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Creating the Perfect Work Schedule

Working for yourself should allow you to work when you want to. That’s the theory. Here’s how to make it a reality.

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by Elaine Pofeldt

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Patricia Sigmon, 60, runs two demanding businesses but still has plenty of time for her personal passion: golf. In the summer, she sometimes hits the links in the middle of the day to recharge. By creating a schedule that helps her do her best, Sigmon has kept operations humming at both her seven-person technology advisory firm, LPS Consulting, and a separate firm, called David Advisory Group, that advises clients on building profits, while building a life she loves.

It didn't happen by accident. Sigmon has learned over 30 years what kind of work day is best for her and is careful to guard her time. For instance, while she responds quickly to clients’ emergencies, she doesn’t respond instantly to routine client emails at night and on weekends, so they don’t come to expect it. “Once you start that relationship, you can’t get out of it,” says Sigmon, whose businesses operate out of Fanwood, New Jersey and New York City.

Many people dream of self-employment because they want to set their own work schedule. But achieving that goal can requires more proactive time management than many people expect. Even if you thrive on starting work at 7 a.m. and shutting down by 3 p.m., you probably can’t bow out of that unexpected conference call with your biggest client if it happens to be at 4 p.m., when you usually take a yoga class. “Each client really matters, so it’s a very fine line,” says Garrett Miller, 46, a former hiring manager at Pfizer who is now CEO of CoTria, a productivity training company in Andover, New Jersey.

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That said, managing your time proactively can help to make your ideal schedule a reality.

Put routines in place. It may be fun delaying work for an hour to catch up with an old friend on the phone, but it’ll be easier to build a life around your ideal workday if you establish fairly regular hours and a specific place to work. For some people that means driving to a rented office, but even if you work from home, there are easy ways to stick to your schedule—short of donning a dry-cleaned suit from your last full-time job. “It may mean getting up, getting dressed and moving from the kitchen to the home office, “says Jeremy Neuner, CEO and co-founder of NextSpace, a coworking community based in San Francisco that rents space to self-employed people and small business owners in a shared office setting. “Some people go to a coffee shop.”

Take control of your phone time. Screening phone calls and setting aside certain hours each day for scheduled calls—say 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.—is essential if you want to finish your work day at the time you’ve planned. When you schedule calls, ask for an agenda, or send one if you initiated the call, says Miller. “It helps you get all points covered—and also signals when a meeting is done.”

Master meeting-scheduling technology. One of the biggest time wasters for small business owners, who often don’t have assistants, is setting up times to meet with clients, prospects and employees. To avoid this, Miller advises taking a half hour to learn how to send meeting invitations through your email system, so you and the recipient can automatically add them to your calendar—something many people still don’t do. Some programs, such as Microsoft Outlook, also have a function that can send your whole calendar to someone when you are trying to schedule a call, saving you countless emails back and forth.

     See also: 4 Things You'll Never Miss About A Corporate Job

Minimize information overload. Even if you avoid the temptation to check email constantly, it can be hard to tackle your inbox productively if it’s jam packed.To save time, use an application such as OtherInbox Organizer, which is compatible with Gmail, AOL and Yahoo! mail, to automatically organize incoming mail into folders. It’ll weed out advertising messages, enewsletters and the like, so you can look at them later. And if you haven’t already learned how to use the folder system on your email system to store messages, it’s time. One of the biggest time wasters for white collar and legal workers, according to a recent Lexis-Nexis survey, is searching for old emails. When you send messages, use subject lines that incorporate key words that will help you find them in a search.

Negotiate your availability. If you do business on retainer for particular clients, be clear about when you are and aren’t available and stick with it unless there's an emergency. One consultant I know negotiated a clause with a major retainer client stating that she is not available after 3 p.m. You don’t need to tell clients why you are not available at certain times. It’s sufficient to say you have another commitment. “Keep it professional,” advises Sigmon.

Don’t skimp on talent. “The biggest time waster in anyone’s life is hiring the wrong person,” says Miller, author of the book Hire on a WHIM: The Four Qualities That Make for Great Employees. While C-players may cost you far less money to hire than an experienced pro, they’ll require more supervision—and invariably make mistakes that will make it hard for you to get home on time. Hiring a terrific freelancer or consultant is probably a better bet if you’re on a tight budget—and you won’t find yourself canceling your golf game to undo their mistakes!

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a website that aims to help self-employed professionals earn a good living.