Working as a freelance designer, especially on a crowdsourcing platform like Topcoder, offers new experiences and limitless flexibility as you become king of yourself, boss of your own, and master of your time. It’s truly astonishing working as a designer at Topcoder if you are able to manage your time, otherwise you’ll end up working late — rushing from one challenge to another trying your best to finish the design at the very last minute, exhausted — but you keep doing the same thing over and over again.
In the end you get burned out and you stand to lose the joy of competition, your performance suffers, you keep sacrificing your precious sleep, you could gain weight, have no personal life, be grumpy — which can lead you to serious problems, and many more. If you ever felt like what this, don’t be afraid! You’re not alone. Actually, I write this article as a reminder and mood booster for myself — who is falling deep in the brink of creative extinction, heavily entangled by the tons of delayed tasks and plans — to grasp the power of designing time for Topcoder’s challenge.
Identify the Problem
Ask yourself, do you enjoy working on a challenge right now, do you feel that it is burdensome and you just want to submit whatever you have — even you don’t want to do it, do you keep falling behind on your own schedule and feel unhappy with the results, or do you always hit the submit button every time while people are waking up from their sleep, etc?
Everyone has their own problems but admitting that you have a problem requires courage from your side. As you work remotely, nobody knows if you have a problem. All people know is that you are able to submit your design. Then, try your best to identify your problem.
Below are the most common problems and simple ways to solve them. Disclaimer: I am not an expert, but each solution I found from my reading and journey, which is proof to be useful. Feel free to apply the solution in your own way. In the end, our purpose is to help you design your time to be more efficient and effective.
Problem 1: I still have study or something to do.
The problem is you have your homework, exams, or duties from your office. You can’t have that suffer.
Solution: The percentage of students who are studying in college or people who are working at another job/project is quite big at Topcoder. They work/study fully on weekdays and then on the weekend they try to join a design challenge. They manage to do that for long time. The secret: be rational and know when to give your time to study/work and design on Topcoder—and know when to say stop—because participating in design challenges can be very addictive. Allocate your time to do 1-2 challenge in a week if your free time allows. Remember, you can do anything but you can’t do everything!
Problem 2: Working from home is a temptation for me.
Many designers at Topcoder are working from home. Seems like a dream came true for some people, but here comes the problem – you’ll end up mixing your personal life with work and fail to differentiate which one is more important than the other. Your bed is calling when a deadline looms, your family is around so working from home clearly can have problems.
Solution: Balance your personal life and working. You need to set a limit and routine. Schedule your time when to do your chores and when to start to work. Tell your family that you need undisturbed time when you working and be there when you’re not working.
Problem 3: Distraction is my command
YouTube, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, this distractions are endless.
Solution: Disconnect yourself from distraction to connect with your work and yourself. If your phone is your distraction, put your phone to silent mode, snooze all notifications and keep it out of sight. If social media is your distraction, install a plugin that will block it when you’re working on your laptop or computer. If noise is your distraction, try to soundproof yourself using music or simple earplugs.
Problem 4. Born a procrastinator
There is still time left before the deadline comes, so why not watch a movie and get to work later. At the end of the day, you end up always rushing to meet the deadline at the very last minute. Sound like you?
Solution: Wake up in the morning if you can. Start the day by making a todo list on what you want to achieve at that day: chores, design tasks, things you missed yesterday, etc. Reorganize them by priority and split the bigger one to smaller chunk that doable. Then execute your list immediately. Track your time on everything you do from the list and see how much time you spend to you keep focused on the task you need to get done. A simple time tracker like Toggl can help. That way, at the end of day you know what things you’ve accomplished and will boost your mood to beat the procrastination.
Tips 1: Create and Stick to a Schedule
In my journey to fight my own problems with time, I stumbled upon Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. Even he himself couldn’t guarantee that he will adhere to his own schedule 100% of the time, but he tried. By creating a schedule and sticking to it, you tend to form a routine that will be a habit without notice.
Tip 2: Use Methods and Technology to Help
There are lots of time management methods available. Have you ever heard of Pomodoro, Get Things Done, 80/20 Pareto Rule, Eisenhower Matrix? Reading those techniques won’t do any harm to you – even better if you can apply the method to your life. Also, there are apps to help you: Toggl to track your time, Pomodoro Timer for counting down your Pomodoro time, and the cheap versatile tools: paper and pen.
Tips 3: Minimize Distractions
Create your best environment for you to work on design challenges. It’s crucial especially if you working from home. Logout from all your social media when you work. Just a minute glancing at the notification or watching a video on youtube can consume a day instantly.
Tips 4: Avoid Multitasking
When you multitask, you prone to error and easily distracted which will cost you more time compare to when you do it. Just don’t multitask even when you have to. This article will explain why.
Tips 5: Take a Break
You’re not a robot. Your boredom can mean that your body needs a break, your brain needs a refreshment and just take your break time and return anytime.
I ask veteran designers at Topcoder on how they manage their time to keep competing. Let’s see their answer!
Question: Knowing that you’ve been competing on Topcoder for years, I wonder if you have another job beside being a designer at Topcoder? Do you work from home? If yes, how to you manage to balance working on Topcoder with your personal life/job?
