I recently asked my self-employed creative friends, “What is the biggest struggle you face while running your business?” Not surprisingly, the most common answer… by far… was time management.
I get it. When you’re running your business, you have a lot of things to do. You’re getting pulled in a million directions and you have to jump from one thing to the next. Sometimes it feels like you can barely catch your breath. But that’s why time management becomes so important – because you have to do all those things, and you want to do them efficiently.
Tip # 1: Time Tracking
The best way to start is by figuring out where your time is actually going, and that means tracking it. I know, no one wants to do that. It just takes more time to track your time, and you already don’t have enough. But I’ve worked with so many people who thought they knew what they were doing and found out how much time they were actually wasting doing things that didn’t matter.
There are plenty of apps out there, so find one that works for you. I use the free timer from Toggl. It’s just simple, and I don’t like to pay for stuff. It allows me to track my time on all my projects and different things that I do.
Now, when you’re just starting out, you want to track everything – time spent working, time on social media, watching tv, watching that funny cat video on YouTube. Track everything so you get a real sense of where your time is going. If you can do this for at least a week, it can be pretty eye-opening to what’s actually going on.
From there, you can realize… okay, I’m spending too much time here – maybe I want to change that. Or get into better habits so you’re not spending that much time doing things that aren’t productive.
Tip # 2: To Do Lists
When it comes to planning your day… and since you’re creative, you might not even do that – you might just figure it out as you go – which could be part of the problem and why you’re feeling so overwhelmed all the time.
When everything you have to do is just in your head, swimming around in there, it can get a little bit overwhelming. So sometimes making a simple to do list can be really helpful – just to get a grasp on everything that needs to be done so you have a clear focus of which things need to be accomplished that day.
I just use a note in my phone to keep things simple. That way I can delete things when I’m done, I can add to it as needed, I can reorder throughout the day… Because we all know what happens – it starts off and there’s one thing that’s priority, and then something else comes in and you have to re-shift everything. So that just keeps it easy for me.
Tip # 3: Set Deadlines
Once you have an idea of what you have to do, sometimes you have to trick yourself a little bit. Give yourself deadlines. Say, “I need to finish this task by this time.”
Even though it’s not real, it gives you some kind of goal to work towards, and sometimes that can help you get that extra motivation to get it done. And hold yourself accountable for doing the things on the list. You can always shift those deadlines as you need to, as that other stuff comes in and you need to move things around.
But having something on a list isn’t as helpful as saying, “I have this thing to do by this time.”
Tip #4: Peak Scheduling
One big thing, and this is a huge privilege of working for yourself, is setting your own schedule.
Now, as you’re tracking your time, pay attention to what time of day you feel at your best, what time you’re feeling at your slowest, when you’re most productive and energized, and when you just feel like taking a nap. Pay attention to those things and then schedule your tasks accordingly.
So if you’re like me and you’re a morning person, maybe you want to jump right into work while you’re feeling at your best and most energized, and get some things done before you start to slow down. And if you’re more of a night owl and don’t want anything to do with mornings, that’s fine. Do your work later in the day when you are feeling better. There’s no rule to tell you what time you have to do your work. And some people are off and on throughout the day and might have different windows where maybe you’re productive for a couple hours in the morning and then you slow down a little bit, and then you have a burst of energy in the afternoon.
Use all of that time to your advantage. The things that require the most focus and attention, do those things during your most productive times. Save the other, more mindless work for when you’re not at your best.
Tip # 5: Remove Distractions
Another important part of time management is eliminating distractions. That’s not always easy – they’re around us all the time, and not everyone has complete control of their environment. Sometimes it’s almost easier when you have an office to go to because it’s a completely separate place. But when you’re working from home, it’s usually best to set up a separate workspace that’s different from where you spend your personal time.
Having a separate area to do your work helps your brain understand the delineation… okay, when I’m over here, then I’m working, but when I’m over there, I can relax a little bit. Again, sometimes we just have to trick ourselves in a way.
Tip # 6: Time Blocking
When it comes to scheduling your time, and I do recommend scheduling your time – it doesn’t mean you have to follow the same routine every day, it’s just having some kind of structure in place to keep you on track. But one of the big productivity hacks is time blocking – and I’m a huge fan of time blocking. The idea behind it is that you’re doing similar tasks at the same time, instead of jumping from one thing to another.
For me, it becomes really important because I do a lot of different kinds of things. So sometimes if I’m working on a budget, it might be a detailed spreadsheet that has a lot of formulas, and I have to pay really close attention. That uses one part of my brain. If I were to jump from that and go into creating some piece of content for social media, and then back to the budget, there’d be kind of a little bit of ping pong going on – and it can get really confusing internally, even if you’re not fully aware of it.
But when you block time, that means I’m going to do all of these budget/spreadsheet/math-type things in one chunk of time. Then maybe I’ll take a break, and then I’ll come over here and start using the creative part – if that means I need to write something or create a graphic, or something like that. It’s doing all of those similar tasks together so you can stay focused on which part of your brain is being used.
