Step one: Manufacture your own minutes. Then tell us all how you did it. Please.
Seriously, we all feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes. But since we all get the same set of 24 issued every day, what we do with them and how we make the most of them is entirely up to us. I’ve always marveled at how long-time freelancers have certain tasks down to a science. I’ll get there too, 24 hrs at a time.
After I decided to write this post, I suddenly stumbled across two other, equally worthy posts at The Renegade Writer, and Freelance Switch, and a third was brought to my attention with the author’s permission to borrow his idea (see below). Yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit it. I borrow heavily from those that are getting time management right. And I hope there’s a take away or two here for you as well:
- Group similar tasks. (Responding to email, returning calls, writing, designing, research, etc.) Henry Ford got it right. Doing a lot of the same thing over and over saves time and makes for better productivity. Your brain takes a few minutes to adjust to a “new hat”, so once you have it on and get in the groove, just knock all the same type items off your list. It takes my production box almost 40 seconds to initialize After Effects. Takes me almost 20 minutes to get in the groove sometimes. Now, I have never needed any additional excuses to stay locked to my mouse when designing motion graphics, but the charade of saving time and being more productive has eased my conscience a bit, I’d say. (I hope my lovely wife is reading this, too!)
- Set aside a specific time every day for a break. Freelancers can work any time, and for many of us, the flexibility to work at odd hours (me, I love the graveyard shift) means that we don’t always keep to a schedule. But routine (gasp! did he just use the “R” word?!) is central to productivity. Being intentional about having a few hour’s personal time away from the cares of work is a way of recharging your batteries for efficient mental torque. Whatever floats your boat and can be done at roughly the same time every day, do it. Bonus points if you can figure out how to combine Yoga, a fat stogie (I call it aromatherapy), and a pint. Really. Call me.
- Do simple, short tasks while waiting. While uploading the newest video production proof for clients, I take the time to slash and burn through my inbox, or Google the solution to that pesky cross-browser CSS issue that’s plagued me all week. Nothing big, but it turns an otherwise wasted hour into productive time. Short tasks do not include a call to mother (most mothers, at any rate) or doing your taxes. If you’re the kind of person who can figure out your deductions on the back of a napkin while waiting for a client to get through the line at Starbucks, then I hate you. And your mother.
- Do some grunt work first, then reward yourself with a fun creative task. Delayed gratification: the hallmark of maturity. My mother used to preach this, and it drove me crazy. It works, though, especially if you are a procrastinator like me. Speaking of Mom, I should probably give her a call soon…been meaning to do it for weeks now. Maybe when I have a minute.
- Spend a little time every night setting an agenda for the following day. I go to bed at night knowing what the plan is for the following day. Yes, it always changes, and no, I haven’t slept well in years, but my point is that this process of prioritizing and revising and doing ensures nothing slips through the cracks that I don’t intentionally stuff, pack and cram into the cracks, and it keeps multiple simultaneous projects moving forward. This exercise can keep multiple simultaneous personalities moving forward as well. No I am NOT schizophrenic (when I take my meds), I just mean we freelancers wear many hats throughout any given day.
- Have a client that procrastinates? Put choices in concrete terms instead of abstractions as much as possible. Don’t ask “what color do you like for this?” Ask “Do you like this blue or the green for the logo?” Don’t ask “What’s your time frame on this?” Instead, ask “Will next Friday be soon enough?” Don’t ask “What would you like for dinner tonight, Sweetie?” Instead, say “We had Chinese last night, remember, and besides it’s MY turn to pick!” (Sorry, my personal life sometimes spills over into work…) Many times helping a client narrow down the creative direction by offering fewer choices makes everyone happier.
- Exercise. Time away from the computer doing something physical is the best way to get your brain pumping with fresh, clear ideas. Other activities that can get your blood pumping and your heart racing, but do NOT count as healthy exercise: Being retweeted by Guy Kawasaki, and After Effects renders on Vista boxes.
- Get enough sleep. They say sleep deprivation has the same effects as being drunk. Hopefully you aren’t coding any jQuery on the tail end of a six pack, but what about on two nights totalling three hour’s sleep? I realize “enough” is a relative term, and what might be a barely sufficient 9.5 hours for me is akin to a century’s enchanted slumber to some people. Hey, creativity is an intensely draining process, so lay off. Show me your Mona Lisa and then we’ll talk. (Thanks to DEF Graphics for the inspiration on this one, and for the recent Twitter follow!)
- Find your “Time Sinks” and eliminate them. Get ninja-like with those clients that eat up 40% of your time, and equate to 10% of your yearly revenue. Set boundaries, or fire them. Look for and work hard to attract the 10/40s , those “ideal” dream clients we have all mind-mapped in the lean years. Vorda_Vasku, a recent Twitter follower of mine, tells me his dream client is “A combo of Lara Croft and WoW Belf chick in need of Front-end redesign paying 1 mil $ in cash – in advance. :D”. I’m betting Croft is high maintenance, though. You can have her, Vorda.
- Get in the zone. Whatever it is for you, find it, and once you are there, keep yourself focused on the task for an hour before breaking or allowing yourself to get distracted. For me the zone is 2am, an 80s Hair Band playlist blaring on headphones, coffee and dual 24″ monitors. Give me that, and I can put the hurt on some deadlines. (feel free to describe your own personal zone in the comments, but let’s keep it PG, people. My wife reads this…)
- Keep a production or code folder with detailed notes on tricks and hacks you plan to use often on other projects. I’ve been using Snippely, and like it a lot. This takes a little time to set up and maintain, but will pay off in the long run. It’s fun to pull off a stellar camera move in 3 minutes for a new client! (The original setup took me 7 hours a year ago, but I use it all the time). I have a folder of “go-to” WordPress plugins I wouldn’t start a new site without. If you have no trick or hacks, you need to go get a coder drunk and steal his laptop while he tries out his binary pickup lines on the bar maid.
- Create effects presets for After Effects and actions for Photoshop. Not only will it save you time doing repetitive steps in your own work, but you can then make wild claims to godhood in online forums where throngs of eager but less god-like creatives will willingly lick your boots and download your CC-Attrib-NonComs all day long.
- Set up typical project proposal and invoice templates. Just a text file with items you have to bid or invoice regularly can save time (and save your butt by keeping your details straight and thorough!). Creating standardized proposals and bids is perhaps not as creative as spitballing figures at random, but trust me, the day you network two clients together for business opportunities, and they have the bright idea of pulling out the winning proposals you sent to each of them and seeing how the deck is stacked, you’ll thank me. And nothing hurts worse than an accounting department that calls up to question the vague but accurate line-item description you thought was so brilliant at 3am the week before: “Tuesday. Spoke with B. Made changes per his request. Then spoke with S. and changed it back again. Finally got through to R. who scrapped the whole idea and sent me a new RFP. Billing 7 hours of my life I will never get back.”
- Use professional services when you can. No one likes to bill clients, keep track of monthly expenses or optimize your web sites for inbound marketing. That’s what small business accountants and SEO people do for a living, so let them. Free up your time and lower your stress. (NOTE: There is a certain liability that often materializes when highly creative people attempt to keep books. Accounting is not a creative task. Becoming creative with numbers is never a good idea. You know who you are…)
- Don’t read long winded posts from self-styled humorists claiming to save you time! Now, get out there and have a productive weekend!
Did I miss anything?