everything you have to do - from drafting proposals to meeting with clients to sending out invoices. Later in this process, you'll plan times and systems to do all these, but for now just list as many things as you can think of. Once you have everything written down, it might be helpful to do 2 things:
- Separate your tasks based on whether have to be done on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis. This will allow you to more easily create a working schedule later.
- Prioritize your list based on what you think is most important. This will keep you from forgetting things as you're working out this plan, and it will help you give more attention to the important things (for example, connecting with other designers on Twitter doesn't rank as high as returning prospective emails and calls right away).
Clean Up and Organize your Work Area
Some people prefer working in a messy workspace. Deep down, though, most don't, and I suspect that even those who like messiness suffer decreased productivity from it. Even if you're busy, I highly encourage to you to invest in your workspace. I think you'll be amazed at what a 1-hour time investment can do in terms of making it easier to find things and more pleasant to work. Here are some excellent home office showcases and tips - after you see these you'll be dying for a better work area!
- 90+ Home Office Hacks for Bloggers and Freelancers
- A Showcase of Minimalist Workstations
- 50 Awesome and Creative Web Designer Workspace Setups
- 5 Minute Upgrade - Make Your Workspace More Ergonomic
Organize Existing Projects
Going forward from here, you'll be managing your time and projects better, but it's important to start out with everything neat and clean - no unorganized holdovers. Now is the time to go through all your current projects, organize materials (electronic or paper), add events like meetings and deadlines to your calendar, and make sure that you are completely on top of things.
2. Experiment - Figure Out How and When You Work Best
By now you should have a nice clean workspace, well organized projects, and a clear idea of what you have to do each day. In this second step, which will take about a week, you're going to experiment a little. You probably think you have it all figured out - "I'm most productive after 9pm", or "I work best when I can get out of the house and work at the coffee shop".
What's amazing, though, is how often people realize there's an even better way that they were missing because they thought they had it figured out! That's why this step is important - it allows you to test, flex and figure out what is truly best for your productivity and enjoyment.
Figure Out the Time of Day
The first part is figuring out what time of day is best for you - when are you the most creative and productive? Try changing your sleep schedule a bit - getting up earlier, sleeping in a bit more, etc. Pay careful attention to what schedule helps you feel the freshest during the day, and then stick with it. Before long, your biological clock will have you getting tired and waking up at exactly the right times to maximize your productivity. Time of day is the most important factor in the productivity equation, so if there's one part you shouldn't miss it's this one.
Vary Your Workspace
Freelancers have a huge range of choices for where to work - they can work at the pool, park, desk, cafe or even in bed (although that last one is probably a bad idea). Personally I'd rather stay at home in a quiet well-provisioned work area, but there is much to be gained by trying out some different settings. When choosing a place to work, try to think about productivity as well as enjoyability.
Experiment with the Little Things
After you've decided when and where you work best it might seem like you're done, but there are a few more things to consider. Things like:
- Food and Drink - according to the old maxim, "You are what you eat." Putting the right stuff into your body will definitely have positive effects on your productivity. I'm not going to comment on what the "right" food is because that varies from person to person, but it's something to keep in mind.
- Taking Breaks - taking short breaks often throughout the day can definitely increase your productivity, so it's worth giving a try during this experimentation stage.
3. Develop a Routine
A routine? That sounds boring! That is what people often think when they hear about the word 'routine'. In reality, however, having a routine can help you experience much more freedom by enabling you to complete your tasks in an orderly, efficient manner. A routine is simply a set of procedures that you regularly follow to accomplish things. By developing a routine, you leverage the power of the habit, which is not something to be overlooked! This part is obviously the meat of what the title said this article was about - this is when you actually put the schedule together.
Realize Your Priorities
One thing before we launch into creating that smashing routine/schedule - you need to remember your priorities. We can sometimes lose the forest for the trees if we aren't careful, so don't let freelancing override more important priorities in your life. Family, health, and religion will always rank above work, so all freelancing schedules and commitments have to fit around those. Just remember that!
Remember That List You Made?
