Freelancing in the WordPress space is a hugely attractive proposition: WordPress has experienced incredible growth for over a decade now and despite challenges there’s no sign of that stopping or there being any shortage of work to go around.
There are even great opportunities to split your time between client work and your own projects, which can flourish into very large businesses (see the progress made over our transparency reports to illustrate this).
This client/personal project/WordPress community time split is the dream for many freelancers but the reality for very few. How did we get into this mess, and how do we get out of it?
The economics of this are very basic: as a freelancer, you exchange your time for money. It’s the simplest form of exchange underpinning any capitalist economy.
Yet, as an independent freelancer you get access to few of the truly revolutionary productivity improvements of the last century (the internet aside, obviously; although it’s unclear whether or not this actually makes us more productive). You can’t utilise Henry Ford’s mass production line or Fredrick Taylor’s scientific workflow management. Indeed, your income is limited by the number of hours a week you’re willing to work.
Given all the opportunities in the WordPress space, filling your time isn’t the biggest challenge: it’s what to do once you’ve run out of hours in the week. What do you do when you’ve “run out of time”? Do you just repeat ad infinitum? How do you “make time” for projects you want to work on?
This post is going to dig into time management for WordPress freelancers with no time. It doesn’t matter how your time is currently divided; if you’re currently struggling to find time for anything, this post is for you.
- We’re going to look at how to focus on what’s important,
- tools to work smarter,
- and tools to work less.
We’ve also got wise voices from the WordPress community to provide juicy extra insights.
So, let’s get straight to it.
Good time management: Focus on what’s important
Deciding and then focussing on what’s important is a key prerequisite to managing your time more effectively. You need to do this to see how what you’re currently doing compares to your priorities and what you want to do.
You can ask a series of questions to make this easier:
- Where are you going? What does this look like in six months, two years?
- What’s important to you? Do you want a lifestyle business or to relentlessly pursue growth? Do you have a set revenue target?
- What are your goals? Are they SMART?
You can then evaluate this against what you’re currently working on. How does each activity or item in your calendar stack up against your goals and priorities? From this exercise you can square what you’re working on with what you want to be working on.
If you’re meeting your revenue goal, you may decide it’s time to stop taking on new freelance work, or stop doing the one project you don’t like. If you don’t like the direction you’re currently headed, how can you change your focus to fix that? These are the things to be thinking about. Here’s what freelance CTO Toby Osbourn said when I asked him about his approach to time management:
I know how much money I make from a particular personal project. I know how much money I need to make from client work in order to pay bills / have savings / have a life. I schedule enough client work in the month to hit those targets, everything else is personal work…
The goal, of course, is to work on meaningful improvements to my personal projects, so that next month I can see they’ve made that little bit more, which eventually can mean being less tied to client work.
The important thing is not to forget about money and “follow your passion“, but to strike a realistic balance between the demands of needing to earn revenue and focussing on building for the future.
It’s useful to remember here that everyone has the same amount of time. Nobody has time for everything; it’s always a case of making time. If something’s really important to you, you need to find time for it.
Think of this process as a schedule “audit”. Practice it regularly: focus on what’s important and thereby free-up time you are currently spending on less essential things. Overall, you will gain a schedule that is better balanced between client time and your own time.
Choosing the right tools to work faster
The obvious way of finding more time is to work faster. If you can get the same work done in less time, you have more time. This is very simple and the struggle for increased productivity is one which has occupied workers since the industrial revolution.
I polled fellow WordPress freelancers in the Advanced WordPress Facebook group to see how other professionals approached time management, and simply working faster was by far the most favoured time management tool.
Here’s the breakdown of results in full. As you can see, the two most popular answers by some margin were choosing software that aids working faster and automating repetitive tasks:
(Chart by Visualizer Lite.)
The most probable reason for the popularity of these two methods is that they’re highly accessible and there are obvious low hanging fruit in terms of time management gains. So, how do you take advantage of them?
Let’s start with choosing the right software. As the WordPress pros attest, this can make a big difference. Here are some of your best options:
- The right code editor (with built-in FTP). See a full list of options here.
- SimpleDiagrams and Balsamiq Mockups for communicating ideas clearly with clients.
- ScreenFlow or Camtasia for recording client videos.
- recordit for quickly recording GIFs to be shared with clients, in articles or on social.
- Development work: use libraries and frameworks (examples: Underscores, StyleGuides, Herbert, Roots).
- If you’re implementing WordPress onto a large number of client sites, themes such as Divi can save a huge amount of time.
- Ulysses or MarkdownPad for writing content (Mac and PC respectively).
Software is very personal and there’s no single best option to suit everyone. Try out different tools and see what works best for you.
(Choosing the right tools is important: wireframing software such as Simple Diagrams can speed up your workflow.)
Automating tasks is a more complex business, but the gains are equally obvious: if you’re doing the same tasks over and over again, look for ways of automating and then pocket the saved time. These are the kinds of things you can easily automate:
- Repetitive development tasks: see how to use Gulp to automate WordPress tasks.
- Client on boarding: see Paul Jarvis on how he automates this.
