5 Steps to More Effective Time Management

Most designers and freelancers wish there was more time in the day to work. It seems like no matter how much you are able to accomplish in a day there is still more that you would like to have done. Time management is not only one of the biggest challenges for most freelance designers, but it is also a critical factor in determining the success of any freelancer or independent designer.

In this article we’ll take a look at 5 steps that you can implement to better manage your time and get more out of your working hours.

Step 1: Have a Plan for Your Time

One of the best ways to waste time is to have no plan or no priorities for what you need to accomplish in a particular day, week, or month. I’ve personally found that when I start working without a specific list of things that I need to get done, I am far less productive and I wind up working on things that aren’t very urgent or I waste the time entirely.

How you plan for your time is up to you, we all work differently. I like to work off of a to-do list on a daily basis, with items prioritized. I don’t necessarily start each morning with the highest-priority task because I am not at my best early in the morning, but I can at least start crossing off some of the minor tasks that need to get done, and then it feels better to have a to-do list with several things already crossed off the list.

Having a plan for your time is really not that difficult. If you haven’t done this in the past I recommend that you give it a try and see how it impacts your productivity. At the end of each week take a look at your progress on the projects that you have going at the moment and make a list of things that you’ll need to accomplish during the next week. Then take that list and break it down into a day-by-day list so it can be more easily managed. Each day you can work off of your list and you’ll find that you stay on task, waste very little time, and have more accomplished at the end of the day.

Step 2: Take Advantage of Your Hot Spots

Each one of us has certain times of the day when we’re able to concentrate and get more accomplished, and other times of the day when we struggle to stay focused. When I first started working from home full-time I didn’t take these natural “hot spots” in my day into consideration. I often found myself struggling to focus on the task at hand during certain times of the day and I would force myself keep working at it, but the results were usually far less than my best work, and it took me longer than it should.

After trying it that way for a while I realized that I could get more out of my time by taking advantage of my best times during the day and admitting that some hours are just not that productive for me. Instead of wasting my prime hours on things I could be doing any time, I now will plan my days to allow my best hours to be used for the tasks that will require the most focus, concentration, and/or creativity. During my weakest hours I can work on cleaning out my inbox, dealing with routine tasks, or simply take the time off. This way I can get the most out of my time, keep the most important items in focus, and still get something productive done even when I am not at my best.

Most likely, you are probably already aware of the times of day when you are at your best and worst. Take that into consideration when you are planning your time to be sure that you are maximizing what you have.

Step 3:  Recognize Your Distractions and Plan to Minimize Them

There are a lot of things that can be distracting to freelance designers. Often the distractions are actually necessary parts of the business, but they can just be an inconvenience. For example, most freelancers communicate with clients and potential clients primarily through email, so this is of course a part of your daily life. But email can often be a distraction because it can break up your time and get you off track.

Email is just one example. There are plenty of other potential distractions, like Twitter, obsessively watching stats, noise in or around your office, phone calls, etc. In order to get the most out of your working time you will need to recognize the things that are most distracting to you, and you must work to minimize their impact on the productivity of your time.

If your distraction is something that is a necessary part of your business that is a little bit out of control, like email or Twitter, you can help the situation by keeping those tasks contained to certain time periods within your day. Instead of having your email open all day and seeing each message the moment it arrives, you could set up a time each morning and each afternoon to deal with email, then close it for the rest of the day while you are working.

If your distraction is the phone you could do something similar by letting calls go to your voice mail (unless it is an emergency) and have a designated time to check the messages and return calls. If your distraction is a noisy house surrounding your home office you could plan your time so that your most important working hours are when your kids are sleeping, at school, or doing something else that is not overly distracting to you.

Regardless of what tends to be a distraction to you, finding a way to minimize or work around those distractions is key to getting the most out of your time.

Step 4: Cut Back on Your Hours

Most freelance designers tend to work long hours, especially when deadlines are looming. Although it is tempting to simply work more hours in order to get everything done, this can often be detrimental to your productivity and efficiency. We all need some time away from work, so working more hours isn’t usually the best answer.

Cutting back on your working hours will force you to prioritize and to manage your time more effectively, or you won’t be able to accomplish everything that needs to be done. If working longer hours is generally your answer when you have too many things on your to-do list, try going the other way and reducing your hours.

