One of the drawbacks of a freelance career — be it web design, writing, graphic arts or something else — is that you’re not paid based on the hours you put in, but the work you complete. Unless it’s a project that requires you to log hourly sessions, you’re not being paid for downtime. Hourly workers, on the other hand, are paid regardless of what they’re doing while clocked-in.
As a freelancer, any downtime you have while doing a project is just going to eat away at your personal time. Worse yet, if you don’t finish it, you’re not going to get paid. To maximize the value of your work, you want to stay productive.
It’s essential to find ways to stay productive and efficient throughout your day. For web designers specifically, there are some things you can do to ensure this happens.
1. Create a to-Do List
Before the start of any project, you should outline what it is you’ll need to do and break it down by the steps it will take to get there. If you’re building a site from scratch, for example, start with the foundations and then include the rest. If you’re restructuring or redesigning an existing website, consider what you’ll need to adapt and what you’ll need to build from the ground up.
A to-do list may also be referred to as a master list, which includes every task you need to complete during a particular day.
It’s also vital to include teammates and co-workers in this process, which means providing them with a copy of the to-do. Furthermore, employ a tool that allows you to update the list, in real-time, so everyone stays up-to-date.
As you continue to do this from project to project, you’ll learn to include things you wouldn’t have initially. For instance, you might begin to notice that for every website or project, you have to check in with the content marketing team to be sure they’re providing you with the most current web copy.
2. Choose a Goal
The deadline for any project is critical. To meet it, you will need to establish a proper schedule leading up to whatever date or time was set. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months — you need to have a goal in place.
If the project is long term, it helps to break down goals into smaller segments or milestones based on the time available. Give yourself a few days or a week to complete one element of the design, and another week for the next. By the time the deadline creeps up, you already have most of the work completed, if you’re not already done in full.
If you’re talking short term, then break it down based on the work itself. For example, when developing and designing a site, multiple areas will need to be configured. Separate your work sessions based on project segments. Maybe in the first hour, you finish the landing page. During the following hour, you shoot for one of the subpages.
To track progress, you should turn to one of the many available tools, such as Asana, Trello or Wunderlist. Not only will they help you stay more organized, but they will also hold you accountable for missing your goals through notifications and alerts.
It’s always better to miss goals you set, as opposed to dropping a deadline and being docked pay — or worse, losing the project altogether.
3. Learn to Say No and Move On
For whatever reason, many freelancers have a tough time saying no to certain projects or tasks. This is the opposite of being efficient.
If a particular task is not worth your time, don’t agree to do it. If you’re in the process of completing work and you realize something is taking too long, either find an alternative or move on. Conventional teams tend to have a manager or supervisor to do this for them, pushing them forward when it’s necessary. As a freelancer, the only resource you have in this regard is yourself.
Learn when it’s necessary to move on and, most importantly, know your limits. Sometimes, some tasks are just too difficult or time-consuming, especially in the face of a looming deadline.
You should never be afraid to throw away work, either. As a designer, you’ll come across various projects or tasks that are more trouble than they’re worth. Sometimes it’s just better to toss everything out and start anew, especially when working with visual elements and designs. This can relate to the idea of setting goals or a proper schedule. Always include ample time to reboot your work, just in case.
4. Find a Mentor or Assistant
You can learn a lot by studying the work and experiences of your peers, particularly a mentor. You can also learn a lot by talking to someone with similar interests. You may even be able to elicit assistance from them.
Even the most skilled and experienced designers in the field still need to source advice or suggestions from others. Having another eye on a piece of work can be the difference between creating something remarkable or something generic. Before reaching success, Palma il Giovane, or Palma the Young, worked with Tintoretto — the famous Renaissance painter. This is how he honed his skills and became a sought-after artist.
Admittedly, a nondisclosure agreement can make this challenging to deal with — legally, you can’t show others confidential work you’ve completed. You can, at the very least, discuss basics or reference the work of others for inspiration.
5. Know When to Take a Break
Most guides will talk about eliminating distractions or cutting down on procrastination time. While both these things are important, they’re also obvious. Every professional understands the value of work ethic, so there’s no need to discuss it again here.
What is overlooked is the need to take breaks, especially when you’ve hit a creative wall. Sometimes, you need to step away from what you’re doing and get a breath of fresh air.
As a web designer, this is crucial for your physical and mental health. Sitting — or even standing — at a desk day-in and day-out can wear you down. That strain has a habit of carrying over from project to project unless it has a release of some kind.
If you’ve run into a wall and cannot see a way forward, then take a break, even if it’s short. Get up, get some exercise, grab a bite to eat or refill your coffee. If you’re not into working out, maybe take a few moments to relax and read a book, take a quick nap, play some games or watch a movie. Do something you enjoy, even if only for a few minutes, to escape and get your focus off work.
You’ll find that when you return, you’re much more focused and productive. There’s scientific evidence that breaks are good for you, as well.
6. Create Frameworks
While graphic and web design are incredibly creative fields, there are always going to be some elements that overlap between projects. It’s helpful to have a framework or foundation to start from, as opposed to nothing.
For instance, before building websites, you can create a series of common or preferable layouts in HTML and CSS using placeholders or blank fields. When a client asks you to produce a design, you can simply take one of those frameworks and begin plugging in the necessary content. If the customer wants a fresh design, you can still refer to them for inspiration or as a starting point.
This will drastically speed up your projects, because you’re not spending all that time at the beginning preplanning. Instead, you have something to work with and can dive right in.
7. Limit Exposure to Communication
Communication is always instrumental in collaborative projects. Nobody would argue otherwise, and that’s not what is going to happen here.
However, with creative projects such as web and graphic design, there are times where a client can be over-the-top with their communication and requests. It may be beneficial to your productivity to limit exposure to these distractions, at least for a short time, while you’re diligently working.
You don’t want to put the communication off so long that you’re getting feedback minutes before a deadline and being asked to revise the entire design from scratch. You don’t want it too soon, either, when you’ve barely had time to put together a solid demo. There’s a happy medium. Find what works for you and your clients, and when it’s time to focus on work, do exactly that.
Staying Productive Is Not Always Easy, but It Is Necessary
Many will agree that staying productive and on-task is not always the easiest thing to do, especially in the face of rampant distractions, frequent requests and personal setbacks. Despite all that, it is still necessary to remain as efficient as possible, more so in freelance where you’re not being reimbursed for downtime.
If you follow the tips discussed here, you should find it much easier to achieve. Creating a clear to-do list, setting goals for you and your team, saying no at the right time and prioritizing your breaks can help you maintain high productivity levels when you are working.