Playing with Blocks – Time Management Tips for Freelancers

In Freelance, Training by Christopher Michael Foley1 Comment

Why it matters: There’s only so much time and & energy every day.

Why it matters: There’s only so much time and & energy every day.

 
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There’s an awful lot to do in any given workday, and only so much time in which to do it. In addition to the task at hand, there are distractions to contend with, coworkers with demands on your time, clients who want to meet with you, supervisors who want to check in, etc. There’s also a very important element to be aware of, and it’s one that I don’t see discussed much: your own stamina and work style — your circadian rhythm. How long can you remain effective before you need to stop what you’re doing and recharge? How long into a task before you start to lose your objectivity?

Objectivity is a very important thing for anyone doing anything beyond simple menial work or physical labor. How’s your own objectivity looking come 4pm on a Thursday?Click To Tweet

Let’s face it: you’re no good to your employer if you’re unable to perform up to expectations. In many cases, expectations can be far beyond what people are normally capable of. Think about that one for a second.

I find the traditional workday model to be entirely broken and inefficient.

It was obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, and here we are in the 21st century aping an industrial model built for a bygone age. If I sound crazy to you that’s okay with me. I’m not alone in my thinking, and I’ve worked out a system that provides me with a lifestyle I’m very happy with.

My work is almost entirely project-related, which means that I work inside of a task-based mindset. Back in the day when I worked in retail management, I was also working against a list of tasks, but my working hours were dictated by the store’s hours of operations. If the store was open 10am to 6pm, I had to be there from 10am to 6pm to babysit the front door. If I were to finish my tasks at 4pm, it didn’t matter. I still had to be there until closing.

Now the good part of that is that when I locked the door at 6:45pm having completed my reports and handled the money, I was done working. That was it, and the rest of my time was mine to do with what I wanted, but there was a big problem (for me) inherent in that model of working. The bad part of that is that by 8pm I was exhausted, and had no energy for recreation or personal projects. I gained a bunch of weight, and watched a lot of television in those days.

In my own experience, I’m simply incapable of working 8-10 hours straight with only the legally compulsory break period to provide relief. In other words, the traditional 9 to 5 does not work for me at all, and I don’t work at all for it. We’re a very poor match indeed. Additionally, I find it insane to expect any human being perform some work-related function for 9 or 10 hours at a time and be able to do it with a consistent level of competence and efficiency, much less enthusiasm and positivity!

Here’s what I have found works very well for me — I break my day up into blocks,

and these blocks help me achieve a work/life balance that leaves me working at what I have recognized to be my own peak efficiency.

I tend to get up between 7:30am and 8am. I work at home on most days so there’s no commute to deal with. If I want to exercise in the morning, I get up a bit earlier.

BLOCK 1

By 8:30 I’m at my computer and I spend the first hour responding to emails, sending out meeting requests and getting my head around what I’m going to push through that day. That’s 8:30 – 9:30. Then I chill out for a little while. This is BLOCK 1. I consider it my ADMIN BLOCK. Rarely does it require more than an hour.

BLOCK 2

Block 2 goes from 10am until 12:30pm. That’s only 2.5 hours long. I break for lunch, and I take 90 minutes. Yes, 90 minutes.

This is something that I learned while living in France. The typical lunch break in France is 2 hours long, and they take it very seriously. Never get between a French person and their lunch break! Since it usually only takes me 30-40 minutes to prepare and eat lunch (which I never, repeat never do at my desk) this leaves me with a 50 minutes to an hour to myself. This is when I’ll run an errand, or take a walk through my neighborhood. A 30-minute bike ride is nice here and even leaves me time for a shower when I return. One could easily fit a Cross-Fit class into this period. (Have you ever lamented not having time to exercise during the day?)

BLOCK 3

Block 3 goes from 2pm – 5pm. This is 3 hours long. I’m refreshed. I’m fed. My brain is sharp. I’m good. The work that I do during Block 3 is every bit as good as the work I’ve done during Block 2. I’m efficient, effective, I’m feeling friendly and focused on any calls or trainings. Nothing worse than that guy on the conference call who doesn’t want to be there.

In this model, it’s 5pm, and I’ve worked 6.5 hours. I realize that this is far below the 8 hours that we expect from employees inside of the traditional 9 to 5 model, but I assure you that the quality of work that I’m able to achieve in those 6.5 hours is far higher than what I was able to achieve while working a 9 to 5. To further drive this home, that quality of work I’m able to achieve in this way is also far higher than I see coming from most of the 9 to 5 employees that I interface with every day while managing client projects. Again, the old 9 to 5 model is entirely broken.

The way that I manage my task types inside of this model is also worth mentioning.

If I find myself feeling particularly creative in the morning, I’ll turn off my email and my phone and will pack all of my creative tasks for the day into that block. If I find that I’m not feeling creative that morning, or if there seems to be a lot of client issues coming in via phone and email, I’ll instead keep my phone on and move to administrative tasks during that block instead, and will move creative tasks to the next block.

