One of my favorite parts of writing the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series has been the opportunity to individually scrutinize each of the different things I do. But recently, I realized that while I’ve written a lot about many different topics as separate ideas, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing how all of the various aspects of my freelance life work together in the context of an average day. So for this post, I’d like to share my own version of what my day-to-day life is like as an e-Learning freelancer.
One big caveat: as most freelancers will tell you, when you’re working for yourself, every day can be different. So in some sense, there is no “normal” day for e-Learning freelancers—but just because it’s not the same each day doesn’t mean freelance life has to be chaotic! Rather, as a freelancer, your time management skills will play an incredibly important role in terms of how productive, and ultimately how happy, you are. Your challenge will be in creating a structure for your daily professional life that keeps you flexible while always moving you forward.
With that in mind, here’s how I structure my time, and how that typically plays out.
Playing with Blocks
The first big hurdle I faced as an e-Learning freelancer was learning how to manage my time, and learning to make time to get what I wanted to get done, instead of only for what needed to get done.
I started out by only focusing on work that was urgent or directly in front of me, and not much else. At that point, I felt justified prioritizing things that were directly tied to revenue, because in my mind, getting paid was my priority (which wasn’t a bad thing; I just made the mistake of making it my only priority). I was so good at keeping myself busy handling ground-level details and covering last-minute minutiae that I rarely had time to think about the big picture of my career. But that was OK, I told myself, because I was still making money.
I used that justification to postpone a lot of other work I needed to get done, like writing professional goals, networking, and even reviewing my business finances. Making money was great, but I still found myself stressed out a lot of the time, because I was running into the consequences of deprioritizing important non-project work. If a big project ended, I would suddenly find myself in a panic because I didn’t have any new work lined up; if I was in the middle of multiple projects, I often forgot to eat lunch or get any exercise. Writing it now, it sounds obviously unhealthy, but at the time, it just felt like I was doing the right thing by focusing on money.
Eventually, it hit me: if I never set aside time to work on my long-term goals, I would never reach them. Sounds like common sense, right? I can tell you from experience how easy it is to downplay or put off “big picture” work. Knowing what you want your life to look like and actually taking steps towards getting there are two very different things! As I looked back on all the previous months in my calendar, I saw that I had been holding myself back by only working on my short-term tasks and never investing specific time in my future.
That’s when I started using blocks. (In this case, “blocks” just means blocks of time.) I began by writing down all of the things I needed and wanted to spend time doing. For example:
- Social Media/Content Curation
- e-Mail Correspondence
- To Do list review
- Personal Growth/Self Improvement
- Reflection/Goals/Core Value Review
- Project Work
- Journal Time
- Strategy Time
- e-Learning Heroes Challenges
- Sales Pipeline Work
- Blog Post Writing
- Break Time / “Do Nothing” Time
- Unexpected / Emergent Issue Time
I called each of these areas a “block,” and assigned ideal durations and frequency for each—so while I definitely need an hour each day to respond to email, I only need an hour each week to handle my accounting and finances. With all of my blocks created, I set up meetings on my calendar for each.
Of course, this idea isn’t revolutionary—plenty of people block out time on their calendars to get things done. But here’s the important part about how I approached it: I spent a good amount of time deciding what I wanted to block time for, and I got very specific about ensuring my blocks represented all of the work I needed to be doing on a regular basis. This is different from scheduling multi-hour blocks of “work time”!
By creating blocks that represented both practical things (like project work) and introspective things (like time for journaling), I was able to proactively design my lifestyle, instead of spending my time being reactive and short-sighted. It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true: proper time management has been the single biggest contributor to my job satisfaction as a freelancer. When I know I’ve made time for everything, my freelance life feels much less chaotic and stressful!
So let’s talk about where all of my blocks typically fit in my calendar.
What It Looks Like
After I scheduled all of my blocks, here’s what a given week might look like (click to enlarge):
While it may look a little hectic, I’m all right with that, because I’m confident that my schedule has me doing all of the right things, and I find that the time I spend creating e-Learning materials is more productive when I’m not worrying about all of the other things I have to get done.
Also, it’s worth remembering that while most blocks are daily or weekly, some are monthly or even quarterly. So if we look at my calendar from a monthly perspective, it looks like this (click to enlarge):
Every calendar will look different, of course, but my point here is that as a freelancer, your schedule may not be consistent, but it can be structured—and the sooner you do that, the sooner you’ll find yourself more productive. (It’s also the only cure I’ve found for my freelance life making me feel like a chicken with its head cut off!)
