9 Productivity Techniques for Freelancers

9 Productivity Techniques for Freelancers

Few freelancers work according to the standard eight-hour daily schedule. With remote working opportunities available to almost every designer and home-based offices now a common occurrence, it’s even more difficult to find a designer working to the traditional work schedule than it is to find one enjoying a work style that’s based on nothing more than their own preferences.

Experts call it the blurring of work and life, claiming that technology is responsible for integrating work so firmly in our time.

I think it’s more than that — the result of work schedules that aren’t built around output, but hours spent in the office and projects that simply follow us everywhere. As much as a flexible schedule can be a blessing, it’s an absolute curse when it interferes with our free time.

These nine strategies won’t bring you closer to your work; they won’t allow you to check your email from the top of a mountain, and they’re even less likely to help you manage the office from another country. They’ll help you do the opposite: enjoy your time not spent working, create a schedule that doesn’t stick you with endless freelance projects, and design a workweek that puts you in control of your freelance design efforts.

1. Use Time Management Apps

It’s impossible to reduce your work hours without a solid understanding of where they’re going. An all-night design and development session may lead to output and results, but it’s utterly valueless as a piece of data without an understanding of what you spend it doing.

Applications like RescueTime let you track your work hours, giving you an understanding of when you work and what you do.

Use Time Management Apps

I like RescueTime for tracking hours and applications and websites I use while being productive — it gives a simple breakdown of the applications that cost you the most time, allowing you to work out which are best blocked.

Other useful tools include Timer and Kukuklok — a simple stopwatch application, and a basic clock for alerting you to finished time blocks and deadlines.

Measure and manage — it’s that simple.

2. Invest in an Office Space

Smart freelancers rarely think of their expenses as wasted money — they think of any spending as an investment in greater productivity, greater visibility, or greater output.

Whether it’s money spent on advertising or the latest software, the goal is the same: improving an aspect of their business which would otherwise sit stagnant.

Your goal in improving productivity isn’t saving money, but earning more of it. Serviced offices are like any other business investment — they’re worthwhile when they lead to an increase in output and income.

Monitor your average workday output across different workspaces and ensure that you’re always in the best one — it might be worth spending money to reduce distractions.

It doesn’t even have to be an office outside of home; you can invest in more equipment or even remodeling work in your home office to make it more conducive to your personal productivity.

3. Remind Yourself to Work While in the Office published a guide to home office productivity just over two years ago. While slightly outdated and a little debatable — not all people work better with music, for example — it’s a solid list of ways to improve your productivity at home.

Anti-productive distractions and time-wasters are much more common at home, and sometimes it just takes a small change in habits to eliminate them.

But the most important tactic seems to have been missed: remind yourself to work. Some freelancers suggest taping a reminder to the top of your computer screen, while others insist that it’s an internal decision.

Whichever strategy you use to remind yourself of looming work deadlines, ensure that it’s something you repeat to yourself whenever distractions begin to appear.

4. Create a Support Team

Sometimes work becomes too much. You’re stressed out, lacking any motivation to continue with your projects, and thoroughly in need of a vacation. After emailing your major clients and letting them know that you’ll be unavailable, you get a last-minute message from someone you’ve worked with before: there’s a task to do, and they need you to complete it straight away.

These situations appear constantly while away from the office, and they’re a sure-fire way to begin worrying about the strength of your connections with clients.

Instead of panicking, create a network of other freelancers that can step up and help you in these situations. A quick email to your network can help you preserve client connections, even when out of the office.

5. Take Vacations Regularly

Who says you need a decades-long career to take a sabbatical? Freelancers are in a unique position — not only do they have more freedom than other designers, they’re able to spend time reflecting on their business and working out exactly how they can improve it.

I think regular breaks is an essential addition to any freelancer’s business strategy — observing how you work may give you new perspectives on how to improve it.

After your next major project, take a month off to work out how you can make your business less of a liability on your personal time.

It often takes less than a week of reflection to realize that what you have now isn’t something that can last for decades. Whether it’s time to develop a new revenue stream or simply a reason to change your approach to clients, a sabbatical can improve your focus.

