Podcast Episode 13: How to be Responsive and Flexible Without Losing the Plot

Here is another solo episode from Lorrie, talking about how freelancers can plan all they like, but they have to be responsive and flexible because at any stage you might get a phonecall or an email which will change your to-do list entirely!

We ran out of storage space for our earliest episodes. But fear not, we have made these many, many hours of freelance writing goodness available for just £10. If you want access to them all, please click Add to Cart and buy through our e-junkie account for instant access.

Add to Cart

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

Subscribe via RSS

Subscribe via iTunes

Find us on Stitcher Smart Radio

And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!


Hello, and welcome to Episode 13 of A Little Bird Told Me, the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  I’m Lorrie Hartshorn with a bit of a cold this week so my apologies in advance for any sniffles and snuffles.  Today, I’m going to be at least try and sniffle my way through a podcast that will help you work out how to be a more responsive and flexible freelancer and how to deal with whatever comes your way without sacrificing time management and prioritization skills.

Basically, we’re going to be look at how to take on as much as possible without losing the plot.  This is another solo episode so you’ll have to tune in next time to hear me and the lovely Pip chatting together I’m afraid.

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!
English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I start I do want to remind you that if you head over to ALittleBirdToldMe.Podomatic.com you can subscribe to the podcast in any way that suits you really. We’ve got RSS Feed, we’ve got iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio.  You can also find links to our Facebook page so you can come and have a chat with us on there as well as links to my personal Facebook, Twitter feeds, and my website as well as all the same links for the lovely Pip.  So if you’re missing her and can’t wait until the next episode head on over, subscribe, and you’ll be the first to hear when a new episode comes out from the pair of us.

Back to the responsive flexible business, the first thing that I really would say is that being a freelancer is all about being responsive and flexible.  In a lot of the other episodes that Pip and I have recorded we’ve talked about how you can build up business, and gain new clients, and win new contracts.  But what I really want to talk about today is how to juggle those clients and how to keep them happy.  How to keep yourself happy as well, because there’s no point freelancing if you’re not getting any benefits from it.

You’ll need to know how to deal with a workload that absolutely will fluctuate all the time and you’ll definitely need to know what happens when things don’t go as planned.  Now, flexibility as most of us know, can be one of the biggest plus points for working for yourself.  The minute you say to somebody they go, “Oh, you lucky thing.  You don’t have to commute in the morning, you don’t have to go out in the rain, you don’t have to do A, B and C.”

It’s true, it can be great.  If you’re like Pip and you don’t particularly like Sundays you can just arrange things so that you work through Sundays and take Wednesdays off as a bit of a midweek weekend.  Try doing that in an office, it wouldn’t happen.  But, like many things, flexibility has a price.  In order to deliver the best work and the best service possible to your customers, you do sometimes, and I would perhaps say often, have to be flexible in a way that will suit your clients rather than in a way that actually suits you.

I’m not talking about sacrificing your life, but you do need to be able to handle what your clients throw at you whether that’s a week’s radio silence when you really needed some work from them, or a full length novel manuscript and you scheduled the publisher by Friday while you’ve got loads of other stuff on, or a press release that needed to be out yesterday and wasn’t.  But, how do you meet the demands without letting your entire schedule fall apart.  That’s really what we’re going to be dealing with today.

The first thing I really want to talk about is managing your schedule which, for me at least, is an absolutely vital part of being flexible and responsive.  It doesn’t sound like it at first, managing a schedule, that doesn’t sound like flexible and responsive that sounds very structured.  But, bear with me, I promise it really, really does help.

I start every working day not just with a gigantic cup of coffee, but with a list of tasks.  Everything I get in my inbox in the morning goes on the to-do list.  As we’ve discussed previously, I prefer written to-do lists but you can get programs and software that will help you keep a digitized to-do list.  As I said though, I use a written to-do list and I combine that with the use of the starred list in my Gmail inbox which is where you can add important mails to a shorter list by highlighting a little gold star next to them.

Once everything is down on my list, it’s a question of deciding what has to happen first.  It’s not really a case of you must do all this now, now, now because that’s never going to work but some things are essentially, some things aren’t.  Some things need to happen straight away and some don’t and it’s up to you to decide which is which.

