Lessons Learned: Productivity Tips For Running A Web Design Business


It didn’t work out as you expected, did it? The freelance life was supposed to give you more time with the family and free you from that incompetent boss. You even thought you might be better off financially. Instead, you’re working longer hours and under constant stress, worrying about various aspects of your business.

To relieve the pressure of entrepreneurial life and avoid burning out, freelancers and business owners need strategies. In this post, I’ll share some tactics that have helped me be more in control of my business, my projects and life in general. I hope they help you, too.

Let’s begin by putting some solid plans in place.

You Don’t Have Time Not To Plan

For a business owner, being reactive is easy. We spend our whole time fighting the most intense fire, while worrying about what the future has in store. To cut stress levels and take control of our business, we need to put a few basic plans in place.

Take, for example, the ongoing concern about where our next job will come from. Most of us just “hope” that something will turn up. This passive response can leave us victims of circumstances and full of anxiety.

We need a marketing plan that ensures a flow of business. This plan should account for the following questions:

  • Who is your target audience?
    If you take a scattershot approach to marketing, your voice will get lost in the noise of the Web. But if you target a group, like real estate agents, then you have a better chance of making an impact.
  • What differentiates you?
    With so many other Web designers out there, what makes you different? Is it your expertise in a technology, a sector or a particular user group? Is it your design style, or perhaps the way you approach projects? Whatever it is, be sure you can articulate it.
  • What channels will you use to reach your audience?
    Are there forums you should take part in or blogs you should write for? Should you be attending certain conferences or offering to write for industry publications?
  • What regular tasks do you need to complete to keep your name out there?
    How many posts will you write for industry blogs per year? How often will you take part in forums where your audience congregates? How frequently will you send out newsletters to prospective customers?

This last point is where the real danger is. The best plans are often reduced to nothing when things get busy. When you’re under pressure, marketing is the first thing to get pushed out. But pushing it out will result in worry and potentially less work down the road.

Evernote2 is a great tool for recording long-term plans for your business. It is always available on your desktop, the Web and your mobile phone, so you can easily jot down new ideas. Large view3.

This approach applies not only to marketing. You should have plans in place for all major areas of your business, from finance to training. Without them, your subconscious will worry about whether these areas of your business are doing well.

Sticking to a plan is tough, but that’s where routine can help.

Create A Routine

Both the blessing and curse of being your own boss is that you can set your own schedule. On the one hand, working when we want and scheduling around our family lives is great. The downside is that we are left with the sense that we should always be working.

Some say the answer to this problem is to set a rigid routine: start and finish work at the same time every day, as if you were in an office. However, this undermines the main reason for being self-employed: flexibility.

Instead, I opt for a time-independent routine. I do certain things every day, but I don’t insist that they happen at specific times. For example, I always start and end my work day by reviewing my task list and clearing emails. This helps me mentally prepare for the day and gets me into work mode. Once I have shut down at the end of the day, you won’t find me picking up work later in the evening.

Another tactic is my Friday review. Every Friday morning, I step back from the pressing business of the day and review where I stand with all of my projects and broader aims. Carrying out this weekly review gives me confidence that nothing will get missed in the whirlwind of daily life.

Fantastical showing my weekly review4
Fantastical5 is a great application for managing your routine, including a weekly review. Large view6.

For me, having a routine and carrying out these rituals of starting up, shutting down and reviewing weekly build confidence that I am in control and doing enough to keep my business on track.

Another crucial element in maintaining this sense of control is my task list.

One List To Rule Them All

To succeed in your business, to work less and to overcome that nagging sense of worry, you need to maintain control. Unfortunately, maintaining control is hard when tasks are coming at you from so many directions. Just a few of those tasks might be:

  • A check from a client has arrived by post and needs to be cashed.
  • You’ve received an email about a bug on a website that you recently launched.
  • You’d like to try a new CSS technique that you found in an article.
  • An angry client calls to say they are unhappy with your design.
  • A great idea for a Web app pops into your head as you’re driving to the supermarket.
  • You’ve scribbled action items into a notebook during a client meeting.

