How to manage your time as a designer

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May 14, 2021
5 minute read

As a freelance designer, you’ll quickly discover that strong time management skills are crucial to your success. Managing your time well is what allows you to spend more time creating, grow your business, and build a fulfilling life.

Like any skill, time management is one you’ll have to develop over time. By discovering how to strategically leverage your time you’ll grow exponentially as both a creative and a business owner.

Here are three ways to level up as a designer by better managing your time.

1. Establishing clear boundaries

Boundaries protect your time and energy. They are crucial to set both with your clients and with yourself. Establishing boundaries is all about giving yourself what you need to do good work. They establish what you will and won’t do, how you work best, and create a healthy separation between your personal and professional life. As a self-employed creative, this is key to achieving sustained success.

Here are some ways to establish boundaries in your business:

  • Set office hours for yourself: Decide when you are available to your clients, i.e. 9 am - 5 pm on weekdays, and only book meetings and answer emails within those hours. Put your office hours in your client contracts and email signature to ensure they’re clearly established up front.
  • Avoid unnecessary calls and meetings: Excessive calls with potential and current clients can be a huge drain on your time. Having a rough script to follow during sales calls helps you stay on track and be efficient. Having a thorough onboarding process ensures that you get the necessary information from your client before beginning a project. Setting regular check-ins with your clients, i.e. a weekly email or call, is a great way to batch communication and minimize any back-and-forth.
  • Limit interruptions: The cost of switching tasks is high. You need to find ways to create and protect undisturbed work blocks in your day. Keep your phone and computer on do not disturb while you’re working. Have set times in your day when you check and answer emails.
  • Don’t give your personal phone number to clients: If being accessible by phone is important to your clients, create a separate work phone number. It can even forward to your personal phone, the point is to create separation between your personal and professional life and have clients know that you’re not available at all hours. Remember, you get to decide when and how clients communicate with you.
  • Know your workload limit: Figure out what a reasonable number of projects or working hours is for you in a given week, month, or year and do your best to stick to it. This should be part of your overall business planning and financial projections

2. Project planning

Planning is an invaluable skill for any freelancer. Planning helps you identify and work toward your goals in a realistic, measurable way. It reduces being overwhelmed by helping you accurately schedule your time. This is important because we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day or week and underestimate what we can do in a year. It’s easy to get discouraged by the progress we aren’t making on a given project, but having a plan helps us see what’s next and get back on track when things go wrong.

Here are some ways to experiment with planning:

  • Break big projects into small, manageable chunks: Create project milestones and identify the tasks required to reach them. For example, a milestone for a website design project might be creating the wireframes. Put all your milestones and tasks into a calendar or task management system. This way each time you sit down to work, you know exactly what to do next and you’re less likely to get overwhelmed by the full scope of the project.
  • Batch your tasks: Batching similar tasks across various projects or clients can help you be more efficient. For example, nominate one block of time each week to do all your invoicing and bookkeeping. Nominate another block of time to focus on animation work.
  • Have theme days: Some people work best by having different types of business activities on separate days. For example, certain days of the week or month are dedicated solely to client calls, business development, marketing, licensing, or design. Having a day (or more) each week where you don’t take meetings and only focus on creating can boost your productivity immensely. Having a theme day each month dedicated to business development and financial management ensures you’re moving your business forward with purpose.
  • Use task management software. Use apps like Trello, Asana, or Todoist to organize and track your projects.

3. Time tracking

Tracking your time helps you understand how long things actually take and how you work best. You can also start paying attention to how your energy shifts throughout the day to see which types of tasks are best done when. Some people do their best creative work first thing in the morning, others do it later in the afternoon. The key is to not be scheduling calls or answering emails during the times of day when you’re most creative and productive. The goal of time tracking is to learn how best to leverage your own unique energy. You’ll need to get curious, experiment, and track your findings to see what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some things that can help:

  • Use a time tracking app: Tools such as Toggl and RescueTime let you track, categorize, and review your time. By seeing exactly where you spend your time you can find areas for improvement and boost your productivity. Having a clear sense of how long different types of projects take also helps you price your work accordingly. This is vital to building a business without burning out.
  • Time-block your calendar: Blocking out your calendar in advance each week is a great way to map out your workload and ensure you’re working towards your goals. Block out time for not only client work but business development, accounting, and marketing.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique: The Pomodoro technique is a time management tactic where you work in short intervals, usually 25 minutes in length, with breaks in between. Try it out with this free Pomodoro Timer.
  • Work in sprints: Some people work best under pressure. Do a one hour work sprint, either alone or with another freelance friend, and watch how much you can get done in a focused window of time.
  • Eat the frog: Eat the frog is a productivity technique used to overcome procrastination and build momentum. It’s as simple as identifying your hardest, most important task of the day and doing it first thing in the morning. This gives you a sense of accomplishment and prevents the energy drain that comes with delaying nagging tasks.

Start small and keep experimenting

When you’re trying these time management tips remember that perfection isn’t on the table. You may have to try several things to find something that works for you, and what works might change over time. This is totally normal! To keep things manageable, pick one of these tips to experiment with and go from there. Start small and keep experimenting. The habits you build now will pay huge dividends in the long run.