Time Management Tips for the Busy Freelance Designer

Staring blankly at a half completed design concept for a batch of new business cards is a freelance designer struggling with a major case of creativity block. Lost for ideas, the designer taps at the mouse, trying this colour and that font without any luck. Minutes drift by that soon spur into hours and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, the day draws to a close. While a lack of creativity may appear to be the cause of such an unproductive day, it is in fact not.


As designers, we spend many hours of our week in similar situations to the above freelancer struggling to come up with designs that we’re happy with. However, by introducing a well structured time management plan into our routine, we could take control of our days virtually overnight.

You’re probably thinking that managing your time is something that CEO’s and other bean counting schmucks need to be worrying about, however you couldn’t be more wrong. The success of any service provision type business is all about managing time as closely as possible to ensure that hours quoted are hours actually spent. Without tracking or managing your time, your days will quickly begin to blur and projects you quoted on will start costing you rather than your client.

Getting Some Rhythm

Organising your time is all about introducing some rhythm into your life. Our brains love working in patterns, so if we can start implementing some tasks that recur at regular intervals during our week, our brains will quickly snap into the right mode for the right task at the right time. This is the first step in establishing some structure to your week.

Each of us would have a set number of tasks that we have to complete each week to ensure our business runs smoothly. This could be marketing, sales, accounting or business development just to suggest a few. By defining these key tasks and working out when we will do these tasks each week, we instantly gain focus on what needs to be done and when. For example, if you decide that on Tuesday mornings, you will focus on marketing, each Tuesday morning, you’ll wake up and your brain will instantly click into marketing mode!

It’s important that once you define this rhythm, you never stray from it. If you get some ideas to market your business, write them down and keep them for your marketing time. If you think about an account that needs to be balanced, save that for your Accounting time. Doing this will actually motivate you more and will allow you to think about those ideas a little further before rushing into them.

Box That Time!

The second step in organising your time is to start boxing your time. Time boxing is all about working on a specific task for a set duration – no more and no less. David Cheong put it best when he said:

By fixing the amount of time we spend on a given set of tasks, we can focus on doing the things that matter, give us motivation to start, prevent overruns and use our “null” times effectively. In contrast, if we worked on things until completion in one sitting, we’re less likely to start on complex tasks, more likely to overrun on open ended tasks and ultimately it leaves us with less time and motivation to work on the next set of tasks.

Outside of our regular weekly tasks, many hours are spent completing work for clients. This is the perfect type of work that could be time boxed. For example, instead of spending an entire day finishing off that single website, split the portion of your day allocated to clients into 1-2 hour blocks. For smaller projects, stick to one hour and two hours for larger projects. Two hours is the perfect amount of time to get started, get focused and get motivated on those complex tasks.

Defining A Weekly Calendar

Now that we have a clear understanding of our week, we need to map it out. Having something that we can see in front of us reminding us of when we should be working on what is important to gaining structure and focus. This is especially important early on as we’re still trying to reprogram our minds into following such a strict timetable.

Your weekly calendar shouldn’t be focused on just work. It should include personal tasks and other goal related items to give us focus in both our work and personal lives. Here are some examples of what you could include in your calendar:

  • Personal Development – Fitness & health, relaxing, reading/writing
  • Business Development – Administration, business planning, marketing
  • Relationships – Partner, family, friends
  • General Work – Client work, emails, accounts

Once you’ve worked out all of the different types of tasks you need to complete each week, map out a chart that contains all of the hours in the day down the vertical axis and all of the days of the week along the horizontal axis. Now proceed to fill in all of the blanks in between with the various tasks you need to complete each week.

The following is an example of a fairly standard weekly calendar:


Visually Appealing

As freelancers, we’re all very visual people thus it is important that we relay this into our new time plan. The best way to do this is to associate colours to specific tasks from our weekly calendar and then follow through by colouring folders, files and other objects that relate to those tasks in similar colours.

We all know that colour is truly an amazing thing. By applying colour to our designs, we can trigger emotions and set moods instantly. Associating colours to key tasks acts in a similar fashion and can play a vital role in increasing our efficiency and motivation while also setting a positive mood for the work we have to complete that day.

Start by colouring each of your tasks in your weekly calendar. Once you’re done, colour each of the documents, files, folders and other objects that relate to those tasks in the same colour. This way, next time you need to start focusing on a given task, you’ll instantly know what you’ll need to grab to get started!

Here is the same weekly calendar as shown above but with colour applied to it:


Track That Time!

So, after spending truckloads of time getting your weekly calendar in order, it’d be a shame to see it all go to waste because you never actually tracked your time. Time tracking is probably the most important part to this exercise as it provides us with a firm understanding of where our time is actually being spent. It also ensures that we’re sticking to our time plan and providing accurate quotes to our clients.

The easiest way to start tracking your time is to create a timesheet template which you can fill out each day. In the template, include fields for the project name, the client name, the date, the time you started on the work and the time you finished. At the end of the week, review your timesheets for each day and compare it to the work you completed and the quotes you provided to your clients. You’ll quickly start realising what took longer, what quotes you under quoted on and where all those hours really went. It no longer seems like such a blur does it?!

Stop Wasting Your Time!

Implementing a well thought out time plan to your week is the perfect solution when you’re feeling a little lost in your business. They provide structure, focus and motivation and really allow you to get a grasp on your priorities. No longer will you feel like you’re simply working in your business struggling to meet the constant demands of your clients. Start working on your business. Set your tasks, stick to them and you’ll be on time every time before you know it.

Jon Bergan is a passionate web designer and developer from the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia. He is also the owner and founder of a small creative design firm named Bergan Blue. Follow him on Twitter


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