6. Monitor Your Output

It’s one thing to examine the time you spend working, and another to actively work on improving the way you complete tasks. Tools like RescueTime and Timer allow you to effectively track hours spent working and applications worked in, but they don’t allow you to record how much of that time lead to real output and measurable results.

Record work sessions using two metrics: time spend versus output. Tracking hours alone will lead you to confuse time spent working and the results of that work, while measuring output alone can lead to hours spend working at a dizzying pace. Record both and you’ll gain an understanding of how you are most effective — something that’s essential for cutting out non-essential work.

7. Practice the Art of Technology Minimization

Next time you’re experiencing a state of productivity that can only be described as "anti-Zen," ask yourself how you would fare with no technology. Obviously, your computer would remain if you need it to do your work, although it would be almost completely on its own — no internet connection (unless you need it), smartphone, or instant messaging tools would keep it company.

As catastrophic as that situation might seem, it’s rarely one that’s unproductive. The biggest problem for digital workers isn’t a lack of technology or a limit to its ability, but a dilemma caused by having access to too much technology.

Sometimes all it takes to become productive is switching your router off and working without the Internet.

8. Automate Your Tasks

There are two types of activities for freelancers: critical activities and non-essential, but somewhat important activities. The first includes major projects and work related to looming deadlines, while the second includes personal finance changes, long-term billing, and replying to email. The first type of activity is more important, but which one do you think costs freelance workers the most time?

Lifehacker, a productivity blog, has attempted to fight back against "crutch" activities for years, going so far as to create a complete checklist of activities that just aren’t that important, yet tend to cost a lot of time.

The most common choices for eliminating wasted time are automation or elimination.

Make the choice to cut out certain "busywork" activities entirely, or at least automate them to free up more time in your schedule.

9. Be Realistic with Your Work Load

A lot of freelancers are constantly searching for more clients, all under the guise that more business will inevitably lead to more income, more freedom, and more success.

There’s no inherent advantage to managing more clients — only a large amount of disadvantages for your work-life balance.

The most important metric for any freelancer isn’t the amount of clients you manage or the quantity of projects that you can take on, but their potential to generate income.

Expand your business and it will end up requiring more input from you, all for an output that may not scale with growth.

There’s nothing wrong with staying small, especially if it results in a more manageable client base.

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Mathew Carpenter is an 18-year-old-business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @SofaMoolah.

This was published on Aug 9, 2010


Sound advice…but not sure all freelancers could afford to take 1 month off as they please.

Ujrail Aug 09 2010

I like the idea of setting up a home-office

Fimbim Aug 09 2010

Nice Post though. I got all this is my head for a long time, but when I get a phone call for a new client and much more to do, that I can handle in the regular office-time, I always say ne worries! We gonne get this job done as well.

Maybe I gonne lern it someday, bute by now, there is no way of doing it right…

marisa Aug 09 2010

great advice from an 18 year old.

Rob Jenkins Aug 09 2010

6 sure fire ways to improve productivity:
1. Specialise / focus your service and develop an edge over your competition
2. Establish your business near an affluent area (ideally a city with plenty of clients and less traveling to win business)
3. Focus on repeat business if you can (less time spent convincing strangers you’re good at what you do)
4. Make yourself indispensable to your clients (don’t give the competition an opportunity)
5. Don’t have children (he says with 4!) they really are a (pleasant) distraction and require more attention than a spider plant
6. Avoid FarmVille on Facebook :)

And unless you live with your mum, or have few commitments (sorry Mathew, I’m a bit further into my career), don’t take a month off. That’s a loss in revenue, loss of ‘continuity in business’ and with no reduction in your monthly overheads to take time off can amount to many thousands of pounds/dollars/euros etc in money you just can’t get back.
But, if you have the dedication and discipline to work from home, and you have a family, do it. The distractions are worth the loss in revenue…

Gilberto Ramos Aug 09 2010

“5. Take Vacations Regularly” -> Maybe 15 days but a month? I agree with Tom.

