Becoming more productive is key to having more free time and/or making more money as a freelancer. There are only so many hours in the day, and it's all too easy to waste them on inefficient processes that could easily be improved.
There are two main areas where most freelance workflows can be improved: the business side and the creative side. The business side is arguably easier to improve upon, because creatives are rarely attached to the way, for example, they send invoices. The creative side can be more difficult to improve upon due to the emotional attachment we may feel toward doing things in specific ways. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't evaluate how we work and aim to make improvements.
The Creative Side
The creative side of a freelance web design business is generally a designer's favorite part. But that doesn't mean it's the most efficient part of your work. In fact, the creative aspects of your business often go ignored when it comes to increasing productivity. And that generally means there's plenty of room for streamlining.
Most designers have a certain way they like to work on a creative project. They have a workflow that seems to fit with the way they work in practice, rather than just looking nice on paper. And that's great.
Except a lot of the time, the things we think are working really well aren't nearly as efficient as they could be. We waste time doing all sorts of things we don't realize we're doing, because they've become habit.
Tired accountant working overtime in office on PhotoDune
If you want to make improvements to your workflow, the first thing you need to do is audit your current work habits. You can do this in a couple of ways. First, you can audit an entire project. The downside is that you won't see any benefits on that particular project and will waste more time. The upside is that you get a complete picture.
The other way is to just audit yourself for a set time period, or for a set task. If you audit a typical work day, you may find that there are eight or ten different areas where you can make improvements.
For example, you might find that you're spending too much time referring back to the creative brief, and that it's actually inconvenient to do so. If that's the case, you need to find a more streamlined way to keep the creative brief in mind without having to constantly refer to it. This might mean posting a list of bullet points that you need to keep in mind on your bulletin board, or it might mean reading through the applicable sections of the creative brief before you start work for the day.
Exactly how you choose to do these things is up to you, but the first step is finding where these inefficiencies lie. Without that knowledge, you might end up making changes to things that were working perfectly in the first place, and make yourself less efficient in the long run.
To carry out an audit, you might opt to use time-tracking tools to track your time on different tasks. Or you could do something as simple as keeping a notepad handy and jotting down what you're doing and how long it takes you. Make sure you also track things like breaks.
Optimize Your Workspace
This means optimizing both your physical workspace and your digital one. Many design apps (including all Adobe products) allow you to customize how your interface looks and works, even allowing you to create different profiles for different projects. This is particularly useful if you work on more than just website designs (like if you do print work, too).
Take some time to explore the preferences of your design tool of choice to see what can be customized and what can't be. Think about which tools you use most and make sure those are the ones at your fingertips, while tools you never use are hidden from view.
An uncluttered workspace is almost certainly going to help you be more productive. If you aren't having to search through tools you never use to access the things you do, you'll waste less time.
Your physical workspace should also be optimized. Consider getting a second display if you currently only use one. I worked for years on a 13" MacBook Pro and couldn't believe how much more productive I was after getting a second 22" display. Plus, if you use a laptop, this frees up your smaller screen for things like email or other apps you keep open but don't need to have right in front of you (like Netflix or Hulu for streaming movies while you work, not that I do that).
Work Space on PhotoDune
Make sure that any tools you use are readily at hand, too. If you sketch mockups or create project outlines by hand, make sure your notebooks and pens are easily available. If you have to search for things you use regularly, or get up from your desk chair to get them, you're not being anywhere near as productive as you could be.
Use Frameworks, Boilerplates, and Templates
Sometimes it's a point of pride for a designer or developer to start every project from scratch. But in many cases, it's just a waste of time. There are parts to every website project that will remain the same, and there are other parts that are common to most sites of a particular type (such as blogs or e-commerce sites).
Now, this doesn't mean you have to go out and use someone else's pre-made files (though there are some great open source examples). Instead, consider creating your own. Look at projects you've already completed and figure out which bits of code you reuse over and over again. Take those parts and create your own framework.
Do the same for design files. Create PSD templates that include guides and other basics that you can use as the basis for starting each new design or mockup. Sure, itf might only save you ten or fifteen minutes on each project, but over the course of a year, that can add up.
Set Up Standard Processes
It's important to know exactly the steps that need to be carried out for completing each project you take on, from start to finish. Even though projects are often wildly different from one another, there are still usually specific tasks or steps that must be completed for each.
Pay attention to the steps you take in designing a new project, and look for places where steps can be condensed or combined. Make sure you have systems in place for certain steps, especially for your discovery phase where you're finding out what the client wants, and for tracking revisions and changes after the initial design. These seem to be the two areas that are most inefficient for many designers, and also two of the easiest places to implement changes to improve your productivity.
Think of it this way: you should have a checklist, even if it's just a mental one, that walks you through the entire design process, from landing the client to evaluating the project after launch. Make sure that each point on that checklist is both necessary and being done as efficiently as possible.
