As a freelance graphic designer, deadlines are everything. When your back is against the wall and you're balancing multiple projects while also trying to spend time with family and maintain a healthy lifestyle... It can be tough.
I design for the music industry, and the deadlines are intense! At times it can feel like my clients need designs yesterday. They're scrambling to get designs put together for a merch line, so it's my job to crank out ideas and get them whatever they need.
It's very common that my work schedule can feel suffocating… I’ve balanced 13 different projects, and that’s all in a single week.
I can remember in one of my busiest times, doing about 100 t-shirt designs. These are for multiple projects that hit at once and are usually for entire tour merch lines. Sadly, a lot of those designs won't get approved or see the light of day. But I digress.
Going on NINE years of freelancing full-time, I’ve tried just about every method of how to manage projects. Where I’m at now, I want nothing to hinder my ability to get as much work done as possible.
I run an incredibly simple operation. I want to share with you how I manage all the clients projects and personal tasks of running my freelance business.
Let me preface by saying that there’s no single best way to manage your time. It’s very much an iterative process. Don’t think that how I manage my tasks is how you should manage yours. But hopefully you can pick and choose from what I share and apply it to help you manage your time better.
For me, apps full of features appear useful, but quickly becomes another login and account that needs managed, email newsletters, download the app to my phone, mess with notifications, syncing, and having it always run in the background. There’s also a slight learning curve that comes with using most of those apps.
My job is to get my work done, period.
To ensure there’s no hurdles or messing with setting up systems, I’ve simplified how I manage tasks to the bare minimum.
All I use is a notebook, post-it note, and my email…
Here’s what my typical workflow looks like when managing tasks…
For client projects, everything starts with an email.
The only way I can make this process work with email is by using the “Inbox Zero” method. Meaning, I’m always striving for an empty inbox.
This isn’t a method for everyone, but has worked INSANELY well for me being a solo freelance graphic designer.
Again, I'm just one person working in a spare bedroom in my house. For me, this process works incredibly well.
My inbox acts like a catch-all to-do list… It’s not my actual to-do list!
If you have an overwhelming inbox full of messages, swiftly go through it and make sure there’s nothing you need to immediately reply to. In most cases, everything is just sitting there… So ARCHIVE everything. Start fresh.
When you archive emails, you’re simply moving them from your inbox and into a separate "Archive folder". These messages still show up if you search, so they can be accessed at any moment.
Congratulations! You have an empty inbox!
Every morning I swiftly go through my inbox to delete and archive everything in there, only leaving me with what actually needs my attention.
If an email comes in and it doesn’t need my attention or I will never need to reference this email again, I DELETE it. These are usually newsletters and unsolicited emails that aren't necessarily spam.
If it’s a client project, personal email, any important information, or receipts, I ARCHIVE it in case I ever need to reference it in the future.
When something that no longer provides value or interests me, I unsubscribe from it. You can usually find an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email.
The goal is to simplify what comes in and only give attention to what actually matters. When a client project comes in, I know what I have to work on, and what emails need my response.
Those will sit in my inbox until I've responded. When I’ve done the work and replied to the client, I'll then archive that email.
Then, when the client responds, it automatically pops back into my inbox, pulling the thread of our back and forth.
Throughout the day I instantly delete or archive emails as they come in. I never let it sit unless it needs my response.
Here's where the next part comes in; my post-it!
This little piece of paper sits in front of me all day. I don’t need to reference daily tasks again, so when I’m done for the day, I retire this note into the recycle bin and move forward with the next day!
I use my notebook for tracking monthly goals, setting weekly tasks, and for brain dumping ideas. (That's another video in and of itself!)
For my daily tasks—either at the end of the work day or first thing when I sit down at my desk—I look at my inbox, clear out the unnecessary, and prioritize the tasks left in my inbox on my post-it note.
I use a modified version of what was originally called the “Eisenhower Matrix”. Which instead of using quadrants, I use a simple check-list.
I break my tasks into A, B, C, and D tasks.
A tasks are my immediate tasks. Specifically, my A1 task, which is the task that needs done before anything else. I usually make this simple, which gives me a good accomplished feeling to start out the day. Things like, respond to emails, a design revision, and simple tasks that can be done in a short amount of time.
A tasks are what NEEDS to be done before the end of the work day. These are the crucial deadlines.
B tasks are what I need to get done by the end of the day, but aren’t intense deadlines. These are for making progress or at least getting a project researched and organized, so that I can tackle the designs the following day.
C tasks are nice to have done. Things like plan tomorrow's Instagram post, clean my desk, or add one new project to my website.
D tasks, are my DON’T DO tasks. This helps me break bad habits. So for example, today, my Don’t task is, don't watch YouTube until A tasks are completed.
Also, when I get quick revision requests throughout the day, I jot it down to get it out of my head. The post-it sits in front of me all day. And once I complete a task, I get that sweet satisfaction of crossing it off my list, archiving the email, and moving onto the next thing.
Once you get in the rhythm of sorting your emails and creating a simple, prioritized task list for the day, it takes SECONDS to manage. And soon you'll find yourself working with intention.
To quickly recap:
- I start each day with my inbox. I DELETE what’s not important, ARCHIVE what no longer needs my attention.
- Then I prioritize everything I need to do on my post-it note. I jot down what tasks might pop-in throughout the day, usually design revisions or sending an invoice, and this keeps my head clear and focused at the current task at hand.
- When I finish a task, I cross it off, archive the email, and move on!
Time management can be difficult. Especially if your entire career rests on your shoulders. Hopefully by sharing how I balance all my work, it can help motivate you to develop your own process.
With that, I think it’s time to cross this post off the to-do list, and let’s get back to work!