Timehacking 101
January 1, 2011 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Freelancers: Give me your best time management hints and tips.

I'm a freelancer and I work primarily at home.

Right now, all of my work and personal obligations get all mixed up together in my day. Nothing is sacred. I get my work done on time, and I get my kids to and from school on time, but everything else kind of falls apart; I can't help but think my life would be vastly improved by imposing some dreaded structure on my time. But I have no idea where to start with something like this.

A friend just said she's thinking of taking her weekends on Saturday and Tuesday. I thought: OMG, you can do that?!

What other crazy, out-of-the-box (or even common-sense should-have-known-that-already) possibilities are there for restructuring my days and weeks to make them all run better? Please, fix my time management, MeFites.
posted by Andrhia to Work & Money (10 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I have "regular-ish" work hours -- from 1 to 5, and again from 9 to 11 or so. This fits well with my schedule -- I can get a coffee with a friend in the morning, or go see a movie at 6, or run whatever errands I need.
posted by OLechat at 9:03 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of my tricks I've dubbed "Crazy Ivan".

At the top half of the hour, I tend to all internal concerns, heads-down work and things that require concentration. I sometimes set a timer, if I have many things to complete that day, or if the task is somehow undesirable and needs a fixed stopping point for sanity's sake.

At the bottom half of the hour, I tend to all external concerns, such as e-mail, phone, appointment setting and meetings.

This system enables me to do both the pensive and active tasks I have in a day, and gives me enough variety in intervals to make it seem palatable.
posted by cior at 9:09 AM on January 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

No television or movie/show watching on screen of any sort during the daytime. The rare exception is sneaking off to a movie mid-day after a long stretch of hunkering down and getting a project/job out the door.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:19 AM on January 1, 2011

I've heard a lot of freelancers recommend trying to keep "regular office hours" fairly religiously when working from home, but that doesn't work for me, at all--one of the reasons I love freelancing is that I am free to schedule non-work things in the middle of the day if it's more convenient--even if that means putting in a few work hours in the evenings or on the weekends.

I get started around 6:30 am and make it my goal to knock out a fairly productive workday by 1 pm. For me, that's about 6 hours of "real work", and I think that's equivalent to what most people working an office job spend doing actual work during the day. It helps that my kids are teenagers now and don't require me for much of anything in the morning, except making sure that they are up on time and out the door on time. This way, I can set aside most of the afternoon for personal/family time without worrying about chopping up my mental flow. If it's a busy day, I can usually get back to work in the evening for another couple hours if necessary. Basically, 6:30 am-1 pm is work time, 1-3:30 pm is "me time", 3:30-8:00 pm is family/home time, and then 8-10 pm is either relax or back to work, depending on my workload.

The "block scheduling" that works best for you may be totally different (I am an my mental sharpest in the morning, and I also work for a lot of European clients who appreciate the fact that I can be in contact with them during their afternoon, rather than at the tail end of their workday). But the general point still holds: it's not a grand crime against work:life balance if you go to the grocery store at 1 pm and do work at 8 pm.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 9:41 AM on January 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm with SomeTrickPony — for me the perks of freelancing are being able to work non-regular hours so I can go do yoga at 1pm on a Wednesday, or take off Friday if I'm done with all my work for the week.

I also try to get started early in the morning and work until early afternoon. By then I'm usually ready to get out of the house, or exercise and eat lunch, and then back to work for a couple hours before dinner. I also work after dinner for a couple hours,if I need to finish up.

I like doing work on Sunday afternoons or evenings to get a jump start on the week, or at least make a list of everything I need to get done early in the week. Sometimes Sundays feel more productive to me in a relaxed way, so I take advantage of it and work for a few hours.
posted by Rocket26 at 9:58 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work freelance and I'm usually on-site. However, when I'm home, this is what I do. I make my morning coffee and scuffle over to my computer in my P.J.'s. I make a to-do list with a box next to each item. I arrange in importance. I set an alarm for noon. I work on accomplishing 2 or 3 items before the alarm goes off. Once it does, I feel pretty awesome. It's a great feeling to check a few things off your list.