What I find actually is the common fear with many freelancers, myself included sometimes if I’m a bit stressed is not clearing a to-do list.  But in all honesty though, I very, very rarely clear a to-do list now.  That’s not because I’m badly organized or not very productive.  I can’t remember the last time I cleared a to-do list because when you work for yourself there’s always more you can doing.  There’s always more stuff you can stick on your to-do list.  If you clear it you’re probably not on top of all the proactive stuff you should be getting done.

It’s worth noting at this point that you should always, always put aside a few hours a week to get your admin and your housekeeping done so business development and social media, because remember that’s what brings new clients in.  But yes, managing your to-do list, the key thing really is to get your urgents done and then to work through as many of your fairly urgents as possible.

What I will say is don’t feel pressured to try and get work in early if you don’t have to.  Say you’ve agreed to a deadline with somebody of two weeks for a piece of writing, use that time.  If they want the work in two weeks feel free to take the two weeks.  Obviously, if you get it done sooner because you don’t have that much on that’s fine.  But, if you have other pieces of work with shorter deadlines dropping into your inbox while you’ve still got seven to 10 days left on the bigger project, by all means take a bit of time.

A big part of managing your schedule and making sure you don’t end up working late and weekends all the time is to get on board with some productivity techniques.  Use your working hours to get as much done as possible.  Pip and I recommended a range of software tools in Episode Eight I think it was, and we’ve also talked, and talked, and talked about accountability days which are our babies.  I like to think we invented them, and I’m not going to do any research in case I find out that we didn’t, but yeah accountability days for us at least are great.

We log on in the morning, say good morning to one another via email, tell each other what we want to get done in the next half hour or hour, depending on how often we want to check in and then try and make sure that we hit the target.  It really does help to keep you on track.  As Pip and I have discussed before, it’s amazing how much more you get done if you put your mind to it and if you focus on ticking off one task at a time.

Stress (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

If something does come up, and life happens especially when you’re a freelancer, because you aren’t working for one company you’re working for a number usually, if you have to deal with something straightaway, say a client wants to phone you for [inaudible 6:56] try and leave the task that you’re currently working on in a sensible place.  Finish the half hour time slot, or finish your paragraph, or whatever.  Just try and leave the piece of work in as sensible a state as possible because then when you come back to it you can try and get done what you needed to before the interruption happened.

As most freelancers listening will know, there can be several if not numerous unexpected events in any one day.  That’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to freelancing so do try and not panic.  If you panic you’re likely to let your whole schedule go out of the window.  But if you say, “Okay, that interruption is dealt with, now I have to get on to this.”  If it helps, redo your to-do list, rearrange things but try not to panic.

Another of the big factors in being responsive is excitingly enough, managing deadlines.  I know, thrilling.  But really, honestly, truly, the best way to avoid missing deadlines is to make sure you don’t set any that you can’t keep in the first place.  Basically deal with prevention rather than cure.  It might sound really, really obvious but the thing is if you’re new to freelancing or you’re struggling to find work, it can be so tempting to offer really, really short deadlines in a bid to win clients in the same way people offer really, really low prices.  It’s actually counterproductive in my experience at least.

It can go both ways, depending on the client, depending on the type of work you do, and depending on the project in question.  Some people will be impressed by an ultra quick turnaround.  I’m not convinced that it’s great for you though as a freelancer because what it is worth remembering is taking too little time for a piece of work can have some really, really bad effects on the quality because not only do you have less time to do your research and less time to actually put pen to paper if you’re a copywriter, or fingers to keyboard but you’re also putting extra pressure on yourself.  You need to ask yourself whether delivering the work on a such a short notice is sustainable over the long term.

Another thing to consider is that even if you can squeeze a piece of work into an impressively short time span with no detrimental effects as far as you’re aware you might be dealing with a client who is not impressed by it.  As I mentioned in Episode Nine I believe, you can actually come across as desperate or a bit shoddy by presenting a potential client with a really, really short deadline in a bid to impress.  They might be wondering why haven’t you got anything else on, or surely you can’t be doing a good job in that space of time.

That’s not to say it can’t work.  I’ll be fair.  If you deliver one or two services that require a consistently short amount of time and you don’t have to push yourself too hard, you could certainly make a super quick turnaround part of your offering.  You know, 24 hours, 48 hours, whatever, same day even, six hours, it depends on what you do.

But, if you need to take into account longer pieces of work or the ad hoc pieces of work that really, at least for me, [a pit 9:56] to my self employment, you might find that offering to take on any piece of work with set turnaround or really, really short turnaround you’re actually setting yourself up for burnout.

