Career Advice

What Should the Ideal Freelance Schedule Look Like?

By Herbert Lui November 5th, 2014

Sometimes, we can get in the zone right away and tune out distractions. Other times, it seems like we need to pull together all our energy just to focus for five minutes.

Making the most of our time means understanding which hours are best suited for different types of work. Should you handle analytical tasks in the morning or afternoon? When’s the best time to check email? How can you work the clock to get the most out of Twitter? Since time is our most valuable assets, we felt it was time to explore how freelancers can make the most of different periods throughout the day.

When to reach out to others

Research shows communicating with other people online has its own optimal cycles. For example, Hubspot social media scientist Dan Zarrella conducted a study of billions of emails, and based on this information, he recommends sending your emails early in the morning. “Email is kind of like the newspaper,” he told the The Wall Street Journal. “You check it at the beginning of the day.”

And although scrolling through Twitter in the morning can help you glimpse important news, posting on the network yourself is better later in the day. If you want your tweets to be clicked, Zarella suggests sharing them between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when others lack energy to send their own tweets after already posting earlier in the day.

And for those who are looking for a little pitching guidance, based on a study Dr. James Oldroyd conducted with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the absolute best times to cold call are between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. or between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. The worst time to cold call is during lunchtime, between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

When to analyze vs. when to create

As freelancers, our ability to make our own schedules can be a huge advantage. When we operate at our optimal time of day, it’s much easier to filter out distractions and get down to business. To be most productive during these optimal times, we should schedule our work according to two categories: analytic tasks and creativity tasks.

We perform best at challenging, attention-demanding tasks during these peak times, which is known as “the synchrony effect.”

We all have different peak times. For example, in this study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that differences in optimal performance periods clearly affect recognition memory for both younger and older adults. Younger adults showed better recognition memory when tested at their peak performance period (the afternoon) than when tested at their off-peak period (the morning). Older adults showed better recognition memory when tested at their optimal time (the morning) than when tested at their off-peak period (the afternoon).

During these peak times, we’re naturally more focused and perform well on analytic challenges that require us to “grind out a solution” by working through problems with consistent strategies.

Author and business coach Tony Schwartz begins his workdays by focusing for 90 minutes on a task he decided on the night before. He told the Harvard Business Review: “I launched this practice because I long ago discovered that my energy, my will, and my capacity for intense focus diminish as the day wears on. Anything really challenging that I put off tends not to get done, and it’s the most difficult work that tends to generate the greatest enduring value.”

To be clear, Schwartz’s approach doesn’t mean lulling hours are dead time. You’re actually best served doing creative work when you’re tired, unfocused, and your brain isn’t at peak performance. That’s because, as Cindi May writes for Scientific American, “Insight problems involve thinking outside the box. This is where susceptibility to ‘distraction’ can be of benefit. At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information. This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.”

When to take a break

If we want to make the most of our peak times, we have to renew ourselves accordingly. Remember Tony Schwartz’s 90-minute ritual of uninterrupted work? He borrowed this concept from research at Florida State University by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.

Dr. Ericsson and his team studied elite performers—including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players—and found the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. “They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day,” Schwartz explained in The New York Times.

Typically, Schwartz advises people to sprint through work for 90-minute cycles and break for 30-minute cycles in order to renew their energy for the next task.

You should never be too busy for renewal. Think of it this way: If you were driving down the highway and your car is about to run out of gas, would you skip the gas station because you were in too much of a hurry to get somewhere else?

Although a human body is much more complex and nuanced than a car, pushing it to its limit still requires a break before you attempt to grind through the next task.

Closing thoughts

Even though in theory we all have the same amount of hours in a day, each minute is not created equally. There’s a right time to connect with others, and since our energy spikes and lulls, certain times are better for analytic work while other times are when we’re at our most creative. And taking breaks is crucial for staying productive when our endurance starts to wane.

Most of us are only awake for about 16 hours, so schedule them wisely.

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