These tasks need to get done, but the items associated with them are scattered in different places. For example, you need to cash that check, but where did you put it again?

With no definitive list of all the things you have to do, there is only one place left to store this information: in your head.

Unfortunately, we forget stuff. We know we aren’t capable of remembering so many details, and so we worry. Worse still, our subconscious constantly reminds us of everything we need to do, and so we end up endlessly going over the same things — over and over again.

The solution is simple: write it down. Carry one list with all of the tasks you have to do. When you get that check, add a task for cashing, and note where you’ve put the check. If you attend a meeting and jot down action points, don’t leave them buried in your notebook. Add them to your task list, which you will be checking daily as part of your routine.

Things App for Mac7
Things8 is one of many list apps that allow you to take your task list with you wherever you go, via the desktop, iPhone and iPad apps. Large view9.

Having a single list that has all of your tasks will bring you peace of mind and make you considerably more efficient, because you won’t be wasting time tracking down emails and notes of what you have to do.

Speaking of email, almost all business owners seem to complain about this, but few do anything to solve the problem.

Solving Email Problem

Most email clients check email every five minutes. That is nearly 100 interruptions in an average working day. This constant ping of your email client instills a sense of pressure that is, in fact, usually unjustified.

After all, the majority of email we receive is either spam or non-urgent items such as newsletters. But every time that “New mail” message pops up, we feel compelled to check whether it is an urgent request from a client. This causes us to lose the flow of our work and creates a slight sense of unease that can accumulate throughout the day.

Here is a radical suggestion: turn off those notifications, and check your email only once or twice a day! I know what you’re thinking, but I promise, it is possible. Let me explain how.

As mentioned above, the majority of email either can wait or is just junk. You probably receive only a handful of emails a day (maybe even less) that need urgent action. You could probably say right now who they would be from and what they would be about.

Your computer should be telling you only about those urgent emails so that you don’t need to keep checking.

The answer is a service called AwayFind10. With AwayFind, you can specify which topics and people you want to be notified instantly about, what can wait, and how to receive notifications, with options for everything from text messages to iPhone updates. This one service frees you from having to check email, enabling you to focus on what’s important.

You may be wondering how AwayFind is different from Priority Inbox in Gmail11. While Priority Inbox is great, it suffers from two weaknesses:

  • It doesn’t allow you to specify what is important.
    While Gmail’s algorithms for predicting important email are good, if you’re waiting for an important email from someone, you can’t trust Gmail to flag it, and thus you won’t stop worrying.
  • You’re still required to check your email.
    Priority Inbox does not take care of email the way AwayFind does. You still suffer from the constant ping of incoming mail, and you are not freed up to close the email client.

With AwayFind13, you no longer need to constantly check email. Large view14.

Of course, when you do check email, the junk is waiting for you. Spam filters help, but you’re still left with all of those emails that you signed up for but don’t want anymore or can’t remember subscribing to.

For this, check out Unsubscribe.com1715. After signing up, tell the service what email you no longer wish to receive, either by using one of the plug-ins for major email clients or by forwarding the message to the service. Unsubscribe.com then does its best to unsubscribe you and to pursue those who continue sending you junk.

Unsubscribe.com1715 has dramatically reduced the number of unwanted email I receive. Large view18.

I have to say that Unsubscribe.com has made a phenomenal difference. I have gone from several hundred emails a day to a few dozen, and the number is going down all the time.

By combining Unsubscribe.com, AwayFind and the “one list to rule them all,” you can reach email nirvana: an empty inbox. Nothing is more satisfying or calming than one of those. All of your emails will have been unsubscribed, deleted, filed, delegated or turned into a task. Nothing is left to gnaw away at your subconscious, leaving you to wonder whether you have dealt with it.

