Meeting deadlines when you’re a freelancer is non-negotiable. But the feast-or-famine nature of freelancing means sometimes putting more on your plate than you should. That’s a fast track to burnout, which seems totally unfair but virtually impossible to avoid. How do you balance deadlines without burning out?
Real experts shared their real insights with me to help you navigate an easier path. From using Trello and avoiding overworking to breaking tasks into sub-tasks, discover the best practices to meet deadlines and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Use Trello and Avoid Overworking
My strategy to manage time effectively and meet deadlines incorporates a few things. First, I use Trello boards to plan my time and deadlines, so I know when each job is needed. This makes prioritizing easy.
Second, before onboarding a new client or picking up additional work, I check my Trello board for gaps to determine if I can manage the new assignment within the suggested deadline.
I factor in emergencies by not overwhelming my days and keeping weekends open. If, for whatever reason, I can’t finish work during the week, I can catch up on the weekends. Most weekends are spent with family, which is also important to me.
Align Work with Life’s Purpose
I recently published the book Back After Burnout because I had several periods of burnout as an entrepreneur, and I wanted to save others the time to recover. There are many tools you can use, such as the Eisenhower Matrix of urgency and importance, or time-boxing. Those tools are great, but what matters more is that you’re moving toward your life’s purpose.
If you don’t already know your professional purpose, then try a tool like Ikigai to pick a career path that matches your preferences and what people will pay for. Then, manage your time so you spend the most energy on activities that bring you closer to that goal.
Of course, you will have projects you must get done if you want to keep your client or job. But if you spend too much time on those things, and not enough time on the things that lead to a happier life, you’ll burn out. In contrast, the time you spend on purposeful activities will energize you to get through the rough patches.
Adopt a Time-Boxing Strategy
The best time-management tip I can offer is time-boxing: divide your day into specific time blocks or divisions, with each division dedicated to one task or a set of related tasks only. While scheduling specific hours for work and fitness makes sense, many people forget to account for their social life as well.
Setting aside a specific block of your day to socialize also sounds strange. However, once you get the hang of it, switching your focus and mindset between tasks becomes easier, and you find yourself more present in whatever situation you are in.
Break Down Projects Weekly
One strategy for time management as a freelancer is to look at all of your projects for the month and then break them down week by week according to deadlines. Knowing how long each project could take you is key in setting reasonable deadlines with your clients and prioritizing your weekly tasks accordingly.
For example, if you know you can complete three to five average-sized projects per week, you would group together similar projects and space out the others with breaks in between to avoid burnout.
Lindsey Tague, Fractional Content Marketing Consultant
Implement the Pomodoro Technique
One effective strategy for managing time as a freelancer, to meet deadlines and avoid burnout, is the Pomodoro Technique. This is a time-management method that helps you maintain focus and productivity while also incorporating regular breaks to prevent burnout.
The Pomodoro Technique is effective for freelancers because the timed intervals help you concentrate on your work without getting distracted by external factors. Breaking your work into manageable chunks makes tasks feel less overwhelming, increasing your overall productivity.
Regular breaks prevent burnout by allowing you to rest and recharge, maintaining your energy and creativity. The technique encourages you to estimate how many Pomodoros a task will take, which helps with planning and meeting deadlines.
Over time, you’ll gain insight into your work patterns, helping you optimize your schedule for peak productivity. By incorporating the Pomodoro Technique into your freelancing routine, you can manage your time effectively.
Create a Priority Checklist
From my experience, there are many strategies, but one that’s really made an enormous difference for me is having a priority checklist. I list everything that needs to be done the following day. Then, I rank them in order of importance.
Not in terms of size or how long they’ll take, but based on their priority and impact on my overall work. This means the tasks that are absolutely crucial get done first, and the less important ones (while they might still be necessary) wait their turn.
Here, you focus only on the next day. Don’t think too much ahead—this will produce anxiety and burn you out. Take small steps where you only focus on the next day. It’s a game-changer for avoiding distractions.