Really, just weigh it up, if you know that you can deliver your best work on a really short deadline, feel free to go for it.  Take it as one of your recipes.  For most people though, I would suggest hedging your bets and offering your clients a more measured deadline.  Just deliver it with confidence.  If they ask why give them a reason, “I want to produce quality work and I need X amount of time to do it.”  And, most likely they’ll go for it.  Just keep an eye on the industry standards and make sure you’re not super slow and you should be fine.

Now, this does feed into another important factor in being flexible and responsive as a freelancer and that is communication.  Sticking with the theme of deadlines, if you do find that you have taken too much on and it looks like you’re not going to make a deadline that you’ve set with a client you need to assess the situation as soon as possible and decide what to tell your client.

There are a number of things that you need to be considering when you start hearing warning bells and that’s firstly, can you get the work done by putting in some extra hours?  If you can, can you get it done without it impacting on your other work and your other clients?  If you can’t, what are you going to tell your client?  Now my suggestion would be this, if it’s a one off and you can get the work done without mucking the rest of your work load up, do it because losing out on a bit of sleep isn’t going to kill you, rearranging a trip to the cinema is not going to hurt you.  But, if you can’t do it you can’t do it.

If you’re ill, if you have a super important family event to go to, or if completing this one piece of work on time is going to muck up really important deadlines for the rest of the week, make your choice carefully.  If it is a no go and you’re going to have to rearrange a deadline that you’ve already agreed to tread very, very carefully.

I’m not going to charge you for palm reading here, you can expect your client to be unhappy.  I can tell you that without knowing your client.  Even if they don’t say as much to you it’s just not ideal, is it?  If you’ve arranged for somebody to give you a piece of work on a set day you organize things around that.  Just as when you’re a freelancer you organize your schedule around the pieces of work you’ve got coming in, your clients will be doing the same so they’re not going to be best pleased.

To clients with whom you’ve got a good ongoing working relationship, it might be a huge deal especially if it’s not a usual turn of events, you know, if you’re normally punctual in getting the work to them.  For one off clients though, no matter how punctual, and decent, and marvellous you are with everybody else it’s likely to be really damaging to your reputation with them particularly and with anyone else if they talk about it and they probably will.  So as I say, tread really, really carefully.

As I said before, assess the situation.  Don’t go and tell your client what they don’t need to know.  If you manage to get in a piece of work by the skin of your teeth and you wake up the next day looking like the living dead because you’ve had so much coffee and you’ve been up all night they don’t need to know, Twitter doesn’t need to know, Facebook definitely doesn’t need to know.  What’s more is perhaps you need to just get a bit of rest and plan your time better in the future.

Equally though, if you’re going to miss a deadline do not leave your clients guessing.  The golden rule, explain to your client as soon as you’re sure you’re going to be late what’s happened, why it’s happened although, keep it brief they don’t want a massive sob story, and more importantly what you’re going to do about it.

Now, you’ll need to take your clients lead on the third one.  If they can wait for the work, you [inaudible 13:34] of apologizing and asking them to do just that.  If it’s appropriate offer them a discount, or if you’re really, really late waive the fee completely and just take it as the price of salvaging a bit of your reputation.

What you should never, ever do though and this has happened to me a few times recently, and it’s so annoying is let the deadline come and go without a word.  As I say, this has happened to me a few times recently now actually where I’ve hired a freelancer for a piece of work and the deadline has arrived and there’s been absolutely no word from the freelancer.  It is so rude, and it is so unprofessional, and it actually ended up being me that has to email the freelancer and say in a really British way, “I’m really sorry to chase on this, but the work I’m paying you for, where is it?”

stress (Photo credit: bottled_void)

It’s horrible, it’s so awkward.  As Pip can vouch, it really does sour the situation and it doesn’t make me want to hire somebody again.  As a freelancer don’t do it, don’t let people sit there wondering what’s happened to the work they’re paying you for.  If there’s any way on God’s green earth that you can get word to your client that things have gone bottom’s up you need to find it and you need to do it.

If the client can’t wait for the work, consider whether there’s any reasonable way to help them resolve the situation.  That is if they want you to, they might just tell you to get lost.  If you really can’t juggle your work any other way and slot the work in, consider doing something that I’m going to talk a bit more about in a minute and that’s delegating the work to somebody that you trust. If not, if they’re not happy with that, it’s time to just hold your hands up, apologize really sincerely, and accept that you might just have lost the client.