Obviously, there are plenty of other techniques for managing email. For instance, you could start your emails with a subject line that clearly identifies the topic, perhaps including a status category: [Info], [Action], [Time-sensitive], [Low priority]. If your message can be expressed in few words, just put it in the subject line, followed by [EOM] (end of message). This saves the recipient from having to open the message. Also, ending a note with NNTR (no need to respond) is a wonderful act of generosity.

Of course, you’ll need to be sure that the recipient understands the acronyms, so perhaps you could add a short explanation in your signature. These and other guidelines are covered in the “10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral19,” which might come in handy when you’re replying to your next email.

With email out of the way, you can finally focus on the work that needs to get done. As you will find, though, this is hard to do.

Finding Your Focus

We often use email as an excuse for our lack of productivity, when really it is a distraction for avoiding work. Like spending time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and indeed the whole Web, checking email is easier than getting stuff done.

Unfortunately, staying focused on a task is hard. We need to train ourselves to do this effectively.

One way to do this is the Pomodoro technique20. According to this simple method, we work in concentrated blocks before taking a break for five minutes, after which we do another “sprint.”

A good starting point is to try working for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. Over time, you will find that you can increase these 25-minute blocks to something more substantial. You’ll also enjoy the challenge of seeing how many sprints you can fit into a day.

Pomodoro App21
There are many applications to support the Pomodoro technique22. My personal favourite is simply named Pomodoro. Large view23.

Not only will this make you more productive, but by tracking how many sprints you have done in a day, you also get the peace of mind knowing that you are doing enough work. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you have done six hours of distraction-free work in a day. Too often, we work for 10 hours or more and yet are unsure by the end of it exactly how much we have accomplished, because so much of that time was wasted reading email, answering phone calls and surfing the Web. If you have done six hours of uninterrupted sprints, then you’ll feel guilt-free when you sneak off early to play with the kids.

Of course, it is not just about how many hours you work, but about how productive you are. Fortunately, there are ways to work less but produce more.

Work Less, Produce More

As business owners, we are paid not for the hours we work, but for what we deliver, so we have to be as efficient as possible. Doing more in less time is an article in itself. But here is one principle that has served me well: recycle.

We are so busy putting out the latest fire that we fail to plan for the future. If you’re coding, say, a news listing for a website, you will probably be in such a hurry that you fail to mark it up in a way that could be reused in your next project.

Also, we often complain that we don’t have time to market ourselves because we regard that as “extra work.” But in many cases, it is just a matter of documenting what we are working on.

Let me give you a real-world example. I needed to redesign my personal website24. I also needed to launch the second season of our podcast25. I thought I didn’t have time for both, until it occurred to me that the second season could be about the redesign process of my website. My redesign of the website could be recycled into an episode for the show. What’s more, this process inspired tweets, forum conversations and improvements in the overall working processes of our company.

Whether you are writing a blog post, designing a website or coding an app, ask yourself whether a bit of extra work could turn it into something that serves another purpose.

Snippets in Espresso
Reusing code through tools like Espresso is just one way to be more efficient. Large view26.

Code is often recycled, but you could just as easily reuse design elements, client presentations and even responses to common objections from clients. On this last point, see my post “Where Are My Rounded Corners27“: I got so fed up from having the same conversation with clients about progressive enhancement that I decided to write a document that I could just hand out. You can also use pre-written templates and resources such as Spec Work template28 and Wee Nudge29 to communicate common problems, issues and misconceptions to your clients.

By recycling, you can significantly cut your workload and your stress.

What Are Your Stress-Busting Techniques?

I have only touched the surface of worries for freelancers. We are under so much pressure that it can feel overwhelming at times. Yet we can do many more things to improve. With that in mind, let’s continue the conversation in the comments. What stresses you most, and what stress-busting techniques do you recommend?



