When building a sustainable brand or freelance business, it’s important to manage a consistent level of output. It’s not just about keeping the invoices rolling in either. Knowing how long common tasks take and how much you can handle is the key to avoiding burnout and ensuring you’re always earning a respectable rate for your efforts.
But let’s be honest for a second–some days being a freelancer is hard. Some days the words don’t come or the creative brain shuts down. Some days you don’t want to deal with people. Some days this whole freelance gig feels a hell of a lot more like work than we expected.
Add in the extra responsibilities of adulting and parenting, and there never seems to be enough time in the day. Juggling cooking, cleaning, client communications, unexpected surprises and potty training can make you want to pull your hair out.
This doesn’t go away. If you’re in it for long-term success, there’s going to be more work involved. But it doesn’t have to always be so crazy.
So, how can you keep output flowing and achieve steady progress toward your goals? Stay productive and know where you stand on your various ventures at all times. Optimize your schedule to the best that someone responsible for a two-year-old disaster factory can and stick to it as much as possible. Create clear goals and boundaries between work and family life.
These 10 tips are easy to implement and will get the process rolling. Most need only a few minutes and, better still, they’re free. If you’re struggling to find your footing or dealing with a freelancing slump, these are the perfect boost to get you back on your feet. Whether it’s more clients or more time to work on that secret side project, the tips below will help you wrangle the chaos of freelancing.
Tip #1 – Establish Routines
To-do lists, daily itineraries and home offices only help increase productivity so much.
While you are working, the kids are finding new ways to insert things into the DVD player, the pets are finding inventive new ways to get where they don’t belong and your friends are all planning ways to ignore that you work and interrupt your day.
You cannot eliminate people. At least not legally.
So the best way to account for this is to set up routines and hone your ability to focus. Good routines also incorporate the kids to help everyone adjust. Play time or reading time for them can be work time for you. And best of all, with a routine, they might even be a little happier too.
The key to this is starting small and remaining flexible. We all know that a house full of kids can only be scheduled to a certain degree. There will always be those surprise moments that leave you dumbfounded and pulling at your hair in frustration. Routines can help to stabilize and organize the chaos.
Start with simple things like getting dressed every morning, brushing your teeth and having a light breakfast. Expand from there. If you need to make a list of the things you’d like to accomplish in a given day, go ahead. Then add items as you find your routine seems comfortable and automatic. It might be to load the dishwasher, lay out dinner or feed the pets.
Set timers if needed. My neighbors probably think my phone is broken with the number of alarms I set during my day. But knowing the alarms are set means I don’t have to watch the clock. Just keep at the step in my routine I’m on until I’m told otherwise. You can also have the kids remind you of things if they’re older or leave little notes around the house. Sticky notes are a freelancing parent’s best friend.
Before long what seemed like a crazy routine will just be how your day naturally flows.
If something unexpected arises, you can adapt your routine as needed. Find yourself with free time? Take a short break or use it to get ahead of your schedule. The important thing is to use the time. It is far too easy to find a chunk of time and waste it trying to decide what to do. Before long, you’ll be getting more done with less stress. You might even sneak in an episode of your favorite TV shows or cuddle up to a book while no one is looking!
Tip #2 – Embrace the Insanity
Finding your focus and building willpower are keys to success as a work-at-home mom or dad.
As mentioned earlier, eliminating all distractions is not an option. Couple that with the always-connected nature of many freelance jobs and you have a recipe for deadlines slipping by and a frantic struggle to stay on top of your workflow. What starts as innocent social marketing turns into a rabbit hole and BAM it’s time for dinner.
While many experts recommend creating a secluded space that is optimized for your work, this is not always possible. My office is a desk we carved out space for in the bedroom and where ever I can place my laptop. I have no doors, no cubicle and no escape from the rest of the house while I work.
Does this cause frustration and impact productivity from time to time? Sure it does. Have I learned to adapt and make the most of it? Definitely! I invested in a good pair of headphones to help me quiet the surrounding din when crucial, but otherwise, there is no magic bullet.
Kids are kids, pets love keyboards and life is busy sometimes. By becoming accustomed to working in the natural environment of your home, you can accomplish more.
If you were working in your office, it would not be a zen garden. There would be phones ringing, co-workers talking, printers running and the occasional chaos of fire drills or power failures. Why should your home office be any different? Instead of insisting on a calm and tranquil sanctuary of productivity, learn to embrace and thrive in the chaos.
Treat this like your routine building. If you are the type to work when the family has gone to bed, leave the television on in the background or put on some music. If you normally work at the library or another quiet spot, try a place with more bustle, such as a cafe or coffee shop. While it might cause you some stress in the beginning, the results are worth it.
