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How to manage your freelance workload

6 minute read

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As a freelancer, you don’t have a single employer; you have lots of them. Your clients will place conflicting demands on your time, and there will be times when you’ll find yourself having to juggle numerous projects with lots of deadlines to keep track of. Being busy is a good thing when you’re freelance, but you’ll need to manage your workload effectively to prevent it becoming overwhelming. Here are my tips.

Time management

One of the aspects of freelancing that many find challenging in the beginning is the lack of structure to your time. Because you’re not necessarily restricted to normal 9 to 5 office hours, it’s easy to end up drifting through the day without much focus. This is, of course, incompatible with a large workload, so you’ll need to find a way to manage your time that works for you. Some of the time management tools and tips that I’ve found helpful include:

  • Establish a routine – you may not have to work 9 to 5 anymore, but some sort of daily routine will help you get into a pattern of work. It doesn’t have to be too rigid, and the hours can suit you, but it will give you some structure and put you in the right frame of mind for working.
  • Varying your routine from time to time will keep you feeling fresh, even if it’s just working from somewhere new or giving yourself an afternoon off. Not for nothing is it said that a change is as good as a rest.
  • To Do lists – there’s something motivational about crossing things off a To Do list. I use Trello for mine (more on that below).
  • Time is money – think of your time in terms of your hourly rate and you won’t want to waste too much of it!
  • Plan – at the start of each day, plan what you want to get done for that day. Pick a couple of easier tasks and a bigger one from your To Do list, so that you can cross some off more quickly (this helps you feel productive).
  • Break bigger tasks into smaller ones – they’ll seem more achievable.

I’d also argue that knowing when to say no is an important skill when it comes to managing your freelance workload. It can be tempting to say yes to everything – especially in the beginning, when you’re never sure when you might get more work coming in. But there will be times when you’re just too busy to take on any more work, or when taking on work means sacrificing a much-needed day off. Think of it this way: if you were to take on this work, when you’re already at full capacity, you’re not likely to do a very good job with it – even if you do somehow make time for it.

Workflow management

When you have multiple projects on the go at once, each at a different stage, you need to be able to keep track of what’s due and when. This allows you to prioritise what should be completed first so that you never miss a deadline.

I use a free project management tool called Trello to help me manage my workflow for my freelance copywriting work. I have a Trello card per piece of work, whether it’s a single blog post or a larger project, and each card contains information copied and pasted from client emails about their requirements for the work. For larger projects with multiple pages, I’ll add a To Do list to the card so that I can tick off pages as I go along (an immensely satisfying feeling!).

The beauty of Trello is that you can organise your boards however you like, making them suit your business. To give you some inspiration, here’s how I organise the lists on my Copywriting Projects board:

  • Incoming – here’s where I keep a note of upcoming work that hasn’t yet been confirmed or briefed. It’s so that I can see what’s due to come in and factor this in when I’m deciding whether or not I have the capacity to take on new projects.
  • To Do – the cards in this column are all work that’s been commissioned and that needs to be done, ordered by priority and with deadlines assigned.
  • Today – at the start of each day, I move one or more cards from the To Do column into Today, and this is what I need to have done by the end of the day.
  • Sent for feedback – when I’ve completed a first draft and sent it to the client for their approval, the card gets moved here. If they come back with requests for changes, the card gets moved back to Today for immediate attention.
  • Complete – work that’s been signed off by the client, but not yet invoiced.
  • Invoiced – the final column, for work completed and invoiced.

In addition to managing projects like this, I also need a way to figure out what capacity I have for taking on work, and to book time to actually do the work. I’m a little old-fashioned and like to use a paper diary, but you could also use the calendar on your phone, Google Calendar or any number of other online diaries.

Managing emails

There are different schools of thought as regards to the most efficient way to keep on top of your inbox. Some say you should limit checking email to twice a day, and I can see where this advice comes from; email can be very distracting, and it can disrupt your flow if you’re constantly having to reply to emails. Others advocate setting up a system of rules that send certain emails into certain folders; still others aim for that near-mythical ‘Inbox Zero’.

There’s no right or wrong approach; different email management strategies suit different people. Personally, I prefer to answer emails as quickly as possible. I believe clients value having quick replies to emails, and I’ve won business as a result of being quick to reply. Replying speedily also prevents a build-up of emails, which can be stressful and take longer to get through than if you just respond as and when they come in. Of course, I might look at an email and realise that it needs a longer, more considered response, or see that it’s not urgent. In this case, I’d add it to my ‘Today’ list and tackle it when I’ve finished the piece of work I’m in the middle of.

Boosting your productivity

The secret to handling a big workload, ideally while maintaining a work/life balance, is to get more done in less time. This means maximising your productivity, and while nobody can be 100% productive 100% of the time, there are a few things you can do to help yourself work more efficiently.

  • Work at the times of day when you’re at your most productive.
  • Take time out – both during the day and full days and weeks off. You won’t work as efficiently if you’re tired or burning out from working too hard (more on this below).
  • Use apps like Stay Focused to rid yourself of social media distractions.
  • Find a place to work that helps you concentrate. For example, if you work from home and get easily distracted by housework, try working in a cafe and see if that forces you to focus.
  • Keep your workspace tidy – whether it’s a desk in your living room or your home office at the bottom of the garden, clutter can feel chaotic and distracting. A tidy working environment will make you feel more professional and organised.
  • Listen to music if it helps. Experiment with different genres until you find the kind of music that helps you work well, whether it’s classical or rap.

For more advice on boosting your productivity, have a read of our tips on how to be more productive when working from home.

Make some time for yourself

Finally, it sounds like a cliche, but it’s also important to make some time for yourself – and if you’re managing your workload effectively, you should be able to do this. You can’t perform at your best if you’re working all hours, and burnout is still a risk even when you’re working for yourself.

To that end, try not to let work encroach on your evenings and weekends. Make social engagements, and stick to them. Get a decent night’s sleep every night. Take the time to make yourself a good breakfast and lunch during the working day, and get some fresh air and exercise; it’s easy to stay at your computer all day long. Don’t forget, it’s one of the perks of freelancing that you don’t have to commute, so use the time you save to look after yourself and that will reflect in your productivity as well as your wellbeing.

Finding a way of working that works well for you is often a matter of trial and error, but don’t worry: the longer you work for yourself, the better you’ll get at managing your workload and the less overwhelming a busy schedule will seem.

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Rachel Ingram is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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