Podcast Episode 21: Managing Freelance Projects and Planning your Time
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This is a solo episode from Lorrie, where she talks about time management and project planning as a freelancer.
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Hello and welcome to episode 21 of A Little Bird Told Me: the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful self-employment. You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and from there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, and you can also find the link to our Facebook page, which is full of information about past episodes and topics of interest to freelancers.
I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is another solo one. This week, I’ll be talking about how to get your project management skills sorted so you can lead as peaceful a freelance life as possible – which is what we all want really!
Firstly, I’d like to apologise – I’ve got another cold! If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know this is the second cold in 21 episodes, and I’m feeling really sorry for myself. Hopefully, though, the huskiness won’t be too much of a distraction but, as I say, I do apologise!
While one of the lovely things about freelancing is the fact that you can start to be more flexible with your working hours (you don’t need to commute, you can go out in the day and make up the time in the evening), there’s no denying that, for many freelancers, there’ll be periods when you’re overly busy. Like, getting up at 5am and working ‘til 8pm busy.
There’ll probably be some people listening now, shaking their heads and tutting and thinking that I clearly don’t manage my work very well if this is a reality for me, and that’s OK. The fact is, when you’re a freelancer, reality changes very rapidly and very frequently! Some weeks, nothing but a couple of old tumbleweeds will come rolling into your inbox. Other weeks, you’ll be absolutely buried in work – if you’re offering some good services and marketing yourself right, that is. Depending on the industry you’re in, there’ll be a natural ebb and flow to your week, month, year, plus a whole host of unknown variables on top of that.
For the last two weeks, and the week before Christmas, I’ve been absolutely snowed under. Clients like to tie up loose ends before year’s end, and get stuck in straight away in the New Year. I choose to work through – and to take work on from clients – because I don’t really celebrate Christmas, and it’s a good chance for me to get ahead with work, marketing, training, personal development, tax returns and all that jazz.
It’s not just over the holidays that you’ll find yourself facing a battle to fit all your work in. Freelance writing is, by nature, quite up and down, as I say, and you’ll often find yourself wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to plan things when they just keep dropping into your inbox with a minute’s notice (or less!)
Well, the fact is, you can’t plan that kind of incoming work. But before you switch off and curse me for giving this podcast such a fraudulent title, listen up. What you can do is this:
Firstly, plan round it
Secondly, come up with some rules and stick to them.
By plan round it, I mean this.
Every freelancer has a number of regular commitments that come round every day, week or month. Think about it – just off the top of my head, my daily commitments include: clearing my inbox in the morning, redoing my to-do list, having my breakfast and lunch, going for a quick walk and scheduling social media updates.
Those are things I have to do every single day. So I plan them. I know exactly when those things are going to happen, and anything else that comes in goes around them. They’re my absolute daily essentials and, although I’ve tried snipping them out of my schedule when I’m really busy, I’ve come to realise that it’s not worth it. If I skip breakfast, I’m tired all morning. If I don’t clear my inbox and sort my to-do list, I’m in for a chaotic day. I’m grouchy if I don’t get my lunch, and I get stir-crazy and uninspired if I don’t get out of the house at least once a day.
Same goes for the couple of exercise classes I go to every week. And the same goes for the afternoon of creative writing I’ve started putting aside on a Friday. Same again for the weekly business development session, and the day of admin, finance and housekeeping once a month. You see my point.
Which brings us quite neatly on to my second point: come up with rules and stick to them. Unless I have commitments that are physically away from my work and out of the house, say a client meeting or a networking event, those daily essentials are non-negotiable. You wouldn’t expect a shop or a business to sack off their lunch-break to deal with you, would you? Well, likewise – clients can wait while you get your lunch and midday recharge. It’s not an unreasonable thing for you to have commitments: you’re a business like any other, so you need to work out what your company rules are, so to speak.
