I’m often asked how I’m so productive. While I appreciate the sentiment and will concede that I’ve managed to get my work routine down to a fine art, do not be fooled into thinking I am not a scroll-obsessed unwashed trash bag a lot of the time too. For every hour you see planned in my Google Calendar I can assure you there is another where I’m sitting on the couch watching my own Instagram story* deciding that because it’s 8.31 I may as well wait until 9 to start actually doing anything.
*if anyone ever tells you they don’t watch their own Instagram story, they’re lying. Straight up facts.
Anyway. I sent my Instagram followers into a frenzy the other day when I shared a Day in the Life of one of my freelance days (I work 3 days in a job and 2 days as a freelancer) and showed how I organise my time using Google Calendar and plan my days down to scheduled procrastination. So, now I’m spilling the tea here.
How I plan my time for maximum efficiency
Focus on efficiency over productivity
I say efficiency because I feel like the term ‘productivity’ has kinda been pooed on by the toxicity of social media lately. Efficiency, for me, means the more I get done in the most streamlined way, the earlier I can finish and stop being a slave to my output. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy what I do. Far from it. I’ve many a time been known to work late into the night or wake up early, my mind sparking with ideas of things I want to create – and that’s more than fine in the moment. What’s important is not relying on that as a viable way to work. Follow a spark of inspiration, yes yes. Rely on scrambling to late nights and early mornings to tick off your to-do list, no no.
Estimate time for every task
In fact, overestimate. Before you approach a task, estimate how long it’ll take you to do it, and then add a buffer. That way, you’re not running behind when you sit down to actually get things done.
Give everything a time slot
This can look however it needs to look for your schedule, but the main way I take the load off my brain and allow myself to focus on the task at hand is to give everything a time slot.
When I was working full time while freelancing and running The Broke Generation on the side, every Sunday night I’d sit down and write out all the tasks I needed to do the next week for my freelance clients and for myself. Then next to each, I’d write the pocket of time in which I’d do it. Sort of like ‘Newsletter for X client, Monday before work’. ‘Blog for X client, Wednesday after work’. That really helped me get clear on how much time I had, and also made me feel like I could comfortably work some nights or some weekends and not others, because everything had a place in my schedule. It also really helped with taking on extra work. As a freelancer, often you take on way more work than you can realistically do to the best of your ability, because you’re low key conditioned to take every opportunity you get – especially in the early days. If I could look and see that the week ahead was made up of 2 mornings, 3 nights and 1 weekend day of working, I could either stretch and make that 4-5 nights of working if I really wanted the work, or I could push back to the following week.
It’s not the most glamorous way of doing it, but when you’re using pockets of time on the side of a full time job, it’s often the only way.
When I changed to part time work and part time freelance, I did a similar thing but with more structure.
I work with some clients on an ongoing basis (i.e. I do certain tasks for them every month), and some just on a project basis (i.e. I do one piece of work for them and that’s the end of the relationship).
My challenge was to apply my same ‘give it a slot’ principle but to actual business days, rather than squeezing it all around my full time work.
I made an excel spreadsheet with each client and each individual task I had to do for them. This was made up of ongoing clients’ monthly tasks, and project work that I had locked in. I broke the work down into bite-sized tasks, including time for organising Trello boards and replying to emails and making phone calls, and gave each thing a slightly overestimated time allocation.
1 x newsletter – 2 hours
1 x blog – 2 hours
1 x 5-page web copy rewrite – 6 hours
Then, once I’d written everything out, I totalled up all the hours for the month (which ended up being 30 hours), and looked at that in relation to the hours I had free – which was 60 hours (two days a week).
That told me that I could use half my time for those tasks, and the other half for project work and my own creative ventures.
So I pulled up Google Calendar and gave each of those 30 hours a place within my 60 hour month. The ongoing client tasks are set to a recurring rotation each month, so everything is accounted for every time. Below is a screenshot of my calendar with my clients’ names covered.
Each colour corresponds to a different client or category, and because it’s all planned out by specific time slots, I know that any time outside of these is free for other things.
This blew up my Instagram stories but I said that on my freelance days I schedule the first hour of the day for ‘scheduled procrastination’. That can be anything from watching a YouTube video, to Googling that thing I thought of two days ago, to having a browse of my fave online store, to opening emails, dicking around on Instagram… really anything I like that isn’t real work.
I find it really helps me get it out of my system because when I’m on my work laptop Mon-Weds, I don’t really go on sites that aren’t work related. If I think of something I want to look at, I’ll note it down and look at it either in the evenings, or in my scheduled procrastination times.
Plan out your days the night before
In addition to my meticulous hour allocations, I then plan each day the night before in my Girl Friday planner. My Google Cal shows me which tasks I need to do on which day, but I leave the schedule of the actual day up to me.
The night before a freelance day, I’ll write out hour-by-hour, task-by-task, the things I’m going to do that day. That includes what time I’ll get up, when I’ll walk/exercise, when I’ll eat lunch, my scheduled procrastination, when I’ll clean the kitchen, all that jazz.
If it’s a sunny day, I might want to start earlier and finish earlier. If I want to take it slow, I might start later and finish later. Leaving it until the night before lets me choose what works in real time. By planning out each hour, I know there’s time for everything, so if I want to have a slow morning and start at 11, I can, because I know everything fits!
Give admin the credit it deserves
I’m still guilty of not giving admin the time in my schedule that it deserves. I see some people saying they neglect invoicing, but I’m personally quite good at keeping on top of that – mostly because it’s like YEOWWWW pay me for my work. But setting aside an hour a week to make sure that you have the files you need, that everything the client said was attached is attached, that you’ve got the logins you need to access the programs, etc. makes such a difference. If you sit down to start working only to find you haven’t been given access to a Google Doc or the attachment isn’t the one they said it was, you risk getting stuck without the resources to actually do the thing.
Have a set invoicing day
In a similar vein to the admin, having one set invoicing day did help me manage my time better. Often I’d finish a task and scramble to send the invoice right away so it was done, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, having set days helps set boundaries for you and your clients.
I invoice on the 1st and the 15th of each month (or the nearest business day to those), and that helps me keep on top of things without wasting too much time in my accounting software.
Other efficiency tools
I keep track of ongoing projects in Trello, and often invite ongoing clients to their own Trello board to minimise emails back and forth and centralise all the files and communication.
I also use Google Keep as a brain dumping tool, as doing multiple different jobs/projects means that I have different thoughts and ideas buzzing around my brain all the time. You can set different colours for different lists, and tick things off once they’re done. This video explains how you can use it! I have the app on my phone and the second a thought or idea comes into my head, I dump it in Google Keep. It frees up my brain, stops me forgetting stuff, and allows me to capture my brightest ideas in real time, even if I’m on a work Zoom call and unable to take action right now.
Working wise, I often use the Pomodoro technique. It’s basically setting timers of 25-45 minutes at a time, and doing bursts of deep work before a quick break. I find it helps me drink more water, too, because I instinctively reach for my water bottle between bursts.
You may also like: 9 Productivity Tips for Running a Side Hustle Alongside a Full Time Job
If freelancing interests you and might be something you’re interested in doing one day, I’m running a series of virtual workshops, packed with everything I’ve learned over 6 years of doing it. My first two sessions have sold out, but you can join the waitlist here to be notified of the next scheduled workshop. There’s no obligation once you’re on the list, it just means you’ll get presale access before anyone else.
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