How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 2

Does managing your daily tasks and schedule leave you feeling all tied up?

Does managing your daily tasks and schedule leave you feeling all tied up?

“There are never enough hours in the day.”

–        Freelance writers everywhere

The number one lament I hear from fellow freelance writers is always that they don’t have enough time to get everything done. As self-employed writers, finding work, winning work, and getting work done is only half the battle. You also have to invest time (and brain cells) in branding and marketing yourself, handling administrative tasks, and continuing your professional education.

Then there’s the little matter of having a life. We need time to handle all our non-work responsibilities and we want time to enjoy all of life’s pleasures.

Work. Life. Fun. It’s a lot to juggle.

How DO you make sure everything gets done and use your time wisely?

You need a system.

Reality check: I’m a single mom with a young daughter. I do not have a nanny, a housecleaner, or an assistant. I volunteer with several organizations in my small town, write a column for my local paper, and take on multiple pro bono projects each year. I am able to be there for my daughter when she gets home from school and accompany her to all her extracurricular activities. I have a few extracurricular activities myself including daily walks, (almost) daily yoga, weekly riding lessons, and nights off with my beau. In short, I have a very full life, but I still manage to hit my deadlines and keep my clients happy.

As I confessed in part one of this two-part series, I do not have a magic wand or any super powers (that I know of). I have, however, been supporting myself as a freelancer for six years. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve always made it work; and I believe my success is largely due to proactive planning and manage my time against my plan.

Last time, we talked about my two “Big Picture” planning tools: an Excel spreadsheet for capturing overall work flow, and a Gantt chart schedule for creating individual project plans. This time, I’d like to share the three tools that I use for day-to-day task and time management:

The Writer’s Weekly/Daily Plan of Attack: Google Calendar

“Few people have any next, they live from hand to mouth without a plan, and are always at the end of their line.”

–        Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mr. Emerson isn’t kidding. Many writers are “at the end of their line” much too frequently. These are talented writers who find themselves in unmanageable situations because they overbooked their time without having first figured out how to clone themselves.

I haven’t figured out the cloning thing yet either, but I do know how to avoid overbooking myself. My secret weapon is called “calendaring” and I wrote about it in my post Manage your time, deadlines, and sanity with one tool – Down with the to do list.

Calendaring has many advantages over the traditional to do list, but the most beneficial one is the instant reality check. In the past, I would optimistically add one thing after another to my to do list and then be shocked and dismayed when I couldn’t fit fourteen hours of work into six hours I had available.

With calendaring, I am forced to go through the process of estimating time for each task when I add it to my calendar. This is called “time blocking,” and – as you can see in this screen grab – it results in a visual representation of your schedule:


I can now immediately see when I’m trying to fit an elephant through a mouse hole.

Getting started with calendaring is easy:

  1. Pick your tools: I happen to use Google Calendar, but you can use any calendar app or software. Both Apple and Microsoft have their own native apps. Make sure the solution you choose is one you can take with you via your smart phone or other mobile device. (Most apps will integrate easily with various mobile platforms.)
  2. Set up your calendar “categories:” As you can see in the image above, my calendar is very colorful. This is because it actually contains many sub-calendars, each one pertaining to a different category and color-coded accordingly.  I have twelve categories that cover everything from paid work to strategic planning to leisure time to my daughter’s activities. I love the color-coding because it lets me see at a glance where I’m spending my time. I like it best when there’s a healthy mix of paid work, big picture planning, and down time.
  3. Block out recurring time slots: Do you go to the gym at the same time each day? Do you consistently use Monday mornings to catch up on email? Do you have standing status meetings for clients or projects? Identify all your recurring appointments and commitments and “block” them into your calendar. Most apps include a feature that lets you set parameters for recurring items. I have some items scheduled to recur daily (like my morning pages, yoga, and daily walk), while others recur bi-weekly or once a month.
  4. Block out time you want: Do you want more time to write? As you may have realized, it’s unlikely that you’re ever going to find time; you have to make time. Even if you’re not sure you’ll get to keep these appointments with yourself, put them on your calendar. Trust me, you’re much more likely to make the time if it’s already in your calendar. I find that once I block out time for a personal task like working on my new website or some fiction writing, it seems a whole lot easier to “protect” that time from other tasks and obligations that tend to infringe on “my” time. (By the way, this includes time off and vacations. If I didn’t block out school holidays and weekends away, I’d constantly be scheduling work for days when I’m not even in the office!)
  5. Set up alerts: Do you ever feel like the day just “got away from you?” We’ve all been there. You start out with the best intentions, but one thing leads to another and suddenly you’re miles off course. Alerts can help you stay on track by reminding you when a particular appointment or commitment is scheduled to begin. I always set these up for client calls because I have been known to get absorbed in a task and completely forget to dial in to a call. They are also helpful for making sure one task doesn’t suck up all your available time. I’ll sometimes set an alert just to help me remember to switch tasks.
  6. Block out active personal and project time:  Now you can get down to blocking out time for any current personal or professional projects. Start with the current week and put down any meetings, calls, writing time, trips to the grocery store, events with friends, etc. After you’ve done the current week, look at the next two to three weeks out. What do you know about your upcoming work and personal obligations? Block it out, baby! Do you have any long-term projects in the works? Look at your project schedules and “rough block” (put in your best guess) as far out as seems sensible. (I usually don’t go more than four to six weeks out because things always change.)

By the time you’re done with this process, you will have a complete, reality-based view of your schedule. You’ll be able to see where you have lulls and where you have (oops!) committed to completing sixteen hours of work in one day. Though this might initially be a little scary to see, it will ultimately give you a very satisfying sense of control. When a client calls and asks if you can get something done by next Wednesday, you’ll be able to answer confidently instead of saying “yes” and hoping for the best. It’s a good feeling.

The Writer’s “Personal Assistant”: Google Tasks

“The devil is in the details.”

–        Anonymous

While calendaring and time blocking are an excellent way to manage the larger tasks and events in your day, there are always little things that need to be done, but aren’t “worthy” of an actual appointment on your calendar. This is where “tasks” come in handy.

Most calendar apps include a “tasks” feature that allows you to create mini lists. In Google Calendar, tasks are listed at the top of each day and include little check boxes. I use this feature to capture things like remembering to call and schedule my physical, send project invoices, and respond to particular emails. It’s also great for reminding me about things like birthdays, paying quarterly taxes, and upcoming local events that I might attend.

On the professional side of things, I use tasks to remind me to check in with clients who owe me feedback. I also use them to remind me to follow-up with new business leads. My clients are always impressed about how “on top of things” I am, and grateful that they can rely on me to manage the project process. Basically, tasks make me look good.

The beautiful thing about tasks is that once you put them in your calendar, you don’t have to worry about them anymore. You can put them out of your mind and focus on other things. Tasks will be there, waiting for you on exactly the day you need to handle them.

Side Note: Google Calendar also has an “Events” feature that creates non-task items that live in that same space above your main calendar. Events do not have check boxes, and you can create an event that spans multiple days. I set up events for things like my daughter’s vacation and summer camp weeks so I always have those marked off, but they don’t take up space on my main calendar.

The Writer’s All-important Time Tracking: Harvest

“Time is money.”

–        Ben Franklin

Finally, I have to mention the latest addition to my planning and time management arsenal: Harvest.

There are a lot of time-tracking and invoicing programs and apps out there. I’ve tried a handful of them, but Harvest is hands down the easiest one I’ve found.

Though it has many additional features, I use Harvest to:

  • Maintain an up-to-date client list (including all individuals within a company and their contact information)
  • Set-up projects and budgets (including hours allocated to the project)
  • Track my time (by project and client – so I can easily see how much of a project’s budget I’ve used)
  • Generate and send invoices (so fast and easy, it’s almost fun)

I started using Harvest this year. It’s not a free service, but I believe it’s worth every penny. In the past, I’d tried to track my time using Excel spreadsheets, but that was both inefficient and wildly unreliable. Using Harvest, my time entry is SO easy (I’m usually done in less than fifteen minutes each week).

More importantly, Harvest lets me easily see how my time tracks against the original project estimate. I have alerts set up within the app to email me when any project budget hits the 60% mark. This helps tremendously in terms of stopping scope creep before it happens. The time tracking also helps me increase my profitability by giving me a valuable record of the estimated vs. actual time on a variety of projects. Looking at this real world data makes it much easier for me to accurately estimate new projects.

I also love the way Harvest lets me look at all my invoices in one place. My old, jury-rigged system consisted of a sometimes-updated Excel spreadsheet and a collection of Word invoices that lived in project or client folders all over my hard drive. What a mess! With Harvest, I actually create my invoices when I set up a project so that when it’s time to send a bill, all I have to do is add a date to the invoice and hit “send.” The software creates a PDF and attaches it to the email. Done. And I have a complete list of all pending and paid invoices that I can filter eight ways to Sunday so I can see what’s coming in, what’s already been paid, and who needs to be sent a reminder. It’s beautiful.

Ok, coming off my sales-y soapbox now. It’s just that I really LOVE this software and the way it’s given me such control and confidence about my time tracking and invoicing.

Harvest offers a free 30-day trial, and if you decide you’d like to stick with it, please feel free to use my referral link. It’ll save you $10 off your first month (and give me a $10 kick back … so it’s kind of like you buying me a drink, two chai lattes, or a fancy new notebook – thanks!)

adaptable darwin

Though all this talk of planning and time management may sound over-the-top Type-A, rigid, and unforgiving, it actually makes you more flexible and adaptable. Once you have a firm handle on your schedule, change isn’t so scary.

We all know change is inevitable, especially in the land of freelance writers. Deadlines change, direction shifts, clients are late with feedback, interviewees can’t be nailed down, and so on. Without the proper support system, even the smallest change can send your world into a tailspin. Unless you can see your whole schedule in one view, you will only be able to manage your time reactively – putting out whichever fire seems biggest without understanding the implications on other projects. This kind of approach is what leads to late nights and weekends gobbled up by “make up” work. Not fun.

The combination of calendaring, tasks, and a professional time tracking app gives you the information and insight you need to manage your projects proactively. These tools make it possible for you to see the big picture, keep up with the details, and ensure your profitability. This is a system that will help you wrangle the hours of your day so you can get more done. It will reduce the chaos and increase the clarity. It will make you a happier (saner) freelance writer.

And, wouldn’t that a nice?

Thought so.

Questions? Comments? Random thoughts? Share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Tangled kitty image by Amanda Tipton

27 thoughts on “How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 2

  1. Brilliant ideas – loved it! Particulary this one: “There are talented writers who find themselves in unmanageable situations because they overbooked their time without having first figured out how to clone themselves.”
    I have been using a calendar before I started out as a writer, and now that I have to push myself to get my Project done, it is very helpful to plan my writing times. I’m not making any Money with writing yet, but hopefully I will when my project is finished :-). Thanks for the insight and the good ideas; it also made me happy to see that I’m not the only one who does “calendaring” like this. Excellent writing! (P.S.: I’m Swiss – please forgive my spelling weaknesses…:-) )

    • Hello, Claudia!
      First – no need to apologize for any spelling weaknesses. You write English beautifully. 🙂

      Second – I’m glad you appreciated my cloning joke. I’m always saying that I wish there were two of me. I could be SO much more productive!

      Good luck getting to the making money part. I recommend Peter Bowerman’s Well-fed Writer book series. They are a wonderful introduction to profitable freelance writing for beginners. You might find them helpful.

      Thanks for coming by & taking the time to comment. Love to have international visitors!

      • Hi Jamie, thanks for your kind feedback und the advice – I’ll look up his books! Looking forward to your helpful posts too – and concerning the cloning: if I think about it, it wouldn’t be such a good idea. Above all, being unique is who we were meant to be 🙂 So, the better for your advice, cause we’ll need it to get everything done!

  2. Thank you for the wise advice. Writing is hard work. I have been trying to find time for 10 years to edit my books. I have great respect for people who can be organized and create books with skill and timing.

    • Was it Woody Allen who said half of winning was just showing up? That’s often the case with writing. So many people talk about it, but only a few actually show up to do it. If you have books you’re editing, that means you already wrote them, which puts you miles ahead of the game. Good for you!

      Now all you need to do is a little planning & time mgmt to make time for editing. I hope these tools might give you a leg up on that.

      Good luck & thanks for coming by!

    • Thank you. I’m not sure there’s much to applaud, though. I’m a naturally organized person. I used to think my Type-A tendencies were a detriment to my creative side, but now I’ve realized that I need both in order to do my best work. It’s a balancing act, to be sure. Some days are definitely more organized than others! 😉

    • It does take time to digest these ideas and put them in motion, but I highly recommend making the effort. The amount of time you’ll save (not to mention crises you’ll avoid) in the long run make the time well spent.

    • Oh, hooray!
      I hope you have fun exploring Google Calendar and coming up with your own best way of putting it to use.
      Good luck & thanks for taking the time to say “thanks” 🙂

    • That is music to my ears, Laura! So glad you found the info useful and now have a “rainbow” calendar, too. 🙂

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  4. Like I mentioned in the other article, I use Evernote for almost everything. These days, my schedule is the same everyday (I use time blocks for each task, and it works well), so not much use to a calendar.

    But, I can see how it could be useful in the future, perhaps when I start my new blog 🙂

    As for time tracking, I use RescueTime (Although the app is just for tracking how you spend time, not many features compared to Harvest).

    Thanks for the tips, Jamie!

    • I used RescueTime for a while and was pleased to find that I wasn’t wasting as much time on social media as I’d thought. Handy tool to “self correct” when you’re getting off track.

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  6. Wow, I’m so glad I found this! I’m starting a small freelance business as of Feb 1 and I decided to use the five tools exactly as you’ve set them out. They’re all set up now and woops, I just realized I’ll have to start filing quarterly income tax in April.

    I know you’re not a tax expert, but I feel like my new-found system just dropped off a cliff. How do I get from these five tools to tax time? Any suggestions? Thanks so much for this two-parter, I’m so happy with it and when I go paid with Harvest I will definitely use your link!


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  8. Reblogged this on Christine R and commented:
    A REBLOG – Some great advice for those of you with hectic lives and in dire need of time management. I did a MOOC on this subject late last year, setting up myself with a paper calendar based system. I’m still using it – just not efficiently!

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