Freelance designers, as well as those who work for small design studios, often face the challenge of finding ways to have a more productive workday and achieving maximum efficiency throughout the day. Regardless of whether you are a freelancer, an employee for a design agency, or an in-house designer, you probably could benefit by reducing the chaos and adding some simplicity to your daily life. While this can be a struggle for anyone in a more “typical” job, freelancers have added distractions, unique challenges, and no one to hold them accountable. To be a successful freelancer you’ll have to place a priority on productivity and find ways that work for you.
Each of us is unique and no process will work for everyone, but all of us have plenty of things that we can do to improve our workflow. In this article I’ll cover some of the lessons that I have learned through my own experience. For me, productivity is a constant goal, and always interested in finding new ways to get more out of my time. I’m far from perfect in these areas, but making consistent improvements. Hopefully some of these things will help you in your own work.
1. Have a Task List for the Day
The best way to have an unproductive day is to work throughout the day without a clear definition of what you need to accomplish. Simply having a to-do list will go a long way in keeping you on track. One of the problems with freelancing is that there is usually a million different things that you could be doing on any given day. While all of these things may be helpful to your business in some way, they’re not all equal in terms of importance and urgency. Without a task list you run the risk of working all day on things that seem like they are benefiting your business, but in the end you’re not focusing your efforts on the right tasks.
A to-do list is a critical aspect of time management for most of us. However, one of the downfalls of having a to-do list is that it can get quite full and overwhelming. When this happens, the to-do list can actually become more of a hindrance than a help because you may find yourself focusing on how you will never be able to accomplish everything instead of concentrating on the tasks at hand.
To simplify things keep your to-do list as short as possible. For example, focus on just completing two or three specific things in a given day instead of working off of a to-do list with 15 or 20 items. You’ll find that with fewer things on your list you’re able to do a better job with each, and you should still be able to accomplish them efficiently as well.
Having just two or three things on your to-do list isn’t always practical, and in that case you can divide your list into major and minor tasks, and keep the major tasks as limited as possible. This will help to keep your focus on a small number of important tasks, and you’ll probably find that you do a better job with them.
2. Prioritize Tasks
One of my biggest frustrations in my daily work is that it seems like I’m never able to do everything I want to do in a day. In this case, a task list is likely to have a few things left untouched at the end of the day. Because of this, it’s important to not only create a task list, but also to prioritize the items that you’re looking to get done. Your tasks will differ from day-to-day, but it’s likely that you’ll have a few very important things that must get done, and then some others with varying levels of importance and urgency.
My personal approach with prioritizing is to simply to set the tasks that must get done, and then I also list a few stretch goals for the day. If and when I get all of the most important items done for a particular day, at that point I can move on to the stretch goals, which usually carry less urgency than my main tasks. This way I don’t finish my work early and have nothing to do, and I also don’t have too much on my plate that causes adverse effects when I can’t get everything done.
3. Place More Emphasis on Finishing Tasks Rather than Starting New Ones
Most freelancers have a few different projects going on at all times. On top of that, each project may have several different tasks that need to be done, and you may even have some of your own personal projects that require time. With all of these things fighting for your attention at once, it’s tempting to dig in to new tasks before completing others. By doing this you’ll usually be costing yourself more time and effort later when it comes to finishing those tasks and projects.
In order for a freelancer to keep the income flowing, it’s critical that projects are getting finished. Being able to finish a project will help you to get paid sooner and allow you to move on to another project. From my experience, when I’m struggling with too much to do, it’s best if I can devote time to tasks and projects that are near completion. Being able to get things crossed off the list feels good and helps to reduce stress and create a more productive environment.
4. Know the Strongest Times of Your Work Day
Some people work best early in the mornings, others prefer afternoons or evenings. Everyone has times of the day that are stronger than others in terms of focus and productivity. I tend to get up early, but I’m not at my peak for the first few hours of the day. I’ve found that rather than fighting this and trying to get more done at the start of my day, I’m better off to use that time for tasks that are less demanding mentally.