Ankit Aug 09 2010

Great article for freelancers like me. I always need more works (honestly more money:-))but can’t manage the work load.

I will think about it.

Chris Aug 09 2010

I loved this article as well and a nice little iPhone app I found that REALLY helps you see where your day goes is the More Than Time App. It let’s you record the tiniest bit of time (1 minute) to hours upon hours.

It also let’s you record your energy level so that you can match up productivity with energy and, well, I’ll let you check out the app for yourself.

Shirley Aug 09 2010

Great article and useful tips. I will definitely be trying out that Rescue Time application. I’m interested to see the actual breakdown of how I spend my time.

Bryan McAnulty Aug 09 2010

Great tips. It’s especially important to take a step back once in a while and look at where your time is really being spent in order to become more productive/efficient.

David Aug 10 2010

For freelancers time management is one of the most important aspects of being successful. It’s not easy, keeping a constant income, chasing new clients, filling out tax forms, self training and of course completing high quality work for clients.
Thanks for training

Rafiq Elmansy Aug 10 2010

This article is great to move freelance business to another level.

Aidan Aug 10 2010

Sound advises. I believe something these techniques are harder to execute in real life. However, I think we can amend the tips a little bit such as instead of going to a month holiday, cut short to a week, outsourced your projects with your workload etc.


Tyler Aug 10 2010

I’m going to assume this post is for freelancers who already are making a good amount of money which basically makes this post pointless as those freelancers probably already know how to split and manage their time. Office Space? Vacations? These things are not in a beginning freelancers vocabulary.

Josh Higgins Aug 10 2010

I use iFreeFace which limits time spent online without ever sending out data.

Steam Aug 10 2010

Some good advice here. What i would also say if you dont want people to know your address but cant aford an office you can rent a virtual office for like £200 or less a year its not alot and stops random strangers turning up at your home also. We use a time management tool that we found to be quite useful –

Buy a really good office chair – best investment in productivity you can make.

BTW – if you have to remind yourself to work, you need to find a real job – freelance is not for you.

Daniel Aug 11 2010

I would like to work one month and take 11 off. Then I wouldn’t have to manage my time at all. This is what I will be working on. Check out “4 hour work week” by Timothy Ferris for starters.

Thomas Retterbush Aug 11 2010

I was about ready to go crazy trying to do too many things at once. I was taking it beyond multi-tasking, to a new term I coined, “chaos-tasking”.

Some of your tips have given me new hope, so that I may be able to escape throwing myself in front of a bus (I am exaggerating now, so no need to call a crisis intervention support group on my behalf), by using some time management apps and automating some of my tasks.

Thanks for saving my life!

An independent should always have a number of personal projects in the pipeline should paid work drop off temporarily. Also it is good to spend time reviewing what you’ve done in the busy years, when perhaps you were too busy spending all your time chasing the $$$ and meeting dealines. You might notice that you’ve drifted off-course from the type of projects you aimed to work on when setting out, or that the range of projects or clients has narrowed, or the quality (or fees) isn’t as good as a few years ago. Taking time out every now and then to review past work and update your website, portfolio or business strategy isn’t quite work and isn’t quite holiday, but is important and may help re-inpire you if you’re feeling jaded or at a loose end.

Taimur Asghar Aug 12 2010

Hey! nice to see more young people like me in blogging and freelancing field :).
Thanks Mathew for great advices :)

Simon Aug 12 2010

At 18 I hardly think you’ve had enough time to fully grasp the concepts of freelancing, or even understand the industry fully.
Gen Ys… When will they learn.

Wing Loon Aug 15 2010 shld rescue their domain. Already expired :(

Lomosaltado Sep 08 2010

uou great point, we have to do what we have to do jaja

In addition to Timer and Kukuklok that you mentioned under “Use Time Management Apps,” there’s also, which is great because it let’s you set multiple timers and it’ll even let you display another website in an iframe on the right. That way, you can open your email on the right and use the timers to see how long it takes you to get through your inbox. I really speed through my client emails this way.

To add one more timer to the list i would suggest Timerrr. It looks and works like a regular kitchen timer.

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