3 ways to prioritize time management for your freelance business

Time management is key to a successful freelance business. Photo by Marissa Grootes

If you often feel pulled in two directions as a freelancer, you’re not alone. Every freelancer faces the time management challenge of prioritizing client work with the crucial task of building their own business. But what if you could find the sweet spot, optimizing your time for both? Let’s unlock practical strategies to help you prioritize like a pro, ensuring steady income while nurturing your entrepreneurial aspirations.

There are a variety of philosophies behind the balancing act of how to organize your work and business development. Let’s look at a few that can be particularly helpful for solo entrepreneurs who are figuring out critical time management decisions with little to no help.

Time management using the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, is a simple but powerful tool for prioritizing tasks based on their urgency and importance. It helps you visualize your tasks and decide which ones deserve your immediate attention, which can be scheduled, which can be delegated, and which can be eliminated.

There’s no proof that Eisenhower personally used or evolved the matrix. A frequently attributed quote is, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Stephen Covey actually named the matrix in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Draw a matrix
    Imagine a square divided into four quadrants. Label the horizontal axis “Urgent” and “Not Urgent” and the vertical axis “Important” and “Not Important.”
  2. Categorize your tasks
    List all your tasks and decide where each one belongs based on urgency and importance.

    • Urgent & Important: These are tasks that demand immediate attention and contribute significantly to your goals. Examples: meeting deadlines, addressing client emergencies.
    • Not Urgent & Important: These are tasks that are crucial for your long-term goals but don’t have a pressing deadline. Examples: planning future projects, learning new skills, networking.
    • Urgent & Not Important: These are often distractions or interruptions that may feel pressing but offer little value. Examples: responding to unimportant emails, attending last-minute meetings.
    • Not Urgent & Not Important: These are tasks that can be eliminated as they offer no significant value and don’t require immediate attention. Examples: excessive social media browsing, unproductive busywork.
  3. Take action
    Based on the quadrant where each task falls, you can prioritize accordingly.

    • Do first: Focus on Urgent & Important tasks immediately.
    • Schedule: Allocate time for Not Urgent & Important tasks in your calendar.
    • Delegate: Consider delegating Urgent & Not Important tasks to someone else.
    • Eliminate: Remove Not Urgent & Not Important tasks from your list.

Benefits of time management with this method

  • Reduces the feeling of being overwhelmed: Helps you see your tasks clearly and avoid feeling overloaded.
  • Improves focus: Guides you towards prioritizing tasks that matter most.
  • Boosts productivity: Helps you allocate your time more effectively.
  • Reduces stress: Ensures you’re not neglecting important long-term goals.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a flexible tool. Adapt it to your specific needs and adjust categories as needed. The key is to prioritize tasks based on their true value and urgency, not just how they make you feel in the moment.

Project-based vs. time-based billing

Freelancers face the constant challenge of balancing client work with building their own business. One key decision affecting this balance is how you choose to bill clients: project-based billing or time-based billing. Both options have pros and cons, and the best choice depends on your specific industry, projects, and goals.

Project-based billing

You agree on a fixed fee for the entire project upfront, regardless of the time it takes to complete.

  • Pros
    • Predictable income: You know exactly how much you’ll earn, simplifying budgeting and cash flow management.
    • Increased focus: Encourages efficient work, as you only get paid for the delivered outcome, not hours spent.
    • Client satisfaction: Can be attractive to clients who prefer budget certainty.
  • Cons
    • Risk of underestimating: If the project takes longer than planned, you earn less per hour.
    • Scope creep: Unforeseen changes or additions can easily eat into your profit margin.
    • Client resistance: Some clients may be hesitant to commit to a large upfront fee.

Time-based billing

You charge clients an hourly rate for the time you spend working on their project.

  • Pros
    • Fair compensation: Ensures you’re paid for every hour invested, regardless of project complexity.
    • More flexible: Easier to adapt to changes in scope or timeline without impacting your income.
    • Appeals to value-based pricing: Can reflect the expertise and value you bring, not just time spent.
  • Cons
    • Unpredictable income: Client budgets and project delays can impact your earnings.
    • Time tracking burden: Requires accurate and detailed timekeeping, which can be tedious.
    • Client skepticism: Clients may question the value of each hour billed, leading to potential disputes.

Choosing the right approach

  • Consider the project
    • Size and complexity: Project-based might be suitable for smaller, well-defined projects. For complex, long-term projects, time-based might be safer.
    • Predictability: If predictable income is crucial, project-based might be better. If flexibility is more important, time-based might win.
  • Consider your needs
    • Experience and confidence: If you’re confident in estimating project time, project-based could be more profitable. If unsure, time-based might offer peace of mind.
    • Administrative burden: Are you comfortable with detailed time tracking? If not, project-based might be less stressful.
  • Client preferences
    • Consider their budget, risk tolerance, and level of involvement. Propose both options and discuss the pros and cons together.

Remember, you aren’t limited to just one approach. You can offer both options and let clients choose based on their preference. You can also use hybrid models and combine fixed fees for specific deliverables with hourly rates for additional work. By understanding the pros and cons of each billing method and considering your specific needs and projects, you can choose the approach that helps you achieve your financial goals and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Setting boundaries to protect your time management plans

Setting boundaries with clients is crucial for any freelancer to avoid last-minute requests and burnout. Here are some key strategies.

Communication is key

Be clear about your expectations. From the outset, establish clear communication channels, preferred response times, and your availability for urgent requests. State your working hours and stick to them as much as possible.

Define clear deadlines for each project stage and communicate them upfront to the client. Discuss acceptable buffer periods for revisions and unexpected changes.

Explain your workflow and decision-making process to clients. This helps them understand what to expect and reduces the need for last-minute changes.

Anticipate potential issues and communicate them early. If you see a risk of exceeding deadlines or needing additional resources, inform the client promptly.

Establish firm policies

What constitutes an urgent request that requires immediate attention? Define this and only agree to such requests based on clear criteria and potential fees for rush work. Clearly outline the consequences of clients exceeding agreed-upon boundaries—such as delayed delivery, additional fees, or even termination of the project.

Set a reasonable limit on the number of revisions included in your project fee. Consider charging additional fees for exceeding this limit.

Formalize your expectations and policies in a written contract or proposal. This document serves as a reference point for both parties and avoids misunderstandings.

Practice consistent enforcement

Don’t be afraid to say no. It’s okay to politely decline unreasonable requests, especially if they fall outside your agreed-upon scope or schedule. Offer alternative solutions or explain why the request is infeasible. Resist the urge to constantly accommodate last-minute changes. Communicate clearly if revisions or additional work will impact the deadline or cost.

If clients consistently violate your boundaries, reflect this in your invoices. Charge for additional time spent or revisions exceeding the agreed-upon scope.

By implementing these strategies, freelancers can effectively set boundaries with clients, promote respect for their time and work, and ultimately achieve a more balanced and sustainable work life.


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