I’ve been freelancing or consulting for 80% of my adult working life. In fact, as of writing this, it’s been almost exactly 10 years since I resolved to quit my job and start working at home, having absolutely no idea how to actually do it.
Over the course of that decade, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in dozens of countries, and have learned a lot about business, marketing, and productivity. If you want to succeed working for yourself, especially once you have a family, you don’t really have a choice. But it wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always able to take time off midday to take my son to the dentist or go see a movie when he’s home for an in-service day. I couldn’t always hang out with my daughter when she’s home sick, or reshuffle my schedule at the last minute to accommodate visiting relatives.
I started much like most freelancers – inefficient, unsure of how to stay organized, and deeply stressed out all the time about whether I’d get everything done in time.
If you’re in the same boat and want to reach the point where you can make your full income in freelance projects without getting an ulcer or sitting at your computer 13 hours a day, here are seven things I’ve picked up on over the years.
Set a Standard Work Schedule
My first two years freelancing are a blur. Excited at the prospect of being able to work from home, whenever I wanted and for as long as I wanted, and coming off a 40hr/week hourly job, I took full advantage of my newfound freedom.
But man oh man was I inefficient. I would routinely wake up at 10am and work in fits and starts until 10pm – usually six or seven days a week. There were plenty of protracted breaks in there and I reveled in taking long lunches in the middle of the day with my friends still in college, but I didn’t get a whole heck of a lot done.
When I started dating my wife, she was working 5am-1pm shifts opening the deli she managed. It didn’t take long for me to realize that sleeping through the majority of her shift and working the rest of the day was not going to be good for our relationship. Lucky me too, because once I shifted gears and put myself on an 8-hour work day, I was able to compress my schedule and get most of my work done every day by 12-1pm and only work 4-5 days a week. It increased over time, but the revelation that this was a job and not a fun side project helped me take my freelancing seriously and create a career out of what was until then more of a “gig”.
Only Book Yourself to 70%
What’s your biggest fear as a freelancer? Let me guess. Not having enough work in any given week.
I rode that rollercoaster for years – alternating between weeks with way too much stuff on my docket and weeks with next to nothing. The busy weeks are exhausting and the slow weeks are stressful because you never know if you’ll bounce out of them.
To avoid this seesaw of emotions, I made two important changes. First, I increased my rates by about 250% over the course of 12 months. Second, I reduced my workload – ensuring I stopped taking work when I hit the 70% mark – or roughly 25-30 hours of estimated work plus admin.
Why cut back my hours? For three reasons:
- It ensured I always had time to look for more projects if my schedule was starting to dry up.
- It kept me from burning out in busy weeks that would make it hard to rebound (or appreciate the slow ones).
- It left space to take on emergency projects and last minute requests that often lead to new long term projects.
As a result, I was able to spread out my workload and remain consistently efficient over the course of a month.
Choose a Vertical and Several Sub-Verticals
When you need money, who cares what types of projects you take on, right? For the most part, I discourage new freelancers from overspecializing or being extremely picky about who they work with.
By restricting yourself too much, you risk missing out on good opportunities or failing to hit your earning goals as you’re getting started. But in the long term, it should be your goal to focus on one or two areas in which you can be the guy. For me there were two areas where I became highly in demand – topics related to digital marketing and online gaming.
Because I specialized in those areas, I was able to work with some of the top publishers for both, and in turn become more in demand in those areas as people started to learn who I was. The result was less time spent looking for more work and the ability to use the same skills and research on multiple projects in the same field.
Create Templates for Common Forms/Emails
One of the biggest pains in the butt for freelancers is administrative work.
When you start freelancing, whether part time or full, you expect to spend time looking for work, talking to prospective clients and performing edits on finished work. Those are expected time expenditures.
What most people don’t think about is all the admin work that goes into managing your finances, paying your taxes, tracking expenses, installing and learning how to use new software, or preparing contracts.
On one hand if you don’t do these things, your business can turn into a disorganized mess (trust me it’s no fun); on the other, they can eat up a lot of time in your week.
To avoid losing a lot of time to routine tasks that are vital but dry and repetitive, create templates. I currently use PandaDoc to create and manage several templates for consulting projects, but in the past had a Word document I could update and customize when a new project came on board. I also use Freshbooks for my accounting and Hubspot CRM for tracking clients and meetings.
All told, the three save me anywhere between 2-5 hours a week – which adds up very fast.