  1. 1 http://evernote.com
  2. 2 http://evernote.com
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/productivity.jpg
  4. 4 http://flexibits.com/fantastical
  5. 5 http://flexibits.com/fantastical
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/fantasical-1-1.png
  7. 7 http://culturedcode.com/things/
  8. 8 http://culturedcode.com/things/
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Things-8.png
  10. 10 http://awayfind.com
  11. 11 https://mail.google.com/mail/help/priority-inbox.html
  12. 12 http://awayfind.com/
  13. 13 http://awayfind.com/
  14. 14 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/AwayFind-1.png
  15. 15 http://unsubscribe.com
  16. 16 http://unsubscribe.com
  17. 17 http://unsubscribe.com
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Unsubscribe-1.png
  19. 19 http://www.emailcharter.org/
  20. 20 http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/
  21. 21 http://pomodoro.ugolandini.com/
  22. 22 http://pomodoro.ugolandini.com/
  23. 23 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Pomodoro-1-1.png
  24. 24 http://boagworld.com
  25. 25 http://boagworld.com/season-2/
  26. 26 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Snippets-1.png
  27. 27 http://boagworld.com/design/where-are-my-rounded-corners/
  28. 28 http://www.supernicestudio.com/rfp/
  29. 29 http://weenudge.com/

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Love your podcast, love your writing even more, want more more more more.

  2. 52

    Your article is really interesting, but I don’t understand your title: your article is not really about the web design business, you give tips for all people working from home, or having autonomy in their job, so they can organize themselves without having a boss telling them what to do and when to do it!
    Thanks for all those tips anyway! =)

  3. 103

    Great article with lots of advice – I feel that for me the problem is actually getting in to a routine whereby I check all these programs that I’m using to help my organisation.

    It’s a bit like the joke about the guy who bought the “How to avoid Procrastination” book, when asked how it was coming along replied “I haven’t got round to reading it yet”.

    To begin you just need one tool. I have tried many along the way and the only thing that I keep coming back to is Evernote. It’s easy to use, and above all syncs across devices – and it’s free!
    Once in the habit of using it and are familiar, then tackle another that does something different, like a calendar,

    There are definitely other apps mentioned in this article that I will be checking out, I really like the Friday morning assessment too.

    I’ve been freelance for a long time and it’s articles like this that still reveal a fresh perspective on doing things and offer motivation too, because, as we all know, when you are doing everything yourself it’s nice for someone else to offer guidance and help!

  4. 154

    Great article – I’ve been using Things and Evernote to get myself organised lately and it’s really helping! I also like the idea of re-using code and email content as I seem to spend a lot of time typing the same stuff.

    Going to check out that Pomodoro app now :)


  5. 205

    Great article! I am definitely going to give some of these techniques a go!

  6. 256

    Great post. I was just discussing these topics with some of my key staff last week. You have some great suggestion I plan on sharing with them.

  7. 307

    So your article got me looking at Fantastical. It’s AWESOME. Provides almost all the things that ical lacks. Combine it with Todoist, and I’ve got everything I need :)

    Thanks for this great article.

  8. 358

    “When you’re under pressure, marketing is the first thing to get pushed out.” – very true! Still trying to find a sustainable pace here. I completely agree with the lists – I hate “to do” lists, but I’d be adrift without the “to do” list I keep on my iPad.

    Great article… now with proposals mailed out, I will take some time, as you suggest, to revisit plans.

  9. 409

    Concentrate(Mac only) is an amazing app for staying focused while you work. If you haven’t heard of it be sure to check it out – http://getconcentrating.com/

  10. 460

    Hey Paul – I am not a web designer and have to say that this article is “the bees knees” for anyone who runs their own business that has a strong online component!

    I am a big big fan of Evernote for all the reasons you mention plus as a quick place to record my thoughts for my Idea Garden (thanks to Charlie Gilkey over at Productive Flourishing for that gem http://www.productiveflourishing.com/do-you-have-an-idea-garden/).

