Time Management for Free-Lancers: A Primer

 After reading my colleague Gio Lester’s informative blog last week (How Much Is My Time Worth?), you know how to put a dollar value on your time. Now how do you make it pay? How do you learn to manage your time efficiently to accomplish all you need to get done? And boy, do we have a lot to get done. Like most self-employed folks, we free-lance interpreters must divide our time between getting work, training for work, preparing for work, organizing work, actually doing work and maintaining accounts for the work. Oh, and then we must squeeze in some time to spend with family, take care of household chores, work on personal finances, sleep and (gasp!) manage to put aside a little time for ourselves. It ain’t easy, but we can do it with good planning and a positive attitude.

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time there was a novice interpreter who looked a lot like me. (So all right, it is me). Newly certified, she was glad to escape the 9 to 5 treadmill and jump into the exciting world of free-lance interpreting. Anxious to make good, she took every job offered, and ended up hurrying hither and yon, often arriving to an assignment late, and sometimes (horrors!) not at all. She realized that after many years of working according to a set schedule, she had absolutely no time management skills. So one day, she said to myself, “Enough! I am fed up with overbooking myself; I am sick of running around like a chicken with its head cut off; I am tired of living stressed out. I must and will get myself organized.”

Well, my first step was to part reluctantly with my beautiful, but clunky, tooled leather Day Runner, check out new technology and learn to use it to my advantage. IT cannot solve all your scheduling woes, however. It really all starts with you. Here are my tips for making the most of one’s time. I have attached some online primers on time management as well, but this is what works for me.

1. Make schedules and prioritized lists. I don’t care if you’re “just not a list maker.” Make yourself do it. You’ll thank me later.

2. Make sure your scheduling is realistic; in other words, be careful with overbooking, and don’t take risky chances. If you schedule a preliminary hearing in the morning and you are not sure how long it will take, think twice about accepting that 1:00 deposition. If you know you will be too tired out after interpreting three hours at night court, don’t accept an 8:30 arraignment. Don’t worry, more assignments will come your way, and, believe it or not, it all balances out. Also keep in mind the fact that it is unethical to make commitments you may not be able to fulfill.

3. Try to keep to your schedule. Let’s say you had some interpreting work in the morning and early afternoon, and you had reserved the rest of the afternoon for some necessary shopping. Then someone emails you at 11:00 to see if you can fit in an assignment at 3:30. Make a careful evaluation of your priorities. Which is more important–getting that perfect birthday gift for your significant other or making a couple of bucks?

4. If you have a tough trial or deposition coming up, get the information you need to prep, and schedule some time to read it through. Don’t just wing it. Nobody flies that well.

5. Invest in dependable electronic communications equipment with internet access, and keep it with you at all times. At the risk of looking like one of those people glued to their smart phone, you need to know when a nice juicy assignment comes your way. Make sure your calendar is always up to date.

6. Always, always give yourself enough time to get to an assignment. Part of your daily planning should be to find out how long a trip will take. If your assignment is someplace you’ve never been before, do your research. With Mapquest and GPS systems, there is really no excuse for getting lost on the way. Whiny explanations to the person who contracted your services just make you look unprofessional.

7. Every night before you go to bed, review your schedule for the following day. Try to watch yourself traveling through the day. It’s a new journey, and you want to make it a good one. Do the same at the beginning of every week.

8. Get off to a good start. Get up in plenty of time to have breakfast, dress nicely, check email and generally clear the decks for action. Give yourself plenty of time to drive to your destination in safety. Yeah, yeah, I know, you don’t do mornings—but it’s so good for you, and will make you feel like you own the world!

9. If your day is going to be a full one, pack a lunch; you may not have time to stop someplace. A hungry interpreter cannot focus on the task at hand.

10. Be prepared to handle phone calls about new work from your car. Get hands-free equipment, of course, but don’t attempt to memorialize the assignment right then and there. If you can, pull over and get the information. If not, don’t try to check your schedule or input times and dates as you’re driving along. Explain your situation and tell the person you’ll get back to them as soon as possible, or ask them to send an email or leave a message you can respond to later. If they want you, they’ll wait a half hour. Remember–no assignment is worth sacrificing your life or the lives of others.

11. Log all completed assignments daily. Every day when you get home, input all the pertinent information in the designated file of the computer program you have selected for this purpose. If you have received payments that day, log them on as well. Send out any invoices. If you wait until the weekend or (heaven forbid!) the end of the month, that’s that much less time you have to spend with family and friends.

12. This last is an essential step for me. It’s kind of like an examination of conscience. Before I go to sleep, I ask myself: “Did I get done what I needed to get done and in the way I had intended? What unexpected things happened to get me off track? Did I handle them well?”  And this is the single most important thing: “What did I learn today about managing my time and about myself? What changes can I make?”

Just one more thing. Remember that what you do reflects back on the rest of us interpreters. If you are chronically late, we all seem unreliable. If you show up at court looking like you just rolled out of bed, we all appear somewhat rumbled. Be professional.  Be ethical. Get out there and do us proud.


“Time Management: Tips to Reduce Stress and Improve Productivity”


“How to Develop Good Time Management Skills”


“The Ten Commandments of Time Management”



English cartoon—Time Management


Work Smart—How to Write a To-Do List


Mad TV—Time Manager


0 thoughts on “Time Management for Free-Lancers: A Primer”

  1. Gio says:

    Love the plug ;o) but the content is a must read for all freelancers. That is where I usually let the ball drop and prioritizing becomes an issue. Thanks for the pointers and the links.

    1. Kathleen Shelly says:

      Thanks. Gio. I’m not saying I do everything here perfectly either, but I notice that the better I get at time management, the better my business gets!

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