Working in this manner made significant changes to my brain function as well. Any research I need to do goes more quickly than it otherwise used to and I find that I retain far more of what I read. In short, I brain better.

Additionally, location plays a part here.

I will sometimes conduct Block 2 on-site at a client’s location, and then return home for Block 3. Or I may spend Block 2 at home and go out to a café or co-working space for Block 2. The result of this method is that I prevent feeling chained to my desk all day long. I change up my scenery.

Working from the desk or working from the deck

Some days are just too nice to be inside at my desk, so I move out to the deck. I’ve even worked from the beach before, and yes, you skeptic: I get just as much done during that time as I would have sitting at my desk gapingly longingly out the window at the world, possibly more.

In fact, I’m writing this while sitting on a deck of a rented cabin (thank you, Airbnb) in the Eastern Sierras at 6,500 feet. There’s no cell signal or Wifi here, and what little electricity we have is delivered to us via a propane tank-powered generator. Sweet. Gotta unplug from time to time. And while you might think that sitting here for an hour writing this post is NOT unplugging.. I disagree. The phone doesn’t work. There’s no email. I’m unplugged.

This might be enough for you to take a look at how you currently organize your day and consider some changes. If so, I’ve done my work, but this isn’t the end of the story for me. I also have a 4th Block that I put in on most days, except for Fridays.

BLOCK 4

This block starts around 7:30 and goes until 9:30 or 10pm. To be perfectly honest, it sometimes goes to 11pm or midnight. This is the ultimate freelancer block, and I consider it a “flex” block. Sometimes I use this block for nothing more than my own internal projects. This is how I build my own business. It’s when I usually write blog posts, update new pages and promotions for pxlpod.media, or when I do bits of personal research or test new technologies. This is my LAB TIME.

On other days, if I’m feeling burned out, I’ll skip Block 2 completely and move all of that into Block 4 instead. Block 4 tends to be between 2.5 and 3.5 hours long. I have found that I am feeling my most creative in the evening, and so it makes perfect sense to conduct any task requiring a high level of creativity during the hours when I’m apt to produce awesome stuff, and not at the time when some company’s operations schedule tells me I have to. Make sense?

All told, I normally work 9.5 to 10 hour days. Since those hours are not used up in a contiguous fashion, I’ve worked my LIFE into that time as well. I’ve exercised, I’ve shared meals with friends and colleagues, I’ve found some personal quiet time to recharge. I read for pleasure, and this activity finds its way in here as well.

This methodology also sees me eating far better than your typically employee does. I grant myself enough time to prepare a good meal, instead of “grabbing food” on the run. Seeing people scurry around during their 30-minute lunch break drives me mad.

See, I prefer to put my time to better use than stringing it all into a single contiguous 9 hour block wherein the law of diminishing returns kicks in before I’ve even finished lunch. This is not in my own best interests, nor is it in the best interests of my customers/employers.

Full Disclosure: I do not have children, and therefore have considerably more time on my hands than a parent who is reading this might have. My wife is a fine artist and she spends her time painting or generally dealing with being an artist, and I’m therefore free to move my time around the way that works best for me, and we meet in the middle. It works very well for us.

My time, however, is not fully my own as I have sold a fair amount of it to my clients. The key for me has been to organize that time in a way that works best for my own lifestyle and my own health and well-being. Providing I can do this in a way which still delivers high-value results to my own customers, it’s nobody’s business but my own how I organize that time. If you’re a freelancer, this is true for you as well.

I do hope you’ve found my account to be of some help for you in your own life. I believe that we’re going to see a renaissance over the next 5 to 10 years of people moving to a work-shifting model as HR Managers begin to embrace the increased efficiency and effectiveness that many people are able to achieve when they break from the traditional industrial work model and move more to a flex time model, such as I’ve described above. Sure, there will always be those employees who thrive within the group environment and those who require direct supervision and management. For those who are self-motivated and want a bit more out of life than to see the inside of a cubicle for 9 hours every day, adopting this sort of system, even in part, could be a fantastic way to finally achieve some of that work/life balance your HR Director has been giving lip service to for the past couple of years.

Cheers, and thanks for reading. Talk to me in the comments section. I’d really LOVE to hear what you think about all of this.

Advanced Tip:

I’ve shared this with several people who have adopted and adapted it for themselves.

I use Asana for Project Management and building task lists, and I tag each of my tasks with either a “1″ or a “2″. These tags do not refer to Blocks 1 or 2, but instead to how many monitors (displays) I’ll need to do the task. There are many tasks which require me to be at my desk with my 2nd monitor plugged into my laptop. These are generally tasks which require a lot of video or image editing, HTML coding or other tasks for which I prefer to have a lot of tools open at once and this requires 2 displays.

There are other tasks which I can easily knock out from my laptop only, and these are tagged with a “1”. If I decide to go work on the deck, or from a café, I’ll knock out all of my “1” tasks while I’m out and save my “2” tasks for when I get back.

 

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