Going freelance can be very empowering. You get to be your own boss and work on what you want, the way you want it. It can also be very intimidating and confusing at first, and for the exact same reason: there's nobody there to tell you what to do.
It's easy to spend the day slacking, and then another and another, until your deadlines loom awfully close and you start panicking. Hey, it happens to the best of us!
And we're here to tell you that it only takes a little self-discipline and a few changes to your daily routine to beat this and become productive again. Here's what worked for us...
1. Set your daily routine
Working "when you feel like it" might work for some, but it's a recipe for disaster for most of us.
It's all too easy to realize that by the time you start to feel like working a little you've already spent countless hours procrastinating. Especially when you need to deal with the necessary, but tedious, grunt work that's part of even the most creative of professions.
The way to beat this is to treat your freelancing job as a regular job -- albeit one you can do while in your pajamas. Define regular working hours and stick to them, day in, day out.
Don't overdo it, of course. Take breaks and give yourself time to rest and refuel. Even skip "office" for a day or two, if you don't feel like working. But otherwise, stick to your daily routine and don't leave your desk until a day's work is done, just like you wouldn't in a regular job.
2. Plan your work
When you work at an office you have managers, middle managers and the CEO at the top to organize your work. As a freelancer that's a role that you need to assume yourself.
Perhaps the most important insight when it comes to planning your work is that all tasks are not equally important. Heck, not even every client is equally important (of course, never ever tell them that).
Be proactive; create a prioritized to-do list and tackle items in order of importance. Keep track of the time it took you to complete each task, so that you know what to charge your clients and avoid overworking on less important stuff.
At the end of each week (or month, if you prefer), evaluate your performance and try to improve upon it -- and also upon your estimations and pricing plans. For example, if a project that you thought was trivial took far more time and effort than you expected it to, remember to charge your clients accordingly next time.
3. Stay focused
Having a daily routine and planning your work ahead is all well and good, assuming that you would be able to follow through. And with the myriads of work distractions available to us that's far from a given.
One of the biggest challenges freelancers face is staying focused to the task at hand. Something as simple as checking your email can result in hours of non-productive work (and don't get us started on Facebook, Twitter and their ilk).
Unless your job involves the web (e.g. you're a social media expert) we suggest you limit the time you spend surfing the web to when you're over with your "office hours". If you can't help yourself, there are software tools that can block Facebook, Gmail and popular social media and news sites for you.
You shouldn't be checking your email too often either -- email can be a huge time-sink in itself. Unless you're expecting some important email from a client, try checking your mails only a few times per day. Three is OK. Two is better.
There are also several schemes that can help you stay focused to the task at hand. We might get deeper into these in a future post, but until then we suggest you look up the "Pomodoro technique".
4. Save time with technology
Since you're reading this post on a browser, in a blog, on the internet, we assume you're pretty familiar with this technology thing. Use it to your advantage.
There are as many productivity tracking technologies to help you be focused, as there are technologies to distract you. Learn more about the first and avoid the second.
The Cloud is a good example of that: it frees you from having to manage your software (including dealing with installations, updates, backups and viruses) and it gives you the freedom to access your data and applications from everywhere.
Or how about mobile devices? You can use them as a huge distraction, or you can take advantage of them to be flexible and, well, mobile yourself. Armed with a laptop (the original mobile computing device), a tablet, or even just a smartphone, you can get work done even from the beach or your local coffee shop.
Wasn't this freedom part of the allure of becoming a freelancer in the first place?
5. Build your network
Just because you are a freelancer doesn't mean you have to work alone.
In fact, one of the smartest things you can do is to outsource tasks or even get an assistant. And when you're overbooked, don't hesitate to refer clients to other freelancers whose work you respect -- most of them will appreciate the gesture and do the same for you.
Being a freelancer means you also have to do your own advertising. And social media can be great for that. It's no accident that the most successful freelancers are heavily into blogging and tweeting. That's how you build your brand and get known to your colleagues and prospective clients alike.
So get on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and consider opening your own blog (if you don't already have one). But, to expand upon what we've wrote several times in this post, use these social media professionally, not as an outlet for procrastination.
So here you have it, 5 battle proven tips for becoming a (more) productive freelancer. Some of them might be obvious, others not so much. But even with the obvious ones, the tricky part is not coming up with them, but following through. Then again, if we managed to do it, so can you.
Do you have any favorite freelancing tips you'd like to share with us? Post your ideas in the comments below and get the conversation going.