Freelancing is a Business, So Act Like It!

I’ve run this company for nine years. It’s been successful in that I can pay my bills and get the things I need. However, I haven’t approached it exactly how I should’ve all these years.

I haven’t always treated it like a business.

Do I hear shocked gasps from the peanut gallery? Sadly, it’s true. I haven’t always treated my freelancing writing career like a structured business as I should have. I took to it with an air of freedom. I work for myself! I can do what I want! La, la, la, tra, lo, lo! 

If only my office looked like this... Source: edgeplot

If only my office looked like this…
Source: edgeplot

This was a mistake. A big one, at that. Yes, freelancing comes with certain advantages. You get to set your own hours. You work for yourself. You pick and choose what clients to take on. However, you also need to make time for your work, be accountable to your clients, and bring in enough money to pay the rent.

See what I’m talking about here? You work for yourself and run the show how you like so long as it doesn’t interfere with making your clients happy and making money.

Sometimes, I let the balance slip. And I think if most freelancers were honest with themselves, they’d admit to the same. It’s way too tempting to become an over-scheduled social butterfly in the face of so. much. free. time. But that’s just it: you don’t have that free time, you just have the flexibility to not work when you choose. And that’s dangerous.

Because eventually, you’re going to have to work. You’re going to have to sit down at your computer and do the thing that brings in the paycheck and if you live footloose and fancy free (whatever the hell that means) all day and start your work day at 9 at night, you’re in trouble.

Pulling all-nighter after all-nighter to catch up puts you on the fast track to burnout.

A lot of this might seem obvious, but I stand to bet quite a few other freelancers out there struggle with similar issues. So, I’ve put together a list of things I must do to be a productive and successful freelance business owner. Who knows, maybe some of these tips will help you? 

Wake up at the same time each day

Bummer, huh? You thought being a freelancer would mean sleeping in until 11 every day, didn’t you? And yes, it does certainly lend you the freedom to do that, but you shouldn’t necessarily approach your business this way. Instead, set your alarm just like everybody else and get up for the day at the same time. “Get ready” for your day at the “office.” That is, follow a similar routine each morning that fully prepares you to get in the working mindset, whether that’s taking a shower, grabbing a cup of coffee, or working out.

Eliminate distractions

The Internet! Dear God, the Internet. It’s my biggest distraction, what’s yours? I mean, I have to use social media for my business but that can quickly spiral out of control. A few cat videos here, a few comics about cats there, and suddenly five hours have gone by and I have no work to show for it. Cut out the distractions when it’s time to work. That means, post a few tweets, check a few websites, then close your browser and social media apps. Turn off the TV and head to a secluded spot. Wear headphones, if you need to, to block out ambient noise (like your spouse, kids, pets, or loud people at the coffee shop) and get down to work.

TIP: I use a timer to allow myself structured distraction time. I set the timer for 20 minutes, write like the wind, then take a 5 minute break. Rinse, repeat. 

Make a to-do list

This one probably sounds very obvious but you’d be surprised by how many people (myself included) sit down to work thinking, “I know what I need to do,” only to realize at the end of the work day that you’ve completely forgotten something or failed to prioritize properly. Each week, preferably Sunday night, sit down for 5-10 minutes and write out everything you need to do the following week. Break that list down by day and assign approximate lengths of time required to complete each. You’ll likely find having such a structured to-do list on hand come Monday (or any) morning extremely helpful. When you sit down to work, there will be no question as to “what should I do?” One glance at the list will tell you.

freelance writing

Nice and tidy. Again, not my desk.
Source: Librarian By Day

Build organization into your systems

That’s probably the most awkwardly phrased subheading I’ve ever written but I’m going with it. Why? Because it’s broad enough to encompass any possible thing that needs organizing in relation to your business. Have a filing cabinet? Keep it organized. Use a home office? Keep it organized. You get the picture. It may be tempting to toss everything into a pile to “deal with later,” but that will invariably cause your desk to look like mine. And trust me. You don’t want your desk to look like mine.  If you’re a chronic clutterbug, check out UFYH* for some real-world motivation.

TIP: Keep your virtual desktop organized as well. If I added up all the hours I’ve wasted looking for a document, contact, email, or what have you due to a lack of proper filing, it’d be alarming. Create a place for everything and put everything in its place.

*Profanity alert!

Follow up with clients

Working freelance, a lot of the time, means getting a project, completing it, getting paid, and moving on. But this is such a mistake! You should never let a client walk away without at least trying to secure additional projects with them. Prepare a list of additional services to provide to remind them of any possible needs they might have missed. The worst they can say is no, right?

