There are two kinds of people in the world: those whose work is mostly or entirely dictated by outside forces and those whose work has to be driven mostly or entirely from their own choices.

Think of the first group as all the people you know who have JOBS. Even those who have high pressure, high paid C-level jobs have the boundaries of their work largely set by organizational priorities.

The second group can best be summarized as people who are, to a significant extent, self-employed. This can include the partially self-employed like therapists who have a private practice on the side of their agency job, or side hustlers who offer services or consulting outside of their full-time, corporate, or non-profit jobs. Or it can be the entirely self-employed, like therapists and coaches in full-time private practice or founders of small to medium-sized companies.

Most of us were raised with the expectation that we would have a job and we were prepared by our schools to do just that. We did work that was assigned to us and were graded on other people’s expectations. Unless you were raised by entrepreneurs, this kind of cog-in-the-organizational-wheel was probably the foundation of your understanding of work.

Now, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about work that way. I’m not saying that doing your part for the mission, or finding safety and comfort in a large organization is less ideal. And I’m certainly not saying that a job is less demanding than being self-employed. In fact, the busiest people I know have jobs!

When you are working at a demanding job, you are often chipping away at a mountain of relational tasks (send this report to Anna, follow up if you haven’t heard by Thursday, re-send your availability to nail down a time to meet… and on, and on, and on). Anyone who has ever worked in consulting, or on Wall Street, or any number of other high-pressure, project-driven careers knows exactly what I’m talking about.

For these people, who are largely managing incoming requests, working through projects they’ve been assigned, and trying to figure out timelines for when work can be complete, traditional time management is a HUGE RELIEF.

The most famous time management system is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (or GTD, as it’s called). It’s a high-touch, super structured way to get your to-do list out of your head and managed. By following the tenets of GTD you can take the drama out of all those little commitments and find the head space for the strategic and managerial aspects of your work.

It can be a lifesaver; it was for me when I was a consultant and drowning under the weight of 14 projects.

The problem arises when someone who is self-employed attempts to utilize a typical time management system to manage the messy interdependence that is their life and business and finances.

Here’s an example: A therapist tries to use GTD and within a few hours gives up. “I could never do all of this!” she begins, throwing her pen down. And, then (and this is the tragic part), “I guess I just wasn’t meant to do this. I’m so disorganized and such a procrastinator…if I can’t even get myself to do what I put on my to-do list, I’m never going to make any progress.”

This happens because traditional time management programs don’t support you in considering the following stone-cold realities of being self-employed:

  • You might be over-committed on things that don’t matter and under-committed on things that would move the needle. Are you doing what matters or just keeping busy? How would you know?
  • You might not believe that you CAN do the things that matter. This usually sounds like “I’m not the kind of person who does sales, marketing, promotion, math, book-keeping, speaking, social media, or exercise.” When the only person deciding what you need to do is YOU (and not those organizational priorities), then your lack of belief in yourself will be a major hurdle.
  • You might be doing a poor job of managing your work-life balance. At least when you have a job people will sometimes encourage you to take time off. You have vacation time that you’ll lose if you don’t use it, for example, or your company is straight-up closed on Christmas and the 4th of July. If you are the only person deciding when you should work and you are in any way concerned about your finances, you are probably working around the clock, 365 days a year. This is not a recipe for success under any circumstances, but it’s especially devastating when the core of your work is vision-setting.
  • You might be working as an employee, instead of as a founder. One of the most important shifts required to succeed as a self-employed person is to shift away from the default, job-based settings of our upbringing and move into an understanding of ourselves as the visionary for our business. When you see yourself as the founder of a business (instead of the single employee in your private practice), you know that the most valuable time is spent setting strategy: Figuring out what you want and why. Putting together the plan to move in that direction. Hiring people to help you get those things done.
    But when you see yourself as an employee, you will seek certainty from a boss that doesn’t exist. (Un)Fortunately, the internet is full of (ill-conceived, probably irrelevant, conflicting) advice. Because we just want to be told what to do, we take on these expectations in an almost unconscious way. “Finally, here’s the checklist on how to do this the RIGHT way,” we say, and then we run ourselves into the ground on the hamster wheel of “best practices” and “tips and tricks.”
time management resources

These realities (which are DIFFERENT from the realities of our friends with jobs) are why any serious attempt at time management can result in panic.

Now, just to be clear, it’s not that time management isn’t possible for the self-employed.

Time management for entrepreneurs has to begin in a more foundational place.

We don’t get to start with a list of foregone tasks based on a job description and under the guidance of a supervisor.

Instead, we have to dig in and build a messy, imperfect vision.

  • What do you want your practice to be like?
  • How many clients are enough clients?
  • How much time off do you want?
  • How important are those other areas of your life (health, family, adventure, friends)?

It’s very important that you operate from a place informed by the answers to THOSE questions.

Because when that is in place, you will finally be ready to manage your time.

This reality is the exact reason that I created the Aligned Time Journal. Before you set a single to-do, you spend time checking in with your vision, assessing your commitment strategically, and choosing where you want to spend your time (and saying “no” to the things that matter less!). This combination of clarity and saying “no” will sharpen your to-do list. Focusing on tasks that align to those goals, to the exclusion of others will get you back on the path to progress, building momentum, and getting more done.

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost a million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.