*BEEP!* … *BEEP!* .. I looked at my phone.
5.30 am. Still half an hour to go. God, I hate that Android alarm tone.
I get up and jump into a quick, cold, shower to freshen up. As I’m in there I go over the questions again.
Client calls can sometimes be a bitch when you live in Vietnam but your clients are in Europe or in the US. From time to time I have to do them at the odd hours like this morning.
I feel privileged that that is my main challenge. When I first moved here, I was concerned that clients wouldn’t want to work together because of the time difference but it turns out that there are ways to frame it as an advantage for them.
Many of us see the client calls differently. I see it this way: they are my client and they are paying a premium for a white glove-service. A part of that is to arrange calls around their schedule. Not mine.
That does not mean throwing your life away for last minute fires or any of that craziness. Simply put, that I do everything I can to meet them on their schedule, which in most cases just translates to speaking with them during their working hours rather than mine.
This particular call was with a lead from America, that I wanted to ask a few questions to understand if we might be a good fit to work together.
I’m one of those people that get super hungry in the morning. So right after calls like these, I like to jump down to the cafe next to my building and eat a small Vietnamese sandwich while browsing Upwork for new interesting projects.
To keep my flow of clients stable, I like to send out new project proposals early in the day, every day. I know that I will have a bad day every now and then, and the best motivation for me on those days is a new project coming in.
Around lunchtime, I like to go for a swim. I’m not particularly fit but that’ll probably come one day. It is great to get some time away from the screen- I always find that to clear my head.
After showering, I’ll have lunch at a cafe while reading a book or chatting with a friend before diving into client work.
I’m one of those people that, if I’m not collaborating with someone on a project, prefer silence and focus on whatever I am doing (Cal Newport calls refers to this as ‘deep work’). Basically, leave me alone when I’m working and I’m happy to talk after.
I simply realized that I can get tasks done much faster if I’m not distracted, and I know exactly what I’m about to do. The feeling of being in the zone is amazing.
That’s exactly why I finish my workday off by writing my to-do list for the following day. It is a tiny detail yet it makes a world of difference as I can start the next day by getting right down to business while always having a clear direction for what to do next.
Before we jump in, here’s a quick overview of what’s covered in this guide.
Table of contents
- Do you need a magic morning routine?
- Why even bother with productivity?
- My favorite client taught me something amazing
- Productivity for freelancers
- Setting goals like a champion
- Sleeping like a baby
- Doing the most important thing first
- Supporting factors
- Focus on the process
- Plan for shitty days
- Sending proposals when you have clients
- Wanting to hire
- Crushing it today
Do you need a magic morning routine?
In this example, I was working at my day job some days while having entire days off to freelance.
That is not possible for most people, so let’s talk about the options for most people with corporate jobs, like digital marketers, where work happens 9-5 from Monday to Friday.
So, you generally have mornings, evenings and weekends off. If you are serious about freelancing you should spend 20 hours per week practicing.
If you are at zero hours a week right now, you can start with five hours and work your way up. Since most people (incl. myself) get tired after work and have to work late from time to time, I like to avoid working in the evenings.
Although if you prefer working at night rather than in the morning, that is fine too. Personally, I like to spend an hour, from 7-8am, on freelancing before I head to work. It helps me make sure that I have taken care of the most important thing first.
The reality is that you don’t need a magic morning routine. Rather, you need to figure out which pieces exist in this freelancing puzzle, and learn which of those you should dedicate the most time to – and when. Which is exactly what this website is all about.
Freelancing in itself is just a skill that is a combo of other, smaller, skills combined such as writing good proposals or managing deadlines.
Just like most other people, I don’t want to become a productivity robot. I went down that path when I first realized that I could earn more simply by being more effective. After a year or so, it dawned upon me that it actually sucks and is not that enjoyable day-to-day.
As my thinking on productivity has evolved, I’ve learned that picking a few core pillars that can really move the needle is all you need- not 500 productivity apps.