    I use Vitamin-R http://www.publicspace.net/Vitamin-R/ for getting focus when I am scattered which is based on the Pomodoro principles of time-slicing.

    Finally I am also loving TeamBox http://teambox.com/ for working with clients – great integration with Google Docs for collaborative work.


  11. 511

    Bookmarking this in ‘time management resources’. I agree that freelancers and entrepreneurs need to keep track of their time just like lawyers and doctors. I use ClockingIt project management, which I love and it’s free. Whatever you use, the key is consistency. It’s eye-opening to go back to your reports and see exactly what your time is being spent on. Absolutely going to try the away find, email is a killer for me! Thanks for such a useful article.

  12. 562

    I have to recommend the pomodoro technique the most, it can really change your productivity.
    The only thing I would not recommend is using tons of apps to manage your work, that will never work. Choose one and stick to it.

  13. 613

    One of the worst problems I have, particularly when working at home, is getting rid of distractions. This has given me loads of ideas to try and combat those. Great article with brilliant advice :)

  14. 664

    This is a fantastic article. I am very interested in trying out the Pomodoro technique as I think concentrating one on thing is a bit of a problem for me.

    Many thanks

  15. 715

    Kurniawan Joko Purnomo

    July 23, 2011 9:25 pm

    Thans for great sharing , i just start my own business in web design and need some article or tips and find it in your article.

  16. 766

    Here’s the message to newbies: If you buy a couple hundred dollars worth of applications, your work problems will be solved. Good luck!

  17. 817

    Nice man. Extremely informative post. I’ll be sure to pass this along to my tech guys.
    Delicious Recipes

  18. 868

    Wont you suggest any apps for windows?

  19. 919

    Great article, some very handy tips but it certainly needs more Windows alternatives!

  20. 970

    Great article. I use SimpleNote for my ‘one list’ as it’s available everywhere. Must admit that Workflowy looks interesting too except that there’s no dedicated phone app. Intend to have a look at DoIt too

  21. 1021

    Evernote is brilliant, i would be lost without it these days, it has no restrictions so you can write notes or to do lists how you wish to write them and its free and available across platforms with a great iphone app too! I have recently purchased billings but haven’t had enough time to set it up and looks like it might take some time!
    Cheers for the list Paul! Great to see the return of boagworld!

  22. 1072

    Great article Paul. I’ve started using a few of these resources myself. I am a big fan of the podcast and know you have used Coda. Have you dropped Coda in favour of Espresso?

  23. 1123

    Interesting article with some neat tricks, specially the detailed marketing plan as well as the to-do list (something I use on a daily basis!). Deadlines stress me a bit but they also drive me. No, my pet peeve is not finding inspiration for my design work. Problem is usually solved by a walk outside to clear my mind :)

  24. 1174

    Great article…! I ‘ll definitely going to give some of these tips as practical way.

  25. 1225

    Great articles. These thing what I really need in my day to day work.
    Nice to see you some more tips again.

  26. 1276

    Dude, you are a simple web designer, quite mediocre by the way. The way you wrote this article is like you are CEO of DELL.

  27. 1327

    That’s a great post!
    I’m not a web designer (i’m a branding and marketing consultant for start-ups and small companies) but this tips really focused me on some of my issues as a free lancer.


  28. 1378

    Great article. It is so relevant for me right at this moment as my freelance web business has started to take off, and all of these tips and tricks will serve me well. I am guilty of every one of the time wasters, so all I need to to is find PC versions of those Mac apps, or bring the Macbook Air downstairs!

    I do have a question, my biggest hurdle is getting the collateral from the client to be able to build the website, such as text and images for each page. I seem to sit in limbo waiting and then all of sudden, I get three clients back to me with the data in one day. It can be a bit overwhelming. Has anyone else experienced this and found a way to combat it?

  29. 1429

    Nice article Paul. Experienced most of that and am still guilty of most!

    A note to Anthony above –

    I ensure that the client knows I won’t start any work until they’ve given me enough detail.

