By Leo Babauta
A freelancer’s life is often everything but simple. Multiple projects being juggled, often along with a day job, emails and phone calls and IM, invoices and payments, time tracking and more.
It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
A simplified freelance life would be one with projects or assignments you love to do, but not so much that you are overloaded. You use simple tools, you work without distraction, you are lean and mean and have time for other things in life that you love.
It might sound like a fantasy, but it’s an ideal that can be achieved. In my life, I’ve reduced my amount of work while increasing my pay … reduced the amount of time I spend working, and the work that I still do is work that I really enjoy. I haven’t achieved perfect simplicity yet — it’s really a process, not a destination — but my life is greatly simplified now compared to only a year or two ago.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Identify complicators. What’s complicating your life? Or is it a who? Think about what stresses you out, what makes you overworked, what wastes your time. You might give this a few days, taking notes and making a list. Once you have a good list of complicators, you have a list of things you need to eliminate or simplify. That’ll take a bit longer, but in most cases it’s possible.
2. Identify the essential. What are the essential things in your life? The essential clients and projects? What do you love doing? Make a short list, as these are the things you want to keep as you get rid of the other stuff.
3. Scale down your work. This will sound impossible, but you really can scale back. You just have to set limits, and stick to them. Let’s say that you’re currently doing 50 hours of freelance work a week (as an example — your number may be wildly different). And let’s say you only want to work 30 hours a week. Well, set a 6-hour-a-day schedule for 5 days, and stick to it. You’ll have less time to do the same amount of work, but that’ll actually force you to focus on the essential tasks, cut out the less important tasks, and stop wasting time. You’ll end up doing less work, but the work you do is the work that counts, and the work that pays well (see Item #10).
4. Simplify your tools. While tools are supposed to help us get our work done, often they can get in the way by being too complicated. If you spend too much time tweaking the tool rather than doing your work, you might consider a simpler tool. If you use many tools, you might consider using fewer. It just makes the work simpler.
For example, as a writer, I can use Microsoft Word, with its 10,000 different features. But it’s slow, and I don’t use the vast majority of those features. Most of them are just distractions. Instead, I use AbiWord, Google Docs, Dark Room or WordPad. These are all much simpler, with almost no features except the ability to type text and maybe do some formatting like bold and italics. But they do the job I need to do, and nothing else. It allows me to focus on the text.
5. Reduce distractions. Along those lines, if you do a lot of work on the web, you’re probably constantly facing the distractions of the web. Email, for one, and IM and Twitter and the millions of fascinating sites and forums and services. But this morning, as I write this, my Internet connection is down. And guess what? I’m more focused on my work than ever before. Sure, I need Internet connections to do my work, to do research or to communicate or to do a bunch of other tasks. But being disconnected from these distractions for a couple of hours actually simplifies my choices and allows me to really focus.
I highly recommend that you identify your distractions, and find ways to minimize or eliminate them while you’re working. Phones, TV, other people, visual clutter in your workspace, noise, food, little random tasks that you can use to procrastinate on the important ones.
6. Evaluate your commitments. It’s good to do this at least once a month. Make a list of all your commitments, large and small. Projects and assignments, meetings, appointments, various roles in your life such as church or boards or committees or sports or hobbies or civic groups or friends or family. Are you overcommitted? It’s not only possible, but likely. There are a million demands on our time, but while it’s easy to say yes, it’s not so easy to fulfill all of them and stay sane. Simplify your life by only keeping those commitments that mean something to you, that give you the most value. Trust me, if you can cut back on even a few of your commitments, you’ll feel a huge sense of relief and satisfaction.
7. Reduce expenses. Make a list of all your expenses as a freelancer — you might already have such a list (it’s often called a budget). If you don’t, this list of expenses can be enlightening. If you have a lot of expenses, that means you have to do more work. Keep yourself small and lean, and work with a bare minimum of expenses. That’ll free you to do less work, to cut back on those projects that don’t give you much value for your time.
8. Cut back on email. You know you do it too much. Sure, email is a necessity for the modern freelancer. We couldn’t survive without it. But we can survive without checking it every few minutes. Turn off email notifications and schedule your email checking. Once an hour is the most you’ll need to check. If you really want to simplify, schedule your email checking and processing to once or twice a day. Life will go on, you really won’t suffer, and your life will be much simpler.
9. Learn to say no. This is the simplifier’s most valuable tool. If you can’t say no, you will accept too many commitments and complications. You will accumulate stuff and tasks. Learn to say no in order to reduce the stuff in your life.
10. Increase pay. This sounds like a nice goal, but not necessarily a realistic one, I bet. But it can be done. How? By doing great work, and then asking for more. If you prove yourself to be valuable, you can set your pay (within reason). Especially if you make it clear to your clients that you are trying to cut back on how many assignments you take on — if they want to keep you, they’ll pay more. This can be a longer-term goal, over the course of months, but it can be done.