Staying focused on your goals may be difficult at times as a freelancer. Not having a nine-to-five job, selecting your own clients, setting your own rates and deadlines and also doing PR work for yourself is quite different than being a full-time employee in a web design agency, where many of the things above are done by different individuals or departments. One of the most difficult things I encountered when I started as a freelancer was staying focused on the deadlines. And not only keeping my focus, but also meeting the deadline and delivering the project on time – at the end of the day, this is one of the most important things alongside the quality of your work.
You can do this by following some of these techniques. It is not physics, chemistry or math. They’re all easy to follow, therefore I think you should give them a try if you struggle with keeping yourself on schedule. As this has something to do with personal and time management, and not with the field we work in, it suits both designers and developers.
1. Be a perfectionist
Designers and developers usually need to hold perfectionism at bay, as we are creative individuals. All artists in the world have a tendency to try reaching for perfectionism. You need to know when your piece of work still needs more polishing, or when it is done. Wasting time with improving something that can’t be improved will not make help you manage your time.
Looking objectively at your projects is the solution to this. Also, it has something to do with the initial planning process. If you’ve done it right, there is no reason to go back and add something. Just because you found a cool new feature on the internet halfway through the development process doesn’t mean you have to integrate it. There is always the next project and it is probably too late to integrate something new in a current project.
If you always look for that perfect design (nothing wrong with this, by the way) you will find yourself spending more time analyzing then actually finishing the project. This needs to be worked out, as the client expects you to finish your work on time. Getting your personal feelings in the way of your work is also something you should avoid doing, as feelings have nothing to do with the business.
2. Pre-defined time for each task
This is what project managers are good at: Planning and defining time spans for each phase of a project, you need to have a solid plan in place in order to be successful.
A solid plan means working on a specific task one at a time. This will ensure you stay fully focused on the one task you have to do and therefore finish earlier or at least in time. Beginning with a typical routine is likely to wake you up in the morning or help you relax in the afternoon, therefore place them in the beginning or in the end of your work plan. Checking e-mails, Facebook, Twitter or your RSS feed are potential good routines for such times.
I am sure most of us work best when we can focus 100% on the specific task in front of us. I am also sure about the fact that the ones who can’t always reach deadlines are good at undergoing the routines mentioned above all the time. This is not good because it interrupts your workflow and concentration and slows you down. Not letting yourself get distracted is where you should begin. If you feel staying focused is one of your issues, then concentrate on working only!
Taking breaks is something recommended because none of us can work for eight hours straight. Take a 15 minutes break every two hours or a five minute break every hour and this will likely keep you fresh. Don’t forget about eating and drinking during these breaks, as a hungry person will never have enough energy to work.
3. Have a daily plan
If you work on a freelance project, you are likely to be working on your own, so you don’t depend on anybody else. This means you can have your own schedule, as nobody will influence it. Have a daily plan all the time. Break it into small tasks and, at the end of the day, see what was good and what was not. It isn’t always easy to plan ahead, but you can use this to see where it goes wrong for you. You may even notice after keeping track of your program that you are very unproductive during a certain time span.
Having a daily plan is also good for your confidence. Keeping a close eye on every phase of a project will likely make you feel better at the end of each day. Most of us break projects into larger tasks and only feel accomplished once per week, or who knows how seldom. If you manage to do something every day (and keep track of it) you will feel accomplished more often.
While planning, you can also think of keeping something out on purpose. It is always better to finish more than planned at the end of the day, then to finish less. Therefore many freelancers are in a bad mood at the end of the day. When planning to finish a lot of work and not everything is done by the end of the day, there is a feeling of disappointment. This can’t happen if, before going to sleep, you notice you are a step further down the road than expected few hours before. This will also make you feel better the second day and will probably make you look forward to further developments.
4. Work breakdown structure
Having a to-do list might work well for small projects, but once you start working on a larger scale, small lists might not be so effective.
The work breakdown structure (WBS) is something I learned about during my first year as a student. Breaking down more complex projects into smaller phases is a popular project management concept. If you have lists with large, complicated activities, checking them off at the end of the day is not likely to happen, therefore you need to break the work down into smaller bits. Having sub-lists with smaller tasks will be more rewarding for you at the end of the day.
Breaking work into smaller phases might feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but it is very rewarding in the end. The main reason behind this is to make you feel better about the project and the work you’ve completed and to make you look forward to finish it and check it off the list.
5. Larger scale management
Besides the small to-do lists and the WBS you do quite often, having a detailed monthly schedule is also recommended. Planning in advance can’t go wrong when you think of it very well. Scheduling routines is very easy with online tools such as Google Calendar, therefore trying this out for a project is something you should consider. Now I am not saying this will work for everybody, but being organized is the first step into learning how to better manage your time.
6. Reward yourself
This is something I didn’t try myself, but one of my co-workers recommended it to me. He has a reward for himself at the end of each week. It makes him look forward to reaching his goals and to the next week. Now don’t think he goes to Hawaii every weekend. His rewards are different, from small things like watching an extra hour of TV to playing video games, going out or surfing the web without having to work at the same time, to bigger things like taking a weekend off once in a while. He finds a different reward every time and keeps his work life challenging.
My friend also told me that if he finishes a task earlier than planned, he rewards himself again. Many of us try to complete the project faster, but he doesn’t. When I asked him what he does then, he answered:
“I have a strong schedule, I think about it a lot before submitting it to the client. If I finish a smaller task earlier, I take the rest of the day off. I deserve it! I never work more than planned, however I am also always on time with my work, so I never have to work more than planned either. The secret behind this is the amount of hours I put into planning and creating schedules.”
Being able to focus better on deadlines is something all of us are capable of; we just need to make the effort. Whenever I write an article on this topic or give someone some advice, I end up with the same conclusion: it is impossible to be good at maintaining your schedule if you are not organized.
Being organized is where everything starts. It is helpful for all of us because otherwise it is a tough job to keep track of all the things we are in charge of. For individuals that do not have a fixed schedule from nine to five, self-discipline is the only way to success.
Until next time, how easy is it for you to focus on deadlines? Have you ever had problems with delivering on time, or is this something you need to improve?