Maintain a professional image

If you work from home, there’s no reason why you need to wear a shirt and tie or a dress and pumps to sit at your home office desk. However, that doesn’t mean slumming it in your PJs and slippers is the best idea, either. Yes, you can wear your jammies all day. No one will see you, after all. But maintaing that level of comfort 24/7 can have a negative impact on your output. Pajamas signal your brain that it’s  time for relaxation and/or sleep. Do you really want to tell your brain that as you begin your work day?

That’s all I’ve got for the moment. Fellow freelancers, what do you do to get your body and mind ready for the workday? How do you self-impose discipline to treat your work like a “real” job? Please share!

Learning How (and When) to Say “No” (And “Yes,” When Appropriate)

Sometimes, I need to say “no.”

Whether it’s to a project or social engagement, I need to say “no.” However, more often than not, I say “yes.”

I say “yes” to social plans and “yes” to web content projects. I say “yes” to blog management gigs and I say “yes” to article assignments. I say “yes” to Bob and I say “yes” to Jane. I say “yes” to everyone.

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Source: donnamarijne

And sometimes, it bites me in the ass.

Don’t get me wrong, saying “yes” has given me an abundance of opportunity. It’s opened doors and it’s paid my bills. It’s been largely positive and I won’t stop saying “yes” anytime soon.

However, I do need to learn how to say “no.” And more so than that, when. Knowing when a project is worthwhile and when it isn’t is vital, not only to your bottom line, but also to your overall well-being. So I’ve done some soul-searching (and some Googling) and came up with the following.

Here are a few tips for learning how and when to say “no” with pointers on identifying the projects that will add to your life (to which you should unabashedly say “yes”).

  1. If the project seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, it probably is. I think every freelancer has gone through this at some point. Tell me if this sounds familiar? You start a project only to have the details change in the middle. Or, maybe the client isn’t very clear upfront about what he or she wants. Or, maybe you actually complete the project only to find out the client didn’t understand what he  wanted and told you to do the wrong thing. Now, he expects a revision (which amounts to a rewrite from scratch) for no additional charge. There are a million variations, all of them frustrating. In short, if the client doesn’t seem like he’s got it together, he probably doesn’t. It might be best to skip this project for the sake of your own sanity.
  2. If the client doesn’t respect you (or your time), move on. I know every freelancer has gone through this and it isn’t pretty. The client thinks you’re available 24/7. I’m not talking about emailing at 1 am when they get an idea. That’s fine because it implies I can respond at my leisure. I’m talking about the sort of client who emails you at 1 in the morning and expects a response right away! So you wake up to an inbox full of “Are you there?” and “Why aren’t you returning my messages, this is important,” and “You are being very unprofessional–I expect a timely response!” Or, maybe the client messages you on Skype “just to chat” at odd hours. Maybe she schedules an interview and then keeps you on the phone for an hour and a half. These are all things I’ve dealt with in the past and if you can smell this scent of desperation on a client, close the email or put down the phone. Say “no” to the project and just move on!
  3. Get paid for your work. Seriously. Always.* You have a skill and deserve to be paid for it. If you’re even remotely decent at your job, you deserve to be paid. This sort of ties into #2 on this list; failing to offer money for work (or an insultingly low amount) implies a lack of respect. Why work for a client who doesn’t respect you?
  4. If a project gives you the opportunity to broaden your skill set, and it’s a skill set you want to have, do it. Being a freelancer is a funny thing. Once you reach a certain level, you can pick and choose who you work with. After a while, you learn what’s worthwhile and what’s not. So, if you come across a project that pays lower than your usual rate but will provide hands-on training in web design (and you’re a writer), go for it! Sometimes the cost/benefit analysis incorporates more than cash and that’s okay.
  5. Turning down good money is okay (sometimes). You don’t have to love every single project you do. That’s perfectly fine. But if you get an assignment and it’s making you cry tears of boredom, compromises your personal ethics, or makes you uncomfortable, why put yourself through the torture? Unless you need the cash, skip it. I realize most of us need the cash so this might be mute, but if you’re ever in a position where you’re living comfortably, for god sakes, say no!

I’m sure there are more tips but that’s what I’ve come up with for the moment. Let me know in the comments how and when you say “no” to projects and what signals indicate a project you just have to take.

*Sometimes exceptions can be made for those just starting out and for passion projects. For instance, if you don’t have a lot of experience and need pieces for your portfolio, go ahead if you think it’ll help. Or, if you want to get some experience writing for RPGs and the client has a decent portfolio of past work, why not give it a shot? It’s your time, after all. Spend it how you see fit.