I recently performed a little efficiency test to make sense of my profit and losses — the latter of which had been feeling especially heavy lately. I assessed my workload in terms of both money and time, and the results were surprising. When I broke down each client by hourly pay, my main client, the one that pays my rent and most of my groceries, was paying me the lowest hourly amount.
On top of that, I was spending $217 a week on full-time daycare for my daughter, and out of a need to get my money’s worth, I was keeping her in daycare from open until close and using more of that time for recreation than work. Although it was helpful for my physical and mental health to get that break, it made it more difficult to get back into the flow of work in the afternoon. After assessing everything, I found I was really only working five hours a day, and most of that time was devoted to my lowest-paying client. Not exactly a strong business model.
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Out of a desire to improve my own productivity, I interviewed four freelancers who shared their efficiency tips with me. Here, I’ve boiled down their advice to seven tips.
1. Create your own efficiency test.
It’s impossible to know how you can boost efficiency without understanding your weaknesses. First, track your time. Freelance writer Rebecca Matter suggests you determine how much time you’re spending on each client, and then evaluate your hourly rate for each. “I think people resist this sometimes because they think they know where their money is coming from, but in my experience, every time you track your time you will be surprised,” she says.
Matter goes on to describe the 80/20 rule, which means the best clients will only require 20 percent of your time, while the worst ones are likely eating up 80 percent of your time. It may seem counterintuitive, but she recommends identifying which side clients are on, “and if they’re on the 80 percent side of your time, it’s probably good to get them out,” she says. Cutting out busywork may make your schedule feel frighteningly open at first, but that’s time you could be spending acquiring less needy or better-paying clients.
2. Plan out your workday in advance.
Regardless of when you do it, making a plan for how you’re going to spend your hours will help you anticipate your workload and stay on task. It doesn’t have to be detailed down to the minute, either. When freelance writer Maria Bellos Fisher was caring for her newborn at home, she had to organize the limited time she had. “The night before, I would think of two or three tasks that I wanted to get done the next day and I would put them on my calendar,” says Bellos Fisher. That way, during any moment of downtime, she could quickly refocus on one of her goals.
Freelance writer Valerie Bordeau faces challenges with her schedule due to fibromyalgia and strategizes by batching her tasks together. She says if she has a day in which she isn’t feeling well, she’ll spend it working on all her rough drafts. You can batch home-related tasks, as well, to save time and streamline your day. Bellos Fisher schedules all of her personal appointments back to back in one day, so she doesn’t have to break her work flow to accommodate doctor visits and other errands.
I like to make a list the night before of everything I hope to accomplish the next day. It feels good to check each one off as the day goes on, and whatever I don’t complete that day gets moved to tomorrow’s list.
3. Do the hardest thing first, every day.
I remember reading a quote attributed to Mark Twain that really stuck with me: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” In my experience, it’s the same with working from home as a writer. On my handy daily to-do list, I’ll rank my tasks in order of difficulty. Not only does this quash procrastination, but it allows me to use the hours in which I’m sharpest — between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. — for the hardest work.
Matter agrees with this notion: “There’s always going to be this thing on your list that you resist. That’s the thing you tackle first — because it’s going to weigh you down the rest of the day. You’re going to be thinking about it. You’re going to be worrying about it. It’s going to distract you. If you just hit it head-on, you can get it off your list and be done with it.”
4. Treat your business like a business.
It’s the oldest rule in the book — and for good reason. If you treat your business like a business, you’ll create an environment in which you can grow, write what you want and be profitable. If you treat it like a hobby, you may have fun, but it’s not going to bring the income or advancement you want.
The first step to treating your work like a business is to schedule both work times and break times. Without regular working hours, you run into one of two problems: either you’re never fully shut off, meaning you’re constantly returning to your computer and never getting a chance to refresh, or you lose track of time and run the risk of wasting the precious working hours you do have.