Sometimes, you’ll need to be tough with yourself. It might be that a client is pushing you to do more, or to do something more quickly, and you feel panicky saying no. Or, it might be that you’re the problem, and that you’re tempted to bend or break some of the rules because you’re feeling stressed. That’s fine as an exception – life happens and you do sometimes have to be more flexible than you’d like, but try and keep things in perspective, and stick to your ground rules wherever possible.
So, once you’ve got time for these regular internal commitments blocked out in your diary, you should be able to realistically assess how much time you’ve got for incoming work. You might be able to effectively block off more time if you’ve got regular clients who tend to give you a certain amount of work every day, week or month, too.
So, if you know you’ve got six press releases to write for a client each month, try and work out how long they’ll take you: from research, to drafting, to editing, to sending. That way, you’ll know how much time is accounted for with that client. Regular clients should be looked after – don’t short change them by missing deadlines or handing in rushed work, because you’ll end up jeopardising your working relationship with them.
When your regular internal and external commitments are blocked off, then – and only then – can you work out what to do with the rest of your incoming work.
To be able to do that, you need to get a few key skills down pat. Firstly, you need to be able to prioritise – to look at the various pieces of work you have coming in, to decide which are the most urgent, to estimate how long they’re going to take you, and to order them accordingly.
There are other things to take into account as well – let’s not be mercenary, but if a piece of work is being offered at £300 while another is offered at just £50, it’s pretty clear which one is more desirable. But, at the same time, it might not be that simple: perhaps the lower paid piece of work is coming from a client who hires you every few months, whereas the £300 is from someone who only wants a one-off job. These are all things you have to weigh up. It’s a skill that comes over time, but by learning which order to get your incoming work done, you’ll be able to boost your productivity and make the most of your time.
Secondly, you need to be able to focus. Pip and I have chatted about this before, and it’s something that I struggled a bit with when I started out. I’d have 20 tabs open in my browser – anything from the Guardian, to an online browser game, to an online dictionary, to some research materials… you get the picture. Everything I was interested in, I would open.
The problem was, whenever I got bored or a bit stuck on a piece of work, it was so easy to hit CTRL tab and have a look at something else that it was taking a long time to finish a short piece of work. Sometimes it wasn’t boredom – it’d be my brain thinking about another piece of work: I’d be worrying about something I’d got coming up, whether I’d find time for it, and a hundred other things. But the result was the same: things were taking three or four times as long as they needed to and it was eating into my working week.
Now, I’ve realised that, although I’d often rather be reading the paper than writing about LED lighting, I value my free-time too much to be wasting time and mucking up my diary by not really focusing on the piece of work at hand.
So, when I’ve started a half-hour or hour-long session of work according to my diary, two things happen:
Number one, wasted windows get closed: Twitter goes off, Facebook follows suit, the Guardian gets closed and even my email inbox. Number two, if it’s a big piece of work that I’m really having trouble getting started on, I’ll often email Pip for an accountability session. Getting started really is the hardest part and, because I want to stick to my schedule, letting her know what I hope to achieve in the next 30 or 60 minutes makes me get stuck in.
The third skill you need as a freelancer is learning how to say no. This isn’t always a straight-out “No” – sometimes it’s a readjustment of the suggested terms.
When you start out, you’ll find that it’s easy to get into the habit of never refusing any work or imposing any conditions on a project. You’re scared that, if you do, you’ll never get any again. It’s a legitimate fear – clients are fickle, especially one-off clients, and if you turn someone down, or offer them terms they see as unfavourable, they might not come back: it’s true. But, you can’t do everything, with the best will in the world, it just doesn’t work.
There are a number of things you can try before you say “no” out right. Sometimes, a longer deadline will do. Other times, the deadline is so short, and it’s non-negotiable, so that a higher rate is appropriate – I considerably higher for work that needs to be completed over a weekend. Bear in mind, I mean work that is given to me on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, rather than something that was given to me in plenty of time but hasn’t been done because of the way I’ve organised my week – otherwise, I’d just leave everything until Saturday and retire at 30!