Work to Deadlines
When you're working with a client, you most likely have deadlines. But you might only have a deadline for the overall project (or very major parts of it), and not for individual milestones along the way. That's a horrible way to work, because it makes it more difficult to manage your time and your schedule.
Deadline on PhotoDune
If you don't have regularly-imposed client deadlines, sit down at the beginning of the project and map out when you expect to get things done, and when things need to be completed in order for the entire project to run smoothly. You can do this either by setting yourself weekly deadlines and then figuring out what you can reasonably do in each week, or by figuring out each logical step in the process (effectively breaking the project down into "units"), and then setting a deadline.
Once you have your deadlines figured out, treat them as if they were client-imposed. Meeting these deadlines is important to reaching the overall deadline for the project, so ignoring them might mean you miss the real client-imposed deadlines. Enter them all into your project management software or calendar so that you have easy access to them at all times.
The Business Side
Streamlining the creative side of your web design business is an important step to becoming more productive and efficient. But that doesn't mean you can ignore the business side of things. In fact, there are a lot more potential pitfalls on the business side, and it's often the part that's easiest to ignore.
But do you really want to ignore the part of your business that is most directly tied to things like your cash flow? Didn't think so. Take some time to put in place excellent business processes and you'll almost certainly see a big difference in both your cash flow and your stress levels.
Find the Right Tools
There are countless apps out there, both paid and free, that can help you with every aspect of the business-side of freelancing. There are apps for estimating, invoicing, time tracking, project management, bookkeeping, tracking feedback, and more.
Take some time to find apps that work for you. Using an app to create estimates that can then automatically be turned into invoices, for example, can greatly improve your workflow. Finding an app that lets your client review files and leave feedback directly, rather than having to go back and forth through email, can also greatly improve your workflow by keeping everything in one place.
Outsource When it Makes Sense
When a lot of designers think of outsourcing, they may be thinking about pushing their work off on overseas workers who are underpaid and work in sweatshop-like conditions. But there are a variety of ways to outsource. When you hire a bookkeeper, you're outsourcing. When you hire a developer to write the code for your sites, you're outsourcing.
Think about the tasks in your daily schedule that you hate to do. And then figure out if you can pay someone else to do them. A simple way to figure out if it's worth outsourcing is to figure out how much money you could earn in the time it would take you to complete a given task, and then see if you can hire someone to do it for less. If you can, it's worth seriously considering doing so.
Set a Schedule
It might be a good idea to set aside one day a week to handle all the administrative tasks you need to do during the week. Alternatively, you might set aside an hour a day (maybe right after lunch or first thing in the morning) to do these tasks.
By scheduling time for business tasks, you're less likely to let them slide. And it's important that you stay on top of things like finding new clients, sending out invoices, following up on past-due bills, and recording your expenses. If you ignore them, they can become unwieldy and leave you with some nasty surprises when you finally realize a big client still owes you money or you owe more than expected come tax time.
Putting It All Together
There are some things that can be done that will improve the efficiency of both the creative and business sides of your freelance web design business. There are a few things you can do that work for both aspects, and all are relatively simple.
Work in Bursts
Working in bursts can do great things for getting more done. Rather than plugging away for hours on a single task, break your workday up into periods of activity and periods of rest.
Businesswoman resting on PhotoDune
A great tool for doing just that is called Focus Booster. It's a free Adobe AIR app that lets you set a timer for both your periods of activity and your periods of rest. The timer serves as a visual indicator of when you should be working (including how much longer you have to go until you can take a break) and when you shouldn't be. Working toward a set end-point can give a bigger boost to your productivity than you might expect, as you may find yourself racing to complete a task before your time runs out.
Setting a timer for 50 minutes of work followed by 10 minutes of break can do wonders for your overall productivity. But experiment with different lengths of time for working and resting periods until you find one that works for you.
Use Project Management Tools
There are hundreds of tools out there you can use for project management. Most are online, but it's also possible to use paper-based planners. It all depends on what works best for you.
The main thing you want is some kind of task management along with some kind of scheduling ability. You can manage that with something as simple as a calendar and a to-do list, or something much more complex. If you work solo, just pick whatever takes the least amount of time to manage on your end while still allowing you to track what you need to.
If you work in a team, you'll need to find some kind of software that allows for team collaboration and lets you assign tasks to other members of your team. The main goal is to get more communication surrounding specific projects out of email and into a forum where everyone working on the project can instantly access all the notes and supporting materials.
Pick Three Tasks a Day
This is possibly the most useful tip I've ever come across, and it's one that's circulated the Internet on a variety of blogs and productivity sites. But it's so effective that it's worth repeating here. At the beginning of each day, pick three tasks you need to complete for the day, and then work on those tasks until they are complete.
One of the greatest things about this technique if you're a freelancer is to then take the rest of the day off once you've completed those tasks (you may or may not be able to do that if you work for someone else). If you know you can stop working once those three tasks are done, rather than after an arbitrary period of time, it gives you much more motivation to get the work done quickly and efficiently.