It’s not a bad problem to have really, is it? When you take the leap and finally go self-employed, the worry that keeps you up at night is that you’ve made a Jupiter-sized mistake and should have just stayed employed with a nice reliable salary with nice reliable benefits.
But then – to your absolute delight – the opposite happens and not only is there work, there’s actually quite a bit of it. The importance of time management , therefore, has quite suddenly taken over my life. I’ve spent a good number of years now proclaiming: “I just want to work for myself and manage my own time!”
Ha. Wanting to manage your own time and actually managing your own time effectively – as it turns out – are two completely different things. So on the off-chance it might help someone else who has recently become self-employed, here are my top five tips for time management…
1. Have a little panic, then get organised
If you’re anything like me, you’ll need to get this first bit out of the way. There’s no manager to escalate problems to anymore; the buck stops with you. Acknowledge the nerves, banish the imposter syndrome and give yourself a couple of seconds to breathe.
You started working for yourself because you have something valuable to offer – now is not the time to doubt it (that time was ages ago – it’s far too late now, so you may as well chill out).
For me, getting my working space organised is about two-thirds procrastination, but it’s part of my process and I can’t start a project without it. My desktop must be clear, my notebooks must be to hand and my (often completely unnecessary) stationery must be within easy reach.
2. Use time management software
Whatever level of help you need, there are a number of excellent options for managing your time and projects available online. As you’d expect, these range from free to a significant monthly charge.
I have started with one of the free ones, Trello and I have to say I’ve not felt the urge to splash out on one of the more advanced, paid-for tools so far. Trello gives you the option to run multiple projects at the same time on ‘boards’ so you can keep everything separate and see, with a quick glance, exactly where you are with each one. You also have the option to share Trello boards for collaboration with other team members and prioritise tasks using customised colour-coding.
I don’t doubt that the more advanced, paid-for options are also incredible resources, but when you’re starting out and you want to keep your over-heads low, I’d recommend starting with a free one and making sure you use it before you put your hand in your pocket…
3. Use a calender and set alarms
This one might sound obvious, but it’s one I hadn’t truly appreciated the value of until I started managing multiple projects without a line manager. Obviously, your calendar will remind you when you have meetings – but using it for tasks is a game-changer.
I use Trello boards to prioritise and display how much time I have committed and then start organising the week ahead. My alarms tell me when it’s time to move on to a different task, when to take a break and when to update my time-management software to reflect what has been done that day.
I also make sure I set alarms for updating my own website, because despite it being my main source of new business, it’s often the first thing that falls by the wayside when I’m busy. Those alarms make sure I continue to refocus my attention on why I started working for myself in the first place, and what I need to do to maintain it.
4. Break everything down into chunks
Anyone familiar with the PRINCE2 methodology of project management will know that the most manageable way to tackle large tasks is to break them down into chunks and work through them in bite-sized pieces. You can then prioritise these chunks, add them to your schedule and make sure each one is complete before moving on to the next.
My favourite thing about this one is that it takes seemingly insurmountable tasks and makes them less overwhelming. You have essentially become your own line manager; drip-feeding yourself work on a pre-worked out schedule which will ultimately mean your clients are happy – and so are you.
5. Understand your work-life balance
Anyone who has ever been self-employed will nod their heads at this one. Despite now being in charge of your own time, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have more of it. In fact, owning all of the responsibility for your work means that you often end up working longer hours than you would in an employed position.
You mean to stop work at 5pm, but it feels natural to carry on for an extra hour or so to either finish a task or get ahead for the next day. You find yourself on days off, thinking about work and what needs to be done. You’ll make plans while you’re trying to watch a film with your family and you’ll get distracted in the middle of conversations because something has just occurred to you that you need to jot down immediately.
Implementing the first 4 of the points I’ve made in this blog has helped me so much with my work-life balance. Having everything organised and prioritised with a set position in the calendar means that when I clock off for the day, I’m not panicking about anything. All of my work is accounted for and on a schedule that my clients and I both agree on. I’m still learning different tricks, but having nailed the fundamentals of time management, I’m really starting to feel the benefits of working for myself at last!