Simple steps to improve your productivity as a freelancer

When you are self employed, more time spent working means more money. However, too much working gets you burnt out and means less money over time.

One problem I realised early on in my freelancing career was although I was sitting at my desk all day, some days I would get lots of billable work done, other days I'd get much less, but I was still sitting there for the same amount of time. It wasn't that I'd mis-quoted and was effectively working for a lower rate, the problem was I wasn't actually getting on with the work.

If you're going to procrastinate the day away, it'd be much better to just leave the computer behind and go and do something more interesting instead - read a book, take a walk, go to the cinema, whatever. Sitting and faffing the day away doesn't help you and it doesn't help your clients. To solve this took a few simple changes...

Step 1: Daily to do list

I have a short list of things to do for clients every day. I keep this on paper because I prefer it that way - I have it sitting in front of my monitor where I can glance down at it every now and then. Some other freelancers I know prefer using an app on their phone, or a spreadsheet, whatever. I use paper, it works for me.

On it I put - the client's name and a few words summing up what I need to do for them. This could be "FL - build new mailshot"

I have days where I swap between different clients, in which case I have a list of things to do for each one. If you prefer to work for one client for a whole day, your list would more likely be the various tasks or sub-parts of a big task you need to do for them across the day.

When I have done a task, I mark it off. I used to put a big tick next to them, these days I scrub over it with pencil. That way I can still see what I did if I need to, but I find it helpful to see the page get covered in big blocks of gray as I get stuff done.

Step 1.1: Write the list the day before

From someone I picked up the tip to write the to do list for the next day the night before. This seems to help my brain settle down at the end of the work day. I can see there are various problems or tasks I'm still working on, and that tomorrow there is a list of what I will be doing to make progress on them.

As I often have small tasks come up as emergencies or things that would be useful to do quickly, I try not to block out all of my time for the next day. If you don't work this way, feel free to write a list which will take up your whole day.

Step 2: Time tracking

For each thing I do for a client every day, I track my time. This involves: when I start working for the client, I write down the start time next to their task on my to do list, then when I finish I write down the time I stopped. Then I put the time I worked on it in to a spreadsheet I keep for each client where I record what I've done for them each month.

Some friends use services like Toggl or the time tracking within the bookkeeping service FreeAgent to keep track of their time. As I have a paper to do list in front of me, I find it easiest to just put the time on that.

This isn't flawless. Sometimes another client calls in the middle of a task and I have to remember to remove some time for the call, or I get diverted off in to something else and have to workout roughly when I stopped the task at hand. That's fine. This doesn't have to be completely accurate, I got lots of benefits out of having it be 80-90% accurate.

The benefits of time tracking for me

Firstly, it kept me focussed on what I was supposed to be doing during work time - getting client work done.

Secondly, it made me get work done more quickly, leaving the rest of the day open for either relaxing, or doing more marketing (generally more marketing, I had some big bills to pay.)

Then I tried looking back over a whole client project and compared the time I had actually spent on the project to the time I'd expected to spend on the project. Very often I was wildly underquoting for how long I thought things would take, so I gradually adjusted my quotes so I became much more accurate, which meant I was basically working the amount I thought I should be working on a particular project, not lots more and effectively losing money.

This last point greatly helped my business, and also helped me look more professional as I started to be able to get projects done on time without a big panic near the end as I was putting in lots of hours trying to get a project I'd underquoted for done to the agreed deadline. So, the right amount of money for the job, and less stress as I was more realistic about how long things took, a double benefit.

Step 3: Doing the above consistently

Making the above a solid habit took time. Lapsing out of time tracking is easy - just don't press the button or write down the times. I found not having a proper to do list easy to ignore when I was using an app, so I went back to using paper, where I could have it in front of me all day and where it was more obvious if it was missing.

Now, I've been doing the above for years and they are well ingrained habits I can't believe other people don't have. They've definitely helped my business, both making me more organised and also helping give me enough data to see where I was going wrong with parts of my work. If you're not doing them, I can strongly recommend trying the to do list first, then in to the time tracking soon after. If it works for you, you should start seeing the benefits pretty much straight away.

Paul Silver is a freelance web developer working from the south coast of the UK. Currently he is building recruitment sites, a very large shop, and helping a national access platforms firm with their website and online marketing.

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