Despite it having been years since I was last bound by the academic calendar, September still chimes with a sense of novelty. A time of excitement and change and new starts. While we may have no schools or courses to prepare for, we can still capture this momentum and look to ways of reconsidering and reinvigorating our daily schedules.
I’ve gathered together some simple and applicable advice to try and do just that.
Know your timings
If you’re not listening to your natural timings, then you’ll always be pushing uphill.
Yes, it would be wonderful if we could override our foibles, and to an extent, we can and sometimes must bend them in professional life. But, one of the many wonders of freelance work, is that we can largely wrap our work around ourselves, including our flaws, to find the best possible fit.
For instance, I know I have more good ideas and solve more problems in my first few hours, than in the rest of the day. As it creeps further throughout the afternoon, I’m very aware of my change of pace, fading concentration and inclination to distraction. So, I’ve developed a schedule that allows me to do my best work at the times that I work best.
Paying attention to our personal patterns, recognising how these can align to our workload, and then scheduling these to coincide, pays dividends.
Once that is sorted, you can identify the tasks which might not necessarily require you to be on your very best game, perhaps things that need you to respond to, rather than generate ideas – or however that balance goes for you and your work. Once these are established, you can ensure that they are populating the more low-key hours of your day; and push on with your more demanding tasks at your peak.
Of course, some clients may expect you to be available during traditional business hours and will be chasing to contact you within that strict window. Unfortunately, there is no blog which will be able to rid you of The Man; but beyond and around the more stringent clients, you should be trying to set expectations at the beginning of a contract for when you will and will not be answering emails, or might be available for meetings. This will allow you to mitigate clashes of expectations and routines and hack your schedule so that it best suits your natural capacity.
Recognise the Big Tasks
Whether it’s because they’re the most alien to you and will need the most learning to complete them; or because they’re worth the most financially; or there would be the most significant repercussions for missing deadlines on them; or they’re the star player of a broader project which will showcase your skills and dazzle the client; recognising which are the big tasks is not always as self-explanatory as it might seem.
How to approach this depends on what form your work takes and how tasks are delivered to you. Whether you have a task sharing online platform, you receive individual email requests, or every element of a project is stipulated in the initial contract; make sure that you gather and continually update a centralised list of every task demanded per project, per client. This will ensure that you are aware of everything you need to get done, you never miss a deadline, that you recognise where you can duplicate tasks and save time, and handily always know exactly what and when you should be invoicing for.
Once detailed and laid down, you can then go about measuring each task and sorting them into some kind of hierarchy. This will be totally dependent on your working style, but you can think about gauging their significance based on value, due date, complexity, collaboration, or anything else. With that weighted list, it is then easier to intelligently schedule in your workload.
Create an informed daily routine
So, with this new, informed, sensitive understanding of your fluctuating capacity; and having scoped out the pressures of your various demands; make sure you tailor your day to match it.
Safeguard a golden five minutes every morning, take you task list of what needs to be done and then slot them in to fit your timings.
Beyond making sure that you’ll be aligning your aptitude with the tasks in hand; you’ll also be avoiding asking yourself later ‘what am I meant to be doing this afternoon?’. Time spent pondering, getting overwhelmed by an unplanned in-tray, shifting between projects and multi-tasking wastes time and reduces productivity – by up to 40% apparently, though don’t ask me how they calculated that.
Think Hugh Grant in the opening sequence of About A Boy. Divide your day into units, and then sort those depending on your assumed capacity at that point. Once you can see how much time you have available, and how much you’d expect to be getting done throughout that, you can begin building an intelligent plan of action.
For instance; if you’re an earlier riser – start at 7.30. Spend the first two hours charging through your more imaginative project work, maximising on a fresh mind. Walk to the café after rush hour for a change of scene. Pin down your morning material, get these out to the relevant externals now they’re in the office and go through your inbox and admin. Get back around lunch, watch something interesting, practice an instrument, work on your hobby, to distract and lighten up your mind. Then return to the world of work and spend your sleepier afternoon hours pushing through your more humdrum tasks until you can reasonably call it a day.
Setting a comprehensive routine also forces you to recognise how much you can expect to get done in a day, and what exactly might be taking longer than you thought it would. This is particularly important for freelancers who have the ability to take on as much client work as they can successfully land, and sometimes are reluctant to realise when that is too much. You can also then ensure that you are invoicing your clients for exactly the time being demanded, rather than what you both imagined it might be three months ago when you were initially contracted.
Beyond realising if it is just too much, you’ll also find out pretty quickly if your lunch break comes too late, or if you scheduled your “most important project time” while your mind is still warming up, or if your most time-sensitive emails come in the mornings and not the afternoons. Then use what you learn to adjust your timetable.
Self-Employment gives you the freedom to create a schedule that works for you, so try out these tips to structure your own freelance workday—and if these suggestions don’t work for you, listen to yourself, and make adjustments until you find an alternative that does.