Before long, you will find it easier to work and juggle the obligations of being a stay-at-home mom or dad while freelancing. Next thing you know, you’ll be cleaning off binkies with one hand and laying out newsletters with the other.
Tip #3 – Cull the Distractions
I know… I said you can’t eliminate all of the distractions and to embrace the insanity. But there are distractions you can avoid.
Those little shiny things that pop up and sing their sweet song in your ear while your productivity tanks. Social media, email notifications, that phone that never shuts up, your favorite TV show… THESE are the distractions you can and should eliminate.
I’ve created a separate notification profile on my phone just for work. Email and social are silenced. Important family members can reach me if needed, but otherwise, my phone is banished while I’m working.
Same goes for social sites on the computer. Get rid of those Facebook notifications that pop up in your browser even if the site isn’t loaded. It’ll be okay if Timmy doesn’t get his like about the picture of his ice cream cone until you’re finished working.
Close your email unless you’re waiting on a critical message. Shut down Slack, HipChat, Skype and Hangouts as well. Talking about work isn’t working–it’s talking. When you’ve finished what you’re doing, go ahead and check back in if you feel the need. A few minutes or hours isn’t going to kill a project or communications. You don’t need to respond to every message and email instantly.
Notifications were once a great way to keep you informed of important moments. Now that technology is now a part of every day life, how many of these notifications are essential?
There’s also the more subtle distractions. I work with music or background noise playing. Music is either my favorite tunes or something ambient with no lyrics. Work time is not the time to check out that new playlist on Spotify. Find something you’ve heard a million times and you’re less likely to fall down a rabbit hole.
Same goes with movies and TV. I have a set of movies I’ll play that the kids don’t hate but I can nearly recite verbatim. For me, this includes You’ve Got Mail, Pride and Prejudice and While You Were Sleeping. Yes, I’m a sucker for rom-coms. They’re comfortable and familiar, yet they break up the monotony of watching the army of words scroll down my screen. Save the new releases or deep artsy reels for family night or alone time.
On the computer side of distractions, I have a separate log-in for work. This includes both my Windows sign-on and my Chrome account. This means I can set up different extensions in my browser or have different shortcuts on my desktop to suit my needs. No more clicking on that shiny Minecraft button when I should click on WordPress. Best of all, I don’t have all my work tools cluttering up my browser when I’m not working. Separation is important in both directions.
Find your gems and love them. Never stray. This is how rabbit holes are made.
Tip #4 – Reward Yourself
Being able to the pay the bills is a reward in its own right. But it is easy as a freelancer to get sucked into a vortex of all work and no play. Next thing you know, you’re loathing the sound of an email notification and spouting snarky comments as you work on your latest assignment.
It’s not quite burnout, but in ways it’s worse. It warps your perception of your work, your success and your clients.
Finding little ways to treat yourself as you complete tasks is a simple way to avoid this. Find something that matters to you. It might be a few minutes of watching crochet tutorials on YouTube, a warm soak in the tub or an early end to Friday’s work time. Maybe even peanut butter cups… mmm… peanut butter cups.
The trick is to find something that is rewarding and simple but not so rewarding that it derails progress. Rewarding yourself with reading time doesn’t work when you end up losing a day of work.
If you’re looking for a fun way to set this up and add a little gamification to your work routine, check out Habitica (Previously known as HabitRPG.)
By turning your to-do lists and habits into a game, you can set up multiple rewards and create a system as basic or complex as you need. Most functionality of the service is free and there’s even apps for most smartphones to let you take your productivity game on the go.
BONUS: Habitica is also great for setting up chores and reward lists for the kids. They get screen time and you get a better running house. It’s a win-win. There’s even grouping features to help you and the family work together on larger tasks.
Tip #5 – Break Down Your To-Dos into Manageable Bites
Most freelancers have multiple projects rolling at the same time. This is due to the need to diversify incomes. Count too much on a single client and you might find yourself in a tailspin should something go amiss.
When you’re juggling multiple projects, one of the simplest ways to ensure steady progress is to break down your goals into small, actionable steps. This makes it simple to gauge where you’re at and what you should do next when dealing with the frequent interruptions that often come with working at home.
