I’m often asked how I manage to get things done, how I budget my time, and what tools I use to do both of those things. I’ve been freelancing for over a decade, and I’ve built up quite a set of effective tools over the years. So here’s my top 10 list of time management tools for freelancers.
1. Desk organizer
Get a desk organizer for three important reasons:
- First, you won’t be distracted by all the clutter while you’re trying to work.
- Second, a clean desk will get you motivated and in the right mindset to work.
- Third, you’ll know where all the odds and ends are when you need them, like extra staples, binder clips, and sticky notes. If you can’t find these items just when you need them, you lose time, energy, and money looking for them.
2. Multiple screens
I worked exclusively from a laptop when I first started freelancing. But after a few months of sore eyes and an aching back, I invested in an external screen.
I saw not only improved ergonomic benefits but also doubled productivity overnight. I was also able to work much more efficiently and much less painfully. A couple years later, I set aside the laptop for travel only and switched to a desktop computer.
Now two large high-quality screens are among my top time management tools for freelancers. I am able to focus on my editing and design work on the primary screen. I then keep track of my time on the other.
I do most of my business on the computer, but a notepad is always by my side. I use it to quickly jot down ideas, outline complex tasks, and note an RGB code for a Word document.
I also take meeting notes with it, draw up a quick one-off editing checklist, or write down ideas or tasks that wake me up in the night. Then, once a week, I look through all the notes to determine if I might need them again.
Those notes that I won’t need again go into the recycling bin, and then I scan the others for safekeeping in the cloud. Once electronically filed, the original hard copies are recycled as well.
4. Note-taking apps
If you’re like me, you have lots of ideas all the time for new projects, whether personal or professional.
A project can be as small as figuring out what ingredients you need to buy for dinner or picking out a movie to watch with your partner. Or, it can be as big as writing a novel or planning a trip to Peru. For these ideas, I use a note-taking app that I can access both on my phone and on my computer.
Currently, I use Google Keep because it’s simple, it syncs across devices, and the note is saved or deleted immediately. I can also move the notes around the screen, color code them, and organize them into folders.
5. Mute function
Spam texts and phone calls really irk me, and I’m sure they bug you as well. Because I’ve lived on both the east coast and west coast of the U.S. over the past decade, I get them early in the morning and late at night. I’m also not fond of phone calls while I’m trying to focus on an important task.
My solution? Mute. That’s right, I always have my phone on mute, unless I’m expecting an important call. Periodically, I check my phone for messages and answer right away if needed. But about 99% of the time, an immediate answer is unnecessary.
Most people have their own cell phone and constant access to the internet. So it’s hard not to find someone online in one way or another. If my phone is muted, I still get the text or the voicemail. It just doesn’t interrupt my current flow because I don’t see it right away.
The opposite of the mute function, sort of, is the dictation function. I started using it as one of my time management tools for freelancers about a year ago. And it has been a game changer for me in regards to productivity.
When I need to take a quick note on Google Keep or send a text, I select the little microphone icon in the virtual keyboard. I then simply speak out loud what I want to write.
Beware, though, that it is never 100% accurate. I always have to re-read the dictated note and fix a couple things. But that’s still a savings of both time and personal energy. I use dictation for anything I can use it for: notes, text messages, chats, and tasks (see the next tool on this last one).
7. Tasks app
When I need to get something done and I know about when I want to get it done, I use the Google Tasks app accessible on my phone and computer.
This app has a simple interface that allows you to enter a quick task. You can save it just like that, but I would advise that you at least put a date on it. Putting a date makes it easier for you to keep up with your list of tasks and not feel overwhelmed.
You can also set the task to recur. For example, you may need a reminder to do the laundry or submit an invoice. Often, I create a task when I’m not at my desk just to have it there for when I can schedule it more specifically later on.
8. Pomodoro timer
I don’t always use a Pomodoro timer as one of my time management tools for freelancers. But when I do, I use the Focus 10 app available in the Windows 10 store. But you can use whatever timer works for you.
The basic premise is this: The clock starts counting down from 25 minutes, and then you get 5 minutes for a break. I use this system when I need to edit a huge document all in one day. I just work toward getting specific chunks done during each interval. At the break, I do some stretches, answer a text, or make a cup of tea before going on to the next chunk.
9. Time tracking software
As a freelancer, you already know that you need to track your time for invoicing. But you also should track the pace you generally keep for specific tasks and projects. Keeping track of your pace will help you estimate time for future projects.
I use Microsoft Excel, but there are a number of options you can look into, such as Toggl, HoursTracker, QuickBooks, and Smartsheet. They all have different features depending on your needs.
Because I use the cloud, Excel is accessible across all my devices. It allows me to plug in whatever values I need. I can then run customized reports based on clients, dates, payments, and so on. I also track business expenses on the same spreadsheet.
10. Online calendar
Finally, my online calendar is the most important of my time management tools for freelancers. I would be completely lost without it.
Google Calendar is free and syncs across all devices. Some people may think of a calendar as just a tool to schedule meetings, but it can be so much more than that. In fact, meetings are the least important use I have for my online calendar.
To keep up with my various freelance and personal projects as well as daily and weekly responsibilities, such as folding the laundry or cooking dinner, I use a system called time blocking.
The idea is pretty simple, actually. You schedule a task over a block of time and focus entirely on that task during that time. I keep to the system by blocking out my time for the following week every Friday. I also use color codes for things like freelance projects, exercise, personal tasks, and so on. Then, each morning, I review my schedule and make tweaks as needed.
I almost never stick to the original set of time blocks because, well, freelance life. But the initial setup gives me peace of mind and makes it easy for me to determine whether I can take on more work that week.
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I hope at least one of the time management tools for freelancers on this list will be useful to you. Learn more about how to schedule your time and priorities from my course “Complete Time Management for Freelancers: Strategies for the Virtual Workplace” available on Udemy.com and LearnDesk.
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