Freelancing 101: Fight for Your Focus

This is the final post in a 4-week series that focuses 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 other freelancers navigate their first year with success. 

About half-way through my first year as a freelancer I had a number of regular clients and was using a productivity software tool to help me manage my activity. But I still struggled to keep on top of all the work.

Disaster struck when I secured two new clients in the same week. Normally that would have been great news, but now I found myself flirting with missed deadlines. My productivity system was helping, but I still felt too disorganized and overwhelmed.

I had an idea in my head of what needed to be done each week. But once I set to work I was constantly derailed by new, unforeseen demands on my time. Clients were calling with requests for me to help with headlines, suggestions on topic ideas, and to see if I knew someone who could help them with illustrations. All kinds of stuff.

Dealing with these requests, which were great relationship building activities, was keeping me from the writing that needed to get done. After working through the weekend and still almost missing a deadline, I knew I’d reached a crisis point.

I couldn’t keep everyone happy. And I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

To find a way out of my dilemma, I spoke with Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe, and my go-to productivity expert.

The keys to ending time-sucking activities

Michael has always had a passion for productivity, and he was able to share with me his keys to getting out of the activity trap and becoming more effective and productive.

For Michael, the first key to getting ahead of your work is to prioritize.

As Michael told me, “I was a solopreneur for a long time. I learned it was crucial to start each week by taking some time to set goals and plan your activities for each day.” He pointed out that you have to realize that all things aren’t of equal value to your business. There are tasks that generate revenue, that market you, that are critical to being a freelancer. And then there are things you think you should do, but really are of lower value—like dealing with unexpected requests for your help.

The things you think you should do can be dangerous because they are sometimes camouflaged as revenue generators. Who wouldn’t want to help a potential client who had a question about how to position themselves with a new prospect, or do a quick consult on a branding question? Adding value like that can often lead to deeper relationships and more client work down the road.

But how do you balance activities that might pay-off down-the-road versus the tasks that need to be completed for today’s clients?

According to Michael, the key is to set weekly goals, daily activity plans, and use them to prioritize.

When you prioritize the important tasks you set a standard by which you can judge the importance of unforeseen requests. The goals you set at the beginning of the week remind you what is important—what makes money, what helps a client. If a new task isn’t more important than the things you’d plan to do, put it aside until your priorities have been completed.

The last word

On Michael’s advice I started setting goals at the beginning of each week. I planned what I needed to accomplish each day in terms of writing output, how much time I was going to spend on which marketing activities, and how much time needed to be spent on the nuts and bolts of running the business—the admin and other unhappy tasks.

It paid off right away. In that first week I had a half-dozen articles on the go for different clients, but then the emails started rolling in. Someone invited me to a networking event. I was asked for a referral for an old client. Somebody needed a testimonial. And a business owner who may become a client down the road wanted to talk.

In the old days I would have stopped writing for my current clients to deal with each new request. I would have ended up struggling to hit my deadlines.

But now I was able to evaluate each request against my priorities for the week. None of these requests were as immediately important to my business as the articles I was working on—so, I got back to each contact with an explanation and a plan for when I could help them.

At the end of the week, I was surprised to find I not only got all my work finished, but I was also able to deal with some of the new requests. All my clients were happy, and I still had my sanity.

For more first-year freelancing advice in this series, check out:

Freelancing 101: The importance of becoming a sticky vendor

Freelancing 101: Watch for commitment flags early on

Freelancing 101: Find the right productivity tools

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.