Instead of making a to-do list that looks like this:
- Clean house
- Write Article
- Remind Bob about invoice
- Promote Blog
- Afterschool events
- Cook Dinner
Break things up a bit. Sure it takes a little more time and effort, but the payoff is something like this:
- Vacuum living room
- Laundry load #1
- Draft article on SEO
- Laundry load #2
- Litter box
- Remind Bob about invoice
- Proof/Edit article on SEO
- Publish article on SEO
- Prep snacks
- Pick up kids
- Laundry load #3
- Finish homework
- Promote blog on Twitter
- Promote blog on Facebook
- Cook dinner
- Promote blog on Google+
- Promote blog on Pinterest
This creates a road map for your day. You can pause mid-task and still know exactly where to resume working. Better still, you tie some metrics into your list to make it easier to both predict output and estimate time investment.
Breaking down your list also provides a consistent feeling of progress. If you used the first list, you wouldn’t be able to check off laundry or your article until you were almost done with your day.
Use smaller steps and rolling over list items to the following day is simple too. No more trying to remember where you were or rewording tasks. Just copy things over, add your new items for the day and get to work!
Tip#6 – Automate for Greater Efficiency
You’ve seen the posts and products that lure in freelancers and entrepreneurs with the promise of setting everything on autopilot while you watch your bank account grow. You’ve probably also realized by now that most of these promises are empty.
Going full-auto never works. There’s no way to turn an automated business into a sustainable business. Modern businesses need customer interaction, enhanced marketing and they need to offer exceptional value. I have yet to see an automated process that checks all of those boxes.
But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for automation in your business or freelance workflows. The key is automating in the right areas.
One of the easiest areas to tap into the power of automation is social media management. From queuing posts for future sharing to capturing follower information and interaction, there’s several options out there to let you spend more time being social on social and less time wrangling the business aspects.
A few of my favorite tools include:
That’s just a small sampling of what’s available. There’s an entire industry built around these types of applications.
Other popular options include:
The trick is finding tools that match the way you work and fit into your budget. The biggest, shiniest tool in the box won’t do you any good if you never pull the thing out and use it.
This is one of the reasons I prefer Buffer over HootSuite. Yes, HootSuite is awesome, and you might rock it, but combining Buffer and TweetDeck works better for me.
Tip #7 – Delegate Tasks When Possible
This is a two-part booster. This first part relates to your business.
You have a set of skills you use to earn a living. You don’t sell your clients services you cannot perform well or hate doing. So for your own projects and products, why would you sell them to yourself?
Yes–hiring someone else to draw that book cover, format your ebook, build your website or even manage your social media accounts costs money. But if you’re spending more time slogging through those tasks–and likely producing at a mediocre level–than you spend working within your actual skill set, then you will never get ahead. Worse still, even after you’re no longer investing time into the project, the lower quality work still reflects on your business.
Depending on your budget and needs, keeping a professional on retainer might not work. Fortunately, there’s a big push toward gig-based contracting these days. Sites like Fiverr and Craigslist offer an endless pool of affordable talent ready to help. You might not get something that is rock star quality every time, but you’ll never pay rock star prices either. Once you’re comfortable in your business and routines–and there’s steady income rolling in–you can assess the need to invest additional funding into improving things.
The second to part of this relates to your home life.
Despite what others might believe, freelancing is a job. You still report to a boss (your clients) and have to meet a set of standards and output to collect a paycheck. While you’re doing that, you also have to source out new leads, track trends, keep your skills up to date and market the hell out of what you’re doing.
Oh, and there’s that parenting thing too which will have various levels of complexity depending on your family.
What you’re doing is legit. Your spouse, friends or family wouldn’t accept you strolling into their office with the kids and asking what was for dinner or dropping the kids off in their cubicle so you could visit friends.
If you do one thing to help build productivity, success and happiness in your freelance career, delegate parts of running the house to the kids and family. You’re not on a vacation. You’re not just hanging out keeping the kids from killing each other. You’re a business owner, an independent contractor and a professional.
Get help with household tasks from those in the house that are capable. Even smaller kids can help pick up the floor or gather laundry. Delegate household tasks, establish boundaries and create routines that encourage everyone to respect your working time and space.
No–you can’t always just forget the kids are there to hammer out that blog post or whip up a quick website mock up. But if you establish that your work is important, others will reconsider unnecessary interruptions and requests. If the family is used to having you on-call 24/7, this will take some adjustment. However, everyone benefits.
Tip #8 – Schedule Time for Work (And Play)
A to-do list is great for keeping things organized. But how can you gauge how much time you have free for new clients or if you can afford to catch a few minutes of Netflix with the SO? This is where time blocking and scheduling comes in.
This tip is much more than just a schedule. The effects of time blocking can spread throughout your entire business.