When you know what’s most important, you won’t end up scrubbing your bathroom tiles instead of getting that project done. It also builds a sense of integrity within you. It builds momentum when you see yourself following through and ticking off the tasks you said you’d do.
Work With Your Sleep-Wake Pattern
A unique strategy for freelancers to manage time effectively is understanding and working in sync with their chronotype, or natural sleep-wake pattern. Our cognitive performance varies throughout the day, influenced by our circadian rhythms.
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reveals that tasks performed during our peak alertness periods—which are unique for “morning larks” and “night owls”—can cause up to a 20% increase in performance.
As freelancers, we have the privilege of flexibility. Align your high-priority tasks with your peak performance periods. This way, you’ll meet deadlines more efficiently and sustain productivity without burnout.
Master Project Management Tools
Using a project management tool, like ClickUp or Taskade, can significantly streamline time management for a freelancer. These tools help you keep everything organized so you can set deadlines, prioritize tasks, and see a clear overview of the workload at any point.
Managing your work in a smart way allows you to avoid delays and missed deadlines, making sure you never forget anything that needs to be done. Investing in mastering these tools can contribute to a balanced workload, helping you not only meet deadlines but also avoid burnout.
By focusing on specific functionalities that align with your workflow, you can tailor the tool to serve your unique needs and goals.
Pace Yourself, Don’t Rush
It sounds counterintuitive, but you should always take more than the minimum time you need to get something done when you are working as a freelancer.
Just because you can work that quickly does not mean you should and making a career out of freelancing means understanding that you can and should pace yourself as much as possible.
You’re not going to avoid stretches of breakneck pace; you’re just going to need to moderate it with a more relaxed timeline the rest of the time.
Set Clear Boundaries for Balance
Unlike a full-time job, working as a freelancer means you have the freedom to define your own rules and schedule. However, it often leads to overworking and burnout if not managed effectively.
To maintain a healthy work-life balance, setting clear boundaries is my go-to strategy. I ensure that my personal life remains separate from work by setting specific working hours and personal time. Knowing when to start and stop helps me plan my day effectively, making it easier to meet project deadlines.
Setting boundaries includes saying no to certain gigs when I already have a full plate. It may be challenging to turn down opportunities, but respecting my limitations allows me to deliver better quality work to existing clients and avoid stretching myself too thin.
This strategy has proven instrumental in sustaining my productivity, satisfaction, and overall performance as a freelancer.
Delegate and Automate Tasks
As an SEO freelancer and workaholic, burnout is always on the table. But one thing that’s always helped me is delegating and automating my work whenever I can.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can do it all, but putting trust in delegation is the only way to manage burnout.
Whether it’s a minor task or putting out fires, I need to have some form of delegation and automation to prevent me from getting too involved with every detail.
Manage Distractions for Efficiency
One strategy for managing time effectively to meet deadlines and avoid burnout as a freelancer is to manage distractions. As a freelancer, you are responsible for every task to run your business successfully, from the actual services you provide to marketing, accounting, customer service, and more.
The best way I meet deadlines and avoid burnout in my photography business is through distraction management. When on a deadline, I put on noise-canceling headphones, set my notifications to “do not disturb,” then set a timer for 20 minutes of focus time, followed by a 5-minute break to look away from the screen and rest my eyes.
I have found that by setting these parameters, I can be more effective not only in the task at hand but also in the rest of the tasks I am responsible for in a day. I can also complete the task in a quarter of the time it used to take, resulting in being ahead of schedule and freeing up my time and headspace.
Break Tasks into Sub-Tasks
Often, freelancers have self-doubt about accomplishing the task within a certain timeframe. This results in procrastination, missed deadlines, and canceled contracts. A clever way to deal with this is to break it into tiny sub-tasks with individual deadlines.
Trick your brain to write just 100 words ten times rather than forcing it to write 1,000 words simultaneously. This helps you easily start the task and gather motivation, keeping up the momentum.
Add Your Own Strategy for Managing Deadlines and Burnout
Got another tip to help freelancers meet deadlines without burning out? Drop a comment below — we’re all ears!