The Psychology of Time Management: 3 Strategies for Freelancers


Freelancing is on the rise. Whilst the non-traditional and often unreported nature of freelance work makes it difficult to collect reliable data, it has been estimated that by 2020 over half of the working populations in the UK and the US will be doing self-employed work.

The appeal of being your own boss is undeniable but as well as skill in your chosen field, becoming a successful freelancer depends upon your on time management skills.

Luckily, psychologists have been researching how to optimise work efficiency for generations.

Here are three overarching strategies that psychology can offer freelancers hoping to better manage their time:

1. Don’t Underestimate Your Time Investment

Experienced freelancers know the value of an hour’s work. Not only are they able to quickly appraise a job opportunity and decide whether it is worth their time, but conversely they also know how to structure their time in order to make the job opportunity worth it.

Remembering that time is money has never been as important as when you begin freelancing.

The reason this seemingly simple concept is so vital is that psychology tells us that the human mind is very bad at managing money. There is a laundry list of psychological biases and cognitive traps that prevent most people from making healthy financial decisions.

If a freelancer thinks of managing their time like they think about managing their money, they can work to overcome some of those mental failings and think about their time more clearly.

To give just one example, consider the Sunk Cost Fallacy. After losing big money at a particular game, the savvy gambler doesn’t keep throwing good money after bad in some vague hope that her luck will turn. Most people realise that the odds of winning a game have nothing to do with how much money you have already spent on that game.

The same principle must be applied when taking on projects, certain types of tasks simply take more time to complete, similarly certain clients new or old will have different expectations but it’s important to know how to set project boundaries and milestones early on, whilst still delivering great service.

2. Start by Organising Yourself

Working alone means you get to be your own boss, but it also means that you have to be your own accountant, human resources director, manager, assistant, secretary, and any other position you might require in order to keep your one-person business running efficiently.

Psychology has a lot to say about the type of organisational structures required to optimise efficiency. In fact, there is an entire field of psychology known as Industrial and Organisational (I–O) psychology devoted to the study of workplace behaviour. Three key concepts for freelancers to understand involve cognitive load, multi-tasking, and physical space.

Cognitive load is the idea that, similar to a computer, the human mind only has a certain fixed capacity for processing information, and the more processes it has running at once, the less efficient it will be.

When mental workload is too high, not only do people commit more errors, but it can also produce the physiological markers of stress that further impair performance. Keeping organised keeps freelancers from allowing other things that are extraneous to the task at hand from inhibiting their performance.

The second key concept in the psychology of organisation is multitasking. The short answer is that multitasking is a myth.

A mountain of research has accumulated that when people believe they are doing more than one thing at once, in reality they are simply switching back and forth very rapidly. The most efficient work comes from giving undivided attention to a single task, completely insulated from distraction.

Freelancers need to keep up with their to-do lists enough to keep from getting distracted thinking about all of the work they must accomplish in the future.

They also must shield themselves from extraneous distractions, which brings up the third key concept in the psychology of organisation: manipulating one’s physical space.

First, this means keeping one’s work space tidy and free from distractions such as phones buzzing and social media notifications. But even deeper than this, it means assigning a consistent and distinct value to each space in your life.

The brain is particularly good at encoding the emotional valence of physical locations. Working only in one space and then physically moving to take breaks in a separate place can help you stay more focused in the work space, and more relaxed in the break space.

3. Set a Complete Work Schedule

In some salaried positions, there is a feeling that once you are present “on the job,” it’s possible to relax and find the simplest, slowest possible way to accomplish your task.

For most freelancers, this sort of lackadaisical approach is a luxury they simply cannot afford.

Keeping a schedule is a subtle but necessary art in freelance work, and psychology describes several complementary skills that are required to keep an optimal work schedule.

First, freelancers must be able to accurately estimate time. The human mind is famously bad at predicting how long work will take, and this is greatly compounded in large or long-term projects.

The cognitive shortcoming was famously (and humorously) described by scientist and writer Doug Hofstadter in the maxim known as Hofstadter’s Law:

“It always takes longer than you think it will take, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Freelancers should do their best when keeping records to aggregate data about how long each individual task takes, in order to provide detailed and accurate benchmarks for clients.

Second, freelancers must know themselves well enough to schedule in “me time.” Psychology research is replete with data on how physiological status impacts time efficiency, but the bottom line is that a freelancer must understand what they personally need to do to boost their energy and prevent time waste.

Third, a freelancer must have a fine-grain view of their work time. Another cognitive shortcoming all human beings must overcome to stay efficient is the inability to intuitively incremental progress.

In the case of the freelancer, this can mean a difficulty in seeing how wasting small increments of time can accumulate to a dramatic decrease in efficiency.

Finally, an experienced freelancer knows that at all levels – during the course of an hour, a day, a week, a month, and even a year – the pace of work will constantly ebb and flow. Psychology research tells us that the most efficient work schedules feature regular rewards, to provide reinforcement.

Experienced freelancers are able to recognise those windows when the most time-efficient thing they can do is take a break, and intentionally utilise that break time to relax, recharge, and prepare themselves for upcoming work.

This can mean something as simple as an extended lunch break, or something as elaborate as a weekend vacation. Prioritising recovery time can keep freelancers from becoming so burnt out that the efficiency of their work lags.

The appeal of independent work can too often become mired beneath a crushing pile of conflicting deadlines and confusing projects. The important thing is not to let poor time management get in the way of your ultimate goals.

With the help of an entire science devoted to improving workplace efficiency, freelancers can gain more and more helpful strategies that build towards optimal performance in their pursuit of plunder.

About the Author

Marcus regularly blogs at psysci, a psychology, science blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and improve people’s lives.


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