Take It from a Freelancer: Time Management Tips for Working from Home

U.S. Navy Clock by Sally Wiener GrottaWelcome to my world. Millions of folks are now working from home, whether they want to or not. While we strive to flatten the curve of Covid-19, many are discovering that having a home office requires a whole new way of functioning. Well, pull up a chair, and let me tell you about my daily time management routine. Maybe some of the techniques I have used during my decades-long freelance life will give you some ideas of how to maintain your usual level of productivity while living through this newfangled status quo.

I have been lucky. I’ve made my living as a freelance writer for my entire career.  Looking back, I realize that I have produced quite a large number of stories, reviews and essays, and several books. Yet at the end of many a day, I have lamented how much I didn’t get done. It’s the minutes that distract and can feel wasted. That’s what prompted me to develop one short morning routine that has helped me get some control over the minutes and hours that make up my life.

The centerpieces of this routine are my master task list and a digital calendar (such as Outlook’s or Google’s calendar).

My task list itemizes various things I must or want to do, organized along a loose time line, such as tomorrow, next Tuesday, next month on the 23rd. Before turning off my computer for the night, I look at the tasks listed for the next day (as well as what I failed to do today), and move things around (perhaps to later in the week or in the month) to try to make the list “doable” within the time available tomorrow. (Well, I try.)

Then, in the morning, after breakfast, I open the day’s calendar, and I make appointments with myself to work on specific tasks, according to the following criteria:

  • On a typical day, my main work periods (when I commit to focusing on important projects and tasks) are about 1:30 to 5:00 PM and 7:30 and 10:00 PM. So, I put those things I need to do that day into those two time periods. (Yes, I’m a night owl, and freelancing allows me to take advantage of my personal diurnal rhythms.)
  • Then, I fill most of the time slots that are left with those things that I want or should do
  • Finally, I create some time out spaces in the calendar. Often, I will edit the previously created “appointments” to make room for time out.

While it sounds complicated and time consuming, it takes me less than 5 minutes. What’s important to understand is that my daily calendar appointments are not designed to whip me into compliance with some imagined ideal work schedule. Instead, it’s an advisory structure that helps me know what I want to do, when, rather than flounder about trying to decide what to deal with next. I often adjust my plans as the day proceeds. Sometimes a longer walk with my dog Shayna along the stream (or these days, a Zoom meet-up with friends or associates) will suddenly force a complete re-arrangement of my calendar. That’s quite okay. My daily appointments calendar is designed not to be a rigid taskmaster, but to help keep me from being overwhelmed by a To Do list that seems always longer at the end of the day than it was at the beginning. What’s more, it allows me to focus on one task at a time, giving my all to it, and then letting go as I move onto the next. That includes focusing fully on Shayna when we play, because she deserves no less.

Here are some of the things I consider as I plan my day:

NEED TO DO. I schedule these tasks in this order: 

  • Exercise (If I don’t do it in the morning, soon after breakfast, I tend to not bother. So that’s a no-brainer. I have to get right to it.)
  • Lunch, dinner and an afternoon snack. (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I’m busy, if they aren’t on my calendar.)
  • Two work-related projects, choosing among things such as writing, researching or editing an assigned non-fiction article, my current novel-in-progress, a short story, or an essay. The time slot given to one of the two projects may be shortened or pushed to another day to accommodate business management tasks, such as communications with editors, pitching or sending out stories, developing a presentation, and invoicing.
  • Respond to important emails (such as from editors or interviewees).
  • Go outside with my dog Shayna, or in bad weather, play with her inside. (Yes, that is a “need to do” for my sake as well as Shayna’s.)

WANT OR SHOULD DO. These can include such things as:

  • Clean out my email inbox, responding to some messages and filing them, deleting the rest (which I don’t do every day, at least not as thoroughly or as frequently as I should).
  • File papers.
  • Pay whatever bills come in the mail.
  • Grocery shop every few days.
  • Make a soup and other food for the week.
  • Make appointments to see friends and family.
  • Play some more with Shayna.

TIME OUT. I look at the week, as well as the day, to be sure to include activities for fun or distraction

  • Visits with friends and family.
  • Museum visits, concerts, theater, etc.
  • Other fun or relaxing stuff.

I hope this gives you ideas about how to organize your life now that you’re working from home. Please share what solutions you’ve developed in the comments below or via email. And may you and yours be safe and healthy during this crisis.

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