“I’m SO BUSY this week”

“I just don’t have the bandwidth to take on that project right now”

“Ugh, there’s so much to do and so little time”

Time management is a weakness for many freelancers — especially designers. The perils of being a creative!

I’ve been there myself. I’ve used every excuse in the book because I didn’t have effective time management skills.

When I got to the end of most work days, I realized I mainly answered emails, sat in on meetings, did favors for others…

But I didn’t get much meaningful work done.

To develop effective time management strategies, I tried dozens of experiments:

  • Turning my phone off for a week
  • Eating one meal per day to save time
  • Checking email at specific times only

And lots more.

With experimentation, I found effective time management strategies that work for me.

In this post, I’m going to show you the 5 time management tips for professionals in the design field.

These EXACT tips have helped me become a mid five-figure freelancer this year — and can help you do the same.

As a designer, you can use these time management tips to:

  • Be more productive — more done in less time!
  • Grow your business faster
  • Feel less stressed

Let’s dive in.

5 time management tips for designers

  1. Separate your day into time buckets for optimal productivity
  2. Focus on your “big rock” for the day
  3. Respect yourself, respect your clients: How to set boundaries properly
  4. Take an active break to refresh and re-energize
  5. Avoid distractions and start your day earlier

Tip #1: Separate your day into time buckets for optimal productivity

Being a freelance designer or running a design studio usually means working on multiple projects at once:

  • Client A who needs a landing page redesign
  • Client B who needs an entire website overhaul
  • Client C who wants new logos

When you have a lot of leads and you’re balancing multiple projects, following effective time management strategies becomes extremely important.

The key is to separate your day into different buckets for each client.

For example, in the past I’ve used a three-pronged system for helping multiple clients:

  • 6:30 am to 9 am for client A
  • 9 am to 3:30 pm for client B
  • 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm for client C

Staying on task for each client during the pre-defined times can be a challenge in our short-attention-span world.

But when I do follow the three-pronged approach I notice I’m more productive — and I have lots of time for creative brainstorming, planning, and understanding what clients really want.

Because it’s easy to get distracted, I’ll follow a few rules to keep myself focused on the right client and project at the right time.

    1. Hide yourself on Slack. If you’re a member of multiple Slack groups, it can be distracting to get pings from one team as you’re working on another project. One of my favorite time management tips is to “Set yourself to away” from the Slack menu.
    2. Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Contrary to their primary purpose, when I wear headphones I’m not listening to music. Instead, I use my pair of Solo2 headphones primarily because they have passive noise-cancelling. It doesn’t block all sounds, but as a creative who works from home, wearing the headphones cuts down on noisy neighbors and distractions so I can stay focused.
    3. Work away from others. When you’re a freelancer or contractor, it’s often easy to work alone from the comforts of your own home. Even if family is around, you can go in another room — or wake up earlier or later. But if you go to an office, it can be more difficult. And as a creative, distractions can destroy “flow” and productivity. If you are stuck in an office, try coming in 1 hour earlier or staying 1 hour later before the crowd arrives.

Whether you’re a night owl or an earlier riser, the key is to optimize your time and remove distractions so you get more done.

Tip #2: Focus on your “big rock” for the day

What would make today a success for you?

Too many designers get caught reactively responding to emails, struggling with the tough parts of being remote, and focusing on the “little” things.

But do most of the things we worry about really matter?

Effective time management skills are developed by focusing on what’s most important:

  • Spending hours optimizing a highly-trafficked homepage for conversions
  • Keeping up on the latest design trends so you can get better results for clients
  • Focusing on the “big wins” of a website, instead of spending days on the little details

In the Rockefeller Habits — a strategy for goal setting — you focus on big wins by following the “big rocks” strategy.

In other words, create a strong foundation with your biggest rocks (biggest projects/highest potential wins) first, then add in the smaller pebbles (minor priorities).

Here’s how three big-name creative entrepreneurs use focus to better manage their time:

  • Ryan Holiday: “Live each day like your last” is a phrase we’ve all heard. Ryan thinks this advice is too short-sighted. Instead, he recommends you live each day like it was your last… before military deployment. In other words, if you were called to leave for the military tomorrow, what would you do? Think about how focused you’d be on the important things (while ignoring the rest).
  • Noah Kagan. Every night before Noah goes to bed, he creates a single flashcard with three to-dos for the next day. Defining your to-dos the night before allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. Plus, listing only three things means you’re ultra-focused on the most important tasks.
  • Laura Roeder. Laura created the social media tool MeetEdgar. Three years later, the company has grown into a $4 million per year business. Laura and her team use the Rockefeller Habits to focus on what’s most important to reach their goal. This means they can focus on what will drive results, and ignore the rest.

Here’s a spreadsheet you can use to focus on your own “big rocks” and biggest wins for the day.

Time management tips

 Tip #3: Respect yourself, respect your clients: How to set boundaries properly

If you don’t set boundaries with clients and customers properly, you’re wasting time.

We’ve all heard the importance of boundaries… but what does it really mean?

  • Does it mean saying “no” more often?
  • What does setting a healthy client boundary look like?
  • Why do boundaries even matter?

Boundaries don’t have to be aggressive, and they don’t need to be complicated.

Simply, a boundary is critical for you to get more done — more efficiently and effectively.

In other words, you need to say “no” to some client requests so you can help all your clients and projects fairly.

Here’s an example: Recently, I started working with a new marketing client.

In the beginning of working together I didn’t set boundaries.

