7 Ways to Toughen Up Your Freelancing Game

Working as a freelancer may not conjure up images of being a tough cookie, but being a one-person show at your own business takes remarkable creativity, discipline, and good old-fashioned moxie. The Atlantic called freelancing the “next industrial revolution” of our time.

Freelancers, from independent creatives to technical consultants, juggle multiple clients, spearhead their own marketing efforts, and work tirelessly at their network of mobile offices from the home dining table, coffee shop counter, and coworking spaces.

So if you want to boost your mettle as a freelancer, here are seven ways to toughen up your freelancing game.

1. Kill All the Distractions

Stop wasting time on things that distract you. Digital distractions, in particular, can hypnotize you for hours, eating into your precious time that you could be using to market your services, work on projects, streamline your business branding, and so on.

From Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets to e-mail and Zynga games, we all have our addiction triggers. Minimize the temptations by cutting them off at the source. Try to self-police the time you spend on certain sites and focus the bulk of your day to working on current projects and cultivating new ones.

2. Stop Holding Unnecessary Meetings

While there’s always a case to be made for convening with your client (e.g. at the outset of a project to go over a contract and the expected deliverables or when deliverables need to be drastically changed), meetings can be big time-wasters. Having regular meetings for the sake of ‘touching base’ can feel superfluous and even distracting.

If you must have regular meetings, keep them short and sweet, and stick to a set agenda.

Resources need to be spent preparing for the meeting, holding the meeting, and then doing a post-meeting assessment. In many cases, they turn into a bureaucratic nightmare where no real work actually gets done and you’re left spinning your wheels.

Most of the time, a weekly status-note or quick phone call on an as-needed basis is just as effective. If you must have regular meetings, keep them short and sweet, and stick to a set agenda.

And avoid holding meetings to do some group brainstorming at all costs. This type of brainstorming session has proven to be wildly unproductive, with individual ideas being stamped out by “group think”.

If your client wants to “think out loud” for half an hour, politely steer the meandering conversation to a close, say that you’d like to dedicate some research time to fleshing out your ideas on paper, and that you’ll send him a 1-2 page proposal by e-mail. Done. Now you can get back to work.

3. Learn How to Say ‘No’

One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is to work with clients that pay rock-bottom rates for work that doesn’t add any value to their portfolio, inspire them creatively, or challenge them in some way. Sometimes, we end up doing free consults with a prospective client even if we know we’re out of their price range to begin with.

Don’t feel guilty about being upfront with your expectations when it comes to a project. You are, first and foremost, a business. Why don’t freelancers say “no” enough? We’re hardwired to show deference toward the client. Indeed, client relations is the heart of freelancing. But there are many instances when saying “no” to a freelance job is advisable.

In a recent FreelanceSwitch post by Melanie Brooks, saying “no” is not about slacking off but knowing your personal limits as a freelancer. “My goal is to choose to do what is important to me and what I enjoy, while not slacking on my other commitments. Saying no is a freedom I can now employ without feeling guilty or bad,” she says.

4. Stay Disciplined

If you’re juggling multiple projects, start a weekly calendar and designate certain days for certain projects. This ensures that you devote enough time to every project in your pipeline on a regular basis. Also, figure out your “dead zones” during the day and use those time slots to get the routine, repetitive work done.

Use your off-peak hours, like during your mid-afternoon espresso break, to attend to administrative matters, or low-intensity marketing and promotion (e.g. putting together invoices, posting articles on your blog, responding to work-related Tweets and Facebook comments). Finally, stay on track with your freelance workload using these time tracking tools.

5. Always Be on the Offensive

Spend a couple hours each week to focus on the business development side of things. This means committing the time to explore and tap into your existing networks to secure potential avenues of new work.

You might want to send out a personal note to existing and past clients. Consider joining a networking event to put yourself out there. Call up a few local firms or check out an agency to add yourself to their roster of freelancers. Read “101 Ideas to Get More Freelance Work and Generate New Client Leads” for more strategies.

6. Be a Ruthless Boss

You’re working for yourself, remember? Freelancers sometimes take a soft approach to dealing with errant clients and suppliers. Chase invoices when they are due. Giving too many extensions or long grace periods on deadlines for payments can be disastrous for your cash-flow situation. You can be tough on tardy clients but always stay polite and professional.

A quick phone call is often the best means of getting their attention. Be assertive when making your demands and collecting your bills. For specific strategies on how to handle client penalties, reminders, and escalation, read “What to do When a Client Doesn’t Pay In a Timely Manner“.

7. Forget the Work-Life Balance

Many freelancers boast about the freedom and personal autonomy their work affords them— but actually do very little to change how they work to reflect these values. In fact, I know many freelancers who make it a point of conforming to the business-as-usual, conventional 9-5 office setup. Personally, I don’t like squeezing work into an 8-10 hour time period. That’s corporate clockwork.

So, I’m a big advocate of blurring those sacred work-life boundaries. Don’t try to compartmentalize how you work— this means mixing to some degree work and leisure during your day and evenings. If you feel like tinkering on that website after dinner, go ahead. If you want to curtail your work day at 3pm to go for a run in the park, don’t feel guilty. Freelancers waste a lot of time and end up feeling unduly frustrated because they force themselves to do certain tasks when they are not at their most productive.

There’s no benefit in slogging through work when your energy is at half-mast or if you just can’t concentrate at your desk. It’s equally confounding to stave off work when inspiration strikes just because it’s the weekend or after 6pm. Sometimes I do my best writing on a Saturday night, for example. Instead, trust your instincts and put that manic energy to work.

This isn’t a license to slack off or work yourself to death, of course. Give yourself specific, reasonable deliverable for the day (e.g. “Finish editing client X’s report” and “Finalize content strategy proposal for company A”) and make sure you burn through them— but also maintain a healthy outlook and take time to blow off some steam.

Enjoy your life as a freelancer.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by mtkang.

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