We just need to avoid the biggest mistakes and make sure that the hours we put in actually counts. That is much less overwhelming than having every moment of every day mapped out.
Initially, I was going to write an ultimate guide around productivity for freelancers but after speaking to some of my students, I learned that you won’t benefit from that.
Rather, I’ll focus on removing some of the options that people talk about in the productivity world, and instead give you a couple of things that will move the needle for you while being easy to put into action.
It’s all about being selective and focusing on doing a few core things really well until they become second nature to you.
That means this guide will not be an exhaustive one with all the options available – just a few of the best things, so you don’t have to read through another fifty articles on productivity.
Why even bother with productivity?
Productivity is particularly interesting for freelancers as being effective can lead to two fun things: more money and more free time.
Which one you prefer more of is up to you. If you are anything like me, the one you prefer changes over time.
The single most effective thing I can think of, to improve productivity for freelancers, is to niche down your target market or skill.
It is particularly effective because it allows you to see a clearer pattern in your clients’ challenges and the solutions they need will be similar, so you can eventually move from hourly rates to project rates. That will allow you to earn significantly more while spending less time doing the work.
Anyway, it is such an important topic that it requires its own post. If you want some thoughts on that, there’s a section about it in this guide.
What you need early game, when learning how to freelance, is a system for practicing getting and working with clients.
Something that allows us to get into the habit of doing the work and embracing any fears/uncertainties we might have. A core element in that is switching from relying on motivation to relying on habits. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The uncomfortable challenge many have early on is that they overestimate their own productivity. I’ve seen it in many people including myself.
It will be a problem later on if we are confused about why we aren’t seeing the results we want. We might be thinking that we are working more than we actually are. Fixing this basic element will take you a long way and you’ll start to out-do your peers pretty fast.
I don’t know your situation specifically, so all I can do is give you advice and you will have to self evaluate and self-correct.
Typically people are not self-aware in this aspect. Personally, I was pretty delusional- I felt like I was spending so many hours staring at the screen but in reality, I was procrastinating and doing a lot of random things that were not core work tasks such as pitching for projects.
According to Tasha Eurich in the excellent book “Insights”, we as human beings are usually not self-aware if we think we are. So I guess, if you feel self-aware you probably aren’t.
You can start by installing Rescue Time and track which websites you use. I believe the free version can track between both desktop and mobile. The key here is not to get obsessed with it.
Just install it, make sure it is set to load every time you start your device, and check back once a week or month and self-correct. Don’t focus on going from zero to 100% robot.
Going 20% of the way is great because it allows you to tweak and move in the right direction without changing too much.
Besides that, my philosophy is generally “fuck tools” because most of them make you feel like you are progressing which you might not be.
Personally, I like to build a new habit for 3-6 months before investing in any gear. Besides actually making sure I’m moving forward, the anticipation when I do allow myself new gear, makes me feel much greater.
Just to clarify, I would buy a training program to help me learn how to freelance for example. However, I would not buy a client management app, productivity app, business cards or a website. For those, I simply use e.g. the free Google Sheets/Docs as they can handle most of the things.
That also relates to reading things like this website. Personally, I like to refer back to things for certain situations but remember to also put it down and actually do the hard work. These articles won’t get you anywhere if you don’t do the work.
My favorite client taught me something amazing
I’ve had many clients over the years and one stood out, that to this day is still my favorite client even though we haven’t worked together in years.
One of the things that he thought me was that relying on our motivation is insane. Habits are much more powerful because when something is truly a habit, you will eventually automate it like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
Motivation comes and goes, and you should definitely take advantage of it whenever it is there but you can’t rely on it. You’ll waste a ton of time if you have to wait for every time you feel motivated.
If you start looking at one area of your life through the lens of habits, you’ll start to see powerful results on autopilot sooner or later.
The way you get started is simply picking one thing and setting the goal as ‘showing up’ every day. Even if you don’t do anything at first, just by showing up, you’ll train the habit.
For example, if you want to get more clients, you can simply start by setting time aside to look for projects on Upwork for one hour every single day. Picking the same time each day will help.
