Freelancing is about freedom – the freedom to choose what you do when, to sleep in one morning and get up early the next, to refuse one job and accept the next. But once you have experienced it, you will know that too much freedom can be an obstacle to productive and successful freelancing. It’s too easy for freedom to deteriorate into long sleep-ins, series-watching, eating, or just excessively tidy cupboards. It doesn’t take long to work out that some structure is useful.
Without the need to clock in at 8am, without a boss hanging over you telling you what to do next, how do you add structure to your life? And how do you do it in a way that feels better than the strictures of corporate life? Here are some ideas.
Start with a schedule. Get hold of a diary (electronic or paper), or a whiteboard, or even a blank notebook, and get in the habit of scheduling your time. Put appointments in it. Refer to it regularly. Work out a system that works for you. I keep an electronic diary (in Google calendar) because I can see it on my phone and add appointments wherever I am. But I also draw and decorate a schedule for each week on Sunday evening and use the time to plan my week. I like a visual reference and I use colour for different kinds of tasks. This shows me when my week is out of balance. Work out a system that works for you.
Take regular exercise. As a freelancer your health and state of mind are really important to your business. Exercise is good for both. Starting the day with a run or some yoga is a great way to establish a routine. If you need some encouragement, arrange to walk with a friend each evening. If self-motivation is lacking, sign up for a regular class. Having shelled out the money you may be more likely to go. The nice thing about being a freelancer is that you can attend a 10 am class, and not fight the traffic at 5 pm. Exercise will make you feel good about yourself and that is an important starting point for succeeding in freelance work.
Set aside your best time for production activities. Work out when you function best. Are you an early-bird, churning out copy at 4 am, or do you work better after a good breakfast? Block out three or four hours during that time to do your productive work – that is the stuff you get paid to do. During that time close down your email and social network tabs. Put your phone on silent, in another room. Create space to focus so that you can do your best work; after all your business depends on the quality of what you produce. Being fully focussed on a task also brings a sense of mastery, making work a pleasure.
Vary your surroundings. Working in one place can become monotonous, especially if that place is also where you live. You can try moving between the study and the garden, but actually leaving your home means having to shower and get dressed. Just picking out an outfit to wear can wake your brain up and get different neurons firing. You might be able to work at a client’s site one day a week or find a co-work space that you feel comfortable in. Having to go to work on a Monday demarcates the start of the week and helps to shake the lethargy of the weekend. Experiment with what works for you. You may find some work is easier to do in a different location, while some work is best done at home. I like to paint in my home studio but doing admin is more cheerful at Better.
Meet people regularly. Freelancing works for people who enjoy their own company, but if you are spending all your time inside your own head you are missing out on ideas and perspectives that could enrich your work. You need to have regular contact with other people. Think about the kinds of people who will support your freelance business. If you can find a group of people doing similar work to yours, try to meet at least once a month. These kinds of networks are great for sharing ideas about how you price your work, how to deal with client issues and to swap work when you get a deluge or a drought. You also need to keep contact with clients and prospective clients, so think about events where your best clients gather regularly and how you can get involved. Come along to the freelancer’s social at Better on the first Friday of every month.
Stick to regular admin time. When you create your weekly schedule build in a few hours for administrative tasks. Keeping financial records or completing your tax return is not the most fun part of freelancing, so you are likely to put it off and end up disorganised. Set aside time at the end of the week, or first thing on Monday morning to clear your work-related emails, invoice clients, follow up on outstanding payments, pay your bills and update your financial records. If you do this regularly the work will stay manageable. Keeping an admin to do list and clearing it weekly will also free you from that distracting little voice in your head reminding you of the outstanding tasks.
Take a day of rest. It’s hard to shut down, especially if you are trying to build your client base and the money is tight. You may find yourself working through weekends (what day is it?) just to get the next job done. While the attitude is positive, it’s not a good strategy. Freelancing is a marathon, not a sprint and your freelance business depends on you: your health and your state of mind. So taking a break is really important for your long-term success. Schedule one day a week to do something far removed from work: sleep, read a book, visit family, do pottery, bake, watch sport; just make sure that it is downtime.
As a freelancer you get to craft the life that works for you. What do you do? What works? Share your comments below.