    I do this with the client accentuating the positive.

    I’ll quote them a specified time the site will take, say 2 weeks, but make sure they know I won’t actually start the work until all info is supplied.

    I also keep the client updated, so that if you do end up waiting on them, they are aware of it and will take that into consideration when getting close to a deadline.



  30. 1480

    You’ve nailed some very important points here, I think these are the fundamentals any freelancer must master. I feel so guilty now.. :)

    For me, the Pomodoro timer has been the best distraction-fighter so far. It really works. There’s a web version of the pomodoro timer also, but it won’t record your time for reference. You can find it at timerdoro.com.

  31. 1531

    I find Daylite and Billings is also very useful for managing my day-to-day business operations.

  32. 1582

    juegos de chicas

    August 2, 2011 9:41 am

    Really nice tips! thanks

  33. 1633

    Great article. I posted a blog on our website talking about a few of the things I do to stay on task and focused without drowning in the process. Simple things but they go far.


  34. 1684

    Yes, again, great article. I stubbled upon this after getting overwhelmed r&ding (for the second time) the ‘best’ tool for our web development company to use for project management, time tracking, collaboration, ticketing, crm and proposal building. At one point we were using filemaker, basecamp, harvest, and zendesk. Just too much. But then you start to demo all of the big hosted solutions out there that claim to do it all and it’s hard to get a team (we have 4 people) to really use it in a way that makes you feel more efficient. My heart says to keep it simple, but then you start telling yourself, “well, but we need to track our time to find out where we are going over budget, and we need a central location where all of us can see what’s going on production wise, and assign update and support issues to the right person, etc.” Then I find myself spending 5 more hours testing proworkflow, activecollab, liquidplanner, clarizen, and the like. Any advice? Thank you again for a great article.

  35. 1735

    Great Article Paul.. It really helped me to get things organised…. Keep it up :)

  36. 1786

    The major problem in web design business is ideology problem to solve ideology problem you need some solid theory minor practical. Dear, no matter how though a problem is, the idea of getting solve is theory while the application is practical to get the better ideology to move your web business to next level click:Anchor tag:
    Click Here!Obtain ideas that would be useful for your web design business. you will be happy to be in web design business.

  37. 1837

    Yes sorry about that. It reflected my own experiences and I am a mac user. I am sure somebody will come along with a PC alternative.

  38. 1888

    Paul, you’re such a Mac Fetishist! J/K I’ve loved you and Markus since you guys started doing the Podcast, I remember listening to it way back when I was a young nerdling in training.

    Here’s a quick run down of some of the Apps I’ve played with. I also use a Linux laptop but don’t do as much organizing through it, I like my desktop for that.

    Notes: Evernote (it works under Windows)

    ToDo: Wunderlist or Basecamp

    Timekeeping: Klok or Freshbooks (I invoice through Freshbooks so I have started using that when I need to time things, which is not all that often)

    Email: Simple solution, use different addresses and only keep the WORK email open while working. I also try to check my personal email a maximum of once an hour. My personal email address is also used for various signups and I try to keep business signups very clean from newsletters and other junk. The only reason I leave my email open is because it is VERY clean. My work email gets spammed once a day by linked-in and the remainder of my email is about 75% actual email. Stay on top of things, don’t give your working email out to everyone, only people you are working with. It’s not like it’s hard to get multiple email addresses.

    As for staying on task: I do not use a program to help with this. Quite simply, I try to take 10 minutes of break per hour worked. This means, work from 11-11:50am take ten to stretch, maybe read a blog or sift through some personal email. I will sometimes take more frequent breaks if I’m stuck on something. Over time, you may find that if something is particularly difficult, stepping away from it is not a bad idea. Don’t abuse this and become lazy.

    Like Paul said, there should be some time to review where you are versus where you should be. The more frequent you do this, the more on task you find yourself.

    I hope these help! :)

  39. 1939

    Soon they will…


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