Time management tips for freelancers

Since beginning work as a freelance designer I have found managing my time effectively to be one of the biggest challenges. In previous fulltime jobs I had the luxury of project managers who established timelines and made sure that projects were delivered under budget and on schedule. These days I am responsible for those aspects of my business, as well as winning pitches, meeting with clients, doing the books, paying the bills, and manning the phone. And that’s not to mention actually doing the design work! Fortunately I’ve discovered several time management techniques that help me keep my business – and life – on track.

Work the hours that work for you

One of the great benefits of freelancing is being able to define your own hours. You might do your best work early in the morning before the phone starts ringing off the hook. Maybe you’re a night owl who cranks out great design during the wee hours. Or perhaps you prefer to start and end work an hour later than everyone else to avoid the rush hour. Just because the “wage slaves” work from 9 to 5 don’t feel like you have to too! Stipulate work hours that suit your lifestyle and you’ll likely be more productive as a result. But whatever hours you decide upon, try and keep a regular schedule. It is difficult to plan your time if you don’t even know when you’ll be in the office, or how many hours you will spend working on any given day.

Keep a “to-do” list

Keeping a “to-do” list is a great way to get an overview of your business and tackle tasks in a timely fashion. There is also a sense of achievement that comes with ticking off each task. Every morning I write out a pen-and-paper list of tasks for the day, and assign a block of time for each. I try to be as realistic as possible and not bite off more than I can chew. I assign a priority to each task on the list to ensure that urgent jobs get done before ones that can afford to wait. As I complete each task I cross it out and move down the list. I also keep a separate list of upcoming tasks to make sure I don’t lose track of less urgent projects. My method is about as low-tech as you can get, but very effective. If you want to get more upmarket than the traditional pen-and-paper approach there are plenty of PIMs and electronic “to-do” list apps to help you wrangle your tasks.

Stay focussed

I perform best when I can hunker down and do some undisturbed work. I find it useful to assign blocks of time to each job I am working on, during which I devote myself to that task, and ONLY that task. While I’m working on a project, if I receive a phone call from another client asking me to work on a new task I will enter the new job into my calendar, and let the client know that I have assigned some time to address their request. The important thing is not to drop what you are doing every time a client clicks their fingers.

Another major concentration killer is email. Every time I notice Thunderbird’s “new email” icon appear in my taskbar, I have to resist the urge to stop whatever I’m doing, read the incoming message, and switch to the task to which it pertains. I’ve read a couple of magazine articles on this topic recently and they all advise checking your email only twice per working day, and certainly no more frequently than once an hour. Switching back and forth between Thunderbird and Photoshop every five minutes certainly doesn’t help me get in “the zone”, so I try to minimize the frequency with which I check my email.

Do the hardest jobs first

I confess to a talent for putting off unpleasant tasks – I’m the kind of person who writes the same item on my “to-do” list every single day for a month, but always manages to find something more “important” to do instead. My advise is to work on the task you’ve been dreading at the very start of your work day. You don’t have to complete the task in one go, and in fact breaking it into smaller chunks will make it easier to tackle. As every procrastinator knows, the hardest step to take is the first one. Once you start a job you’ve been dreading it suddenly seems much less daunting.

Keep track of time

For every billable job I work on I keep a running tally of how many hours I have spent. For larger projects I will break it down into several categories such as “administration”, “design” and “development”. I use a great web app called Slim Timer for my time tracking, but there are plenty of other available too.

Keeping track of the hours you work doesn’t just help you allocate time more efficiently, it can also make you money. At the close of a project I run a report to see how many hours I spent on the job. If I under quoted then I will know to quote more realistically the next time a similar job comes my way. If I over quoted then I will laugh maniacally all the way to the bank!

For jobs on which I charge an hourly rate, I find it easy to overlook smaller tasks (5 to 30 minutes in length) and forget to bill for them, but tracking my billable hours ensures I remember to charge for every single minute I’m working.

Uh-oh, I missed my deadline

When it all turns to custard and you find you’re not making the deadlines you set for yourself, or promised to your clients, it’s time to do some damage control. Rather than burying your head in the sand it is important to keep your project stakeholders informed of the difficulties you are encountering. Clients are usually understanding if you are running behind schedule, but they like to know what’s going on rather than be left dangling. If you find that you are regularly behind schedule then it might be that you need to take on additional staff or hire contractors to help you handle the workload.

