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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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 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. then does its best to unsubscribe you and to pursue those who continue sending you junk. has dramatically reduced the number of unwanted email I receive. Large view15.

I have to say that 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, 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 Spiral16,” 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 Link

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 technique17. 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 App18
There are many applications to support the Pomodoro technique19. My personal favourite is simply named Pomodoro. Large view20.

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 Link

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 website21. I also needed to launch the second season of our podcast22. 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 view23.

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 Corners24“: 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 template and Wee Nudge25 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? Link

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?


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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

    Great article Paul. Thanks for the advice. I did notice you use Things and Evernote, why use both? Can’t Evernote collect your to-do list and tag them with your relevant goals?

    Just curious, as to your reasoning. If there was a big benefit you found with Things. I’m always trying to collect lists and info in one place and have been trying to consolidate on Evernote myself.

    • 2

      Evernote only has a very basic todo function. I am a huge “Getting Things Done” fan so I wanted a list app that applies those principles.

  2. 3


    July 20, 2011 6:21 am

    Got to love the ‘Things’ screenshot

    “Need a message explaining to IE6/7 users”

    why they suck?

    • 4

      Pretty much yes :)

    • 5

      There are so many ways that statement could end…

      – why those rounded corners aren’t there
      – why the gradients look a bit different
      – why the javascript doesn’t perform as well
      – why they need to upgrade to something better

  3. 6

    Good article. My husband and I are in the very slow process of building our business for web design and this has given me lots of food for thought. Thanks!

    • 7

      Delwin Campbell

      July 22, 2011 5:05 am

      How wonderful that you do web design as a couple! That’s fantastic. :)

      • 8

        So… no pretending either of one is “working” then and hasn’t time for “household chores” ;)

  4. 9


    July 20, 2011 6:53 am

    I absolutly agree about the pomodoro technique ! At first sight, I though “what ? Only 25mn of work and then a break ?! This can’t be serious !”. But 3 years later (as a Ruby on Rails freelancer), I can say this is the most efficient and productive technique I’ve found to get the job done. Give it a try, seriously !

    • 10

      Muneeb Ahmad

      July 20, 2011 8:33 am

      Ooops, I apologise for rating your comment ‘down’ I meant to rate it a thumbs-up. :D I completely agree with the Pomodoro technique and will definitely try and use it more often.

      • 11

        Just caught myself on trying to do the same mistake.

        I supposed it happens because of green positive number next to thumb down icon. It’d probably make sense to have positive numbers on the left side and negative on the right…:)

        P.S. Great article!

  5. 12

    You should check out QuickCal too. It was the first calendar app on a Mac with Natural Language Input.

  6. 13

    Paul, thank you for sharing those tips. They’re just what I need – and I’m not even a web designer. I think they’re valuable advice for any freelancer or business owner. In fact, they’re so good, I’ll forgive you for spelling cheque as “check”.

    • 14

      I didn’t! That was those pesky editors. Ill have words ;)

      • 15

        Francis Mweru

        July 20, 2011 11:28 pm

        Why is it that programs such as Microsoft office “word” do not validate the word “Cheque”? It always appear as a spelling blunder!

      • 16

        Billy Graydon

        July 23, 2011 10:51 am

        I have that problem too – with both people and spell checkers. In reality, check is not absolutely wrong, it is just the American spelling. However, for those of us who prefer to stick to the proper British spellings, all of those American editors/checkers can be a pain. The worst, I find, is when they try to Americanise words that do not have American spellings, like advertise (as opposed to advertize, which is wrong).

    • 17

      Francis Mweru

      July 20, 2011 11:26 pm

      Why is it the programs such as Microsoft office “word” do not validate the word “Cheque”?
      It always appear as a spelling blunder!

      • 18

        If you run into a word that is spelled wright and word marks it as wrong, just add it to the library. Have a great day! :)

      • 19

        Billy Graydon

        July 23, 2011 10:56 am

        To fix this:
        Office button
        > Word options
        > Popular
        > Language settings
        > Under ‘available editing languages’ select English (UK)
        > Click ‘add’
        > Under ‘enabled editing languages’ ensure that English (UK) is selected.
        > Under ‘primary editing language’ ensure that English (UK) is selected.
        > Click OK
        > Click OK again


        Now cheque works!

    • 20

      Mark Cossey

      July 21, 2011 6:17 am

      SM specify American English for their blog posts (I had to use the word ‘soccer’ for one of my posts, much to my embarrassment).

      Great post Paul – thank you.

  7. 21

    Great tips. It all rings very true to me – I’m in my first year of running my own business full time.

    You’ve tempted me to try out the pomodoro technique, I’ve heard a lot about it but been sceptical, but anything that helps bring focus can’t be bad.

  8. 22

    Federico Fernandez

    July 20, 2011 7:33 am

    What a great post! excellent tips to get organized… thank you!

  9. 23

    Chris Horner

    July 20, 2011 7:42 am

    The email productivity tips are great. I’ve been doing most of those for the better part of two years now and it makes a TON of difference in productivity. You can get the truly important stuff done quicker without the constant disruption.

  10. 24

    great article and advice…..thx for sharing this :)

  11. 25

    Great article but it’s very mac centric. I’d love to hear of alternative software that could be incorporated into this type of workflow that doesn’t require owning a mac.

  12. 26

    This describes my life exactly, these techniques are exactly what I need. Thanks for the article!

  13. 27

    Great article Paul! Nice to see some business related tips again.

  14. 28

    Miguel Khoury

    July 20, 2011 9:31 am

    Great article!!

  15. 29

    This was a great article. Too bad it’s only from a MAC users perspective. Most, if not all the tools you mention are MAC only. Oh well. I like your thinking though.

    • 30

      I agree it was a little mac centric (personal bias). However, evernote,, and pomodoro are all cross platform.

  16. 31

    Nice one. These are good tips for productivity in general, beyond graphic designers. Thanks!

    The “Mac-Centric” aspect didn’t bother me. I think the article is written with enough tips/reminders that the specific tools can be taken with a grain of salt.

  17. 32

    Great article… With a ton of great resources. Thanks

  18. 33

    Jacob McDaniel

    July 20, 2011 10:30 am

    Another great little tool for to-do-lists is Doomi for Mac. It’s a little Adobe Air App, I love it!

    Great article, always great stuff Paul. Thanks!

  19. 34

    Great article, But I strongly recommend over Things. I bought things a while back and it never really helped me. I think it was the interface. Don’t get me wrong I like things, but when it comes to productivity get The Hit List. It’s really been keeping me on track.

  20. 35

    this article resulted in a spiritual experience for me…
    thanks, paul.


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