EP. 021

How to be a more productive freelancer

When you’re a freelancer, money = time. Productivity is essential. Learn some actionable advice around how to make your days more productive so you can earn more AND have more free time.

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Kaleigh:           Paul, I wanted to talk a little bit about productivity and focus as a freelancer because a lot of the time when you think about freelancing you think about how your money relates directly to your time. I mean you have a specialized skill you’r sometimes trading that directly for time unless you have productized offerings which we will talk more about later.

But I want to talk a little bit more about you and I figure out how to be productive as freelancers and then some tips for other freelancers for how they can make their days just more efficient so that they more time to do what they want to do. Because that’s really the dream, right, with freelancing is to have a flexible schedule and to get to enjoy it too. That’s the big second half of that equation.

Paul:                Yes, while getting everything done  that you said and that you’re getting paid, to do, done. Yeah, nobody gets 26 hours a day, nobody gets 22 hours a day. We all have that same amount of time to do work but the caveat there is that some us have more things. And I think productivity and even like busyness in general, it comes down to prioritization, like priorities in your life. People are always like, “Oh you must be so busy.” And I was like, “Nope.”

I feel so stressed out when I’m busy. I’ll be busy for small stretches of time and then I will not be busy but still working for other stretches of time. Otherwise I could be like I would burn out. I think productivity for me means making the best of the time that I have. So if I have 3 hours of work today, I need to be the best for those 3 hours and then try not to beat myself up for the other 21 hours in the day. But some of which I’m going to be sleeping anyways so I’m not going to be beating myself up unless I’m having dreams. Did you ever dream about working?

Kaleigh:           Not very often. I used to a lot when I had too much on my plate but now that I’m                         in a better place it kind of stops, so that’s a good thing.

Paul:                Interesting. Listen to the dream! I know we don’t have a dream episode.

Kaleigh:           Yeah, I think a lot of it comes down to it’s so easy to be aimless when you don’t have the structure telling you what to do every day. Or working in an office where there people who need things from you and that are in your office saying, “Hey, where is that thing?” As a freelancer you have to be that person for yourself, so like you said, to get the most of everyday you have to make the most of your time.

Paul:                And this is why we taught a workshop on this subject is because we hear this a lot from students and just freelancers in general is that people have a hard time getting things accomplished. And on the other side of that people beat themselves up when they don’t get things done. Because I think it’s common for the type of people that are drawn to freelancing I think in general are the types of people that think that they can get more done than they can. I mean I’m there all the time. Right?

Kaleigh:           Yeah, me too.

Paul:                We think that, “Ok, I’ve got hours a day to work.” I can get 8 hours a work done. That is never the case. And we’ve talked about this a couple of times. If I get three or four hours a day to just sit down and do core work, and what I mean by that is like if I’m a writer then my core work is writing. If I’m a designer then my core work is designing.

If I got half my day to do core work that’s a great day because most days I don’t even get that. Some days I’ll have an hour where I can do core work and the rest of the day is taken up by a essential but non-core tasks like sending invoices, kind of essential. Not really, if I’m a designer. If I’m not designing these invoices well we kind of… a nerd like that.

Kaleigh:           Yes you are.

Paul:                But that’s not my job. I’m not getting paid to do that work so when we start to think about it we have to think about all the other works that… I’m just thinking about this now but I think this is where a lot of us run into problems or stresses, is that we think that because we don’t suggest charging an hourly rate but internally, if you know about how much you need to make an hour, you don’t need to tell clients that. You just know that, “Ok, I need to cover these expenses by living stuff. This is how much I need to make an hour. Oh, I need to make $100 an hour, $50 an hour. There is 8 hours a day so I will make 8×5 or 8×50 or 8×100 a day. And then we stress out we’re like, “There’s only really like four available hours in that day.” Like I only made half of what I thought. And I think we need to start to think about how many real hours we have to do, the paid work we have each week and make our rates reflect that and not reflect…

Well, these many hours in a week I can technically work this many. You can’t. I don’t like to have absolutes, like, you can’t. There is no way you can do 40 hours a week of core work. I don’t know how could that happen as a freelancer. It would be very unlikely. I guess I will revise to be more scientific.

Kaleigh:           Yeah. If you were doing 40 hours a week of core work, you would definitely be burnt out. I think that’s a huge part of the whole productivity equation and getting to that happy place with how many hours a day you’re spending doing core work and how many hours you’re spending doing the business things you need to do.

Because if you’re just working, working, working all the time, early in the morning to late at night. Very quickly you’re going to be like, “Freelancing sucks! I hate this!” And then you’ll go look for a full time job again. It’s all about experimentation. And I think the other part of it is it’s not really about finding the right app or the right website too. It’s all about the right systems, getting really good processes in place and finding the way to truly be more efficient.