I rinse and repeat for the afternoon. I make sure I"m done by 5:30 (thus setting another alarm sometimes). This is the easiest, yet structured way I do my work. It's simple.

I work as a Producer and make schedules for multi-person teams. If you want something even more structured then that, feel free to email me and I can get into more detail.
posted by boostershot at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2011

I've discovered working very early in the morning helps. I got into a mode of starting at about 4:30-5 am for a while. It makes me feel like I have an edge on things - which helps me to get going and keep going. It also works because no one is texting or emailing me yet at that hour, my SO is still asleep, it's still really quiet, etc. I can get a whole day's work done in five hours when I start early - where, it takes me more than eight hours if I start at 8 or 9 am.
posted by marimeko at 10:43 AM on January 1, 2011

Response by poster: I think part of my problem is that I'm naturally inclined to a schedule much like OLechat's... but I'm consistently foiled in it because I have to pick my kids up from school at 3, and for the rest of the day, my attention is divided. I feel like I never quite overcome my own inertia.

cior: Hmmm, that's a great idea. I think I'd schedule it in longer blocks, though. Half an hour doesn't feel long enough to me to get anything done at all.

thinkpiece, it's funny, I never think of watching TV during the day. ^_^

A lot of support here for just getting up and at 'em earlier. Enough that I think I'll have to give it a crack.
posted by Andrhia at 11:32 AM on January 1, 2011

Day structure in the absence of fixed schedules! A topic I can obsess about for hours, usually at the expense of getting work done. I'm also a big fan of starting as early as possible, in order to have done by early afternoon as much as the average office worker ever does in a day, and probably much more.

Another thing that works for me is to try to be rigidly structured and self-disciplined for about half the day, and not to even try for the other half. From 7.30 to around 2 — head down, focus on important work, some breaks of course, but certainly no movies or TV or doing non-work recreational stuff. After 2, chaos rules — a mixture of real work, semi-work, and not-work, including exercise, coffees with friends, meetings if I can schedule them for then, ploughing through emails, etc. I feel like every day is basically waiting to descend into chaos. It's a triumph if I can hold that off until early afternoon, and a recipe for frustration and failure to try to eliminate the chaos altogether.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:48 AM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Andrhia: "I get my work done on time, and I get my kids to and from school on time, but everything else kind of falls apart"

Then all that's left is prioritization and efficiency tweaks. You've asked specifically about structure though. Structure has two purposes: to help you record and meet your deadlines, and to improve efficiency by grouping tasks together.

By grouping I don't mean "Project B," I mean physical location. You're actually in a better place than the average employee to put this to use, and you probably do already. When you drop something off at the post office over lunch, you can hit the grocery store afterwards. People who are required to be in offices during specific times of day have to plan around this, and thus neither employee nor employer can capture that efficiency gain. So what you basically do is put all the strict deadlines and meetings on your calendar, and then pencil in tasks around it that reduce some cost, be it location, equipment or just mental state. To boil the above into a single phrase: Never leave the office for just one task or meeting.

The "Mental state" bit might need some explanation. Basically, research suggests that interruptions take time to recover from. You have to bring up the program you were working with, remember what you were doing and all the context, etc. So check all your email once or twice a day; put it on your calendar. Rather than read one email every 15 minutes, you'll be more efficient by reading 4 hours worth at once. And if you're lucky, sometimes problems arriving via email resolve themselves by the time you read them.

Finally, if you're not obligated on the 8-5 shift, there's all kinds of things you can do to reduce wasted time. Don't drive during rush hours. Don't each lunch when everyone else is (or do, if you think meeting people is worth the delay). The post office though, seems to schedule way more staff at lunch, to the point that the lines are longer but the waits are shorter. So check, don't just assume off peak means faster service.
posted by pwnguin at 12:58 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

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