Time management for new and overenthusiastic freelancers

When I finished my Master’s in Conference Interpreting, I got to hear from trainers and fellow interpreters one seemingly crucial message: make yourself known and gain experience.

Suddenly I was plucked out of student mode and had to send out a daily dose of résumés to potential employers and actively participate in different activities to branch out my network. In the meantime, I had to keep reading the press to stay on top of current affairs and my working languages, practice interpreting techniques to make sure I would be ready when my first contract came along. In the meantime I had to get a side job to pay the bills, register as self-employed (and learned the basics about accounting, budgeting and tax obligations), start traveling (with it’s planning implications ), and of course you I had to try and keep a healthy lifestyle and active social life.

Although none of this was new to me, given my past experience in calendar management, my  enthusiasm and motivation sometimes made me feel overstretched. At the end of the day I was feeling exhausted and unproductive because I wasn’t getting important things done. So I went back to some basic concepts I learned as an office manager and found the following 5 tips to be the most helpful:

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1. Prioritize until it hurts. We have lots of things to do and we love to do them all, but there comes a crucial time that we must learn to say NO. Setting limits is difficult, especially when we must apply them to ourselves, but it will be worth it in the end. A good idea is to write down all the things you have to do and look at them with a critical eye. Decide which ones are important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important but urgent, and not important and not urgent.Then you will know what to do first and what can wait without you getting a nagging feeling of guilt for the things you haven’t yet done.

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2. To-do lists. Writing what you have to do or want to do is a great way to visually asses what needs to be prioritized, not to mention how gratifying it is to get it done and cross out. A great tip I got from a PA once was to write absolutely everything in one place. Keeping a list on my phone and a different one on a notebook, and yet another one on my desk has led to avoidable chaos before. You’ll save time and mental energy keeping your lists together and knowing that you won’t forget about anything important because you already wrote it down.

One more thing about to-do-lists: I have learned from experience that if my daily list has more than 5 items, they will not get done (see tip 1).

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3. Networking events: yes, you must also prioritize. In order to expand my list of contacts and make a name for myself I started looking in places like Internations.org, Alumni or trade associations, LinkedIn, Start-up incubators and Meetup. After a couple of months I was overwhelmed and couldn’t really keep up my professional skills, my digital marketing strategy, and my personal life if I was to keep attending all these events. So what did I do? That’s right, prioritize.

After a couple of tries, you get the hang of filtering which events are going to help your career and which ones are just not worth your time.

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4. If it’s not it my calendar I’m in trouble. From my time as an office manager I developed the habit of writing down all the trips, phone calls, classes and meetings in my calendar immediately. I suggest using colors and using labels to make it more visual and easier to decipher at a glance. It seems that it will take an enormous amount of time right away, but believe me, when work starts to pile up, you’ll be happy to have a system you can rely on. If you have signed up for an interpreters’ calendar or secretariat, I can’t stress enough the importance of updating it right away. Imagine the impression you’ll give if a recruiter sees that you are available, but you really aren’t. One of your priorities as a freelance interpreter should be to keep your calendars up to date!

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5.) For the procrastinators: Time it. If your procrastinating game is so strong that it has overpowered your motivation, to-do list and your amazing calendar management skills, I have one more tip for you. Time yourself. Imagine you have to set time aside to send a quote to client. It is not urgent but you know it is important. For whatever reason, you can’t muster up the courage to do it because you know it will eat up a whole afternoon. Instead of committing to an entire afternoon, commit to a short session of say, 35 minutes.Indeed, it is not a long time, but if you set a timer, an alarm will tell you when to stop. At that point, two things can happen: either you will have the ball rolling and won’t want to stop, or you will stop, but at least you have some work done and you will have broken the procrastination cycle.

My favorite time tracking tools are Toggle, Tracking Time, and the good old stopwatch on my smartphone.

I hope you have found these tips to be useful, remember: Prioritize everything, from to-do lists to goals to networking, know thy calendar and if all that seems too intimidating, set a timer.