Paul:                Yeah, so let’s talk about some of those things. So what do you do to make the most of the time that you actually have to do your work.

Kaleigh:           So for me the way I structure my days is have two, they are my large periods for core work. They are 2-2½ hours a piece and when I sit down for those stretches of time to work on writing or whatever my assignment is for the day. I will do it in short sprints. So I will use the Pomodoro Technique where I will work for 20 minutes, then I’ll take a 5-10 minute break, and then I’ll start again. I’ll do that for the full 2 to 2½ hours and I get so much done that way.

By the end of the day, where it’s only been 4 or maybe 4 ½, 5 hours that I’ve spent technically working I’ve done a lot done. Especially working here at home alone, there is no distraction I can really focus on getting stuff done.

Paul:                Other than if your dog and cat fight twice a day.

Kaleigh:           It’s usually the dog is in here so we don’t have this problem. I don’t want him to be like, “Oh hey, I’ll building podcasts too.” So yeah, that’s my day. How about you?

Paul:                I guess I don’t really think of them as like sprint or Pomodoros but I like to figure out what I’m not doing during core work. So what I do is I batch similar works. So if I have writing to do I’m not going to sit down and write an article. I’m going to sit down and write 3, 4 or five because I find for me at least. If it takes me like 40, 50 minutes to write the first article. Probably going to take me half the time to write the second and then I’m going to get into the flow and do like the 3rd and 4th pretty rapid succession.

And so that means if I’m doing that work I don’t have Twitter opened, I don’t have email opened. I don’t have any other distractions. I’m not working a little bit on the writing, then designing an app, and going back to the writing. No, if I’m working on my core work I’m just doing that work. I’m a supreme morning person. I have more energy and attention in the morning. I would not start my core work at 8 o’clock at night. By 8 or 9 o’clock I’m basically a zombie. I can’t function at night so why would I do my work that late.

I do have a bed with an alarm at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning sometimes, and I’m just like, ready to start typing. And you guys, you can’t even see hands but my hands went for a shock hands above my head still slamming down on my keys to type.

Kaleigh:           That’s how you wake up. Keyboard is next to the bed. You immediately jump into the work, right away.

Paul:                Type, type, type. I like to just kind of get into it right away. My morning routine is I make my coffee and I make my rats breakfast and then I start working right away. Because people are like you get so much work done. I guess I don’t think I do but I think the only reason I get a lot of work done is because I’ve come to terms with the fact that I suck at multitasking. True story everybody sucks at that.    

And interruptions cause more than we think they do. Taking 5 seconds to read a text massage or an email; and there’s been studies done on this. It takes longer for your brain to get back into the flow of what you’re doing if you are interrupted. So let me ask you this, do you put those prints into your calendar? Like you mark those busy times?

Kaleigh:           I don’t. I just kind of have it mentally I’m doing this during this time. I found that if I try to structure it too much then I don’t like the feeling of that. I like to have a little bit of wiggle room throughout the day.

Paul:                It’s like you know every day for like 2 until 4?

Kaleigh:           Yeah, pretty much.

Paul:                Ok.

Kaleigh:           It’s usually the same basic block of time. Depending on when Brooks, the dog, decides he wants to go for a walk. He really determines my day.

Paul:                What if a client does like, “Oh, can you do a call tomorrow at this time”, and that’s your work time. What do you do?

Kaleigh:           I usually don’t schedule it for those slots. I’ll be like, “No, I’m available at these times.” I always try to keep it like separate from those times because I know I really need to focus in getting stuff done. And I throw that off and I don’t have that time then the whole day is shut. It just throws everything off.

Paul:                And do clients get super upset or mad at you for suggesting a slightly different time ever?

Kaleigh:           No. At least I hadn’t any bad experiences so far. Fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.

Paul:                I don’t it will because I think that when we talk about this in the Contractor Subcontractor, Employee episode where clients don’t really get to dictate your day. They just get to ask you to do the work they paid you for.

Kaleigh:           It’s just part of it.

Paul:                Yeah, I don’t do any calls on Monday and Fridays. I know we are recording this on a Friday but when we’re in podcasts I like to do them all in a group so we are recording this whole season over three days. But that happens two times a year.


But if it was a client and then they’re like, “Oh, can we talk on a Friday?” I would say my next available time is Tuesday to talk. And I’ve never had anybody complain but I always had, somebody’s complain I’ve got this to say to them. And it’s that the more that I can just focus on work the more that I can get more done so I can work on your project faster and give you better results if I stick to the schedule I have for myself.

