How to Prioritize Your Work as a Freelancer

If you're a creative freelancer, juggling projects is probably one of your biggest challenges. This article discusses the art of prioritization.

Portrait for EnvatoBy Envato  |  Updated December 14, 2022

Freelancing is often a juggling act. Not only are you working on several different projects at any given time, but you’ve probably also got projects that are all at various stages of development.

Starting new projects, finishing others, and diving deeper into even more can make organization and planning a difficult task. You’ll constantly be facing the challenge of managing your time effectively to balance all of your clients and to keep completing jobs.

If you’re like me, there’s nothing more satisfying than completing a job and crossing it off of your to-do list (well, getting paid is pretty rewarding too, but that’s getting off track). Personally, I function far more effectively when I have a challenging but realistic list of tasks for each day and each week. Without planning for the use of my time I tend to lose focus and spend my time less productively.

As I’m creating my task list for each day, and throughout the day as I determine how to allocate my time for each task, I have to prioritize. Effective prioritizing is a necessity for freelancers to maximize their efficiency and productivity. Because we’re all different, what works for me may not work for you. There’s no right or wrong approach, but we all need to find our own ideal method of prioritizing.

Before getting into the details of prioritizing it’s helpful to define the difference between “important” and “urgent.” The basic difference is time sensitivity. An urgent task needs to be done in short order, whereas an important task is critical for some reason, even though it may or may not need to be done immediately. Tasks on your agenda can be both urgent and important, one or the other, or they could be neither.

By prioritizing we hope to find a balance that will allow us to complete the most urgent and important tasks. The difficulty sometimes comes when you have to weigh one against the other.

An example of an urgent task with relatively low importance would be an upcoming deadline on a small project for a client with whom you’re not likely to do business again. It needs to be completed by the deadline, so there is probably more urgency than importance.

On the other hand, an example of an important task with low urgency would be a high-paying job for a repeat client that is not very time-sensitive.

Checklist: Prioritizing Work

1. Deadline

Deadlines are something that all of us deal with on a regular basis, and they’re often a huge factor in determining urgency. Of course, the closer the deadline, the more urgency exists. You may or may not have enough time to work ahead and avoid last minute needs. If you’re able to do this you can eliminate much of the urgency and you’ll have more freedom with your scheduling.

2. Consequences

What happens if the deadline is not met? In some instances this isn’t even an option, but other projects will have a very loose deadline and a client that will not be bothered by an extra day or two of working time. Not all deadlines are the same, so if you’re unlikely to get everything done in time, try to gauge the consequences of not meeting each of your deadlines and prioritize accordingly.

3. Stage of Development

Although a deadline may not be looming in the immediate future, large projects will need to be well-planned and executed accordingly. If you’re only looking at the deadline you may not see the urgency, but you could still be way off-pace to get everything done in time. One method you can use to help with this is to set several deadlines for smaller milestones throughout the project, which will help you to stay on pace and to be able to easily track your progress.

4. Pay

Let’s face it, money can be a determining factor in both importance and urgency. It may be the amount of pay that’s significant, or it could be the timing of when you’ll be paid.

5. Client

Is the client a regular, repeat client that is responsible for a considerable amount of business? Is it a new client with whom you’d like to develop a stronger relationship? Is it a problem client that always has issues paying on time? Is it a new client that you’re unlikely to do business with again? All of these things can be factors that will influence how you prioritize.

6. Your Word

Although you may not have a strict deadline, did you tell the client you would do something by a certain time? Did you tell them you would do something specific that isn’t completed yet? For building a reputation, referrals, and repeat business, your word is obviously important.

Tips for Planning Your Time

Break Projects Down into Smaller Steps

Rather than looking at an entire project, look at what you need to do during a specific day or week to make the necessary progress.

1. Prepare Ahead of Time

Personally, I find that it helps to have the day and the week planned out before I start. Typically I’ll spend a small amount of time over the weekend planning my overall priorities for the upcoming week, and each night I’ll lay out what I need to get done the following day.

I find that having a plan done ahead of time helps me to get started productively each day rather than procrastinating and weighing my options before deciding what to work on. This may or may not work for you, but most likely everyone could benefit from some type of planning in advance.

2. Review

At the end of each day take a few minutes to look at what you’ve accomplished and evaluate how it stacks up to the goals that you had for the day. This can be helpful in prioritizing for the next day as you’ll know some things now have more urgency because you weren’t able to get to them.

3. Estimate Time Requirements

When prioritizing and planning you’ll want to make an estimate of how much time each item will require.

I find this to be helpful for keeping me moving when my work is slowing down, and it helps me to measure how much I really got done in a given day or week.

This can also be helpful for pricing future jobs. Maybe you’re really underestimating or overestimating how long tasks will take, and this will help you to identify those areas and adjust them for price quotes in the future.

4. Know Your Strong Times

All of us have some times during the day or the week when we are more productive than other times. If you’re aware of these habits you can adjust your schedule to take advantage of your strongest times and schedule less difficult tasks for your weaker times.

Maybe sending out some invoices or emailing past clients doesn’t take as much concentration as your other work, so you may want to save those tasks (or something similar) for points in the day where you struggle with attentiveness.

5. Follow Your Moods

Sometimes you may have a few different projects with similar levels of importance and urgency.

I’ve found I work best when I choose to work on whatever appeals to me most at that moment. For example, I do some writing and some design. There are some times where I’ve planned on writing an article, but I just don’t feel like I can be as productive at that moment as I could be if I was working on a design (or vice versa). If the situation allows, I’ll change plans and take advantage of the productive time working on something else.

This isn’t always possible, but I’ve found that it helps with my quality of work, the amount of time required to complete the work, and it also helps my mental outlook at that time.

How do you determine your priorities and take steps to succeed as a freelancer? What are some of your habits or pointers that you think may be helpful to the rest of us?

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