This post is the third in a 4-week series that will focus on advice, tips and tricks from long-time freelancer, Andy Haynes. Andy shares some of his biggest mistakes made during his first year freelancing to help first-time freelancers navigate their first year with success.
When I started out as a consultant, life was simple. I had a couple of clients and the work was straight forward enough that I didn’t need anything more complicated than post-it notes and email to keep track of what had to be done and when.
The same is true of a lot of solopreneurs. Most don’t need complicated productivity systems when they’re a business of one with a limited number of clients. Often, ad hoc, ‘back of the envelope’ solutions work just fine.
But what happens when you hit a level of complexity that overwhelms your simple planning approach?
More complexity requires a new approach
For me, things came to a head when I started a large project that involved working with several different departments within an electronics firm. Almost immediately things started breaking—the time I narrowly avoided missing an important phone call, the time I had to race to a meeting—progress started to slip. I started worrying that I was going to seriously drop the ball and it would cost me a big client.
So I took my system to the next level. I transitioned everything from Post-Its and email into Word and Excel—creating my own schedules to help me manage the growing amount of work.
But it only helped for a little while.
Soon it seemed I was investing more time on my homemade scheduling solution than the work I was meant to be doing. My solution had turned into its own problem.
I found an answer to my problem when I talked to productivity guru Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe.com and author of the ebook, “It’s All About Passion”. He’s an expert now, but he too struggled with managing his work in the early days. In fact, his struggles were what spurred him to create Nozbe.
With Nozbe Michael he could record tasks, set up projects and most importantly mark tasks as next actions. It helped him prioritize what needed to be done now, today—and to move his projects forward.
Using a productivity tool made him better at forecasting and estimating jobs because he could break projects down and see what he would need to do. But also see how that work fit into the scheduling of all the other work he had going on.
“I always think that something can be done in five minutes. Which of course, it can’t. With Nozbe, I was giving clients better answers,” Mike told me. “Now I would say, it can be done, but for Friday, not in five minutes.”
Use the right tool to get organized
Michael’s advice to me was simple. When your business becomes complex enough that Post-Its or Outlook isn’t working anymore, you need to find a good productivity tool. Get your tasks out of your head and into a system that will help you make sense of everything.. Once you’ve captured all your tasks in one system, you won’t have to worry about where things are or about forgetting or getting confused.
Then use your tool to organize your tasks into projects. Divide the big tasks into smaller, manageable steps and schedule them. And most importantly, define your ‘next actions’—the key tasks that need to happen next to move each project forward.
Getting back on track
After talking with Michael I decided to try using productivity software. I put every task I had into the inbox, started organizing them by project and splitting the bigger tasks, like writing an article on business types, into smaller tasks like Research, Outline and Draft.
Shortly after I started using the software, I landed a new group of clients—six insurance brokers who ran their own businesses and needed planning help.
The system kept me organized as I tried to integrate these six new streams of business into my existing workload. Because I generated the all-important ‘next actions’ in the software, I always knew what to work on next, the work never stalled and I never felt overwhelmed.
The clients were happy, and I found I spent more time on productive work and less time trying to stay organized and keep my head above water.
Do you have a helpful productivity tool that you use to stay organized? Share your tips below.