If you work from home you may be able to avoid some of the typical distractions by getting up and starting your work before others in your house are around. You may find that starting your workday earlier will have some benefits in terms of your stress level and how you perceive your day. When you start work later you may face the stress of feeling like you should have more done by a specific time in the day, but starting early can help to feel like you’re ahead of the game.
During the times when I struggle to concentrate I’ll clean out my email inbox, moderate and respond to comments on my blog, evaluate my overall process on current projects, or anything that requires time but not the highest amount of mental focus. With this approach I’m able to make productive use of my least productive times of the day, and that will save my best hours for more taxing activities like working on a client’s website or writing articles. With the varied tasks of a freelancer, there are always plenty of things that need to get done that require different levels of intensity in terms of work and focus. If you can match your best times for work with the most intense tasks, and your least productive times with more routine tasks, you’ll get more out of your day.
5. Give Yourself Some Flexibility
I’ve already talked about the importance of having prioritized tasks and the use of different times of the day, but it’s also important to not get so rigid with this that you don’t leave yourself some room for flexibility. There will be some days that don’t go quite as planned and when you don’t feel like you do most other days. Allow yourself to have some flexibility to change things around according to the circumstances.
6. Have a Specified Ending Time for Work
One of the biggest challenges that I face throughout the week is knowing when to end my work day. When you’re working for someone else it’s much easier to make a clear break, but as a freelancer there is always a temptation to keep working. With so many things to do and your income riding on getting things done, it seems like you will be more productive by working longer days. But from my experience I’ve found that I often feel like I get the most done when I have something going on that forces me to end the day at a specific time.
With a set ending time it’s easier to get moving quickly and to get more productivity out of each hour, since they are limited. Without a set ending time I often find myself working with a little bit less efficiency since I feel like I have plenty of time. On those days I wind up with less time away from work and I often don’t seem to get that much more accomplished, even with the extra hours of work.
7. Bulk Process
With so many different things to do, it’s likely that your day is broken up into many small blocks of time for specific tasks. In order to achieve more efficiency and productivity, try to use larger blocks of time and get similar things done all at once (depending on the nature of your work this may or may not be possible). For example, if you can avoid working with your email open you may be able to spend less time each day on email by checking in 2 or 3 times throughout the day and emptying your inbox each time. Checking email many times throughout the day may lead to more time than necessary. An example from my process is writing blog posts. My preferred method of producing content for my blogs is to have specific days set aside where this is my only focus. I can finish one post and move right on to the next. I may have a list of ideas that I want to work on so I don’t waste time trying to decide before I start writing. With this approach I feel like I’m able to get more out of my time as opposed to writing a post here and there whenever I have time.
8. Track Your Time
You might be completely surprised to know exactly how you spend your time throughout a work week. Tracking your time can help you to find inefficiencies and ways to improve your productivity. Without knowing how your time is spent, it’s hard to know how you can improve the use of your time. I’m not suggesting that you need to track your time everyday, but if you do it for a few typical days you may be surprised at how easily you can identify some areas for improvement going forward.
One of the keys to simplify your work is to be well organized. There are many project management apps and software options to help keep you organized, and some are even designed with designers and freelancers in mind. Basecamp is a popular option among designers and developers.
Regardless of what app or approach you use, having an established method for project management will help to make the best use of your time and you’ll find that you waste less time and have simplified days due to improved organization and communication.
9. Recognize Your Distractions
One of the benefits of tracking your time is that it helps you to identify things or activities that may be distracting you in your work. Whether or not you are tracking your time at any giving point, one of the first steps to working productively is to recognize your distractions. Eliminating or controlling these distractions will lead to greater efficiency, but in order to do so you’ll first have to accurately recognize and understand specifically what challenges you have when it comes to working productively.