The Four Best Ways to Be Diligent About Your Blocks
As with a lot of the practices I’ve recommended in the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, the hard part about using detailed calendar blocks is sticking to it. Being diligent about your schedule takes practice, and is something that sounds a lot easier than it is. Priorities can be hard to stick to—when I first started using blocks, I kept thinking, “But what if a client calls with an emergency during my exercise time?”—but with a few key practices in place, I’ve developed a working schedule that makes time for both my “big picture” work and the occasional emergency.
Here are my four best tips for making sure you stick to your calendar blocks:
- Build in time for the unexpected. It’s important to plan for unplanned situations—the last thing you want to do is find that your blocks don’t leave you any wiggle room for work you weren’t counting on. I recommend creating at least two daily blocks of at least a half-hour each and reserving them for unexpected work (I also create one large block for unexpected work on Friday to help ensure that I’m not working on weekends). Don’t plan any other work for this time—leave it available! If you get to your reserved block and there are no new emergent issues, then it’s OK to repurpose that time.
- Use alarms for your blocks, and remove all distractions until the alarm goes off. This can be a tough one to get accustomed to mentally, but it’s vital. A key part of using your time blocks wisely is removing distractions. When I’m knee-deep in project work and I have a two-hour block for it, I set an alarm on my phone for the end of the block, and then I disable or ignore all possible distractions until the alarm goes off. That means I don’t have a browser window open, my phone is in my pocket in “do not disturb” mode, and I make a point of not leaving any communication channels (i.e., Slack or Google Hangouts) open. Sounds scary, right? Like I said, it’s a mental shift to make a point to disconnect from all of the ways people have of reaching you or all of the ways you have of distracting yourself, but in the end, you’ll find that your work time is far more productive.
- Never cancel a block—only reschedule as needed. This is particularly important! When I first started using calendar blocks, I found myself canceling them from time to time, and—surprise, surprise—the ones that I canceled most frequently were my “big picture” blocks. If you’re using blocks, but deprioritizing your “big picture” blocks…then you’re not really using blocks! Also, it’s totally fine to move blocks around if work gets delayed–so if you find yourself with a free hour, use that as an opportunity to swap in another block! A free hour is a great opportunity to start a new blog post or try out an e-Learning Heroes challenge. For me, the trick has been to force myself to reschedule any blocks that I need to move around. I never let myself off the hook—even if it’s for something small, like my “do nothing” time. Remember: every block is equally important when it comes to the long-term health of your freelance career.
- Avoid creating generic blocks. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people block off “work time” on their calendars and use those to complete different work each time. Personally, I’ve never found this approach to be particularly effective, because generic work blocks force me to evaluate what I need to get done every time. So as a general rule of thumb, I think of it this way: If I have to decide what work needs to be done every time I start a calendar block, it’s not saving me any time and needs to be more specific. I typically keep a running To Do list, and when I can, I associate the things I need to do with the times that I’m going to get them done. The point of an effective block is to have time on your calendar set aside for a specific purpose or task—not to be a blank canvas (where you can easily deprioritize your “big picture” work)!
Conclusion: What’s Next for the Blog Series?
Originally, I had planned on having the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer blog posts being a weekly series throughout 2017, ending shortly after I felt I had covered all of the basics. After having written posts for six months, I’m having the time of my life—whether it’s the conversations in our private Facebook group, or the emails I’ve gotten from readers like you, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to connect with so many talented colleagues. So rather than setting a defined end point and continuing with a weekly schedule, I’ve decided to continue the series indefinitely, but on a relaxed schedule.
Here’s what all this means for my readers:
- I will continue to write posts for the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series indefinitely, and as new topics come up; while I won’t be continuing my weekly posting schedule, I’ll continue to produce content on a more relaxed schedule. (If you have a topic or question you’d like to see covered, be sure to get in touch!)
- I will continue to moderate and participate in our private Facebook group. It’s quickly becoming a great community for freelancers to share ideas and solicit feedback, and I’m committed to continuing to foster that environment.
- I’m working on an upcoming project for e-Learning freelancers, and I’ll be sharing more news about that here on my site, on Twitter, and of course within our Facebook group. (If you’re not a member already, now is a good time to sign up! Group members will be receiving some exclusive opportunities related to this project. Sign up and stay tuned for more!)
So just to be clear, the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series is far from over; I’m simply evolving it to increase the value it provides for readers like you. And while I look forward to all that’s to come, I also want to express how grateful I am for the support I’ve received from friends, colleagues, and readers like you. Your questions, comments, and ideas have made me a better Learning & Development professional, and I hope you’ve found these posts useful in your own freelance journey.
And as always, feel free to join in on the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!