ToxicPixel: Some game development, illustration and consultation on the side. Yes, I work from home. The more I work with Topcoder, the more Topcoder takes precedence in my life. Topcoder has become an obsession and an addiction for me. A chaotic and passionate romance seems to be the fairest comparison I can make. Balance has and will always be my biggest problem. I either work too much or play too much. But I have learned to embrace that chaos.
gh3ablo: Yes, I have a day job and I work at an office. I just work on challenges that I know I can deliver/know I will enjoy and try not to force myself.
universo: I’m also a freelance graphic designer. Yes, I’m working from home. Since I’m working on everything at home, it’s give me the flexibility to do my personal things 🙂 My house my rules.
yoki: I just tried another job these last couple years as a startup company mentor/consultant in UI/UX and product design. My purpose is to apply my knowledge which I learned at Topcoder to help fellow startup company.
iamtong: I work from home and also have local projects from time to time. For managing time, I treat Topcoder as my full time job, start in the morning, stop working in the evening, don’t stay late if not necessary, etc.
abedavera: I have no job beside Topcoder, but sometimes I do personal jobs from local partners. I work from home. Knowing our limit is the base to make all my work/life balance, and it begins from our daily experiences and adaptation.
Question: What is your biggest time-thieves or distractions while designing and how did you manage to solve it? Do you have any experience to share (social media, game, etc).
ToxicPicel: Nothing is a waste for me. Distraction is a linear concept because it is closely or directly linked to time. Without getting too deeply into this. What distracts now, helps in some way in the future. Experience has taught me that the only time I waste time is if I stop asking myself or others questions. Carl Jung and circumambulation of self …stuff…
gh3ablo: For me, the biggest time-thieves are video games, TV dramas/serial, anime, chores. When the challenge timeline is flexible, I usually have a loose system of 1:1-ish ratio between doing a challenge and dealing with distraction(s). For example 2 hours work = 2 hours distraction, 4 hours work = 4 hours distraction, etc. It doesn’t need to be exact but you get the idea. I consider distractions good as it prevents me from burning out and losing interest. Also, they can inspire! 🌈
universo: Social media and my time with Sally’s family (my sugar glider) of course. But it’s not really distracting too much. I treat them as a refresher.
yoki: Kids!! :)) I have two daughters now. Actually distractions will make us to work more efficiently if we want to learn from it.
iamtong: Lately it would be those cryptocurrency/digital asset markets. The way to solve it, try not to look at it at all during working.
abedavera: Taking and picking my kids from school, but I enjoy it very much. Sometimes I need to work more late or take challenges that are more time-friendly.
Question: You have won lots of design challenges at Topcoder, how do you manage to submit in every challenge you entered? Do you have schedule or just let it flow?
ToxicPixel: I let it flow. Sometimes life steps in and says NOPE! You are not submitting to this one. That really aggravates me, but I take it as a lesson and move on.
gh3ablo: Actually I don’t. I only submit if I have something good or at least decent from my point of view. Even if I have something done and it’s not what I wanted it to be, either really bad or half-baked, I ditch it. I don’t have a schedule, I just do what/when I can – so I guess let it flow.
universo: Just let it flow. Finished it as much as possible of course.
yoki: I treat Topcoder as my full time job, no work + no win = no money :)). The longer you skip challenges, the harder you get back to your winning way.
iamtong: I always plan for the time, see when deadlines are, comparing to my available/ capability to work for challenges in the provided time period.
abedavera: Just let it flow. I try to avoid working in pressure to keep me in focus. Even RUX never bother my final round on other challenge, I will let it go. 😊
Question: How many hours a day you spend on working with Topcoder challenges?
ToxicPixel: At full tilt anywhere from 12-20 hours. Depends on the brief and deadline. And how much I stray.
gh3ablo: 1-5 hours (weekdays) as long as I can stay awake, but sometimes I have to set a limit. On weekends, I can go all day/night long.
universo: 7-8 hours in average.
yoki: I can spend more than 12 hours if i’m in the mood.
iamtong: I try to spend 8-10 hours, but always need extra.
abedavera: Usually I could work 1 day / 1 challenge for single device, 2 days for 2 devices. Working hours are around 1PM to 10PM
Questions: Any tips and trick, books or apps you want to share about managing your time and succeed in Topcoder design challenges?
ToxicPixel: Wireless headphones, good music/audio books — things to keep the left hemisphere of the brain from starving, is a must for 6 hour plus sessions IMHO. When I want to be disciplined and the house needs cleaning. I use the pomodoro method. 60 minutes working – 20 minutes washing dishes, vacuuming the house etc. All the while thinking about the brief.
gh3ablo: All I can say is always try to stay positive on whatever challenge you’re doing because you can do more when you are happy.
universo: The experience is the only tips for me.
yoki: There are a lot tips about designing nowadays, Medium, Youtube, and many sites offer great article to learn. The key thing is, make your learning process simple and enjoy it. If you found a design article difficult to digest, then find the easier one.
iamtong: I don’t do apps or put challenge deadlines on the calendar. I’m not sure why. It seems to waste more of my time to input. Instead, I will look at the challenge listing and see which one I could jump on. Say if there are 3 with pretty close timeline, I would pick one or two and plan to work on the nearest checkpoint deadline first, then continue to another one. The tricky part is sometimes checkpoint feedbacks come in late, so it is really hard to plan the for whole challenge. If this happens for multiple challenges I would do the nearest deadline first, trying to ask for extension on others or maybe just focus on one with great potential to win. We all have different speed in digesting the information provided, thinking of solutions, including the speed when it comes to design. So if you want to manage your time working for Topcoder efficiently, you have to assess yourself. how much time it would take you to go through the process. Then you can plan/ work accordingly. One final and most important tip: submit early, don’t wait for last minute, plan at least 1 hour minimum before deadline. There are so many potential issues could happen when we upload/ submit our work.
abedavera: Just QUIT. Questions, Understand, Improve, Try again.
Whatever your problem is with time, just remember you’re not the only one that coping with it. Reach out on Slack or the Topcoder forums if you need help. I’m sure many of us care to help you to succeed in designing your time for Topcoder challenge.
Thank you for ToxicPixel, gh3ablo, universo, yoki, iamtong, abedavera for their support.