Even if you don’t write any proposals, after a while you’ll get so used to it that you’ll automatically want to take the next step and start writing proposals.
Then you’ll do that for a while and sooner or later, you’ll add another proposal. Before you know it you are sending several proposals every single day.. And now you have a routine.
And we all know that even if you suck at first (that’s normal since we don’t have any experience with this skill yet), with enough proposals someone will hire you sooner or later and you get to practice.
Productivity for freelancers
Let’s talk about some of the most impactful things you can do for your productivity. Most of these will not only do that but also make you feel much better on a day to day basis whether related to freelancing or other aspects of life.
Setting goals like a champion
Setting goals is a popular topic. Unfortunately, most people I speak with get it totally wrong which is actually great because it gives us an opportunity to learn.
It is simply a skill and the more you do it (and evaluate yourself afterward) the better you’ll get. What made the biggest difference for me, has been to set goals based on input rather than output.
Allow me to share an example with you. Typically people will say “I want to have three clients and earn $1000 within the next three months”.
In itself, it is a great target but we need to take it one step further and translate that into what we do every day to get there.
It is difficult when we are working on a new skill as we often don’t know the path/steps from here to our target.
Sometimes, it’s not as easy as simply starting with the target and backtracking the steps. That is where a coach can be super helpful, as they will already know the path and can help you set the right tasks from the beginning.
The easiest place to start is simply guesstimating and iterating as you learn more.
If our goal is the one above, it would look something like this: Let’s start with getting the three clients.
Based on my experience, when you have been in the game for a while you can probably convert one out of five proposals into a client.
Let’s make that one in ten since it’s going to take some practice to be able to close one in five if you are not used to closing clients.
For every five proposals, someone might want to get on a call to discuss working together. That means for every 10 proposals we send, we get two phone calls.
We might close one of the two meaning that we know that if we just send 10 good proposals, we’ll get one client. So to get to 3 clients we simply need to send 30 good proposals.
The numbers are a bit too “good” especially if you are just starting out, so don’t feel disappointed if you need to do more.
Then, you know that if you want one new client per week, you simply need to send 10 proposals – or two proposals per day assuming you only send them Monday through Friday. Now you have a system.
Let’s move on to a big win you can steal right away…
Sleeping like a baby
One of my favorite productivity secrets is getting good sleep. Everyone talks about getting little sleep, like the less sleep you get the better.
Fortunately, a few other people out there are starting to share the value of sleep. I’m no sleep expert but as I have experimented with it over the past couple of years, I’ve found it to be one of the most beneficial things for feeling awesome and getting things done.
It is quite contrary to what many people argue as their point is that they can get more shit done. Of course, the obvious counter-argument is that the quality of the hours are much better when you are well rested.
For a lack of a better word, ‘optimizing’ my sleep has been one of my big wins. I know how you might think when you hear the word ‘optimize’, and it’s not as bad as it sounds.
I know that some people take this a step too far and become almost robotic in their sleep optimization- if you are into that, that is totally fine. I’ll keep this casual for now.
According to Matthew Walker who is well-acknowledged sleep researcher, the amount of people who can function well on seven hours of sleep or less per night (on a regular basis) is less than 0% of society.
Most of us need seven to nine hours per night, so the first thing to do is experiment with what is best for you. Simply try a few different options and make a mental note of how you feel the following day.
When you have found what you prefer, guard it. That means preparing what time to go to bed and, if you need to, set an alarm an hour before so you remember.
If you find it difficult to go to bed at the right time, simply consider it a practice session. If you go to bed at 12 now but want to sleep at nine, start by aiming for sleeping at 11 for a week or two. When you have nailed that, change it to 10 for a few weeks and so on.
There are many more tactics out there. We can talk about those when you are interested but for now, the two things above will be a great place to start.
Doing the most important thing first
If freelancing is a priority for you, block out one hour in the morning where you can be alone with no phone, kids, etc.
Prepare what you have to do during that hour beforehand, so you don’t have to think about it and can just start working.
