When I first began my freelancing career this spring, I realised how much admin there is. Invoices, timesheets, contracts, knowledge banks, meeting notes. I started stressing, wondering how I would manage everything alongside doing all of my new freelancer tasks. Then I remembered that Notion exists, and my anxiety vanished.
Notion is a powerful productivity tool. In a nutshell, you use ‘blocks’ to piece together your own pages. Blocks come in a range of types, from text-only to imported files from tools like Figma and Miro. I’d been using Notion as a product designer for a couple of years so it seemed only natural to keep using it during my freelance projects.
After reading some Reddit posts and how-to guides, I’ve found a system that suits me and my work style. These are hints for my work as a designer but I’m sure these tips are helpful for many other industries and roles.
Create a page for each project
When I first started out, I tried to make a single database for everything so I could automate it and be clever with filters and formulae. But this quickly got out of hand. I got too ambitious when I should have focused on keeping things manageable and simple.
If you’re juggling multiple projects and teams, it’s important to think about how you want to organise your files in a way that makes sense to you. For me, this means keeping everything separated, grouped by project.
Now, every time I start a new project, I’ll make a single dashboard. Keeping my projects separated keeps things organised, and it means I can get a little fancy with the branding! Sharing the entire page with clients is easy, meaning we both have visibility over everything and a shared understanding of what’s being done and when.
Doing this also gives you a couple of added benefits:
- A place to store meeting notes that everyone can see and add to
- Collecting all your resources and links in one place, rather than going through your email inbox
- Tagging people on important content, meaning they won’t miss any important updates
Make a single source of truth
One of the coolest things about Notion is linked databases. It allows you to build a master table and pull data from it into any other block. After I’ve set up a project dashboard, I then create a master database for that project. This grows and updates as I go, becoming a source of truth for everything in that project.
I use tags to organise items by what they are. I can link to any of it from anywhere, and I only need to update things in one place. This is powerful. It means that if done correctly, your whole project page will always be up-to-date. No more versioning. No more archiving and update emails. At any time, someone can look at any page and know that it’s up-to-date.
It can be overwhelming at first, since the master database itself can get big and messy. Filtering it down in other page views makes things easier to digest. I’d recommend checking out Marie Poulin’s tutorial on this, she does a great job of explaining how this works.
The way Notion makes these databases is clever because you can change the data to different formats. From calendars to lists, formatting for a specific need is simple.
Get familiar with formulae
There are some tricks you can use to automate things in Notion. One of them is formulae. If you’re familiar with using formulae in spreadsheets, then these should be easy to pick up too.
For example, here I wanted to see how many hours I logged each day. This would be easy if it weren’t for the randomly-lengthed lunch breaks I took each day. This was something I would need to do manually; I adapted an existing formula by Ben Smith. This meant that I could calculate my hours on days with a lunch break between two halves.
I thought this was a neat way of doing this, so feel free to use this Notion formula in your own dashboards:
empty(prop("Afternoon")) ? "" : (format(floor(divide(add(dateBetween(end(prop("Afternoon")), start(prop("Afternoon")), "minutes"), dateBetween(end(prop("Morning")), start(prop("Morning")), "minutes")), 60))) + "h " + format(add(dateBetween(end(prop("Afternoon")), start(prop("Afternoon")), "minutes"), dateBetween(end(prop("Morning")), start(prop("Morning")), "minutes")) % 60) + "m")
Make Notion a habit
I’ve built a system where I put a lot of my faith in my databases being up-to-date. This means that keeping it tidy has now become a part of my workflow. Keeping your workspace organised is good practice, and Notion is only effective if you put the time into maintaining it.
I now bake these steps into my daily routine:
- At the start of the day, review the summary I wrote the day before.
- Throughout the day, add to my daily log whenever I hit a milestone.
- Whenever I attend a significant meeting, spend 5–10 minutes typing the notes and actions up.
- If I need to make a note, add it into Notion rather than a generic notes app. If I write something down on paper, also put it into Notion.
- At the end of the day, check my hours and write a summary of where I’m at, ready to pick up the next day.
It’s tough at first. Picking up new habits always is. But trust me, at the end of the project, you’ll thank yourself for taking the time to do this!