Yup, it's time to get it back out, along with a calendar (paper or digital, whichever you prefer) and start writing stuff out. You know what you have to do and you know when, where and how you do it best, so you're a veritable expert! All that remains is to create a smart plan to ensure that things get done each week.
This is where a very effective strategy comes into play - compartmentalizing. This means that you divide your time up, setting aside some for communication with clients, some for doing administration tasks, some (the largest part) for working on projects, etc. Some freelancers prefer to do this by day (Monday is marketing day, Tuesday is billing day, etc.) and some prefer to do it by hour (each day when I get up I'll spend 1 hour replying to emails, then I'll work until noon on my current projects, etc.) and some freelancers even use a combination of the two. It doesn't have to be hard and fast, but whatever it is should be followed regularly and you'll find that it really does help keep you focused and productive.
Make Your Schedule Something You Love
This is the biggest, meatiest part of the whole process, so take as much time as you need with it, and please, please make you schedule something you love. Your schedule should be a familiar friend - not a enemy that you have to struggle with. If it is, you're doing something wrong. Instead, put your heart into it and make it part of you. It can be the most effective tool you have.
4. Begin Tracking Your Hours
The 4th step is to start tracking your hours. As any good business person will tell you, follow up and results tracking is an important part of any project. It's no different with your schedule - it's vital to keep track of what you're spending time on. This does three helpful things:
- It helps you to more accurately assess time estimates.
- It gives you solid data to show to clients if they have questions about your hours.
- It allows you see how long it's been taking you to do things and keep track of your productivity.
And although it might sound tedious, it really isn't, especially given the fantastic free tools available. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- 32 Time Tracking Tools for Freelancers and Businesses
- 8 Simple Online Time Management Tools for Freelancers
- 6 Cool Tools to Track Your Time
Stick with it - you'll very likely be thanking yourself later!
5. Automate Your Life's Chores
The 5th step of the process is to work to automate/speed up everything possible. Of course, there are some things like writing or designing that you wouldn't want to rush, but I'm talking about the business side - sending invoices, creating proposals, etc. Who wants to spend time doing those? In The Unlimited Freelancer, James Chartrand and Mason Hipp write,
Most businesses share at least the basic operating procedures, and people have been creating systems for those areas for decades. By working with these existing systems and software applications you can reap the substantial benefits of automation with very little work and time.
These guys know what they're talking about, so it's worth taking a look at what you can do to systematize and automate your workflow.
Use the Right Tools
Although I wouldn't quite abide by the aphorism that a freelancer is only as good as his tools, it's certainly true that using the right tools will have good results. The community has been very helpful in producing and publicizing some very excellent tools. Here are 12 excellent collections of freelancing tools and apps that will help you improve the productivity of your schedule:
- 101 Essential Freelancing Resources
- The Freelancer's Toolset: 100 Web Apps for Everything You Will Possibly Need
- Essential Project Management and Collaboration Tools for Freelancers
- 15 Free Tools for Web-Based Collaboration
- 14 Applications for Project Management and Collaboration
- 5 Game-Changing Project Management Tools
- 10 Free Project Management Applications
- Top 10 Free Application that Help Designers Stay Organized
- 15 Online Financial Tools for Freelance Designers
- 20 Invoicing Tools for Web Designers
- 20 Tools for the Freelance Designer on a Shoestring Budget
- 200+ Resources for Freelance Designers
Once you have established a well-chosen selection of high-quality tools, your work will go quicker and you'll be able to stay more organized and look more professional. The tools are there, so use 'em!
Establish a Passive Income
Of course, the biggest thing you can automate is income. To many, the dream of having passive income is rather surreal, but the good news is that it doesn't have to be. With the advanced opportunities the internet presents, passive income is increasingly in reach of more and more people. There have been a lot of great suggestions on how this can be accomplished:
- Passive Income for Freelancers: Build Today for a Better Tomorrow
- 8 Surefire Ways Freelancers Can Earn Passive Income
- 5 Passive Income Opportunities for Freelancers
Today you've seen how to get organized, experiment to find your optimum work settings, plan out a schedule, track your time and improve you productivity with automation. I hope you've learned something and been inspired to look at your own work schedule and see how it can be improved. Thanks for reading!