Time management tips for freelancers

by Lesley Evans Ogden


Freelancer Lesley Evans Ogden at Courage Camp in Colorado last month.


Start the clock. Time management. Blog post. Story Board. Click.

The Toggl timer is ticking, and while you spend precious time here, I’ll share with you some of the useful nuggets about time management that I recently learned at Courage Camp for freelancers.

The camp was led by freelance journalist Christie Aschwanden, with fellow instructors Bruce Barcott (journalist and author), Laura Helmuth (science and health editor at Slate), and Julia Galef, (President and Cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality).

There was rapt attention from the 23 freelancers in the classroom at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Mountain Research Station for our session on time management. Here are some of the tips that were shared.


Know thyself

Track your time. Or at least note the times of day that you are most productive. There are entire books written about the importance of getting up early to get a productive start on the day.

“That’s great advice for some people, but for others it’s horrible,” suggests instructor and fellow freelance journalist Christie Aschwanden, a self-confessed night owl.

She suggests you pay attention to your biorhythms to maximize your time productivity.  One of the benefits of being a freelancer, points out Bruce Barcott, one of the workshop’s other fearless freelance leaders, is that your time is your own. So choose your hours wisely.

“You can work whatever 20 hours a day you want,” Aschwanden says.

(There’s a pregnant pause while she waits for an audience laugh that never comes).

Aschwanden organizes her day in chunks of time. During her typical workday she has breakfast, walks the dog with her husband, then works from 9 until the early afternoon. She’s noticed a lull in her ability to write, beginning at about 2:30pm. At that time, she says, “I’m pretty worthless,” so instead focuses on getting some exercise or completing household tasks that are not cognitively taxing.


Realistic to dos

“I can almost guarantee that you are making a to do list that is too long,” says Aschwanden, adding that it’s too long if you’re not crossing something off every day.

Figuring out what you are not crossing off is something to pay attention to. You can set yourself up to succeed if your expectations are realistic. Conversely, if your daily to-do list is overly ambitious, you can set yourself up for that “icky feeling” at the end of the day that you’ve done nothing. Aschwanden is a big fan of low (daily) expectations, a comment that gets a giggle from the class.

As for where to keep track of those to-dos, Aschwanden is a fan of the Planner Pad, designed to create a funnel of productivity. Born storytellers might like to try out the idea of a narrative to do list. It’s a strange but imaginative technique that forces you to not only plan your day but also visualize it. Visualization is widely used for performance enhancement by elite athletes. Why not freelancers too?


Deadlines and Tracking Successes

Keep a running list of deadlines as a column in your on-line or book-style planner. This suggestion gets a groan from the class. Deadlines are clearly both the bane and boon of a freelancer’s existence. Aschwanden also keeps a “done” list as well as a to-do list, that allows her to track productivity cycles.

Another app recommended by fellow workshop participant, freelancer Allie Wilkinson, is WinStreak. The app allows you to track today’s successes and plan those for tomorrow. (It literally does not allow you to look more than one day into the future, though its calendar function allows you to look back at past successes).

Tracking accomplishments provides data to include in your annual report. Yes, I just said “annual report.” Producing one is an idea that might seem alien to freelancers, (and certainly did to me), but is a good mechanism for yearly (or even quarterly) accountability for whether your business plan and career goals are on track. However you decide to keep track of your to-dos and deadlines, says Aschwanden, don’t obsess over a perfect system. Everyone is different.


Paying attention to attention

Julia Galef, (President and Cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality), says you need to keep track of big attention sinks like external distractions. People, noise, and discomfort are major ones. Are there loud noises out your window? Is your chair uncomfortable? Figure out if you work better in a silent environment, or one with some background buzz. If you like white noise, beyond heading to the coffee shop, she suggests rainymood.com. (Then again, if you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do, the weather provides this same soundtrack for about 9 months of the year).

Mynoise.net also provides a background noise selection that ranges from flowing and falling water to a synthesized Tibetan Choir from a “Throat Singing Drone Generator.” Having just tried the latter, I can tell you that it will either calm you into creative Zen or make you want to strangle the nearest living object.


Evil attention-suckers

One of the most familiar attention sinks is task switching.

“There is a fixed cost associated with each time you switch,” explains Galef. If you frequently switch from writing versus responding to email, checking social media, and multi-tasking, you are losing time in the necessary warming up process of “getting into the groove” or what some call their “zone.”

Studies suggest that humans are blissfully unaware of how their focus and retention suffers when they split their attention due to constant distractions. The Pomodoro technique is one method for organized time-chunking.


Worker, or CEO?

As your own boss, it’s easy to slip into second-guessing yourself. Those inner voices saying, “Should I be doing something else instead of this? Should I be doing this a different way?” Or “Can I even succeed at this?” Galef says it was only when she started paying attention to these inner voices of self-doubt that she realized how much they were disrupting her attention.

She recommends dealing with this by thinking about being in either CEO or worker mode. Those self-doubt questions are CEO questions. You should ask those managerial questions for a limited period of time, give yourself the best answer you can, and then go into execution mode, “where you can just trust that CEO ‘you’ has given those questions the best answer that he or she can, and that this is what you should be doing.” The other side of that, says Galef, is knowing when to step out of worker mode and do some self-assessment in CEO mode.

Getting rid of those distracting voices, and organizing them, is about trusting yourself.


I’m stepping out of worker mode now, about to click “STOP” on my Toggl time management dashboard. CEO ‘me’ is directing me to hurry up and get on with other tasks. Worker me (a much nicer person), hopes you’ve found something of benefit in the words above, and that stopping here was worthy of your time!


Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance science journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. A recovering scientist, she parachuted into journalism from the ivory tower, stopping for inspiration along the way at the Banff Science Communications Program and the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. She is a contributing writer at Natural History and Earth Touch News, and frequently contributes to New Scientist and BioScience. Her work has also been featured by BBC, CBC, Mosaic, The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, The Scientist and Cosmos, amongst others. Say hello at lesleyevansogden.com and on Twitter @ljevanso.


Posted on September 24, 2014 at 7:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Esther Landhuis
    on September 24, 2014 at 10:39 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Nice post! I’ve been trying out Planner Pad and the To-Do Narratives for the past month and a half. I give myself no more than 10 min to write the day’s “narrative” and have found them extremely helpful in shaping/pruning my Planner Pad to-do lists into something almost manageable in a day’s work.

    • Written by editor
      on September 24, 2014 at 10:42 am
      Reply · Permalink

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the extra tips!

  2. Written by Nathan Ambrose
    on September 26, 2014 at 1:30 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Hi Lesley.

    That’s good advice about leaving CEO mode at time of self-doubt, and concentrating on worker mode. That makes the difference between those who get things done, and those who don’t.

    Great article.


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