Being a freelancer lets you own your time and sharpen that skill you deliver better than anyone. But it also means taking sole responsibility for your business, as well as dealing with near-constant administrative tasks.
In other words, freelancers have to be their own managers and interns, on top of their main role. Add up the stresses of clients, strategy, legalities, and daily errands, and some might wonder whether self-employment is worth the extra effort.
But you don’t have to rely on your wits alone. Tech solutions and workflow habits are evolving rapidly, with startups and major companies alike making their money by helping you make yours more easily.
Here are six tips for optimizing the top- and-bottom level jobs on your to-do list, leaving you with more time to focus on what you actually get paid for. Let’s start with the intern side of things.
Internalize the law of 80/20
The Pareto principle says that about 80% of an effect stems from about 20% of its cause. In his 1896 book, Cours d’Economie Politique, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto argued for this skewed distribution as a general principle, through the observation that 80% of private Italian land and wealth was owned by 20% of the population.
Pareto distributions are found in all sorts of natural phenomena. Twenty percent of Vilfredo Pareto’s garden peapods produced 80% of his peas. Twenty percent of common bird species make up 80% of local bird sightings. You can even see it in baseball stats.
I’d recommend applying the principle to your workday. Find the tasks that create the largest return, and focus on them. Take other, smaller, repetitive, or low-value tasks and slot them into different areas of your life. Can you update your website while watching Netflix? Archive your projects with a drink in the evening? Is it going to ruin your weekend if you spend Sunday afternoon reading up on competitors or writing a guest post?
It might. And this relates to a wider question about effort versus output. Freelancers can feel obliged to give their all on every task, but if the Pareto principle holds true, then you should actually be saving most of your energy and motivation for a small subset of your work. For anything that’s low-stress, no-deadline, or career enriching, take the pressure off by downgrading it to your free time.
The freelancing life is a lonely one. Hours whiled away in home offices with no company but the latest podcast. Coffee shops ablaze with laptop glow instead of conversation. When the solitariness of freelancing gets to be too much, why not onboard a few entry-level colleagues to support you? Virtual ones, that is.
Automation apps are sweeping up large areas of business that previously required manual interaction. These AI employees are for the most part reliable and accurate, and the only salary they require is a tax-deductible subscription. For freelancers paid by the hour, it’s well worth considering how you might use automation to save time in your day-to-day.
For example, some accounting apps, such as Expensify’s free service (and its premium version), include a virtual assistant with an email address, allowing you to simply forward any receipts and expenses for automatic filing. QuickBooks and FreshBooks are full-service invoicing and expensing apps, which will notify, accept, and track client payment.
At the marketing end of things, it’s easy to automate your outreach with a scheduling program. Social media managers such as Hootsuite and Buffer let you maintain a constant presence and develop a better understanding of successful content through basic analytics. Use Upwork, Fiverr, and other crowdsourcing sites to find people who can provide even more digital help in creating social content that reflects your personal brand.
Spreadsheets start to get a lot more interesting once they’re tracking your own money and profits. Not only will your accountant thank you, but taking the time to map every transaction in a structured way is a powerful motivator.
With the focus needed to lift a successful freelance operation off the ground, it’s little wonder that many people neglect to track their earnings in the initial stages. But it shouldn’t be hard. An Excel or Google sheet that collects invoices, payments, and expected versus actual revenue can be maintained with a few minutes per week. And though it’s pretty dry, the value of simple bookkeeping becomes apparent once a client starts to drag their feet with payments or replies. Knowing exactly where you stand (and what you’re owed) will give you confidence in any tough conversations.
Which brings us to the managerial side of things. Flying solo means greater control—and saying goodbye to office politics and career ladder-climbing. But it does come with the responsibility to navigate tricky issues and take on major decisions. Here are three tips for handling managerial aspects of freelancing life, such as long-term growth, stability, and delivering on promises made to clients.
One way of thinking about growth as a freelancer is to view your goal as building authority. The best freelancers are experts in their field, thought leaders for their corner of the industry. Reaching this level means knowing exactly where your skill/knowledge base lies, which in turn means having a clear understanding of your past achievements.
Find your area of authority by creating a deep and comprehensive archive. This doesn’t need to be a public resource such as a portfolio—instead, create your archive in a way that illuminates your impact over time. For example, categorize published work by subject and audience, showing the big picture of who you’ve been talking to and why. Or rank your assignments by any relevant marker of success (profit, longevity, future leads), to see where your highest-value work has occurred.
The idea here is to gain clarity on your results, rather than your intentions—on what your body of work looks like from the outside. Knowing specifically what you have to offer is how you move forward with confidence, becoming that person who’s top of their niche.
Deadlines are a source of equal motivation and stress—important for getting work done, but also a contributor to burnout and overcommitment. On a daily basis, your freelancing brain might view them as annoying or stifling, but when wearing your manager’s hat, it’s important to learn to love deadlines.
Regular deadlines are an awesome forecasting tool. They let you predict activity and payments into the future, making it easy to allocate time productively and ensure you don’t reach a workload where deliverables suffer. As an online writer, I prefer working to weekly deadlines—others, who take on longer-term projects, may prefer monthly or bi-monthly. But the principle remains the same: Quantify your work into quarters, sections, sprints, etc., and use that predictability to make decisions concerning future assignments.
Many clients want to be flexible, giving you the space to be inventive, which sounds great. But a lack of expectation with timescales isn’t helpful for your ability to build momentum in your business. Unless you’re a one-client-at-a-time-style freelancer, you’re going to need a system for knowing when it’s time to take on more work or close the books to new clients for a while.
Active scheduling also helps you get a feel for the right balance of effort versus returns. How much money did you make, how many jobs did you do, how much free time did you have during this period? Now project that forward: What does the next quarter look like if you sustain your current workload? Is there a way to increase revenue for a similar input? (Think Pareto). How would things change if you added an extra client? Now you’re acting like a true business creative.
Pro tip: Invest in a dry-erase board (the glass ones are the coolest). They’re great for setting weekly and daily goals, then wiping clean every Monday.
Networks and friends
Being a freelancer makes networking harder, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Start acting like a fully-fledged company, and make connections by reaching out to friends in the industry, local people doing similar things, and wider freelance contacts.
LinkedIn is a reasonable source for new connections, but platforms supporting live interactions are better for a productive conversation. There are many Slack community channels out there boasting hundreds of engaged members. And social media can also clue you into relevant local communities where you can meet useful people. Design assets for a living? Try attending an event at your nearest arts college, and see who else turns up. Freelance developer? Offer your services to a local nonprofit, and mine them for future prospects.
Thanks to the pandemic and quarantines, opportunities for virtual meetups and conferences have expanded. Virtual or not, don’t think of conferences as just for corporate types. It’s true that major conventions can be cost-prohibitive, but there are several freelancer-specific conferences with more appropriate ticket prices. One potential way to cut conference costs is to use the trip to create content for a relevant platform, and attend with a media pass.
Networking in this generalized way no doubt means encountering your fair share of snake-oil salesmen and wannabe tech tycoons. But you’ll also meet people on the same path as you, in addition to owners of small- to medium-sized businesses who can up your performance with a few grains of wisdom. At a minimum, expanding your presence will help you gain perspective, give you a little inspiration, and help you take satisfaction in your progress so far.
Joe Hitchcock is a freelance content writer.