Another way you can use time blocking is to set up your flow for your week. For me, I know that Mondays are going to be heavy work days and mostly focused with that numbers stuff – so for any company that I do budgets, bookkeeping, payroll, and that kind of thing for, I do that all on Mondays when that part of my brain is focused.
I try to keep all of my client calls and meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now, back in the day when we actually had meetings in person, I would make sure that all of my in-person meetings were on the same day, so I didn’t have to waste time getting ready on two different occasions.
I know, some of my methods sound a little bit nutty, but this is just what works for me. As with everything, you have to find what works for you.
Wednesdays are my most productive days. Even before there were “stay at home orders,” I ordered myself to stay home on Wednesdays. And this is because it was the one day of the week where I didn’t have something at the end of the day, so I didn’t have a set time where I had to end my work. I could just start in the morning and get everything done without as many interruptions, and it worked really well for me.
Fridays are usually my lightest work days, meaning that my clients have usually wrapped up their work for the week and they’re just ready for the weekend. So that’s the time that I spend on my own personal projects. If I have to write something or create something or make a video, I’m usually doing that on Fridays because I know I’m not missing so much other stuff while I’m doing it.
Again, we all have different priorities and different ways of working and thinking, so you just have to find and create the system that works for you.
Tip # 7: Do it Now
One of my easiest tips – if something is going to take you 5 minutes or less to do, just do it now. Don’t put it on a list, don’t let it pile up with all those other little things you need to get to, just get it done!
You’re probably not going to notice losing that 3 minutes here and there, but once you have a lot of 3-minute tasks that have piled up, then that list can feel overwhelming. And again, it holds you back from being productive.
Tip # 8: Put Your Phone Away
Smart phones have made our lives easier in a number of ways, but they’ve also complicated things a little bit when it comes to time management.
Now, remember how I was talking about eliminating distractions? Well, the phone is a huge one. If you can work in a completely separate room from your phone, do that. And if you can’t, at least keep it face down so you’re not tempted to see all of those notifications.
And while you’re at it, get rid of all those notifications! If you’re like me and that thing pops up on your phone, you have to look at it, even if it’s just to make it go away. And that just ends up wasting a lot of time and it pulls focus from the thing you’re doing – so that thing might take you longer to do.
So get rid of it, turn it face down, just try to keep it out of your way so you can stay focused.
Tip # 9: Alarms & Reminders
But one way you can use your phone to help is by setting alarms and reminders. Now, most of us already use our calendars to keep track of meetings, calls, and things like that. But you can use them in other ways, too.
If you’re working in blocks of time, you might set an alarm to let you know when it’s time to move on to the next one. Or you might set reminders for the little things you have to do every day. Now, this has never happened to me – I have never a day in my life forgotten to eat – but I’ve worked with a number of people that get so wrapped up in doing what they need to do, that they forget to eat. So sometimes they actually put an alarm in their phone to remind them to eat. Again, it’s whatever you need.
And this doesn’t have anything to do with time management, but I’m a big fan of putting reminders in my phone when I subscribe to something, especially if it’s something that’s a free trial. I will always set that alarm for one day before it expires, so if I want to go cancel it, I remember to do it.
Tip # 10: Automation
I’m also a big fan of automation and templates whenever possible. If you find you’re writing the same emails over and over, have a template saved that you can just copy, paste, change the important information, and send it on its way. Or if you’re creating a lot of graphics but some elements, like the logo and a header are the same every time, have a template in Photoshop or Canva or whatever you’re using so you don’t have to repeat the process every single time.
Bonus Tip: Take Breaks
While you’re doing all this work, don’t forget to take breaks. I know that sounds counterintuitive – you have all these things to do, you don’t have time to take a break. But sometimes, even if it’s just 5 minutes to get in a different environment – even if it’s a different room in your house, or go for a quick walk outside – just something where you can breathe and take that quick break so when you come back to work on that task again, now you’re reenergized and you’re ready to go, and you might be more productive.
You don’t want to get burnt out on all these things that you’re doing.
Bonus Tip: Say No
And finally – this is important, and a lot of people have a really hard time with this one.
You don’t have to do everything that everyone expects from you. You don’t have to say yes to every job that comes your way. You can say no if your heart’s not in it, or you just don’t have the time and you know you’re not going to enjoy it. You don’t have to accept every invitation for every meeting or every social gathering or everything that comes your way.
You have to be really honest with yourself about how much time you have and where you want to spend it.
One of my favorite parts of working for myself… and yes, there are many favorite parts… is owning my time. You never want your time to be in control of you. And one of the best ways to make sure that doesn’t happen is to add a little structure into your work.
And I know, if you’re creative, organization probably isn’t one of your best skills, and that’s fine. It’s just about really taking stock of where your time is going, knowing where you want it to go, and finding a way to keep yourself productive.