In a business where time is literally money (as many freelancers and agencies bill by the hour), having tight control over how you manage your time is critical. Naturally, better time management leads to more revenue by increasing billable hours. However, in addition to revenue, improved time management practices can lead to more time doing things you love (which might not directly produce revenue) and less time doing tasks you don't enjoy.
One benefit I've found surprisingly helpful is more time to 'do nothing' — blocks of unstructured time where higher-level conversations with team members or internal projects can be explored.
In this article, we examine a few strategies for time management that will help you increase billable hours, decrease stress, and create some room for work-life balance.
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1. Separate maker time from manager time
It's important to understand the difference between 'maker time' and 'manager time.' Makers are focused on producing tangible work, which might include design, development, content, or other deliverables. This time of work requires significant attention to detail and creativity, which is best had in long periods of uninterrupted time. Managers are focused on communication, and staying on top of what all the makers and clients are up to. This requires constant checking-in, via emails and meetings.
For freelancers and smaller agencies, you'll likely find yourself in a position that requires both types of work. Managing this effectively as an individual, or as a team, requires a schedule that both accommodates long periods of uninterrupted work, as well as enough meetings to ensure everything is on track. Plan your week out to include time for both personalities to ensure everyone is happy.
Time Management Recommendation: Block out at least one, four-hour window per week in the company calendar where meetings and interruptions are prohibited.
2. Run better meetings
As detailed above, meetings are one of the divides that separate happy makers from happy managers. Although it's nearly impossible to run an agency with zero meetings, it's certainly possible to run more efficient meetings that require less time.
A few suggestions to improve the efficiency of your meetings include:
- Setting agendas
- Setting time limits
- Designating a facilitator
Setting and sharing an agenda prior to the meeting ensures all participants understand the requirements going into the meeting, the objective of the meeting, and whether they actually need to attend. Setting time limits ensures you don't spend half the meeting catching up on everyone's weekend plans, or discussing the latest cat video on YouTube. Establishing a facilitator ensures you have someone holding the group accountable to both the agenda and the time limits, as well as someone who can take notes and send any necessary follow-up.
Here is a sample meeting framework you could use as the basis for your agenda:
- Introductions: Who’s present and what role do they have in the project?
- Objective: What are you trying to get out of the meeting?
- Timeframe: When will the meeting end?
- Content: This is the bulk of the meeting where you’ll address the content supporting your objective.
- Next Steps: Who is responsible for what deliverables and when are they due?
Time Management Recommendation: Ensure all meetings have a defined agenda, time-limit, and facilitator before starting.
3. Templatize your communications
Read through the last 50 emails you've sent, and you might find some interesting patterns. Do all of your emails to new client leads generally look similar? Do all of your updates to existing clients have a consistent format? Try to identify the 'types' of emails and communication formats you have, to see if there is a means to create reusable templates for the future.
I’ve found that our sales communications, in particular, tend to be fairly consistent when working with clients. There is a usual pattern from responding to an initial inquiry, following up on your first call, subsequent follow ups, and proposal presentation. Creating templates might only shave a few minutes off per email, but with folks sending upwards of 100 emails per day, those few minutes can add up pretty quickly. Consider using platforms such as Yesware or Sidekick to easily manage these templates within your email client.
Here is an example of an email template you can use for new client inquiries:
Time Management Recommendation: Use communication templates to streamline frequently sent emails.
4. Use Mondays as your ‘Admin Days’
As much as we all love running our freelance practices and agencies, we're still human beings that have a predisposition to getting a case of the Mondays. Rather than stress out or feel a lull when kicking off your week, enter autopilot by using Monday mornings to handle any admin tasks that are on your plate.
These might include sending out invoices, paying bills, scheduling meetings/calls, running reports, etc. By tackling these less-than-creative tasks, you get a fair amount of the minutiae out of the way, and easily knock out a to-do list of tasks that can build into momentum that will carry you through the rest of the week. This also ensures you don't interrupt your longer periods of creative output during the rest of the week with small admin tasks.
Time Management Recommendation: Block out a two-hour period every Monday morning to handle tasks related to managing the business, including paying bills, sending invoices, and scheduling meetings.
5. Embrace the idea of 'group dating'
For those in relationship-focused roles, it's easy to see your calendar fill up with coffee dates that don't necessarily correlate to immediate opportunities. Rather than simply saying no to potential clients, employees, partners, or other folks, consider employing some 'group dating' tactics such as group breakfasts, happy hours, or meetups where you could interact with multiple people at once.
Not only could this help consolidate five coffee meetings into one, but you also have the opportunity to introduce members of your network to each other, and potentially drive additional value within your relationships.
Time Management Recommendation: Host frequent group events where you can consolidate individual meetings that don’t necessarily require extensive one-on-one time.
6. Track your time
The best way to figure out how to improve your time management is to examine how you're currently managing your time. If you're not already using a time tracking app to track your time during the week, consider using it for two weeks and tracking your time as granularly as possible. After a few weeks, you'll be able to identify some patterns on how you're allocating your time, and potentially identify areas where you can eliminate certain activities.
Time Management Recommendation: Track your time regardless of whether you bill hourly, and review how that time is spent to identify inefficiencies.
Time is money
As I stressed before, effective time management is everything when running your own agency or freelance practice. Every additional hour you can free up, means another potential hour of billable time. By making a few minor adjustments to how you plan and spend your time, you could likely add hundreds or thousands of dollars of additional revenue to your business on a regular basis.
You might also like: A Web Designer’s Guide to Project Schedules