I would get emails with time-sensitive requests due only hours after the email was sent: “David, can you please have this to me by end of day?”

Sound familiar?

Ideally, it’s important to set time boundaries during your client interview stage.

But, if you forgot (like me!) here’s an email you can use to set boundaries:

Hi NAME,

Excited about this one! Think we can make it awesome. :)

Heads-up: I’m in the middle of another project today, so I unfortunately won’t be able to get this done by EOD.

But I can rock this later tonight and have in your inbox tomorrow morning.

For future ref, I’m typically booked between 9 and 5 pm weekdays for another project so that time is unavailable.

Updates to come!

-YOUR NAME

Sometimes, it can take a few reminders for your client to understand your boundaries.

For example, shortly after I sent an email similar to above, I was emailed again outside of my working hours asking for another quick turnaround.

I ignored the email until 5 pm, at which point I responded. My client eventually got the hint.

But sometimes, a client might say your timeline is unacceptable.

In those situations, I’ll typically do one of two things…

  • Adjust my schedule to accommodate all my current clients and projects
  • Or, in the rare case I’m not able to adjust my schedule, I talk to the client about discontinuing our work together

 Give it a try, and see what happens for yourself.

Tip #4: Take an active break to refresh and re-energize

“Go, go, go” only works for so long… until you burn out.

You can work hard — but you have to work smart, too.

Outside of regular vacations to recharge, one of the best ways to stay energized throughout the day is to take an active break 4-5 hours into working.

The key reason for an active break is to shift your mental state.

When you focus on one thing too long, you fall into the “repetition trap.”

  • Your energy fades
  • Your motivation diminishes
  • Your quality of work decreases

When you take a break, you allow yourself to step away from the monotony so you can re-energize.

I have two favorite types of breaks:

  • Tuesday and Thursday: A “mental” break where I read or meditate in the middle of the day for 20-30 minutes
  • Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 45-60 minute gym break

The gym break is critically important for my physical health and to keep my mind sharp.

Plus, working out has other benefits: The National Sleep Foundation refers to exercise as a “natural remedy” for insomnia.

The gym break works like this…

1 pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (about 6 hours after I’ve started working) I’ll go to the gym for about an hour.

I’ll do a few full-body exercises with a low number of sets to get the blood flowing and the energy back up to early morning levels.

My goal isn’t to get get massively muscular, or lose tons of weight. It’s simply to get my heart rate up, work as many muscles as I can, and get my energy levels higher.

Here’s a sample workout routine I follow.

Exercise 1: Warm-up - Use a foam roller to work out any pain points

- Do some light stretching for 5 min

Exercise 2: Legs - Goblet squats 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Exercise 3: Back - Lat pulldown 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Exercise 4: Chest - Dumbbell bench press 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Exercise 5: More legs - Dumbbell romanian deadlift 3 sets of 8 repetitions

That’s it.

Many health “experts” will tell you to do more reps, more exercises, and train more intensely.

That could work — but my goal was to hit all major muscle groups and follow a sustainable routine.

And if you don’t like working out, that’s totally fine. A re-energizing break doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym.

It can also be…

  • Intellectual: Read a book or write in your journal
  • Relaxing: Take some time to meditate or contemplate
  • Strategic: Turn off all electronics and think of big, crazy ideas for your business

The key is to break up your day and slow down the “go, go, go” mentality. This way, you can continue to grow and scale without burning out.

If that means working out, great.

If it means finger painting, that’s great too.

Try a few options and see what resonates the most.

Tip #5: Avoid distractions and start your day earlier

Everyone works 9-5.

And if you work the same 9-5 hours, you run into three main problems:

  • Everyone is competing for your time
  • Everyone is pinging you for help
  • Everyone is asking questions

As a creative, it’s impossible to work in small bursts. We need big chunks of time to think and strategize.

Effective time management skills mean working at the best times to empower uninterrupted creativity and get better results for your clients.

Some people like working more in the evenings.

However, the mornings can be a great time to work too.

Here’s a schedule I like to follow:

  • 6:15 am wake-up with short meditation
  • 6:30 am check email and start working
  • 9 am start meetings and phone calls as necessary

This schedule gives me two-and-a-half hours to work in the morning uninterrupted, meaning I get more done and my clients are happier.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not a morning person,” that’s OK. I wasn’t either.

But you can make yourself a morning person.

Here are the three biggest tips to start waking up earlier.

  1. Set your alarm to go to bed. Many people have alarms to wake up, but what about going to bed? It’s easy to lose track of time and stay up late again, but setting an alarm reminds you to stop working
  2. Cure insomnia with reading and magnesium. 15 minutes reading a fiction book before bed, and a tablespoon of calming magnesium, can knock you right out
  3. Move your alarm away from your bed. If it’s close by, you’re going to click “snooze.” Put your alarm on the other side of your bedroom

Remember, it’ll take time to adapt and change your sleep schedule. But when you do, you’ll notice you get more done by noon than most people get done in an entire day.

Try the experiments above for three weeks and see if it helps you become a morning person.

When we’re more effective with our time, we accelerate our career — and live a happier, more stress-free life.

Today, you learned the 5 experience-backed methods to get more done in less time (without pulling your hair out).

Try one of them, or all of them. Then, let us know in the comments how it went.

  1. Separate your day into “buckets” for optimal productivity
  2. Focus on your “big rock” for the day
  3. Respect yourself, respect your clients: How to set boundaries properly
  4. Take an active break to refresh and re-energize
  5. Avoid distractions and start your day earlier
5 Time Management Tips for Designers was last modified: by