5 Ways to Optimize Your Life as a Freelancer
Freelancing is the dream.
You set your own schedule, you pick your office dress code, and you control your workflows. It all sounds so idyllic — and some days it is. And then other days you know you have 3,400 words to crank out by a noon deadline and your brain just. won’t. work.
It happens. I’m a writer, so I get to claim writer’s block, but I know graphic designers, data administrators, and bookkeepers who find themselves in the same situation. When you’re freelance, you’re your own boss. That’s a blessing and a curse. You need to figure out how to be the type of boss who’s chill but still makes sure stuff gets done.
Refining your freelance lifestyle will look different for you than it has for me — or any other freelancer on the face of the earth. What’s worked for thousands of other people might not work for you. But, that said, there are still a few tips that rang true for me and really helped me get things done. So much so that I think they’re worth passing on. Here are a few tips I’d recommend to help you optimize your freelance lifestyle.
#1: Get a to-do list app.
I can’t tout the benefits of this enough. I actually can’t imagine freelancing without my trusty Todoist, my to-do list app of choice. Here’s a pic of how I’m using it. This is real-time, people. It’s 12:44 pm as I write this and I’ve got my agenda laid out for the rest of the day (including recaulking my bathtub — so fun!). I have different projects (the emojis on the left) for each of my large clients and some of my personal undertakings. Then I also have a catch-all for smaller to-dos and one-off projects.
Find what works for you. Then, once you’re set up, look for opportunities to use your app. Yes, that of course means scheduling out big projects, breaking them into daily tasks for yourself (see how I have Spectrum broken into chunks?). But don’t stop there. If a client mentions something and you think you can follow up on it later for another work opportunity, add a follow-up task to your app and schedule it for the appropriate time. If you just pinged a prospect and they said they’re traveling this week but will be back the next, add a task to check in with them next week.
Using your to-do list app to get the good ideas out of your head and into a system where they’re captured and actionable can be game-changing. It has been for me.
#2: Go mobile.
Part of the beauty of the freelance lifestyle is you can go on a long walk with your dog or pop over to a yoga class whenever the whim strikes (and your schedule allows). But clients like working with freelancers who are hyper-responsive. That doesn’t mean you have to be chained to your computer, but it does mean it’s worth putting a few apps on your phone to ensure you can be quick to respond when necessary.
I recommend installing the app for your email (with push notifications) and any project managements software any of your clients are using.
#3: Get a routine.
For me, the hardest part of freelancing is motivating myself to start the workday. Once I’ve jumped into a project and my focus is there, I can usually knock it out without too much procrastination. But getting the ball rolling can be hard. Even though you don’t need to, I’ve found that it’s helpful for me to try to start my workday around the same time each day.
Then, my start-of-day morning routine eases me in. If I can, I try to knock out my small to-dos first. I follow up with clients, review and approve edits, plan upcoming projects, and write quick short-form content. This way, I get to give myself kudos for knocking a few things off my list before 9 am. And the good feeling that comes with crossing things off in Todoist usually carries me through to start bigger projects.
#4: Put yourself on the clock.
That said, some days I struggle. That’s why I’m leaning into the Pomodoro technique, which says you should work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. Rinse and repeat four times, then take a longer break (about 30 minutes) for a bigger refresh. Something about putting myself on the clock really helps me get to it. And knowing I’ve got a break coming up is nice when my phone buzzes. I know the time will come to attend to it but — for now — the clock’s ticking.
#5: Track, track, and track again.
Freelancing, for all of its benefits, is really hard. Your success or failure all comes down to you. It’s important to have a good finger on the pulse of your pipeline so you don’t suddenly find yourself with insufficient work to pay your bills.
To help, I’d recommend three tracking spreadsheets:
A book of business
Book of business
Your book of business should list every client with whom you’ve worked. Make a column to make a note of your last contact. It’s okay to make a note that they were difficult and you never want to work with them again. In fact, if they ping you again in two years, you’ll be glad you kept them on your list.
This list helps you keep tabs on your income streams. It’s also an asset if work dries up. Every freelancer knows they hear “I’ll have that info for your next week” more times then they can count. Knowing which projects were promised by never delivered is a great place to start if you ever get stressed about revenue.
You probably already track your invoices as you create them. But, if you haven’t already, add two columns to your invoices spreadsheet that read “date sent” and “date paid.” That way, you can see which invoices are outstanding at a glance. And you can see which clients take a while to pay you. Eventually, you might decide that the clients you have to chase down to get paid aren’t worth it.
I also like to keep two totals at the bottom of this spreadsheet: “invoiced” and “paid.” Paid helps me keep track of my annual income easily and the difference between the two totals lets me know what kind of cash flow I can expect in the near future.
I tracked my invoices for a long time (too long) before I realized I needed an alternate way to track income. Yes, your invoices are the clearest indication of how much you’ve been paid and are expecting to get paid to date. But they don’t make it easy to see what you’re earning week over week, and that makes it hard to set realistic goals for growing your business.
I have a separate income spreadsheet where I total my projects each week, even if I won’t invoice that client until the month’s end. It’s pretty simple. I list each client for whom I’ve worked, along with the revenue I’ve generated based on that work. I total up all that weekly income in the row beneath my weekly client list. Then, when the week is over, I hide the client list rows so I have a clean visual of my weekly earnings.
Tracking my revenue generation weekly helps me see both positive and negative trends so I can act accordingly. Plus, these weekly earnings make it easy to calculate monthly, quarterly, and annual revenue. And it’s motivating to see my earnings growing over time.
There you have it! These are the tips I’d share with any freelancer looking to optimize their lifestyle and make the most of their business. If you have any questions about any of it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or you can contact me.