Just like if I work for a business I would be there from 9:00 ‘till 5 o’clock or whatever the hours were. And that would the time that’s dedicated for the work. Working for myself I’m dedicated to the same structure for my day and for me I’m a creature of routine. So I know every day I wake up and I got a bunch of work done. On Monday and Fridays I have more time to get more work done just in case there is stuff like if I’m really getting into it then I don’t have to stop to do calls or meetings or anything.

Kaleigh:           That’s good. You got to have those boundaries. And it feels hard especially when you’re just getting started with freelancing. It feels kind of intimidating to say, “No, I need this”, to a client. That could be very difficult to do if you don’t have that confidence built up about what it is you’re doing as a freelancer. I think it’s just important to remember you can’t do that and it is okay. I think it’s a good business practice for you to do that.

Paul:                Yeah. I think it also sets you up as an expert. Experts get to set their schedules whereas hired laborers in that kind of mentality or mindset, I would never just do whatever a client says. I may make it seem like I was a bad freelancer but I think I was a better freelancer because I obviously listen to clients. But I also know what works and what doesn’t works, so I suggest things.

And even with schedules most business have office hours. If you have office hours when you reply to emails; that works. That works for a lot of people. And it also sets up expectations like if you start replying to emails at 2:00 in the morning to clients and clients are going to start expecting that this freelancer is replying to me at 2:00 in the morning. And then one time they will email you 2:00 in the morning you’ll be sleeping and they will start to freak out. And you will wake up with an inbox bomb, “WHERE ARE YOU?”

Kaleigh:           Yeah, don’t do that. That’s a very bad habit to fall into and it’s so tempting because if you see an email and you’re proactive and you want to get stuff on and be like, “Oh, I’m the best freelancer ever”, and response within 5 seconds. It feels like that is the right thing to do sometimes but it’s not. It’s not a good thing to do. It’s a slippery slope. Because like you said, “Once you do it once.” If you give a mouse a cookie, it’s the same thing. They are going to expect every time and want more and more.   

Paul:                I love giving mice cookies.

Kaleigh:           You do that in real life?

Paul:                That’s my favorite thing.

Kaleigh:           That’s so amazing.

Paul:                He is sleeping right now, but I would give him a cookie at this moment. So what I do for that because sometimes I really love working on Saturday and Sunday early morning because I feel like the world is asleep and I could just kind of get stuff done. But I like to do work where it’s just me working.

So if I have to reply to somebody and his business I will send the email and there is a ton of services. But I use, it’s called RightInbox. I’ll send that email and I’ll say schedule to send at Monday at 10:00am or something. So it sends during the next time or be conceivable that I’m working.

Kaleigh:           That’s smart, that’s good.

Paul:                Because like a super neurotic if there is an email in my inbox, I’ll go, “Oh, I want to reply to it.” So I will but I will reply to it and send it a time where it makes more sense for the business to send that email.

Kaleigh:           That’s a smart thing to do. You know I think when it comes down to a lot of the time when we’re talking about being efficient and being very productive during the day is really about always focusing on things that are providing forward momentum to the project and moving things forward.

And then always not letting perfection be the enemy of completion. Not waiting ‘till you’ve iterated  on it a million times to hand it over even if it’s a first draft. You got to have those benchmarks that let you and the client keep improving and working on it rather than just keeping it and holding it and working unto it and trying to fix it and make it perfect. I think you have to really push yourself to keep things rolling forward even though again that could can feel scary sometimes.

Paul:                Yeah, and I mean nothing is going to be ever be perfect, so chasing that it’s kind of a lost cause. Like giving a mouse an unsweetened cookie.

Kaleigh:           Who wants an unsweetened cookie?

Paul:                No, who would want that?

Kaleigh:           That’s a biscuit.

Paul:                It is a biscuit.

Kaleigh:           I do like biscuits though.

Paul:                I was thinking like, maybe a bit of a vegan butter and some gravy, biscuit would be really good.

Kaleigh:           You must be hungry right now?

Paul:                I’m starving. I didn’t carb load before this episode.

Kaleigh:           I ate full plate of pasta that’s what you do folks.   

Paul:                I’m drinking really gross looking mint and chlorophyll kombucha which isn’t very filling just FYI.

Kaleigh:           Probably not unless you’re a plant.

Paul:                Yes, exactly. I could be a plant. Anyways, I think we’ve covered all we need to or we have for the productivity. If you’re cool with that we can call this episode super productive and efficient and be done.

Kaleigh:           Great, well done.

Paul:                Cool. Yay!

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