A special note about home offices

Working out of a home office is a whole other kettle of fish when it comes to time management. Not only can it be quite depressing being stuck in the same building day and night, but there are a whole host of domestic distractions waiting to steal your attention. Housework, pets, partners, and children all vie for your time, and extra self discipline is required to stay focussed on work. To assist in keeping your work and private lives separate your home office should be separate to your living area. Sticking to a rigid work schedule helps too. That way you won’t be tempted to sneak in a bit of work in the evenings, or perform domestic chores during the office hours.


As I mentioned at the outset of this article, good time management is something I have to work hard at rather than a natural gift. If you’re at all like me then you will probably benefit from following a few of the tips I’ve shared here. If you have your own time management tips or experiences to share, please post a comment.

17 thoughts on “Time management tips for freelancers

  1. Vernon says:

    Hey Jonathan, as a freelancer myself I completely agree with your article. I too have a talent for putting off unpleasant tasks. But you are right. Do them first and get them out of the way. I’ve come to find that the relief of knowing the task is completed and done with is much better than the “Oh I’ve still got to do that”.

    My to-do list is invaluable to me. I’ve used a number of different methods from online task and project management, to my PDA. Now, I am settled and happy with my moleskin planner. Yes, that’s right… paper!

    My entire collection consists of two small spiral notebooks: (1) just plain ruled paper where I jot notes from calls and different notes; (2) is a QuickNotes notebook from Cambridge notebooks. I use the QuickNotes book to keep a running track of all the projects I have open as well as specific tasks that need to be accomplished.

    I then use that QuickNotes list to schedule out my weekly tasks in my Pocket Moleskin Weekly Planner.

    Once again… great post!

  2. Ephram Zerb says:

    Managing the day-to-day tasks of a freelance operation can a lot of times be as time consuming as the actual design / development. After all, you have to manage client communications, handle billing and court new clients while trying to get enough of those uninterrupted stretches of time to do actual work.

    I remember when I was scaling up my freelance business. It made sense to be pursuing new clients, but once the projects were in my hands I found myself managing upwards to 6 projects simultaneously (including a full-time job). At that point, I had to invest time to try to scale the workflow alone. After all, to get going on a project requires overcoming some inertia. Browser, photoshop, text-editor, terminal, FTP, latest client communications / assets and project management app – all these tools need to be focused on the project at hand.

    My tools were Basecamp for project management / time tracking and Blinksale for sending invoices. All invoices were sent on the 15th and 30th. For each project, it was placed on the file system in either the “Projects (Open)” directory or the “Projects (Closed)” directory when it was completed. Within each project directory, there was a consistent structure for storing Photoshop assets, website files, content assets, etc. I had an analogous system with actual paper folders, where a lot of the important information on project was printed out and at arms-grasp. Textmate entered my workflow pretty late, but its ability to specify “projects” made it easy to open all the files for a project without thinking.

    This is only the tip of the iceberg and scaling such a workflow is a design problem in itself. In the end, when you’re the only cog in the machinery that keeps things running, it becomes a serious liability to be so occupied that you need to spend time to over-clock the workflow. When you find yourself in such a position, it’s a signal that you should raise your rates and take drastic steps to trim your list of projects you are working on. In the end, your clients will be better off and you won’t have to make poor compromises when prioritizing tasks.

  3. Clive Walker says:

    Good tips. Particularly regarding email. You may also be interested in this article which I was reading recently http://www.webdesignfromscratch.com/ten-productivity-tips.cfm

  4. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the in depth comments. It’s great to hear how others “in the trenches” manage their working day.

    @Ephram Zerb: I’m pleased you mentioned filing methods, which is something I forgot to mention in my article. I find an organized filing method for each project invaluable to ensure I don’t misplace assets or waste time searching for files and correspondence. I keep a digital folder for each project, within which I have subfolders such as ‘assets’, ‘accounts’, and ‘development’. I keep a folder in my email client for each project as well, and I have a filing cabinet for keeping printed material and CDs relating to each project.

    I agree with your observation about learning to say “no” as well. When you are stretched too thin you do a disservice to your clients and yourself. The other option is to outsource, to enable you to say “yes” to everything that comes through the door.

    @Clive Walker: Thanks for the link – fantastic article! The tips about learning to look after your body and mental state are right on the money.

  5. Great article and very timely as seeing I do freelance and part time and I find it hard to keep the two jobs apart, especially when the clients contact you during the part time job.

    I agree that pen and paper is the best and so is good communication.

    I also find the email really distracting and also trying to keep up to date with your rss feeds.

  6. it was like reading my own diary for a second there, nevertheless great reflection.

    the best part about using a pen and paper is actually writing by hand! so refreshing.

