Prioritizing is essential, but you still can’t have everything

If you’re a freelancer, you’re likely to find the following scenario plenty familiar.

You have two hours left in the workday and seven hours left until bedtime, and there so many things begging for attention. Your work-related to-do list includes finishing a deliverable that must be turned in at the end of the day tomorrow, applying for two gigs you saw listed online, reaching out to a former colleague who you heard is looking for help, returning a stack of emails from clients, and sending out a couple invoices. Your personal life also calls: You need to make a dentist appointment, pay your credit card bill, write a thank you card, and plan your daughter’s birthday party.

That list doesn’t even include cooking dinner, helping your daughter with her homework, changing the sheets, putting in a load of laundry, or weeding the garden.

Or the 80 other things that still cling to your to-do list like barnacles to a rock.

But somehow you have to figure out which of these things to do in the next two hours of work and then in the five hours of personal time that follow.

Running a business — and, for that matter, managing one’s daily life — is at its core an exercise in prioritizing. This is true whether you’re a solo freelancer or the CEO of a large company, and whether you’re a single person living alone or a member of a big family.

The reason that prioritizing is so hard is not that most of us don’t know how to value one thing over another. It’s that there are just too many dang things of value to shoehorn into our far-too-short days.

“For most people, these days, the main problem of time management isn’t failing to prioritize what matters,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. “It’s that there are too many things that matter: too many tasks we pretty much have to accomplish in order to keep our jobs, pay the rent, be adequate parents, find a modicum of fulfillment, and so on.”

As freelancers, we must learn fast how to be ruthless in prioritizing, not only in what to do first, but in what to do at all. For example, you may have heard a bevy ideas about how to market yourself: Start a blog, be active on social media, send cold emails to prospects, write guest posts, go on podcasts, give TED talks, and on and on.

There is no way you can do all these things, not to mention do them and leave time for any client work that your marketing happens to attract. So you must triage. You must pick one or two key marketing things to focus on and forget the rest.

Similarly, if you are eager to put in an application for a gig posting you saw but it’s time to cook dinner for your family, you’ll probably need to let the application wait for the next day. Either that or order a pizza.

You simply can’t do everything you want and need to do.

“There’s no principle that says you must be able to fulfill all the roles you think you ought to fulfill,” Burkeman continues. “And when the rules of a game make it unwinnable, the only way to win is to change the rules… That means sacrifice – figuring out what you’re willing to abandon or fail at, in order to do what matters even more.”

When shaping your freelance career, be brutal about pursuing the things that matter most to you. If it matters to you to get bylines in glossy magazines, then spend more time crafting pitches. If it matters to you to get work in a specialized niche, then spend more time networking in that area. If it matters to you to make good money, then spend time analyzing your financial needs and learn to prioritize some jobs over others in a systematic way.

There are a million of these calculations you’ll be doing day in, day out. The better you get at doggedly pursuing only what you really want, the better you’ll become at making all these decisions without even realizing you’re prioritizing.

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