It does sometimes happen that a client will be overly demanding, expecting you to drop everything and deal with them first. As before, don’t take it personally: assess it objectively. You need to assess the pros and cons of this, because it’s absolutely not a good way to run your week. So ask yourself: one, is it worth it and two, does it keep happening? If it’s worth it, in terms of a long term or financial gain, and it’s an exception rather than an annoyingly repetitive state of affairs, you could try and have a rejig of your other work (it’s not always possible, but you can try). If not, as I said previously, suggest a readjustment of terms or politely refuse the work, explaining quite truthfully that you’re booked up. They might not like it, but you’re not being unreasonable.
The fourth skill I think is essential is knowing how to set realistic deadlines. As before, many new freelancers (and many experienced ones, actually) feel pushed to give clients really short deadlines. Pip and I have talked about this before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail, but make sure you take some time to discuss project details with a client before you give a deadline. Don’t let them rush you into agreeing to get a piece of work done in a week if it’s more likely to take you 10 to 14 days. Often a client will ask you for a deadline very early on in a conversation because they want to start mentally preparing their work around it, so make sure you value your time as much as they value theirs. We’ve all been there and there’s no amount of coffee that will make 6am starts and 2am finished look good.
The fifth point I want to talk about is boosting your creativity. Now, it might sound like an arty farty sort of thing, but as a freelance writer, you’re in a creative job so you need to make sure you’re not mentally burnt out. As I mentioned before, I have to get out at least once a day – simply because staring at four walls can be soul destroying. Likewise, I try and arrange a working lunch every week or so, and I go to a couple of day-time exercise classes every week, because it breaks my day up.
Similarly, I try not to finish work any later than about 6pm. Immediately after I’ve done for the day, I’ll turn my laptop off for a while, which gives me time to recharge my (and its!) batteries. Relaxation is important, as is sleep, as is good food and good company. Remember, freelancing is supposed to bring you flexibility, so make time for things that keep your head happy. Eat a proper cooked breakfast, go and work in a lovely little cafe for an hour or two, pop out for a brisk walk: while these things feel luxurious, they’ll do you the world of good. I can’t count the number of times I get a text from Pip as she’s off into town for a quick stomp in the fresh air – and what’s more, she always comes back full of energy and good ideas. You can tell from the tone that she’s happier, which means that she can get stuck into work that previously seemed daunting. And I’m exactly the same, so we must be doing something right!
If you find yourself chronically over busy, it might be time to consider increasing your rates – and that’s something that Pip and I are going to talk about in more detail in one of the up-coming episodes. If you’re finding that new clients (or indeed regular clients) are giving you more work than you can deal with, it might actually be that you’re too affordable – and this taps into what I was saying earlier about it not being mercenary to prioritise higher paid work.
You can’t do it all, so for the sake of your career, you need to make sure you’re getting the best rate possible for your time. Keep your eye on other freelancers to see if you can work out what they’re charging (some won’t mind telling you, others will keep it under their hats), have a look at rates (although don’t take too much notice of rates on freelancing websites, as many of these will be ridiculously low) and don’t be afraid to quote high if you’ve got too much on.
If it’s a case of increasing your rates for a client you’ve already got, as I say, Pip and I will be talking about the best ways to manage this process, but for now, all I’ll say i be diplomatic but not apologetic. You’re a business and you’re offering a service that people are clearly happy to pay for. Let your client know in the kindest of terms that your rates will be increasing, and expect that you might lose some clients. In any event, your work should even off and you should find yourself with less work and more money, which is always good.
So, I hope this episode has helped you to look at a few new ways of managing your time and projects as a freelancer. There’s so much to be gained from successful project management – both for yourself and for your clients. Cut out the distractions, plan your time, and you should find that you’ve got more space to breathe, and your clients are getting what they want when they want it. With no panic, which is great!
For more of our podcast episodes, which cover everything from the essential skills needed by freelancers to how to set SMART freelance goals for the New Year, please do go and subscribe to the podcast. You can get regular updates via iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio, RSS or Facebook – or you can sign up on the podomatic page itself, at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.
I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn – thanks so much for listening, as always, and Pip and I will catch you next time.