    IRC is worth a mention i think. a definite no-no when the creative haze adorns i feel.

    also, as a young freelancer, i’m curious as to how others handle billing clients for web-based projects? obviously the matter is subjective, both to each project and to each designer, but is charging a one-off fee or staggering payments, or both, the done thing these days?

    a logical payment system through my eyes would be to charge a fee for the finished website and include a years hosting in the bill – treating the invoice a bit like most annual web hosting companies do.

    any tips on how others approach this would be appreciated.

  7. For me I handle billing options how the client would like to pay. I have one client who payed up front (yes you read right), others payed after, others payed staggerly (two weeks) and I have another client who payed via stages in the project. I think its best to charge how the client wants to charge as it makes them more comfortable etc with the process which can be daunting for some people. heck I may even write an article on this :)

    btw I find charging via this formula is best for me

  8. Jonathan says:

    @lewis litanzios: If you haven’t worked with the client before, or they are located in a different city (or country), or the project will take a long time to complete, you might consider asking for a percentage of the fee up front. It is common to ask for 25% of your fee before commencing the project. An up front payment is a sign of good faith by the client, and gives you peace of mind that they are a reliable payer.

  9. cheers for the input guys.

  10. btw just for the record, you can find my povs on your questions here on my blog titled “Different ways of Charging Clients

  11. Josh says:

    I found this website yesterday and have been very impressed. I love the style and your articles are great. So I just wanted to say thank you.

    I totally agree with this article as I to am freelance and work from my home office. I recently found a great simple to-do list widget for my mac and wanted to share it with people. It’s simple to use and works off of ical and can break your to-dos down into the personal or business category and you can rank them in order of importance.


    Thank you and keep up the great work!!

    Josh Hughes

  12. Hey! Very helpful tips.
    I pratice some of your tips. But you suggested another very nice tips.
    I love the Slim Timer for Time Tracking.


  13. Jordana says:

    We are also web-developers and we use Intervals. It has proved to make our time tracking much easier and accurate. What’s great about it is that Intervals is not limited to track time, but it also has great project and task management features which allows us to congregate all of our admin. duties into one application.
    Inside Intervals we organize and track projects, tasks and time, we share documents between the team and the clients without the need for attachments.
    Then, we end up with digital (paperless) time-sheets, budgets plus invoicing and reports which are also done directly from Intervals and go to the clients via email.
    What’s not to love!?

  14. Will says:

    @Jonathan: I like your idea of using a digital file system for client projects and it seems like something I’d like to try. But, I had some questions about it. For one, do you keep those digital project files on your computer’s desktop and if so how long do you keep those digital files on there before archiving them (ie. burning them to disc or printing them out)? I’d also Iike to know if you could please breakdown the way you use each of your subfile categories ( ‘assets’, ‘accounts’, and ‘development’). And finally, I wanted to know if you keep all of a client’s projects and information in those digital files then make printed copies of it all along with burned copies of the project and put it in a file cabinet or do you specifically leave some things on the computer while printing other things solely for filing in a file cabinet (ie. “digitally” file a Photoshop project file, leaving it on the computer but print an client email correspondence and file it then delete the original email)? Thank you in advance for your time.

  15. Jonathan says:


    The ‘assets’ folder is for project assets supplied by the client, such as photographs, text copy, logos, etc. The ‘accounts’ folder is for quotes I have prepared for the client for that specific job, and copies of any invoices I have sent them. The ‘development’ folder is for the project itself (ie: the website). Obviously each of these three main folders has sub-folders to keep content organized.

    As far as backing up projects to disc, I do this when a project is completed. Oftentimes if the project is a website, I leave it on my hard drive, since the project has an indefinite lifespan, and I will periodically do a new backup to disc. The backups are for peace of mind rather than for freeing up disc space. I also use iDrive for online backup of active projects (just the critical files/folders are backed up in this way).

    The job folders in my filing cabinet are only for files that are non-digital. For example, my client might have given me some text copy as a print out. Or if I was working on an illustration project I might have done some drawings for scanning. Many projects have no non-digital assets, so they have no job folder.

    I hope that helps to clarify!

  16. Will says:

    @ Jonathan

    Thanks for the clarification! Keep up the good work.

  17. Get a whiteboard for the to-do list. That way when you are starring at your computer unmotivated. It will scream out at you…”look how much stuff you have to design”. It works great for me. Also works great the other way where you feel like you are progressing by tasks getting completed and crossed out.

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