Creative freelancers spend a lot of time designing stuff. Good design is structured, organized and unified. When you juggle multiple projects, the ability to focus on your work without getting distracted becomes vital to your ability to create. Design your time in the same way as you design a web site, with structure, organization and unity, and you will be able to do great work. One effective technique for designing your day is time blocking.
Time Blocking is Time Budgeting
Time blocking is the process of assigning certain hours in each day to the projects and tasks you need to get done that day. You divide each day into several large chunks, and give each chunk an assignment. During those assigned times, you work on what you’ve assigned for that duration, and turn off distractions. Time blocking allows you to burrow in and focus solely on that particular project.
Here’s an example of my time blocking for a typical Wednesday using iCal. On Wednesdays, client projects are my priority, and I budget the bulk of my creative time for them. Since I know that I do my best creative work in the morning hours and later in the evening, I schedule appointments, meetings and errands in the afternoon. Then I have another peak creative time in the later evening. My work day is split, and it works for me.
Notice that I do not schedule every single minute in a day, and I include margin — unscheduled time. Your schedule and priorities are best served when you keep things flexible. If you don’t, you allow your schedule to control you.
Use a time blocking tool that is right for you
To block your time, you need a calendar. You can use Google Calendar, iCal, Excel, Numbers, another scheduling app, or a paper calendar. The tool doesn’t matter, but it needs to be visual so that you can see your entire day at a glance, and something you can edit. I use both paper and iCal. These are the tactics I use to block my time:
Schedule priorities, not tasks. Time blocking should be based on your big picture — what you need to get done that day and that week. Your big projects, client projects, taking care of business, time for family and friends, time for reflection and taking care of yourself should all be included in your time blocking. You are budgeting time, not making another task list.
Schedule the big items (your priorities) first. If you have to fit a bunch of rocks and sand into a Mason jar, put in the big stuff — the rocks — first, and then the sand fills in around it. If you put the sand in first, there won’t be enough room to add all the large rocks. The same is true with time. Time is like the Mason jar, and your projects and tasks are the rocks and sand. The little stuff — the sand — is easy to deal with, since it doesn’t usually take much thought. But the little stuff doesn’t move you forward. It’s the big stuff — the priority projects — that you need to schedule first. Then fit the smaller tasks around it.
Gather tools and materials. What do you need for the project? Build in the time necessary to gather tools and materials together. To have to stop in the middle of a deep dive on a project to go find tape or add paper to the inkjet is a distraction. It will take you time to recover from the distraction and get back into the creative flow of your deep dive time.
Build in margin. Projects have a tendency to take longer than we anticipate. Adding margin on the front and back ends of a time block allows you to use it if necessary, and gives you a break when you don’t. Rather than blocking 9:00am-11:00am for project A and 11:00am-1:00pm for project B, put 10-15 minutes in between the time blocks. Doing so gives you a break and allows you to shift gears smoothly.
Be flexible. Suppose your brother shows up in the middle of the day needing help with something, or your daughter wants to enjoy an afternoon Pokemon Go session with you. Give yourself permission to enjoy those moments. Simply shift the time block around on your schedule so that you can take care of those special requests.
Bundle related tasks or projects together in a single block for efficiency. Answer your email and make your phone calls in the same block. If you are composing creative briefs for 2 different projects, do both in the same block.
Keep blocked time distraction free. What is a distraction? It’s anything that pulls you away from the work you planned to do. During your blocked time, ignore distractions. Turn off your phone, or put it in another room. Close all tabs in your browser that you don’t need for the task at hand. Close your email app. Fill your water bottle or coffee mug. Don’t respond to the doorbell or the dog’s plea to play.
Find a place. All tasks and projects require a place. If the place is your home office, let your family know you are not available during the blocked time. Sometimes your best choice is to leave your office or studio and go to a coffee shop or a library to work distraction-free.
Block your whole day. Include meals, rest and exercise times. Don’t limit time blocking to your freelance work. This tactic is helpful for your whole life, and will also provide margin in which you can be spontaneous and enjoy unplanned time.
Ignore the details. Time blocking is not a to-do list. Bring your to-do list with you into the time block, but do not assign specific tasks to a time block or you will drive yourself crazy with tasking. Instead, assign this time to work on projects and that time to take meetings.
Create 3 Time Zones
A great method for time blocking is to divide the day into 3 zones: morning, afternoon and evening. This allows you a lot of freedom and flexibility. Do your deep work in one of the 3 zones and the tasks and low-priority items in the blocks outside the zones:
This time blocking tactic lets you see what your entire day looks like — all 24 hours of it. This can be quite an education. The big idea in this is that you are controlling your schedule and using your time effectively on the things that matter. It also allows you to get everything down efficiently. Designing your time well means that you can get the important work done, and gives you dedicated time to be amazingly creative.
Even in the middle of client work, you should never allow your client to control your time. Time blocking prevents others from taking over. It keeps you energized and in command. It gives you freedom and flexibility.
Time blocking makes you disciplined with your priorities. It gives you the ability to accomplish projects without rushing as a deadline approaches. It helps you make good choices when 2 or more things conflict and compete for your time.
What is your experience with time blocking? If you have not used this strategy before, try it out for a week and see what happens. Share your experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.