The next step is to establish a space or signal that separates your work from your home life. Matter says, “I think it’s important to put your physical self in a working spot…just something that tells your body and brain, ‘I’m at work right now.'” So, what if you don’t have the means to create an actual home office? Simply stake out a corner of a room at home where you can put your desk. Regardless, Matter continues, “I think it’s important to find a way to signal that you’re working.”
For Amy Shey Jacobs, a freelance writer and entrepreneur, when she’s at home, her signal is a closed door. “If I get a cup of coffee and sit at my desk…I find it’s kind of my sanctuary,” she says. If you don’t have access to a separate space, consider renting a desk at a coworking facility or becoming a regular at a coffee shop that inspires you.
5. Know when to say yes or no.
For the new freelancer who’s prepared to work for peanuts (or a byline), it seems insane that you would ever say no to a project. However, all freelancers face the decision at some point about which projects to take and which to pass on. Jacobs says you “have to go with your gut and intuition, and where you are at your best.” Choosing projects that fit your expertise, experience level and passions will result in your best work. Jacobs adds, “When things are in your wheelhouse, it makes it easier to get more work done. You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve built up a repertoire of people you can call… I find it is amazing for efficiency.”
In addition to knowing your expertise, you should also know your limits. Bellos Fisher explains, “I would never take an assignment if I was way too busy because I never want to disappoint anybody.”
Bordeau offers three criteria to run a project through before you decide to take it. “No. 1 is does it match the income I need,” she says. If not, depending on your financial situation, it may be better not to take it. However, for lower-paying projects, it may still be OK to say yes if it builds a skill set you need, if it’s actually going to advance you or if it’s something that’s going to give you better work, says Bordeau.
6. Know what distracts you, and face it head-on.
It’s important to identify those things that tempt to pull you away from your office chair. Bordeau suggests you make a game plan, knowing that those distractions will always be there. She says you should ask yourself, “How will I attack this distraction before it attacks me?” Bordeau herself struggles with chatty family members and receiving personal phone calls, and has found that carving out her own writing space makes a difference. One of her friends actually locks herself in the bathroom to write. It’s an extreme example, but if it helps set boundaries and keep your family from distracting you, something like this may be necessary.
In my five years as a freelance writer, I’ve always struggled with my propensity for Web surfing. It’s so challenging to not go down that rabbit hole of mindless clicking when I’m constantly using the Internet for research and email, but recently I’ve made a concentrated effort to change. I try to only check my email when I’m not in the middle of writing. As for social media, if I find myself checking Facebook every two minutes, I take a moment to assess why I’m feeling the need to switch gears. Sometimes it’s my subconscious trying to tell me I need a legitimate break — a snack, a moment away from the computer or even human interaction.
Bellos Fisher made the same observation about social media: “Facebook was my huge vice. But you know, it was a vice and it was a lifeline. I am an extrovert and I was doing an introvert’s job.” She says stepping away for a bit made her feel less isolated. Acknowledge and listen to your distractions: They may be telling you something essential about your work or personal life. Then make the changes you need to make to accommodate your work-life balance.
7. Be a good boss, to yourself.
Your efficiency and productivity is entirely dependent on you. Being your own boss doesn’t mean being the cool boss who tells you to take the whole afternoon off when there’s a hard deadline at the end of the day — it means you should treat yourself and your business with respect and professionalism. “Don’t let your business run you,” warns Bordeau. “You run your business. That’s the balance every business owner has, whether you’re running a burger shop, a freelance business or a Fortune 500 company.”
And a good boss knows how to separate work from play, and take each seriously. Know when you need to unplug and what refreshes you. Says Jacobs, “I find that mindless television starting at 10 is a necessity for me, so pretty much I’m watching ‘Watch What Happens: Live’ on a nightly basis. That’s my power-down [time].”
For me, spending time with my daughter, making art, working on my home and — yes, mindless time on Netflix — is essential to my unwinding process. Anytime I try to replace these activities with work during off-hours I find myself getting easily frustrated and, over the long-term, burned out.
Your efficiency and productivity is within your control. Believing this, and being mindful of how you spend your hours and dollars, is the closest thing to the secret to success as a freelancer.