As a freelancer, one of the things which I’ve admittedly struggled with, is effective time management. Not necessarily getting into the weeds of day to day work, but more of a high level understanding of how to prioritize tasks based on your needs and timelines, and most importantly, based on your body’s mental and physical well being.
The aim of this isn’t to tell you what you prioritize, as that is subjective to individual needs and demands, but rather, to present to you a method by which you may maximize your performance within your defined priorities.
“So where do you start?”
Let’s break this down into 5 steps which could help with that.
- What’s most important to you?
- When are you most productive?
- Time blocking
- Minimize availability
- Listen to your body, Repeat and iterate.
What’s most important to you, and why isn’t it first on your list?
When building out a schedule, one of the pitfalls which we tend to fall into, is a lack of clarity on what tasks are most important to our objectives. I use the word clarity here because although we know on a general level the order of things, or scale (which task may or may not take the longest), very rarely is this organized in terms of criticality. I.E, which task, if completed now, would drive me closest to my desired objective.
The trick here is to find out what’s most important to you, as opposed to what’s most important to others who request things from you. The idea being that if you begin your day with the work that’s most important to you, mentally and physically, you meet that work with your best self, as opposed to a self which has been broken and beaten by an endless stream of meetings and other daily stressors which may not be present first thing in the morning.
When are you most productive?
We’re all different people at the end of the day, some of us feel more productive and energetic in the mornings, while others tend to be able to get mountains of work done in the evenings. Due to the cultural permeation of the idea of the 9 to 5, there may be a tendency to ignore your peak productivity hours in order to fit into this 9 to 5 concept.
What this means, is that the work you do, and when you do it, aren’t aligned to the peak times in which your body and your mind are ready to take on that work. So what does this mean in practice? Simple, it means to schedule your daily tasks (based on the priorities you set above for importance), when you’re at your highest energy levels for that class of tasks. Here’s an example, let’s say that you’re a competitive athlete, and you notice that your most efficient performances at your given sport come some time in the mid afternoon. With this method, you would schedule all your physical training for this period of time, or as close to it as possible. However, if you’re an academic, or your most important tasks require a high level of focus and mental acuity, then you schedule that for the time of day when you’re most alert, which tends to be in the morning.
The idea here is that you take the breakdown of tasks you created based on their importance, and you slot them into your body’s productivity cycle, whatever that may be.
Now that you’ve mapped out what’s most important to you and examined your body’s productivity cycle, you can combine the two. This is much easier said than done, because it requires you to adhere to different blocks of time which you’ve set for specific tasks or task groupings. Here’s an example
|7am-8:30am: Most Important & Meaningful Tasks|
|8:30am-10am: Breakfast Routine and Preperation|
|10am-10:30am: Email Cleanup and Work Communication (Slack, etc)|
|10:30am-12pm: Office Work|
As seen above, although it is important to have your items and individual tasks mapped out, time blocking doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these tasks need to be punched into your schedule, but rather, all of these tasks need to be mapped out in your schedule according to your productivity cycle. This way, you have blocks of time for different task groups, which each task group corresponds to items in your priority list. If in the example above, my productivity cycle was such that I was most productive in the mornings immediately before noon, then I would have time blocked the two hours or hour and a half from 10:30am to 12pm as the time in which I would tackle the most important and meaningful tasks of that particular day.
It is important when time blocking your day, that you include blocks for the most important and the most mundane tasks, as well as blocks for dealing with chaos. This way, it minimized the pressure, anxiety and uncertainty caused by not knowing that there is a specific time in the day meant to deal with and tackle such problems.
If you’ve ever worked in an office environment, or tried to get work done when other people requested your time, you know that on many occasions, your daily schedule is at the mercy of others. Minimizing your availability aims to give you control over how much control others will have on your schedule. This means that during your day, you set a standard for how long you’re available to others, and make it known. Certain calendar applications and schedulers will allow this, however it’s much clearer if you are able to have these conversations with the people who will most likely be trying to book or reach you throughout the day. Whether you set your availability to 30 minute blocks, 15 minute blocks 45 minute blocks, make sure it is known such that if someone is planning on booking you, or entering into your schedule, they know ahead of time that their time is limited.
Listen to your body, Repeat and Iterate
Scheduling isn’t an exact science. In order to create an effective schedule that works for you, it is important to listen to what your body is saying, and give yourself time to learn. What is important, when are you most productive, can you bucket these into a time block that suits your physical and mental timelines. This is important as the more you test out these practices, the more they can be refined and streamlined into something that works for you. And remember, schedule time to rest, this isn’t the “productivity olympics”, you’re not trying to win a race of can I do the most, you’re trying to streamline your performance so that the work that’s most important to you, is done to the best of your ability.