5 Reasons Why You as a Freelancer Suck at Time Management
Let's face it - time management is hard. And as a freelancer, it's even harder. You're juggling multiple clients, projects, and deadlines, all while trying to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. But if you're constantly feeling overwhelmed and falling behind on your work, it's time to take a hard look at your time management habits.
In other words: If you often feel like the guy on the following picture, this article is made for you!
Here are the 5 reasons why you suck at freelance time management, and what you can do to fix them:
Sometimes we just don't feel like doing the tasks that are in front of us. Maybe we think we have plenty of time and not that much work to do this week, so we can spend another couple of hours watching funny cat videos or (better yet) doing the tasks that are less important but more fun. And then days go by, and we accomplish less of what we should have, and suddenly everything piles up, and we have to finish everything at once. Next thing we know, we're pulling an all-nighter. Not cool!
So, how can we avoid this?
Well, the best thing would be to have somebody literally kicking your ass and forcing you to just start working on these urgent and important but unfortunately not very enjoyable tasks. As a freelancer, you don't even have a boss giving you this "favor" though. You're responsible for yourself. Clients, for sure, expect something at some point but will most of the time (hopefully) not micromanage you. You need something else kicking your ass!
In my experience, it has to be as hard as possible to unconsciously ignore the bad consequences of procrastination. If something constantly screams at you that you will pay a huge price for your present procrastination next week, the chances that you stop watching funny cat videos and switch into "well, let's eat that frog" mode are much higher than if it's just a gut feeling.
One example of how to implement that "something" is in its simplest form a constantly growing to-do list that gives you the feeling that things are definitely heading in the wrong direction. It's visual, easy, and fast to process, and the longer it is, the worse it feels. I think this can be called visual (self) management.
You may already have a to-do list and think, "Really? A to-do list? How smart! Nobody would have guessed that a to-do list helps! But time management still sucks!"
Fair enough! Let's take it to the next level: structure your to-do list by days in a sense of which to-do should be done on which day of this week.
You know what happens? It becomes more tangible. It's still easy to procrastinate when you have a list for the whole week. You have all the other days of the week to tackle those unpleasant to-dos, right? But if you split your to-dos by day, you'll realize that your time is limited. You'll have a better idea of how much you can get done within a single day. If you start procrastinating on Monday and need to shift the undone to-dos to Tuesday, it hurts right away because Tuesday immediately feels overbooked. And it hurts early on! So, you have a chance to kick your ass early because you felt (and saw) the consequences of your behavior right away.
Ah, perfectionism - the bane of productivity. You've finally managed to kick your procrastination habit and you're feeling super motivated to tackle your to-do list. And of course, you want to do an amazing job on every single task. You're like a marksman with a cannon, ready to fire at any tiny bird that crosses your path. Because who doesn't want to impress the client with their amazing skills?
Well, the problem with perfectionism is that not every task on your to-do list deserves your full attention and the most brilliant solution imaginable. Sometimes you just need to get it done and move on. If you try to tackle every single part of a project to perfection, you'll never finish, your client (or you) will run out of money and patience, and everything will start hitting the fan. Not exactly the brilliant outcome you were hoping for.
So, what can you do about it?
Once again, it helps to feel the consequences of your actions early on. If you see that going all out on a tiny task will put the entire project in jeopardy, you're more likely to hold yourself back. You'll be able to rise above your own perfectionism and accept a quick and dirty solution when necessary. Once again, you need something kicking your ass - but differently now.
Yep, you guessed it: a to-do list is a great starting point! And in this context, structuring your to-dos by days helps you a lot as well. Whether you have to shift undone to-dos to the next day because you've been unproductive or because you've invested much more time than you should, the outcome is the same: it hurts, and it hurts early enough to give you the chance to adapt and tackle your perfectionism.
Ideally, you set the time you want to invest in a to-do, track your time while working on it, and watch how much time has passed. That can put pressure on you. Sometimes it's the right amount of pressure, and sometimes it's a bit too much. If you realize that you're getting close to 100% of the time you wanted to invest but you're still too far away from finalizing the to-do, you have at least two options:
Ask yourself if you're making a masterpiece out of it and if there's a simpler way to finish the work on the to-do. If so, consider going down the faster path if the outcome is good enough. Other to-dos are waiting for you!