In the early stage, that task will be to find and pitch clients- it is the only thing you should focus on. That might mean you, research clients, to pitch on Monday, prepare the pitch on Tuesday and pitch them on Wednesday.
Then focus on tweaking it to fit you the best. Personally, I like batching things such as only doing one task every Monday, another Tuesday etc. It helps me get used to, and remember the system.
You don’t have to start with the following, it is a more advanced step, but I’ve definitely seen some improvements by tweaking these.
Keeping the place you work and the clothes you wear the same. At first, you might not notice much of a difference but over time it will trigger you to get into the flow and work state. It can be a great way to train your brain.
All of these things become automatic to you over time if you keep practicing them, and that’s when the power of them kicks in.
Imagine two different people.
John, who always keeps everything the same, and Julie who slowly tests different things to find whatever she likes better.
Who do you think is going to have a better time overall?
Naturally, regular exercise and healthy food will help. This is not a food or gym website, and this could even be a whole blog post on its own.
So I’ll keep this section short and just leave you with this: Those two areas are important but in my experience, they won’t be the biggest win right away – especially not if you are already healthy like a normal person. Basically, eating somewhat healthy and exercising a few times a week.
Having a full-time job and freelancing on the side leaves less time for other things. So while they are both important, I prefer a small temporary hit on the health side to earn more so I can earn more to buy better food, a subscription for a more convenient gym etc.
You get the idea.
Other things that will support your quest are things like scheduling time for social activities, guilt-free time off from work and potentially even personal projects.
When you feel more comfortable freelancing, so much that you might quit your job (if that is your dream), you’ll have more time for these things as freelancing can help you earn more, so you can buy things that make your life more convenient – or you can buy some of your time back.
Focus on the process
We are not here to chase a single dollar amount that we want to make from a project.
While that is great -and you should totally use it for motivation if that works for you- I’m here to help you build a skill that you can use for life. Whenever you feel like leveraging it to earn some extra cash, whether that be taking on a project for $500, $5000 or $50,000.
It is much more effective for us long term to focus on a replicable process that we can turn to, whenever we need it.
As we are reaching the end of this guide, I’ll leave you with a few pitfalls to keep in mind. These are major mistakes that I have either made myself, my students have or I have seen happen in the space in general.
Plan for shitty days
We all have bad days sometimes, there is just no way around it. So when you have those, don’t expect to perform 100%. You just have to get through it ok, at say half pace, so you still get some things done.
In the beginning, at its core, that means showing up to continue to build the habit.. even if you don’t do much that day.
When things suck and you feel like aren’t moving forward, one of the things that work the best is to evaluate your work using a tracking sheet. I’ve made a free one for you to use there, just click FILE > Make a copy, to create your own copy. If you want details of how to use it, search for “tracking” in this guide.
Most often, especially at the beginning, the challenge will be not landing enough clients compared to how many proposals you send out. Looking back at the numbers and your old proposals will make you realize that you have actually progressed more than you think.
Sending proposals when you have clients
One of the mistakes I made early on was not thinking ahead.
So, of course, I inevitably ran out of work at some point. Remember to send out proposals when you HAVE clients – so you have more projects lined up when you are done with that one project.
Wanting to hire
I notice some people wanting to hire for lead gen/sales/execution of projects pretty fast as they are starting out either because they dislike that part of the process or find it difficult.
It’s a good idea, in theory, just don’t do it yet. The easiest competitive advantage you can give yourself is fully understanding your market and create the best processes for your work before getting help.
The most important thing here is to intimately learn your client’s hopes/dreams, fears, barriers, and uncertainties so you can use them to sell and deliver exactly what the client wants, not what we think they want.
Crushing it today
So, how do we move forward from here?
What you really want to understand is what is holding you back from sending more proposals today. Then make a list and work on systematically removing them one by one.
The quick win is to pick one or two of the things to get you started. Then add more after two-ish weeks when you are used to those. The fun part here is that you get to pick what you want to get started with.