Jan 31 / Sara Reyniers

Time Management – 3 Effective Ways to Plan Your Days

Ah, the freelancer life: choosing your hours, working from the beach... It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? But – reality check – I see a lot more translators struggle with getting a healthy work/life balance than I see that dream scenario. 

Not that it’s impossible, mind you. There are ways to make enough money and live the life you want. It just takes a process of deliberate decisions, planning and strategy to get there. Today, let’s dig into one aspect that’s essential to create work/life balance: planning your days.

When you’re fully responsible for how much you work and when, overwhelm seems to creep up on a lot of people. That can generally be caused by:

  • Overestimating the amount of work you can do in the time given
  • Pressuring yourself to work harder and then failing
  • Already being convinced that it’s too much to handle and feeling stress from the moment you wake up or start working
  • Not making clear distinctions between work time, chores, distractions, and leisure time
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1.     Planning your days based on activity

Let’s start with focusing on a common mistake many beginners make: overestimating the time they can actually spend on translation. I remember when I first started out as a freelance translator, I made the mistake to think:

2,000 words/day x 5 days/week = 10,000 words/week

I just forgot to plan in all the other things I needed to do: administration, client prospection, marketing, answering e-mails, planning/revising my long-term strategy, studying my field, feedback management etc.

In a general business context, the indication goes that 60% of your time goes to the actual service provision (in this case translation work), and 40% to all other things. I think for translation, it depends on how much time you wish to invest in marketing, strategy and/or studying. 40% can be quite high to spend on other things on a regular basis. 80/20 seems like a good average for a translator, and some will bring it down to 90/10.

If you want to find new clients or study your field, and you need to do admin or feedback management next to that, 80/20 (which is 1 non-translation day per week) is a good guideline. If you’re only planning to reach out to some agencies and admin etc. can wait another week, 90/10 (or half a day per week) will be sufficient.

Planning your calendar then goes like this:

1.     Plan in your free time first
2.     Write down which activities you need to do that week
3.     Plan in your non-translation activities
4.     See how many hours you have left for translation work and decrease that number by shaving off a bit of time at the beginning and end of the blocks. That leaves some flexible time for when a job turns out harder than expected or arrives late, or for urgent requests.
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2.     Planning your days based on energy and concentration

Are you a morning person? I’m not. Having been self-employed for years now, I’ve learnt that pushing myself to get up at 7 am because it’d be great to stop early is setting myself up for failure. It can work for a few days, but a long-lasting habit? Forget it. 

I’ve also discovered that I tend to work slower if I know I have 1 long task planned for the whole day. When I break it up and work in blocks of 3-4 hours over 2 days, I get a lot more done.

This is different for everyone, and you’ll need to discover what your optimal work rhythm is. To start with this, there are largely 2 methods to test:

  • Theme days: some people prefer to translate the whole day, then spend the next day doing marketing, admin etc.
  • Time blocks: other people like to divide tasks in blocks of 2, 3 or 4 hours. This gives more variation throughout the day
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3.     Planning your days based on priorities

There are 2 aspects to cover here: priorities in your work and prioritizing being in the present moment.

In your work the most important task of the day might also be a task that’s more difficult. Maybe it’s a difficult translation, or you want to come up with something interesting to post on your social media. Do plan the hardest and most important tasks in the morning. That’s because research has shown that our discipline and willpower deplete throughout the day. So if you dislike administration and you plan it for 5 pm, there’s a good chance you’ll postpone it. If you do it as the first task of the day, you’ll need to finish it before you can get to your other work.

If it’s difficult for you to see what your priorities are: make a timeline
Where would you like to be 5 years from now? 
To reach that, where do you need to be 1 year from now?
To reach that, what would be a good goal to set 1 month from now?
To reach that, what’s 1 small step you could take this week? 

This will help you balance your short-term, mid-term and long-term priorities. 

The last aspect to discuss, is prioritizing being in the present moment. In this article, we’ve talked a lot about planning in your day and week, but of course life is more than work alone.

A common cause of stress and fatigue is blurring the boundaries between work and leisure. One way all of us probably do that? Checking social media during working hours. And are you someone who worries about work when sitting on the couch in the evening?

You need to let your mind come to rest. One way I like to do that, is by going for a 45 min walk in the afternoon. I don’t take my phone with me. Sometimes my mind is occupied with what’s going on in my life, sometimes I just enjoy the environment. It gives me a good indication of how stressed I am and what’s important to me right now. And when I go back to my desk after the walk, I’m always very productive and concentrated.

This also goes for your day planning: if you’ve planned to stop working at 6 pm, stop working and shut down your computer. Preferably don’t switch to a different screen, because your mind won’t register that as a change of activity. Clear distinctions between adjacent activities helps your mind to make the switch and not linger in work-related activity. 

Being focused on the activity at hand, instead of being distracted, also give you greater satisfaction and a feeling of being in control. That will diminish stress and drive a positive outlook on life. At the same time, you’ll be more concentrated and productive during the blocks you’re working, so you’ll get a lot done. 

How to manage your time and prevent overwhelm is something we also cover in my course Roadmap to Freelancing for Explorers. Module 6 deals with practical productivity hacks adapted to the reality of freelance translators, the state of flow, preventing burnout and more. Read more here. I truly hope a balanced use of your time is a gift you give yourself, because it has an amazing impact on quality of life. 

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