For many independent consultants, the freedom from corporate nine-to-five work days and the ability to create their own work schedule are the biggest draws of independent work. However, some find that without a set work schedule, time management can be challenging. Below are some tips that can help you learn to manage your time more efficiently and effectively, while maintaining the freedom of setting your own schedule.
Set Realistic & Attainable Goals
Because working as an independent consultant can mean wearing many hats and managing a lot of responsibilities, you may find yourself with an unmanageable to-do list. Without a set work schedule, it can be tempting to try to tackle the list by setting daily goals that are simply unattainable. While long days are often part of an independent consultant’s job description, it’s important to be realistic when planning your schedule. Don’t set expectations for yourself—or make commitments to clients—that you are unsure you can meet. Ambition is a great thing, but there are only 24 hours in a day (6-8 of which you should be sleeping) and you need to respect that by giving yourself enough time to complete tasks to the best of your ability and to be able to avoid panic if something unexpectedly goes wrong.
Overestimate Your Time
When estimating how long it will take you to complete a task, there is a temptation to underestimate in hopes of pleasing clients or managers. However, creating a tightly packed schedule with no room for error leads to additional stress. When you create your daily or weekly schedule, add an additional 20% of “time padding” to the amount of time you estimate a task will take. It’s also a good idea to leave open appointment slots in your schedule to allow for last-minute fire drills or tasks that slipped your mind. If you do end up with a free hour, then you can catch up on administrative tasks, get ahead in your project work, or take a mental break.
Budget Time for Necessary and Predictable Tasks
Because an independent consultant’s workday is unpredictable and may vary greatly from one day to the next, setting your schedule too far in advance may be challenging. A common mistake people make when creating a schedule or to-do list is to only consider and account for the major items and tasks they need to complete. While there may be no such thing as a “typical day” for you, there are important routine tasks that remain a constant part of your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule. Even though these tasks occur regularly, they’re often overlooked when making your schedule because they seem mundane. These tasks include reading and responding to email, monthly invoicing, and even taking much-needed breaks. Budgeting time for these types of tasks can help you manage the rest of your time more efficiently.
When faced with lengthy task lists, prioritizing becomes a valuable step in making smart and efficient use of your time. While items with fast-approaching deadlines should come first, how you prioritize the rest of your day depends on your personality and working style. Some experts recommend working on difficult or time-consuming items first to get them out of the way early, while others suggest starting with the quick and easy tasks so that you can warm up your brain and quickly start crossing items off your list. However, the better option is to recognize your working style and identify the time of day when you are most productive, and schedule tasks that require the most focus and attention for this time.
Without a strict work schedule, independent consultants’ personal and professional time often blend together. Strong time management skills are essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance; without them, you may find yourself at risk of decreased motivation and productivity, or even burning out entirely. Emergencies and extenuating circumstances aside, set a consistent time to end your work day. Communicate your hours to clients, and make sure that you stick to them.