- Social sharing: tools like Buffer combined with IFTTT or plugins such as Revive Old Post.
The big gains with automation are to be had with the repetitive development tasks. I spoke with Ben Gillbanks, WordPress theme developer who runs ProThemeDesign and MasterWP. Ben is one of the most prolific theme developers on WordPress.com and maintains a library of 20+ themes, so appreciates the advantages of avoiding repetitive tasks. I asked Ben to explain his approach to development automation:
My philosophy to everything related to development is to automate as much as possible.
Anything simple and repetitive that doesn’t need any thought to do can probably be wrapped up in some sort of programming task (Gulp/ Grunt/ PHP), and so I will do that. It does mean a bit more code, and a bit more development, but in the long run this has saved me days (probably weeks) of work — so I can focus on the things I actually enjoy doing. Even something as simple as creating my own starter theme (or using s) saves me hours of work with every project.
Ben’s approach is spot on here: initially, it may take longer to set up systems to automate tasks, but time savings in the long run more than make this back.
Outsourcing didn’t get a lot of love in the Advanced WordPress poll but is worth a quick mention. Tasks that don’t need you to be doing them (and especially ones you don’t enjoy) can be outsourced. It’s not quite zero sum: you have to manage your outsourcee which takes time, but done right this can save a lot of time.
See CodeinWP’s other post on how to outsource your WordPress related work for more on this.
Working faster frees up time. As an independent freelancer you may not have received the great productivity gains of the twentieth century, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of helping you work faster.
Working smarter with time blocking
Working smarter links all this time management together. You’ve audited what you’re working on and found tools to help you work faster, but what now? Work smarter.
The “80/20” rule or Pareto principle is one of the great platitudes of productivity content. Its premise is well known: roughly 20% of effort results in 80% of the outcomes. The idea that you can simply cut your work time by 4/5 and immediately head to the beach is more or less totally devoid of reality. If you only put in 20% of the work you might get to 30% or even 40% of the results, but your clients, boss and peers will find this utterly unacceptable.
Although the Pareto principle is unhelpful when taken literally, the general concept is useful: how can you achieve 90%, 95% or 100% of the results in slightly less time? This is a much more interesting question because it is totally achievable. What ways are there of working 10% or 20% faster to free up a half of or even a whole day?
As we discussed earlier, looking at your schedule and asking what’s important is a good starting point, but it only works for work tasks you’re explicitly scheduling. What about those things that aren’t scheduled but can consume an infinite amount of time? Try asking these questions:
- Is the latest #wpdrama seriously worth your undivided attention, or will the world keep turning without your involvement?
- Does every Slack conversation need your input?
- Do you need to reply to every email as soon as you get it?
- What are your favourite work activities that aren’t actually work?
Spoiler: the world keeps moving and the sun will rise in the morning whatever happens. These time-sucking activities don’t show up on your schedule, but they’re almost certainly happening. These are the easy margin for freeing up more time.
Tackling this is important. It is notable that nobody in the Advanced WordPress poll cited, “limiting time on email or social media use” as a strategy they’re using, but, in my opinion, time blocking is one of the best methods of improving your time management:
Time blocking is simply scheduling-in time for working on a specific project and then spending that scheduled time on that project. You might, for example, schedule 9-12 on Mondays for client work and 1-5 for a specific personal project. With time blocking you get to control in advance how much time you spend on each project. This is a huge win.
If on Wednesday, between 2 and 4, I’ve blocked off time to go through and rework some old personal blog posts, that is what I am going to do – it doesn’t matter if I know there is billable work waiting for me between 4 and 6. Blocking off time like this serves as an artificial way to force focus. I have 2 hours to get through this stuff, taking 10 minutes to check Twitter/email/whatever is not an option.
My approach on this is very similar to Toby’s, with time blocking a way to force the valuable deep work that ensures I get work done.
Time blocking is likely the single biggest fix for WordPress freelancers with no time. You designate in advance how long you’re going to spend on each project and then, throughout the week, just follow your schedule. It’s a simple technique, but works wonders for those struggling between multiple client projects and personal goals.
What do you do with all your free time?
Focussing on time management will let you dedicate time to the things you want to be doing, be they personal projects, community involvement or straight-up time off. Given this is why many people get into freelancing in the first place, the appeal and importance of getting your time management right can’t be understated.
The tripartite collection of tools and techniques discussed can actually fix the problem WordPress freelancers face of “having no time”:
- Focussing on what’s important gives you the perspective to see which projects are valuable and to ditch those projects which are not aligned with your long term goals.
- Choosing the right tools is a simple way of working faster, to free up more time. The recommendations discussed offer a great package for getting more done in less time.
- Working smarter by time blocking is the best time management solution I’ve found for freelancers. Personal projects are the first to go when client work is beckoning, so explicitly scheduling these in ensures time is dedicated to them.
Lack of time is a problem we’re all facing, but it’s a solvable problem and the techniques discussed should offer some solid groundings for fixing it. What are your favourite time management techniques and tools for WordPress freelancers? Let us know in the comments.
Don’t forget to join our crash course on speeding up your WordPress site. With some simple fixes, you can reduce your loading time by even 50-80%: