Freelancing: how to get things done

[A version of this was published by The Huffington Post.]

All freelancers live in spotlessly clean houses, with alphabetised spice racks and an encyclopaedic knowledge of disused Tube stations following endless fits of procrastination … right? A lot of people seem to think this is the case, as did I to an extent before I went freelance myself. As an employee I needed the structure of the office to get anything done, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to work once I didn’t have that to push me anymore. But what I didn’t realise was that when my boss and I became the same person, everything would change. In short: it’s not really “work”, it’s just what I do.

It takes a little while to figure out how to structure things when no one stands over you, but the challenge is no longer to keep myself motivated; I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I do now. The trick is to strike a balance where I can keep my eyes on the road while also getting the details right, because the project is massive and I have to cover all the roles myself. The project being, I should add, making enough money to live while also doing work that interests me. So here are a few things I found are worth considering in order to get things done as a freelancer:

  • Keep lists, lots of lists. It’s impossible to keep track of everything without a really fat notebook. I use an A5 ring binder for this, so I can move the pages around and add sections for new projects. Brainstorming happens on the white pages, post-its are added with names and website, while cuttings or interview notes are stored in plastic pockets. Everything related goes in the same place, meaning I know where to find it whenever I want it.
  • The magic of a schedule. There is no way I can be creative if I am panicking about the thousand things I have to do. Every Sunday night I sit down and draw out a rough sketch of my week: when to write, when to do admin, when to chase emails, when to pitch. I’ll change this as I go, but once it’s all on paper I can relax and concentrate on the moment.
  • Checking in with the big picture. I have a couple of “direction” lists where write down the stuff I want for the longer term, and once a month or so I check in with these. This means I’ll pick up on it if I’m going too far off course, and it means I’ll take the time to push on with ideas that require more development in order to (hopefully) come to fruition.
  • Productive time, and other time. This took a while to figure out, but work became so much easier once I understood what time of day is best used for what purpose. My most productive time is between 1pm and 7pm, so I do most of my writing then. In the morning, my most sluggish time, I get on with emails, admin and other boring stuff like transcribing. At night, when my mind is buzzing, I plan.

This may all look quite structured for a freelancing life, which is supposed to be about freedom, but I have found that only by making sure I am on top of everything can I actually let go and enjoy myself. Only by having a list to refer to each Monday morning can I be sure to keep a pace that means I don’t have to work the weekend – taking time off is very, very important to stay motivated. And only by checking in with the long-term plan can I make sure I progress towards bigger goals, by chasing after new opportunities instead of just keep doing the same old work. Spending my time pursuing things I want rather than just reacting to requests is a big part of why I went freelance in the first place.

Each person will have to figure out what works best for them, but for me, the system of two lists, one long-term and one short-term, were the key. Making sure I am on the right track motivates me to do the boring but necessary things, and breaking down the big issues into manageable action points means I’m more likely to move forward. Which is what this is really about, isn’t it. … Actually, one more thing:

  • Break the rules. Sometimes I leave my list at home and spend the day wandering around the city instead, visiting a gallery or looking for a new coffee house. Sometimes I spend hours just reading my RSS feed and revelling in the fact that I don’t have to get out of bed. I know all about London’s disused Tube network. If I can’t do things like this there is no point in freelancing, as it certainly isn’t for the money. I may have to work all night sometimes, but then I also get to skive. The balance is mine to strike.
  1. jessicafurseth posted this