Realize that it takes more time to finish the to-do in the minimum required quality and consciously decide to invest more time. Look at your to-do plan and realize how that impacts your week plan first.
In both cases, you're more conscious about how you spend your time, and that already solves a lot of issues.
3. Unrealistic Expectations
If you work full-time from Monday to Friday, you typically have about 40 hours available for your to-dos, right?
Forget about it! You're a human being who doesn't perform at 100%, can be unproductive for a few hours, experiences productivity losses when switching between tasks, and sometimes needs longer breaks than what is scheduled in the ideal time plan. As a freelancer, you have the additional freedom to decide how to invest your time. This freedom can be great, but it can also be difficult to handle, which often leads to not being 100% productive during the theoretically available time. It's easy to overlook this when trying to get a sense of how many to-dos can be done in the next few weeks.
Solution: Plan only with 50% of the theoretically available time instead. You can adjust this number when you start to watch how well your plan and reality match. But it's a good starting point.
So, if you have a to-do list that you think might take around 40 hours to tackle, it will take you two weeks, not one. That's a huge difference! If you try or have to squeeze it into one week anyways, you will be overworked. If you do it too often, you will burn out. Simple.
But wait a moment: how should you know how much time you need for your to-dos? Good question: Let's jump into the next section!
4. Missing Time Estimation
Until now, we've talked about having a to-do list and distributing your to-dos to the days of a week. If you try to implement this approach, you'll probably distribute your to-dos based on a gut feeling. You roughly think about what's doable per day and plan the to-dos accordingly. This is a good start! But you can supercharge this approach by roughly estimating your to-dos (in hours). You can then perform a simple mathematical operation (called summing up) on your to-dos and see the sum estimations per day (and week). Now, your plan is still kind of based on your gut feeling, but it's much more sophisticated!
Yes, I know, it's not easy to estimate how much time a task will take. But if you really want to get better at time management, you should at least try. You will often underestimate the real effort, but you will build a basic framework that will bring you much more clarity. You will suddenly realize that your feeling about the timeline for the next few weeks is completely absurd, even with an optimistic estimate. Your brain has simply, at some point, stopped putting 1 and 1 together and switched to the "it'll work out" mode. But if you at least roughly estimate your tasks and add them up, it can save you from a nightmare!
Let's combine that with the idea from the last section: You will most likely create a pretty solid schedule if you only plan with 50% of the theoretically available time and fill this time with the (roughly) estimated efforts of your tasks. It's solid because it contains enough buffers to compensate for underestimated efforts and things that came in your way without you having them on your radar.
And suddenly, at the end of the week, you have accomplished what you set out to do and promised to the client (without an all-nighter)...
What about having a relaxing weekend?
5. Wrong Tool
If you've been reading this article carefully so far (and you better have!), you should have understood that you need some kind of tool to write down your tasks, schedule them for specific days, estimate their effort, and calculate everything together. Clearly, this calls for an Excel sheet! Awesome, finally, you can show off your amazing Excel skills!
Sure, you can do that. The problem is that it won't be fun to use this Excel sheet.
The thing is, every time plan becomes obsolete within a few days. Something changes every day. Have fun adjusting your Excel sheet in the same frequency! It usually ends up in a copy/paste orgy and broken formulas. You'll do that for one week maximum, and then you'll throw the whole thing into the virtual corner!
Your time and task planning must be flexible and ideally not require any extra effort, and preferably even be fun. Only then will you use and update the tool every day. Only then will the tool provide you with important information and insights. Only then you'll be able to react and re-plan. Only then will you have clarity.
And only then will you be able to be a serious and balanced freelancer who doesn't get lost in time and stands on the verge of burnout.
As the creator of Mately, now it's the perfect time to recommend that you take a closer look at Mately. If you're interested in the topics and proposed solutions for better time management in this article, Mately will suit you very well! Mately is essentially a to-do list but with all the time planning onboard. Oh, and time tracking is, of course, included!
But don't get me wrong: If you're able to implement the ideas of this article in an Excel sheet and have successfully worked with it for more than a month, I'm super impressed and want to get to know you! Or maybe you will find a way to adapt parts of this article in your current to-do tool and will successfully improve your time management.
Either way, I'm happy if the ideas (or Mately) help you get better at time management and eventually live a better freelancer life!