How To Manage Yourself

Sometimes people tell me stuff like: “I can never be a freelancer, cuz I can’t manage myself” or “I can’t work from home, there’s just too many temptations” or maybe “I don’t have enough willpower to manage myself”.

Somehow I’ve got the feeling people think that when you’re a freelancer you’ve got to be a self-motivated-superman, whereas if you’re an employee working in a studio or office you can be “weak” since the boss or office pressure will force you to deliver.

But that’s a complete nonsense. Even as an employee you’ve got to manage yourself. I know people working in studios while still wasting half their day on Facebook, or on cigarette breaks or on “water cooler” talks. People who act this way actually force their boss to do the thing they hate the most: to manage them. This makes both boss and employee suffer: the employee hates the nagging boss and the boss hates the micro-management.

What you have to realize is this: no matter who you are – freelancer or employee, you have to manage yourself. The alternative is pretty simple: someone else will manage you. And, trust me, you won’t like it. No one likes being managed, no matter if it’s your boss, your lover, you mom or your kids. When someone else is managing you, they have their interest first, so no wonder it sucks.


Right. So now you know you better manage your own ass. Question is – how?

I don’t pretend to be some sort of management genius, but here are 4 principles I try to follow in my life, and they might be relevant to yours as well:

1. Be Active

When I was a design student, I knew I wanted to go abroad for my internship. I was dreaming about it since I started school, and I was waiting anxiously to the summer of my 3rd year to go. When the time came, it turned out that my school doesn’t offer cool internships, and I didn’t really like the options I was offered. I decided to take matters into my own hands: I collected the emails of every studio I loved around the world and e-mailed my portfolio to all of them, asking them to intern there for the summer. I sent 60 e-mails, and 2 of them actually said yes!

Things were now in my hands. I had the opportunity to go to Amsterdam or Mexico. I chose Mexico.

The point is this: you don’t have to accept the choices presented to you as a given. Creating new opportunities for yourself is easier than you think, opportunities you would like better. When you take the initiative the power is in your hands.

When I start a new project I can always go in one of two ways: ask the boss / client “what do you want me to do? where should I start? What is more important?” or I can actively come to them and tell them: “here’s what I think we should do, and here’s the first thing we should deal with”. Take a wild guess which option you will enjoy better? and where you will be treated more seriously?

2. Goals

There’s a quote I love: “It’s hard to score if you don’t know where the goal is”.

The goal of managing yourself is not to “get more shit done”. Some people think that being productive means that at the end of the day there’s a huge crossed off to-do list. They get a lot of stuff done, but they still never get anywhere, and lots of times, doing all of this stuff doesn’t make them happier. So why bother being productive?

More important than being productive, is being effective. Meaning to know that the things that you do are the right things, that matter for the project or your life. To be effective you have to know what your goals are.

For me, for example, one of my goals is to have a good balance between my work & life. I really love my job, but it’s also super important to me to have time for my wife, my friends and the other stuff I like to do, like reading and… yes, sleeping :)

This goal guides a lot of the decisions I make. It helps me decline certain job offers, or limit the amount of hours I work. Of course it’s not always 100% possible to reach that goal when I have some kind of work crisis, for example. But keeping that goal in mind pushed me to leave a job where these “crises” happened 3 times a week.

3. Deadlines

About 60 years ago, a wise guy named Parkinson defined a law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. He was damn right.

Designers like to think that the more time they have for a project, the better – we can get a better result, refine the details and make the project shine. I don’t think that’s the case.

Have you ever seen this graph before? I think it’s quite accurate:


I love deadlines! They make you focus, and then deliver on a specific date. Problem is, they’re usually too long. That’s right, you heard me. You guys have too much time. That’s why you’re on Facebook half of your day.

My solution in this case, is to ignore the client’s deadline, and create a new deadline for myself. Usually much shorter.

The result is that I succeed tricking myself into a little panic mode: “OMG! I only got 2 hours to finish this project. I gotta work fast!!!”. And guess what? Turns out I can finish it in 2 hours, then I’m off to the beach, chilling with a book.

When I was in design school, the norm was to pull off all-nighters almost every day so you can bring in “the best work”. Well, as I’ve said before, I value my sleep (and so does science), so I decided I’m not doing homework after 22:00. Whatever will be, will be.

Obviously, since I couldn’t come to class empty handed. I had to bring something, even if it wasn’t “the best”. The result was that I had time to spend with my partner & friends, plus time to relax my mind. Those other guys? They’re still into the habit of working the night away, since if the deadline is tomorrow, they still have all night. But be sure that this is not a sustainable way to run your life.

Important VS Urgent

Here’s a concept I came across recently. It’s from this no-bullshit-best-seller “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People”.
Check out this table:


Now try and imagine in which “zone” you spend most of your day? Is it in zones 1 + 3?

In order to be effective and achieve your goals, and more importantly – be happy, it’s best to try and spend as much time as possible in zone number 2. That’s where you can find all the things that make you grow, develop relationships, improve your skills and get what you’re after.

It’s not REALLY urgent that I sit down now and read a book, or go to the movies, or go on a date with my wife. But it’s super important. If I’m not gonna do that, eventually I’ll pay for it. You might think the project you’re working on right now is pretty important, but try to imagine what will happen if your partner will decide to leave you tomorrow? Will the project still look that important?

If you’re not going to invest time in the things that really matter, you won’t do any progress.

Managing yourself ain’t easy. It’s another one of those things that they don’t teach you in school, and that’s a shame, cuz it’s one of the more important skills in life. I always try to learn and get better at it. Hope you do too.

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