I’ve found in my own work that having a definitive ending point to the day helps to keep me on task and progressing towards the completion of everything the needs to get done. For example, if I know I am stopping work at 5:00 I have an end in sight that pushes me to work efficiently and effectively throughout the day. On days when I decide I will just work until I get everything done, whenever that may be, I find that I wind up progressing much slower because I do not have the same sense of urgency. In the end I often work longer hours on those days while accomplishing less.

Reducing your hours will also help to keep you fresh and it will be easier to focus on the task at hand, allowing you to get more out of your working hours. Of course, you’ll want to consider your hot spots to make sure that you are not eliminating your best hours when you are reducing the amount that you are working. This is probably the most difficult of these 5 steps for most of us, but it is important if you are going to focus on the long-term and to avoid burnout.

Step 5: Evaluate

Evaluating your use of time is also a critical aspect of time management. Every now and then it is good to step back and look at your typical process for going about your work, and try to identify some things that can be changed to improve efficiency. It’s easy to develop habits and without even realizing it you can get stuck in the rut of doing things in a less than optimal way.

There are plenty of apps available to help you with tracking your time so that you can recognize areas for potential improvement. Some leading options include Klok, Rescue Time, SlimTimer, and Manic Time.

What’s Your Process?

How do you go about the daily challenge of managing your time? If you have any tips or tricks please feel free to share them in the comments.

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13 Responses

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  • Stewart, January 5, 2011

    Some interesting comments regarding to do lists here. I personally much prefer a software version than the old fashion pad and pen. I’ll almost always write something totally illegible or write over several different pieces of paper and lose the most important ones. I’m always on the lookout for new productivity software, currently loving Wunderlist. Being a tech-geek I love the fact that I can synchronise my to do list over my various systems and most importantly my iPhone – just incase I suddenly remember something urgent while I’m doing the weekly shop or something!

    • Vandelay Website Design, January 5, 2011

      I think being able to synch to different devices is an important feature. The main reason I tend to stick to a physical list on paper is because it’s more convenient for me, but being able to have the list on a phone as well as a computer is also pretty convenient. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Carmen Brodeur, January 1, 2011

    Great post. I am a big fan of writing out a to do list. It keeps me focused. It is too easy to get off track somewhere online and find out that you just blew an hour.

  • Malcolm Gibb, December 22, 2010

    Step 6. Stop reading blog articles and get back that project that’s due in at 5pm!

  • Jonathan Gale, December 22, 2010

    Very interesting stuff, I will definitely give some of those practices a go (if I have time, lol).

  • Ian, December 20, 2010

    Great tips thanks. My cold spot is definitely straight after lunch, it seems I can’t digest food and think at the same time! I might have to make that my twitter/email tidying time instead of the morning when I’m fresh.

  • Scrapbooker, December 20, 2010

    I’ve always had a hard time with time management. I put my to do list on a white board where I can’t miss it, plus that way other people can hold me accountable.

  • Freelance Web design portfolio, December 19, 2010

    Another Great Articles.. Many people don’t plan their schedule. I use to do my schedule in my phone and keep them updated.

  • Web Design Victoria BC, December 18, 2010

    Good points, I always read these blog posts dealing with time management, most are based on the same points but you can never get enough ideas. Time management is huge, here I am reading about this while I have my template half drafted up in photoshop, my 10 minute break turned into over an hour now. Geeze.

  • SampeiMihira, December 17, 2010

    Many thanks for sharing these tips.
    The “hot spots” suggestion is great !
    But also the “deadline” of the day is psichologically very useful.


  • Andy @ FirstFound, December 17, 2010

    I find that a to-do list helps. It’s very low tech, but sometimes the old ways are the best.

  • Vandelay Website Design, December 17, 2010

    Hi Graham,
    I tend to keep my to-do list on paper. I’ve tried some online tools for to-do lists, but I always have a notebook nearby so I find it easier to use paper, plus I like to be able to actually cross things off. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Graham Strong, December 16, 2010

    Great tips! I especially love the “hot spots” tip — I’d never really considered that before.

    To keep organized, I have a big white board with all my current assignments on one side, other things that need attention on the other (e.g. invoices) and lots of room in the middle for my daily “to-do” list. I find that being able to look at my list on the board (as opposed to a sheet of paper or a software program) allows me to shift from a completed task to the next one quickly.

    And frankly, it’s more satisfying erasing that task from the board than crossing out on a list or a virtual notepad…