Ebbs and Flows: Tips for Better Time Management
by Taylor Slattery | November 10, 2022
Regardless of your discipline, one of the most important skills to develop as a working creative is time management. Whether you’re working a 9-5 or are living the freelancer lifestyle, being able to juggle multiple concurrent projects and meet deadlines is mission-critical to your success and career trajectory. In order to be someone others can count on, you need to have a firm understanding of your working habits, how long different types of tasks take to complete, and how to speak up for yourself if you feel there’s too much on your plate.
Reaching this point is no easy task. There will be days where it feels like your calendar is completely clear only to be followed by weeks where you’re swamped and wondering how you get there—but that’s just the nature of the beast. There are many moving pieces and sometimes the stars align in the worst possible way. Unfortunately, that makes completely avoiding situations like these impossible. New deadlines will always pop up, there’s always going to be something urgent that needs tending to. Someone will forget about a project until days before its deadline and you’ll have to scramble to finish it. These are just unfortunate truths that come with the territory. However, there are some habits you can form to ensure that at the very least you are better equipped to put out the fires that will inevitably present themselves.
The first is to always have a clear view of exactly what’s on your plate. Keep a running list of all of the projects that are currently in progress and those that are further out on the horizon. Assume there will be problems and hiccups along the way and be proactive. Communicate with your team members and clients to ensure that you understand the parameters of a project. That means any specifics regarding deliverables and deadlines, and if you’re collaborating with others, knowing exactly what is expected of you and where your portion falls in the timeline. The last place you want to find yourself is stuck waiting to hear back about a color palette from someone who is on vacation while a deadline is fast approaching and the rest of the team is waiting on you.
When you plan out your schedule and decide how far out from a project’s due date you will be working on each of its parts, always account for hiccups. Technical difficulties like hard drive failures or loss of internet can throw a huge wrench into a project’s timetable if you’re crunched for time. If you account for these mishaps from the onset and give yourself some padding in your schedule, you can save yourself a lot of stress and hair-pulling.
Sometimes, deadlines won’t be met through no fault of your own. Larger projects have lots of moving pieces, and the more people that are involved, the harder it is to find a time when everyone can meet. It’s often these larger projects that tend to have more flexible timelines for this reason.
When timetables do shift, and deadlines are pushed back, do not give into temptation and use this time to take it easy. Moments like these are rare and a great opportunity to take some huge steps forward on your bigger projects. Whenever you’ve got a gap in your schedule, take advantage of it and use that time to get ahead and give yourself more padding for future deadlines.
There will always be ebbs and flows in your schedule so it’s important that you learn how to switch gears effectively. If you’re working on multiple projects with deadlines close to one another, that might mean splitting your time between each to ensure that they all progress at a similar rate. If you’re collaborating with team members, while you’re waiting for feedback on the latest revision, hop on to another project in the meantime and start chipping away. Successful time management is a bit like Tetris. Your goal is to give yourself as much padding in regard to time as possible, so you can see the bricks clearly as they fall and place them neatly where they belong. It’s when you manage your time poorly or you’re overburdened with work that the pieces feel like they’re falling much more quickly and it’s easy to make a mess of things.
When you have a packed calendar with multiple projects on the horizon, it can be difficult to decide where to start. You always want to focus your energy on the most pressing task, but exactly which task that is can be hard to determine, as it isn’t always necessarily the thing that’s due the soonest. This is why it’s important to understand how long different types of tasks take to complete as well as other pertinent information regarding the clients or team members you’re working with. Things like habitual tardiness, bureaucratic delays, and commonly received criticism and feedback are all things you can and should account for as you determine your personal timeline for project deliverables.
When you have a clear understanding of these things, you’ll be more comfortable allowing smaller tasks with rapidly approaching due dates to accumulate, knowing that you’ll have enough time to quickly knock them out while you wait to hear back from a client with feedback. If you operate based purely on due dates alone, you risk allowing yourself to get distracted with smaller tasks while taking time away from a much bigger project with inbuilt breaks due to time lost in back-and-forth communication.
The last and most important tip I have for you regarding time management is to take breaks. Seriously. Allow yourself to come up for air every once in a while. When you’re splitting your time between multiple projects with looming deadlines and an ever-growing task list, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. This kind of juggling act is unsustainable, and the balls are bound to fall unless you give yourself a break for clarity so you can clear your mind and refocus.
Even when you’ve got a lot on your plate and you’re running behind, oftentimes it’s more productive to take a quick break and come back with fresh eyes rather than to stay seated for hours on end just grinding it out. There’s a fine line between the flow state and tunnel vision. While the former is beneficial to your work and you should ride it out when you manage to tap in, the latter is a detriment. Paying attention and understanding where your head is at while you work can save you from overlooking things or making costly mistakes that take even more time to fix.
Effective time management and stress management are essentially one and the same. By managing your time effectively and capitalizing on every opportunity presented to you to chip away at the various ongoing projects you’ve got on your plate, you can avoid at least the unnecessary all-nighters and keep your stress levels low.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.