If you are a freelancer, you probably have a lot of different hats to wear. I am talking about the proverbial kind of hats, not the ones Queen Elizabeth is famous for. Besides doing the real freelancing work like logo design or coding, etc. you need to find time to build relationships with your customers, build and promote your brand, maintain a presence on social media and in all the relevant places, take care of administrative work, etc. Sorry, I forgot about having a life and finding time to do cool stuff with your family. This last point is very important, especially if you have a spouse and want to continue to have one.
So what do you do as freelancer to be comfortable in all those hats? You could go back to the 9-to-5, but that's probably not a good solution. If you are freelancing you either couldn't get a job or you are a free spirit who enjoys determining your own destiny or it could be that you make more money as a freelancer than you would make at a regular job. Whatever your reason for being a freelancer is, here are some ideas and applications that can help you get organised, get work done and have a life:
image credit: Steve Hodgson
1. Find a way to track things you have to do
You could do it the old school way and write your tasks on a piece of paper or paper diary and then cross things out as you go, but I would advice you to embrace technology and get yourself a tool that you can install on your favourite device, be it a PC, cellphone or iPad. My tool of choice is the awesome app called Wunderlist. Using a tool like Wunderlist has a lot of advantages, but I find the ability to re-order my tasks, setting reminders, adding sub-tasks when necessary and delegating tasks to be indispensable. Remember nothing will ruin your reputation as a freelancer faster than not delivering work in time. Of course, handing in work below expectation will get you fired faster. :-)
2. Avoid multi-tasking
I used to think that multi-tasking improved my productivity, but I later discovered that I was mistaken. Research has shown that doing one task at a time is a better way of doing things. So if you are doing some work on your computer, you should not check emails or take a pick at what's happening on Facebook or Twitter. Concentrate on the job at hand and set aside some time for those other things that can certainly wait until you are done. When it's time to check, segregate, delegate and reply to emails then do only that. I know the fear-of-missing-out is a disease that's attacking us all, so here are some applications that can help you block the noise while you get real work done - Leechblock or RescueTime.
3. Use a project management tool where possible
If you have a lot of clients and are having problems tracking what needs to be done, for who, when, etc. then you need to think about using a project management tool like Asana. This makes it possible for you to eliminate emails, get more organised and save time. The idea is that you bring communication, files, to-do lists, contacts and other things to one platform. I personally prefer Redmine, but it requires a little more work to set up.
4. Manage your emails properly
As a freelancer you constantly have to communicate with your clients, even when you are not doing any work for them. You also need to seek new work oppurtinities, keep up to date with industry news among other things. This probably means you get a lot of emails every single day. If you don't manage your inbox correctly you will end up spending more time checking your emails than doing real work. If you are overloaded with emails from all sorts of different places, then I have a few tools for you to manage your inbox like a boss. Unrollme is a tool that does a great job of grouping your emails or simplifying the process of unsubscribing from sites that you have probably forgotten you have an account.
5. Get notified when people open your emails
Since email is so important, you need to make sure that the people have seen them. If they haven't you, then you need to follow up. The way emailing works, you can never be sure that your message was opened which in turn means you can not be sure that your message was received. If you are a gmail user, then Signals is the solution you have been looking for. If you use Signals you will be informed that your message has been opened. If you don't get confirm of receipt it will probably mean the person on the other side hasn't checked their mail, you message landed in the spam folder, etc. As you can see, Signals makes it possible for you to know when to follow up instead of waiting and not being sure if you will ever get a reply.
6. Use email reminders
You remember I talked about not checking your emails when you are working? You need to reserve time for checking emails. Remember that. But what do you do when you are going through your inbox and there messages that you can not act on right away. You know, messages from your friend who doesn't know you are busy working and wants to know when you can go for a beer and you are not even sure when you will finish the work you are doing. There is a tool for that too and it's called FollowUpThen. It allows you to set email reminders so that email from your friend can be resent to you at a later date when you will be in a position to respond to him and arrange a meeting.
image credit: Christopher Bowns
7. Always back up and also use cloud storage
There is nothing worse than spending hours working only to lose your work because of a power failure or other catastrophic event that is bound to happen one day. I will not try to convince you how important backing up is because a lot of people have said that before. You have heard that before, haven't you? There are many ways to back up your data, such as using a flash drive, an external hard drive, etc. It doesn't have to be sophisticated. The important thing is to have a copy of your work somewhere in case something unexpected happens. You should also consider using cloud storage systems such as Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive. It's also a good idea to use tools like Google Docs when you need to edit files as they allow you to have all your documents in one place and access to them from any device, from anywhere as long as you have internet access. After all you are a freelancer and you can work from anywhere you want, right? Just remember that cloud storage is not the same as backing up. Read this story here if you do not believe me.
8. Set up all types of alerts
If you have been working as a freelancer long enough, you have probably noticed that you are working longer than the guys doing the 9-to-5. This is why it's important to save time wherever possible. One way to do that is to automate things you do online. Set up alerts where possible to avoid wasting time doing things manually. You can setup Google Alerts, Twitter alerts , Google Analytics alerts, etc. If you own a website and need to save some time on Google Analytics (GA), check out Quill Engage. It's much easier to set up and provides easy to understand analytics reports for ordinary people . My favourite tools for automating tasks online are IFTTT and Zapier. If you add BufferApp to those two, then your social media feeds will be easily taken care of and you will have time to do other things. These tools are simply amazing, but don't take my work for it. Check them out.
9. Schedule time for other activities
Life would be great if we could do only the things that we find interesting. That's assuming that you are a freelancer because you enjoy your work. However, if you concentrate only on the real work that brings the cash in and forget about other things, you won't go far before you run into problems. As the less interesting work piles up, you will start procrastinating which will only lead to even higher mountains of boring work to be done. So set some time aside for lead generation, networking and all the paper work, among other things. As a freelancer you are the employee, boss, administrator, cleaner, etc. and all that work needs to be done. The best way is to do it regularly so set reminders in Wunderlist and stick to your plan, whatever happens.
10. Mind your health
When working as a freelancer there is nothing more important than your health. No work will get done when you are ill and recovering in bed. No work means no income. We don't want that, do we? On the other hand, working too much is also not a good idea as it may actually lead to ill-health and reduced productivity. There is a common misconception that the longer we work the more productive we are. The truth is that working longer usually means you are tired, lack concentration and work at a much slower pace than you think you are. Take a break, get some sleep and get back to work when you are ready. Here is a jogging application to keep you busy in a good way, in your free time.
So get yourself a calendar, automate, do similar tasks in batches, always backup, disconnect from the internet to prevent distractions, network, follow up, get things done, get paid, have fun, stay healthy and always do your best to keep that to-do list as short as possible.
Your turn. What tools and tricks help you stay organised as a freelancer? Leave a comment below.