(Note: This is based on one of the questions asked in Ron Elsdon’s book How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption.)
As important as I thought both time management and customer support skills were when I was full-time in agency life, they’ve proven to be even more so since entering the world of full-time freelancing. That being said, the former is something that’s evolved in more ways over the years than the latter.
For a long time I just used my to-do list to structure my day. I had a list of the things I needed to accomplish on a given day and, well, it was going to get done. Hopefully. The truth is I didn’t really have a system for a good long while (too long) and just sort of kept things going.
Then for a while I would use the Macbook Calendar to block out my day. Using my to-do list as a guide, I would block out hours or half hours with certain tasks, or at least clients. This worked well for me for a number of years, allowing me to prioritize effectively and make sure at the very least that each project or action item was moved forward a bit. Reality dictated I couldn’t always spend six hours in one day to get a project done from beginning to end, but if I know when the due date is I can plan to spend two hours over three days on it. Extrapolate that out over four or five projects each day and…yeah, that’s how I worked.
That system also helped immensely when it came time, while I was agency-bound, to fill in my timesheets. I had a record of how many hours I’d spent on each client over the last week. If I wound up spending three hours on something instead of two, I’d adjust so that it was accurate, of course.
Over time I moved away from this system and actually began doing roughly the same thing on paper, either in a notebook or just on a random scrap of paper. I’d block out either half-hour or hour blocks and map out my day. Couple that with a bullet journal that has the action items for that day.
Sometimes (a great many things depend on my mood) it actually works better for me to write down how I’ve spent time after the fact. So I’ll do the same thing – list out periods of time – but then I’ll jot down how I’ve spent the half-hour that’s just past. It’s a similar concept, but it shows me that I’ve at least been productive for the last segment.
Whatever the specifics of the system or the variations that are being used, the goals are the same: To keep me focused and accomplishing what’s necessary. Your mileage may vary, but whatever the system it’s so important to find what works for you and do it. Knowledge work is, unfortunately, prone to distraction and it’s so easy to lose 45 minutes to YouTube or Twitter. So hold yourself accountable, whether it’s knowing that you need to hit a benchmark before the allocated hour for that task is over or looking back and seeing that yes, you were actively working on something for the last 30 minutes.
This is an area I’ve always been quite good in. In part that comes from my natural propensity toward casual, friendly conversation free of regard for hierarchy or status. I’ll chat with anyone.
It’s also because I almost never say “no.”
That’s not to say I unquestioningly accept whatever a client or customer tells me and do what they want without critical thought.
It means that even if I don’t necessarily agree with what someone is saying, I don’t want to say “no.” Instead I’ll say “OK, how about…?” and offer a slight variation on the idea that still accomplishes the same goals but in a better way.
My job is to help my clients succeed. That was true in agency life and it’s certainly true in freelance. That attitude, of being fine staying in the background as my clients took the spotlight, may have limited my career in some ways while those more prone to self-aggrandizement have become superstars, but I’m proud of the work I’ve produced.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.