Limit Time Spent in Email with Rescue Time
I probably don’t need to tell you that email is a huge potential time sink. Every productivity article on the Internet lists it in the top five as areas to improve, but few people actually take action to reduce their email time. Why? Because it’s hard to do. After all, when trying to build relationships with clients, the last thing you want to do is ignore people.
There are several ways I’ve worked to increase email efficiency and reduce time spent in my inbox:
- Install RescueTime – This tool will track time spent on any given app and provide data visualization of your productivity. If you’re spending too much time in email, you’ll be able to see it each week and make changes.
- Set Email Times – Set aside specific times each day to check your messages. I recommend 2-3 times per day – in the afternoon, at the end of the day, and if you really can’t help yourself in the morning. Any more than this and you risk extending conversations via text that could be handled much faster on the phone or in a single message.
- Provide Alternate Contact Information – Make sure your cell phone number and Skype ID are in your email signature so people can reach you via voice if there is an emergency. The truth is that most emails are not that urgent and people don’t expect split second replies. If they do, make it easy for them to contact you.
- Schedule Replies – One of the reasons email can get so overwhelming is that most people are living in their inbox and will reply right away. So if you send a long response, your client may in turn do the same only 15 minutes later and then you’re expected to followup again, and the conversation just drags indefinitely. Use a tool like Boomerang or Hubspot Sales to schedule your replies for a set time every day and in turn batch those responses for easier reply.
Email is a time sink – there’s no way around it, and you can’t afford to ignore your clients, so create a system that is respectful and responsive, but not to demanding of your schedule.
Use a GTD To Do List
I’ve been an advocate for Getting Things Done and the to do lists that realize the methodology for over half a decade. I started with a word doc (my first one is 300 pages long and covers 18 months of my early freelancing years), and I spent hours a day looking at it.
Today I use Omnifocus to organize my tasks by project, context, location, and date, allowing me to quickly and easily organize and strip everything down on any given day and only look at the stuff that’s most important. It’s a lifesaver and has greatly reduced the time spent in managing my tasks. I highly recommend reading David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done to learn more about the process.
Measure and Track Time Carefully
Last but not least is actually measuring and managing the literal time you spend working every day. There are three things I see a lot of freelancers do that can lead to procrastination and lost hours:
- Not budgeting time for a specific project
- Not breaking projects up into smaller tasks and milestones
- Leaving their schedule open to complete a task
One thing I learned very early as a copywriter was how long it took me to write certain pieces of content. Times have changed, but when I was 25 I knew exactly how long it took to write a 500 word blog post or a 5,000 word eBook, or a 300 word press release. If a client sent me 32 blog posts to write, I could budget it out within a few minutes and know exactly how much time it would take and thus how much to charge.
Take the time to log your work and get a better sense of what those time frames look like. Not only will it help you to charge an appropriate rate for your work, but you can avoid one of the most infamous problems in freelancing, Parkinson’s Law:
Parkinson’s Law states that tasks will expand to fill the time we allot for them. So if I gave myself 2 hours to write a blog post, it would take roughly two hours. But I if only gave myself 40 minutes, I would get it done in forty minutes. Once I knew for a fact that it would never take more than 40 minutes to write something of that length, I never budgeted more than that.
At the same time, a project like 32 blog posts can be immensely daunting to look at. It’s not doable in a single day or even two days working at full speed. So how do you schedule something like that?
You break it down into manageable chunks. Know yourself and your ability to focus – how many hours can you sit at a desk and work uninterrupted and when will you be most productive? This is going to depend entirely on you and your work methods. Some people can sit for hours and others only for an hour at a time. Some work well in the morning and others in the middle of the night. You must decide how to approach this, but once you do, commit to it.
Finally, I highly recommend using the Pomodoro Technique. Humans don’t focus very well for very long on a single task. Trying to imagine 3 hours of work is not easy at all, but 25 minutes? Not too tough.
The Pomodoro technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes at a time and working in short sprints, not stopping for those 25 minutes. At the end of every 25-minute chunk, you take a 5-minute break, with a 30 minute break after 5 Pomodoros. You’ll be shocked how much more you get done in an eight-hour day when breaking it down like this.
Get More Done in Less Time
Hopefully these tips will be as helpful for you as they were for me as I built my freelance efforts into the business it is today. After all, that’s the whole point of freelancing, isn’t it? To spend as little time as possible actually working and gain the kind of freedom you’ve been dreaming of.
Also published on Medium.