Benefits of time blocking and scheduling include:
- By reducing multitasking you can improve focus–boosting both quality AND productivity
- By setting limits you reduce the ability to get lost in a task
- By quantifying your time in a concrete way you see the weight of each minute
- By setting times to complete specific tasks you reinforce the routines that drive productivity
- By setting aside time for play and work you avoid burnout and keep family relationships healthy
- By creating a schedule you can quote estimates or pitch concepts with increased confidence
If there’s one tip on this list you take for a test drive, this should be it.
It seems like such a simple concept on the surface. Unless you’re fielding regular phone calls or juggling a schedule full of extracurriculars for the kids, you might think that a to-do list is good enough.
I did for years. I’m not that busy. Besides, I’m the only one who will see the schedule anyhow. My time is spent better doing other things!
I couldn’t be more wrong
A good schedule acts as a foundation for many of the tips listed above. I debated listing this as #1, but the true power of scheduling isn’t obvious if you don’t see the framework it both allows and relies upon.
The system doesn’t need to be fancy. It’s about what works for you. You don’t even need to schedule every task.
Start with the high-priority items and add tasks as you find your groove. Before you know it, you’re knocking out tasks like they were nothing and looking back wondering how you made it this far without your schedule.
Two important notes:
- Be sure to schedule fun time and family time too. Finding balance is essential to long-term happiness and success.
- Allow padding or overflows but stick to your times. It’s tempting to take an extra half hour to finish the task you’re on or when you’re in the zone. Avoid this when possible. Not only does this shift your entire schedule for the day but you’ll find your ability to accurately schedule blocks increases when you stick to your allotted times.
Tip #9 – Do the Hard Things First
This one might seem weird at first but it works.
If you’re like me, you start the day ready to write, draw or code all the things. You will plow through today’s work in half the time you’d normally take, find three new clients and even maybe get some words written on that secret project.
Then life happens. The kids feed the dog their socks, crayons go on a nose exploration adventure and that thing you planned for dinner is missing three ingredients. You’re behind and while you’re pushing as hard as you can, morale isn’t exactly high.
Then you look at your to-do list. UGH! It’s that assignment. That’s not to say you should keep taking work you don’t enjoy but even the best clients drop the occasional dud in your lap.
At this point in the day, you’d rather walk across a mile of Barbie shoes and LEGO studs than keep pushing forward. Even worse, it’s showing in your quality and output.
This could all be avoided if you save the things you love doing for last.
It’s like that super awesome bit of sandwich right in the middle or that over-topped slice of pizza you’re hiding in the box. No sweetie! I insist, you get yours first…
When everything is coming to a close and you’re ready to call it quits for the day, having a little morsel on your to-do list can be the difference between finishing your list or feeling defeated.
Tip #10 – Stay Accountable and Discover New Angles with Mastermind Groups
Even with a family, the freelance lifestyle can create a sense of isolation. Just one more task, one more project, one more client, one more invoice. This is fine when just one is just one. But it rarely is.
Next thing you know, you haven’t talked to friends in a month, your partner thinks you’re mad at them and the kids are attached to your leg like lost puppies. You were working toward a good goal but fell into the freelance abyss. Even worse, you’re now so depleted that you have no idea how to get back on track or what to do next.
All of this could be avoided with a mastermind group.
The way these groups work might vary. Some groups are online only–taking place on Facebook or through Google Hangouts. If you live near a major city, there’s a good chance you can find local mastermind groups. Regardless of how you participate, the benefits often far outweigh the time and planning required to join in.
The exact format of your group will likely depend on your niche. Writing mastermind groups might revolve around critiques and promotions. Design mastermind groups might break down successful trends or give how-tos on new techniques. Marketing groups might share leads and discuss new projects.
It’s about having a place to sound off on new ideas, get feedback and keep each other accountable. It might take a few groups to find a good fit, but when you do it’s an amazing thing. It doesn’t hurt that it provides a social outlet you might not find elsewhere. You’re engaging with peers who are passionate about what you’re doing. This isn’t always the case with friends, family or clients.
Mastermind groups are also awesome for keeping progress moving at a steady clip. It’s easy to get into a comfortable rut once things come together. Comfortable is good until that big client disappears or an emergency bill pops up. By seeing how others are growing their presence and realizing their dream, you can stay motivated to continue improving during good times and find hope when things get stressful.
With the help of these 10 productivity tips for freelancers you can overcome obstacles, reach new goals and take some of the crazy out of self-employment.
If you found them useful or have a tip you’d like to share, drop a comment in the box below. If you have questions, I’d love to answer them! It’s your questions and conversations that help me keep producing useful, insightful content and I’m grateful you’re here!