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Be a Smarter Freelancer

Image: TZA

When you work for a business, it’s your boss’s job to make sure that you’re productive and squeezing as much as possible out of the nine-to-five. When you work for hire, you have to find the work, do the work, and make sure you’re working smart — and you have to do it all yourself. There are a few things you can do to get the maximum benefits from the minimum effort.

Smarter Time Management

The most important thing you can do is also the hardest: manage your time smartly. Offices are filled with watercoolers around which employees congregate. Smokers can regularly be found standing outside for a quiet puff, and office space is divided by cubicle walls behind which workers can surreptitiously update their Facebook pages. The employees aren’t being productive in those minutes but the breaks are necessary; it’s just not possible to focus for every second of an eight-hour day. The challenge for freelancers is to keep the microbreaks to a minimum and the eyes on the screen as much as possible.

Time management tools might help. Toggl is a time-tracking program that works on both the Web and mobile devices. Tick is an application for freelancers who charge by the hour, and Harvest also prepares invoices and supports teamwork. All of those tools can help freelancers by reminding them that time is money.

In practice though, few freelancers want to feel that they’re clocking in. Time management tools are more likely to be bought by team managers than solo workers who value the fact that they get to manage their day and take breaks without worrying that someone noticed. For freelancers, smarter time management really means looking for the big inefficiencies and creating new routines that maximize work and minimize costly play. Those might include:

  • Cutting back on café-working

Leaving the house might be necessary when you work from home, but do you need to do it every day? If the café is a twenty-minute walk away, going twice a week instead of five times will add two more productive hours to the week, an entire day a month. The calculation alone should be enough to make clear the cost of the coffee and motivate you to stay at your desk.

  • Changing Your Schedule to Match the Task

Some tasks require deep focus while others, such as digging around on the Internet, can be done while the kids watch television. Use your highest quality work time for only the most important tasks, while squeezing out the drudgery at times when distraction can only help.

  • Go Mobile

Productivity apps such as Pages, DocsToGo and DropBox make it possible to work in quick bursts wherever you are. Keep your office in your pocket and you can add hours to the workweek by turning empty time into additional productive time.

Find and Keep Your Leads

Freelancers don’t need massive numbers of clients to make a living out of their skills. They need a small number of regular clients to give their income a baseline, a smaller number of occasional clients to throw interesting big projects their way, and a drip of new leads to keep their business fresh and moving in new directions. Most importantly, if a regular client cuts back, freelancers need to know that they can turn to someone who has expressed an interest in the past, and nudge some work out of them for the future.

One way to do that is to collect the email addresses of as many of your website visitors as possible. These are people who need the services you’re offering but either don’t need them right now or need more persuading than you’ve supplied in your Web copy. TinyLetter is a very simple, free newsletter plugin that lets website owners collect email addresses and send out messages. It allows even the smallest of freelance businesses to build lead lists and create a bank of new clients ready to turn to if their income takes a drop  — or if they want to move into product sales. Email capturing  might not be a replacement for advertising but it does allow freelancers to get more out of their advertising and spend their marketing budget smartly.

Smarter Paperwork

Aside from the moments spent brewing coffee, drinking coffee, writing tweets and checking the news, a freelancer’s workday can be divided into billable hours and unbillable hours. The billable hours consist of all the time that produced work for which you can actually charge. The unbillable stuff? That’s the time spent looking for new clients, answering emails… and doing the paperwork. Freelancing isn’t tax-free. Invoices have to be collected and issued, and recalcitrant payers hunted down. The less time you can spend doing that dull stuff, the more time you’ll have for the more interesting — and more lucrative — billable work.

Again, software, is one option. We’ve already seen that Harvest offers invoicing as well as time management tools. Less Accounting is another useful service and FreelanceSwitch itself uses FreshBooks to bill advertisers. But when you’re only billing a handful of regular clients, dedicated software can feel like overkill. More important is a routine that allows you to just plug in the numbers and hit Send.

Even Paypal can work. The site is best known for its ability to collect cash but its invoicing function can also make asking for the money simple too. Because the site’s cookies remember both email addresses and amounts, as soon as you start typing, the invoice starts writing itself  — a simple solution for freelancers who charge regular amounts to regular clients and are willing to pay Paypal’s commissions.

Others, though, can use templates. The latest version of Microsoft Word offers a range of different invoice templates that include bids and quotes, as well as bills of sale. Once you’ve personalized the template, you should be able to resave it each month as you add in the figures and change the date. Once the billing becomes routine, you should be able to knock out the requests for payments fairly quickly.


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