Every time the subject of productivity and simplicity comes up, distractions are always mentioned. For freelancers and designers being online a majority of the day brings a number of potential distractions into the picture. Things like email, Twitter, and Facebook are necessary for most of us, but they can also take up a lot of time and break up the workday constantly if they’re not managed properly.
If possible, have specific times for reading and responding to email and for social networking. If you limit it to certain times during the day you won’t be distracted as you’re working on other tasks and you’ll be able to get things done with more efficiency.
10. Have Realistic Expectations
Ambitious freelancers will often feel the pressure to get more done than is humanly possible with a given amount of time. This can obviously lead to increased stress and pressure, not to mention a lower quality of work. Realistic expectations will allow you to be able to accomplish the things you set out to do with a day of good work.
the biggest part of having realistic expectations is the amount of work that you assign yourself for the day. Taking on too many projects at once and trying to juggle too many different tasks will result in a cluttered work day with unimpressive results. Resist the urge to try to get too much done, and focus more on doing your best work with what is currently on your plate. If you struggle in this area you may be able to increase your productivity by outsourcing some of your tasks.
Some freelancers tend to work with several different clients at any given time. Cutting back on the number of clients will help to keep you more focused on those that you are working with at the time, and you should be able to work more efficiently and effectively. Ideally you’ll be able to move through projects more quickly, which may allow you to still work with the same number of clients in a month or a year, you’ll just be working less time with each and with fewer at one time.
Of course, there are many times where you’ll have to wait on clients for feedback or to get information to you, so there will be times when this is challenging. But if you are finding that your days tend to be chaotic and not as productive as you’d like, take a look at the number of clients you’re working with and try cutting back to see how it goes.
11. Plan Your Next Day at the End of Each
This is probably more of a personal preference, but I have found that if I take a few minutes at the end of my day to plan for the next day, I’m typically more aware of things and I can do a better job as opposed to waiting until the next morning to plan the day. If I wait till the next morning I find that it takes me a few minutes to remember exactly where I was on certain items at the end of the last day, and I may overlook something that I would have remembered had I taken care of this the day before. At the end of each day I can look at my to-do list for the day and quickly see where I stand on the items that I wanted and needed to get done. At that point, planning for the next day is a quick process and I know exactly where I need to start, without running the risk of forgetting things. Now I’ll waste no time the next day trying to figure out what I need to do.
12. Get Enough Sleep the Night Before
During my time as a freelancer, particularly when I was freelancing part-time on top of a full-time job, I’ve averaged less sleep than at any other point in my life. However, sleep is an important part of a productive schedule. Each of us functions differently in this area, but personally I tend to notice it the most at the very beginning and end of the day. If I’m feeling well-rested I can be productive through these times. If not, I struggle to stay on task.
13. Eat Healthy
The food that you put into your body can have a big impact on your energy level and your feelings in general. I’m not going to go into detail here because I’m not that knowledgeable on the topic, but generally eating healthy foods will allow for better productivity.
14. Get Fresh Air
One of the things I dislike about working from home is the amount of time that I spend inside the house. I often find that it helps just to take a few minutes for a walk or a drive to get some fresh air. Sometimes working in a different environment and getting out of the house for a while can really lead to a boost in productivity. This is something that you can accomplish with just a few minutes of your time, but it may have a noticeable impact for the next few hours.
Even when you are focusing on just one task during your block of time, it’s helpful to take short breaks (5 or 10 minutes) every couple of hours. Taking these breaks can help you to get re-focused and to avoid working with very low efficiency due to an inability to concentrate.
15. Work in a Comfortable Environment
As a freelancer, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in a home office. Making that office a comfortable space is important in terms of increasing your productivity. What you do with the office isn’t really important, but it should be an area that allows you to focus on your work comfortably for long periods of time. Working in a cluttered environment can add unnecessary stress. Take a few moments to clear of your desk or to straighten up your work area and you’ll probably notice a difference in how you feel and your mindset about your work. This is a simple thing that can take just a couple of minutes, but it can have a big impact by reducing stress and tension.