Oh, the leisurely life of the freelancer. Days spent sitting by the pool, cold beverage in hand while you blaze through projects that are as easy as the tropical breeze blowing through your hair. Yes, this is how many of our family and friends view the freelancer life. But the reality of being a full-time freelancer is far from living in a Jimmy Buffett song.
That's not to say that freelancing lacks perks. You get to choose your clients. You get to pick what types of projects you take on. You have freedom you can't get from working for someone else. But this lack of structure can also work against you, if you're not careful. Being accountable to yourself alone can make it all too easy to use your time inefficiently.
Here’s how I avoid that.
Charge what you’re worth
Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
I know this seems like a weird place to start, but bear with me. If time is money, than maximizing your income is one of the best possible ways to use your time.
Early in your freelance career, you may have taken on projects for a low rate. You may have even worked for free occasionally. When you’re trying to build up a body of work for your portfolio — and build your reputation — that can make sense.
But if your full-time job is freelancing, you can't afford to undervalue what you do. Taking on a roster of low-paying clients shouldn't be necessary to pay the rent.
So make yourself aware of the going market rate for the type(s) of work you do, and set your rate accordingly. Higher rates can mean higher-profile clients, with more interesting projects, coming your way. And who doesn’t want more money for more interesting work — for fewer clients?
We've all had those client meetings that are only supposed to last an hour. But there we were, two and a half hours later, talking about that one Netflix series everyone was obsessing over.
So before you go to any meeting, write out an agenda, share it with everyone who’ll attend, and if necessary, print a copy for everyone. List all the necessary topics. Set goals for the meeting.
At the end of each meeting, you and your client should have a list of deliverables to take care of before you meet again. After the meeting, make sure to send a recap to the client, detailing what you agreed on, and what needs to happen next.
Set a realistic time limit for your meeting, letting everyone know exactly when you need to stop. Stick to it. Be aware of how much time has passed as you go through the agenda. It's okay if you don’t cover everything, but be sure to hit those points that are the most important.
We're not saying “don’t be sociable,” but as a freelancer, your time is valuable. You're not getting paid to hear a lengthy description of your client's vacation to Lake Tahoe.
As a freelancer, the snooze button is your worst enemy. The alarm rings in the morning and we hit snooze over and over, thinking all the while, "This is the life I've chosen."
Soon enough, the 8 a.m. start time you set gets pushed back further and further. Before you know it, you're burning the midnight oil nightly.
Unless your name is Nosferatu, you're going to need a bit more discipline.
Wake up at a set time each morning, and block out work hours in your calendar. You can still keep your schedule loose, but make sure that you've dedicated blocks of time to work. Setting your own hours is one of the advantages of being your own boss. Take advantage of that. But make sure that anything personal you do, like hitting the matinee or shopping, is balanced by dedicated work time.
Another temptation of being a freelancer is wasting time on the internet. Yes, we know you’ll get back to work right after one more corgi video. Or after you post the perfect comment for that political post your weird uncle from Omaha made.
If it's tough for you to deny the siren song of social media, install an app (such as Freedom) that will lock you out of that world when you need to work.
Oh, and if you’re working with a team that leans on Slack, snooze your notifications every once in a while. Otherwise, the social media–esque elements of that app will kill time like nothing else.
Make sure you understand a project before getting started
Some clients will give you detailed briefs packed with everything you need to know (and sometimes, more). Others will send you sparse emails that read like word puzzles.
But to succeed on a project, you need to have a clear understanding of its goals and limitations before you start. Ask questions at the beginning if anything doesn’t make sense. If questions arise during the process, get them clarified before you commit time to what might be the wrong solution.
Almost inevitably, you and your client will think you’re on the same page when you’re far from it. So keep the lines of communication open, let any misunderstandings roll off of your back, and use their feedback to deliver on what they want from you.
Anything a client can give you — be it mockups, templates, rough copy, or inspiring examples of similar work — can help clarify what they want from you.
Set realistic timelines for every project
You and your client need to come up with realistic deadlines before you sign the contract.
It's so easy to take on too many projects at once early in your freelancing career. But that’s a recipe for failure. So be sure to track your time closely on your early projects, and use those records to guide future estimates.
I like to have the deadlines for major projects fall on different days. It gives me peace of mind knowing that I can focus on one project’s delivery without letting the other(s) fall behind. This also staggers feedback and revision requests. For less intensive projects, it's okay to let deadlines fall on the same day. You’ll learn how to pace your work so that you're not overwhelmed by looming due dates.
If a client pushes you to do more faster, be very clear with them that shorter deadlines mean at least one, if not more, of the following:
As the saying goes, you can have things come out good, fast, or cheap. But you only get to pick two.
Set boundaries with your clients
This is a tricky one. On one hand, we want our clients to know that we're dedicated and reliable. On the other, we don't want to end up scrambling to meet unreasonable requests. A 10 p.m. email asking if you can deliver a complex deliverable by 8 a.m. tomorrow falls firmly into this category.
Remember: It's okay to negotiate on impossible deadlines. It's in your best interest to make sure that you have the time you need to do a great job. It’s also okay to pass on a job if you don’t think that you can pull it off in the allotted time. Far better to be honest and transparent than to find yourself becoming “Mr. Two-Day Turnaround.”
We're not saying that you should be lazy. But by saying yes to too many rush jobs, you cut into the time you blocked out for projects you’ve already committed to and planned for. Most clients are rational and will understand. For others, their response will be a good indication of whether or not you should maintain the relationship.
Give yourself a (mental) break
Mama said there’ll days like this.
Some days are going to be a waste. Maybe you were up too late trying to finish a project, or you spent the morning at the mechanic dealing with that every-mysterious check engine light. Whatever the reason, when you finally sit down in front of your laptop, you stare at it blankly. You’re just not feeling it.
Maybe you decide to go work out. But when you return to your computer, you’re sure that the blinking cursor is now simply mocking you.
It's easy to write off an entire day and seek solace in junk food and television. But even on days where your creative spark is barely flickering, you can still be productive.
An off day can be a good time to add projects to your portfolio or to tighten things up. It's also a good opportunity to update your resume. Taking inventory of your accomplishments is a great way to boost your confidence and get inspired.
You can also try looking for new clients. If you haven’t created a profile on freelancing websites such as Upwork, Angie’s List, Thumbtack, etc., the time is now. Since you’re not earning any revenue on this day, you might as well create new avenues for getting paid in the future.
There's also catching up on invoices. The prospect of new cash can brighten even the worst of days.
At the very least, read some blogs related to your field or open that app you've been meaning to test drive.
Create new habits
Every day as a full-time freelancer means something different. It could be a new project, new client, or new challenge that's come your way.
Though freelancing’s an unpredictable lifestyle, you still have complete control over how you use your time. Keeping yourself focused may be difficult at first. But, as with any new skill, it takes practice. Soon you'll be making the most of your time without even thinking about.