I mean, you can certainly try and win them back with an email and an offer, or waiving a fee, or what have you and I would suggest it because otherwise it can look a little bit like you didn’t care about them in the first place.  But, if they were looking for a one off piece of work rather than a repeat arrangement it may just be adios amigo, they might just be gone and you’re just going to have to try and improve your working methods in the future.

When you find yourself pushing deadlines on a regular basis, there’s something wrong.  Now, it might not be you it might be your client that is the problem.  If you have one or two clients who consistently drop work on you at the last minute and who are causing you problems in meeting deadlines for your other clients you really do need to consider your position.

Now, from the top of my head there are two ways you can go on this.  If the client gives you regular work that pays well and you enjoy working for them, you can choose to reduce the amount of work you’re doing for other clients and concentrate on giving work to this one particular client.  Now, that does approach something like salaried employment but if it suits you it’s fine.

To inject a level of predictability into your schedule it might be worth having a chat with the client and consider working for a retainer, or agreeing up on a set amount of work per week or per month, whatever works.  If you’re not getting regular work from them or if it’s not paying well, or you just don’t want to dedicate that amount of time to them, there are a number of things you can do.

Firstly, if it’s just a lack of notice is a problem you can always phone them.  You can always phone them for a chat and say, “Look, I owe it to all of my clients to produce quality work in line with deadlines that have been set and I include you in that.”  Try and establish what the problem is, why the work is coming through in such short notice.  See if there’s anything they can do about it, see if there’s anything you can do about it.

The ideal outcome of the call is that you’ll be able to come to some sort of arrangement with them where you’ll take work on but you’ll have a little bit more notice.  Alternatively, and it’s something that Pip and I have discussed previously and it’s what I just mentioned earlier, you can consider partnering up with a number of other freelancers whose standards you absolutely know are good.

If you receive a piece of work from a client on a short deadline you can then get in touch with your new colleagues, to see whether any of them are going through a bit of a dry patch.  If somebody has a quiet afternoon, or a quiet come of days, they might be happy to take some work on.  You can hand it over for nothing, because you’re grateful they’ve taken the work on and they’ve got you out of a sticky spot, or if it’s more of a regular thing, you can arrange some kind of fee or commission with them.  That’s something you’ll have to work out between the pair of you, but it’s actually really a nice way of filling in short dry spells within your week and it can help to build up really friendly working relationships with other self employed people.

Now, delegating work is something that has to be handled really carefully, because you do still owe it to your client to deliver work that matches up to the quality that they expect from you.  If nothing else, you need to remember that the work is coming through on your name.  You recommended that person, you’re handing the work over, your client is paying you and I assume you will therefore pay the person who has actually taken on the work.  So you need to make sure that your client is happy with the arrangement before it goes ahead.

If one of your freelance colleagues does undertake the work the onus does remain on you to carry out some quality control.  So if it’s a piece of copywriting you need to proof read it before you send it to your client.  If it’s a press release and there’s a certain way that your client prefers to have those formatted, you need to make sure it’s all in line with their expectations.  As long as you have [inaudible 18:51], it can be a really, really good way to free up some time and keep working ticking over.  You know, keep your clients happy without burning out.

I hope this little podcast will give you some good ideas about how to be a bit more flexible and a bit more responsive in your day-to-day life without really letting your schedule suffer as a result.  It really is a case of balancing existing tasks with new ones that fall into your lap, and they will fall into your lap several times during the day.  To come back to it, for me, the to-do list is king really.  Cross things off, add things on, redo it.  I love a nice clean to-do list.  Redo it as many times as you need to to get the urgent pieces of work done.  When they’re dong go on to the fairly urgent ones.  If you get more urgent ones in, rearrange things again.  There’s no limit to the number of times you can do this.

Make sure that you factor in as well time for your housekeeping such as admin, invoicing, social media, and business development.  Also, make sure that you take time off because a burnt out freelancer is absolutely no good to anybody and you end up getting less done in the long term.

As ever, thank you so much for listening.  Don’t forget to go to ALittleBirdToldMe.Podomatic.com and subscribe so that you can hear everything that the love Pip and I have to say.  You can leave us reviews on iTunes, you can leave us comments on Stitcher Smart Radio.  You can come and have a chat on our Facebook pages or on our Twitter feed.  We’d absolutely love to hear what you think.

You can find all of my details and all of Pip’s details on the podomatic page.  As always, a transcript will be available as soon as my fingers can manage it. I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn and Pip and I will catch you next time.