Freelancing can be an administrative nightmare. One moment you wonder if you’ve got enough to do, the next you’ve landed extra clients and got a full-to-the-brim schedule.
It feels great to be busy but it can quickly get hectic. Before you know it, you’re en route to the wrong office on a Sunday, you’ve forgotten your passwords for various clients’ Trello and Slack accounts, and when was that meeting again?
Regular 9-5ivers can get their routines down pat, from their commute to the same place each day to that regular favourite lunch spot. But for many freelancers, there’s no such thing as a reliable timetable. And, after all, that’s part of the reason many of us want to do it.
As a freelance journalist who does regular shifts for news organisations, weekly digital content for a non-profit and my own commissions, no one week looks the same as the next. After a few weeks of rushing around and feeling a tad frazzled earlier this year, I decided to make a conscious effort to update my organisational methods and take back some control. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Do less.
Resolving to take on less work is so simple to say but so hard to do. Nonetheless, saying yes to everything means spreading yourself too thin and quickly becoming less effective and more stressed. Once I realised I could start turning down the odd thing, guess what? The sky didn’t fall in.
In order to fit in essential life admin this summer, I’ve taken half days and asked to work remotely from the places I can do that from, seeking out more time for proper breaks and more focused work too.
Consciously taking on less and building in “buffers” of time to cope with any unseen delays is hard if it goes against your natural instincts. Being a chronic people pleaser can lead to over-promising and so taking a moment to pause and consider your schedule is great for both your sanity and professionalism.
By the same token, when it comes to in-person meetings and events – ‘do I really need to go and how exactly will I use this?’ are important questions to ask yourself.
2. An admin power-hour.
I’ll add dates to my calendar as soon as I’m given them but the vast majority of admin tasks aren’t a priority for the immediate present. Distracting yourself with an admin-heavy to-do list can be a form of ‘constructive procrastination’ or, as I like to think of it, ‘getting my brain in gear before starting’.
Occasionally this is fine but set a time limit, or, better yet, be much more mindful and do an admin power-hour later in the day or set aside an afternoon once a week. I’ve tried to get a lot better at doing this and it always pays off. The admin power-hour stops endless email bleeding into your creative time and helps calm any uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something in the shuffle.
You are considerably less likely to miss something if you have a block of time in which you scan emails, note down the pitches you’ve sent, and chase or send invoices (NB. setting yourself phone reminders to chase an invoice a couple of days before its due is a handy way of reducing hassle). Whatever you do, you don’t NEED to think about these activities all day.
3. Utilise technology… if it works for you.
I’ve experimented with various apps to keep me productive. There can be a tendency to get caught up in using technology in a way that overcomplicates rather than time-saves, so a bit of trial and error can be useful.
Depending on my mood, I’ve found that the Pomodoro method is useful for tackling tasks I’m not hugely looking forward to (25 minutes on, followed by a five-minute break for staring in to space/ grabbing a snack). The Forest app is a good way of getting into the habit, but the timer on your phone is just as good.
I’ve avoided creating a Trello account for myself but I can see that it’s definitely useful at tackling larger-scale projects (especially if you’re weird like me and love moving a card from ‘in process’ to ‘done’). Similarly, I tried a two-week free trial of the task-tracking app Timely for my desktop and feel that it might be more suitable for teams rather than individuals.
One thing Timely does is give you a run-down of the websites and apps you’ve been on all day (and the time spent on each) – so you can look back and think either ‘oh no, too much Twitter’, or pat yourself on the back for a productive day spent pitching. A sense of achievement day-to-day can be rare as a freelance writer unless you’ve had something published, so I really appreciated that functionality. An analogue version would be quickly jotting down what you’ve done at the end of the day and reflecting on how that time was spent.
Downloading Cold Turkey to block a list of ‘distraction’ websites for an hour or two is also great if you are really struggling to concentrate.
Finally, I’ve busted my habit of creating endless Google docs with different to-do lists and pitch call-outs and have consolidated into one to-do list that I have bookmarked and one pitch spreadsheet. Keeping in mind the admin power-hour method – these lists don’t have to be attended to constantly.
4. Take a break!
Surely one of the biggest pay-offs from being an organisational whizz is more time. And it’s important to try and use the time to switch off rather than squeeze something else in. Getting outside, taking a walk, meeting friends for a glass of wine, watch a film.
In this over-stimulated attention economy, more artists, writers and scientists have become interested in the benefits of giving the analytical mind a break. Artist and professor Jenny Odell’s book ‘How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy’ and computer scientist Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ both offer food for thought.
If you’re new to freelancing and finding the adjustment from clear-cut hours hard, it can take time to make that switch and start feeling assured about how you’re spending your day. But try to recall all that time in an 8-hour office workday spent chatting to colleagues, making coffees or being interrupted. Who cares if you’re occasionally writing while sitting on the sofa or if you leave the desk to do something in the afternoon? Getting organised as a freelancer is listening to yourself and noting what works for you. On that note… these are my tips but let us know about your own!