Updated June, 2020
*BEEP!* … *BEEP!* ..
I looked at my phone. Half an hour to go. Damn that Android alarm tone.
I got up and into a quick shower to freshen up. While I was in there I went over the questions again.
Client calls can sometimes be a bitch because of the timezone difference but I’ve found that it’s still much better than working with a client from hell. So, spending that extra time making sure we’re a good fit has been well worth it.
Productivity is especially interesting for freelancers because when we are more effective we’ll earn more money or get more free time as a result.
There is so much advice out there focusing on the best apps and hacks, that it is easy to get mislead into thinking it’s a big deal.
In my experience, most of them work and they could help increase your productivity by maybe 20%. But why focus so hard on the 20% and leave 80%, the big wins, up to chance? How about being flexible on the 20% but nailing the 80%?
It’s like cutting all the things you love to eat entirely out of your life when just reducing them to half would be a great place to start. You’d see serious improvements and be much more likely to stick to it in the long run.
In fact, I bet that 20 % is what causes people to dislike productivity. Most gurus tell you to optimize everything: “track everything and never waste five minutes waiting in line at the grocery store!”
Maybe it compounds over time but we have limited energy before we get tired. We can’t do everything at once and most of us have bigger fish to fry.
Productivity “secrets” for winning freelance clients
We are used to hearing about the Pomodoro technique, inbox zero, and other hacks that can help us make things a little easier. As you might have guessed they are at the top of the iceberg.
They are nice but they only make a difference when the rest is in place. Otherwise, they just make us feel good which later leads to us wonder why we are being “so productive” yet not earning more money.
Inbox zero is a great example of that — is it really going to help you earn more money or just help you feel like you did something? What happens when your inbox has zero new emails?
Underneath the tip of the iceberg, we’ll find the items that will help you win big with freelancing. Some of those are:
- Sleeping well
- Eating healthy food
- Exercising regularly
- Not having crazy things to think about e.g. if someone is going to burn down your house or if you can afford to pay rent next month
- A non-distracting place to work
What do you notice? These items can’t be solved with an app but once you figure them out, you’ll be surprised that you could live any other way before.
One of my favorite productivity “secrets” is getting good sleep. Everyone talks about getting little sleep, like the less sleep you get the better.
According to the sleep expert Matthew Walker, the number of people who can function well on less than seven hours of sleep per night, on a regular basis, is less than 0% of society.
Imagine having to be on the spot during an hour-long client call after 5-6 hours of sleep. We might make it through but that is not the same as impressing the client. While they might be polite on the call, we don’t know what they are thinking behind the scenes.
Freelancing is a relationship business and the currency is trust. Imagine if you say something you shouldn’t have — it can literally cost you the project.
Be uncomfortably honest
According to Tasha Eurich in her book “Insights”, we humans are often not as self-aware as we like to think we are. In fact, she found that the more self-aware we think we are, the less true it often is.
Being honest with ourselves is hard and one of the most challenging things is being honest about the work we wanted to complete, compared to what we actually did. How much of it did we really do? Did we procrastinate? Why?
(That means we probably should be working instead of reading this website, too.)
I say ‘uncomfortably’ honest because you’ll know you are being honest with yourself when it feels a little uncomfortable.
Don’t beat yourself up about it
When we are being honest with ourselves, the next thing that usually happens is that we kick ourselves for not doing better. Mark Manson calls this the ‘feedback loop from hell’ in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.
I find that it is one of the least productive things we do and we often don’t even notice it! It just kinda happens automatically and we lose motivation.
If you wouldn’t talk to your friends that way, there is no reason to talk to yourself that way either.
Stop waiting for good days and motivation
Instead of relying on good days and motivation, build habits that are guaranteed to work.
They are not as sexy as the ads on TV but they will help you on the days where things feel off, and you just aren’t in the mood. If you manage to turn those days around, they can be some of your best because you had low expectations.
Habits are powerful because you don’t even have to think about them. They work in your favor automatically, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
One of the most common mistakes with habits is trying to change everything at once. Maybe we get excited and make insane plans for the following week: “I’ll never eat fast food again!” or “I’ll send 10 proposals every day starting Monday!”
… Only to lose motivation when Monday comes around and kick ourselves for not doing it — it’s a nice, little, vicious circle.
Just like a motorbike can only turn a little bit at once, not 180 degrees, the same is true for our habits and whatever we do gets reinforced and feels easier to do again.
If you reach out to 50 potential clients, the next 50 will all of a sudden feel much easier. Eating a pizza instead of a salad, and the next time you are hungry, that pizza might become a burger because.. you know, you already had a pizza so what’s a little extra gonna change?
This is why you haven’t reached your goals
Setting goals is a popular topic. The biggest difference for me has been to set goals based on what I need to do rather than what I want.
Someone might say “I want to have three clients and earn $1,000 within the next three months”.
It is a good goal and we can turn it a great goal by translating it into the tasks we need to complete in order to reach it.
It is difficult when we are working on something new because we don’t know the exact steps between us and our goal. If you don’t have access to a coach that can help you, the easiest place to start is simply guesstimating and iterating as you go.
If our goal is to get three paying clients, let’s imagine that we’ll land one client out of ten proposals we send out.
For every five proposals, someone might want to get on a call to discuss working together. That means for every ten proposals we send, we get two phone calls.
We might land one of the two clients. Now we know that if we send ten proposals, we’ll get one client. If that’s our guess, we can figure out that to get three clients we need to send 30 proposals.
If you want one new client per week, you’ll need to send ten proposals – or two proposals per day Monday through Friday. Now, you have a system instead of just a goal.
Morning routines are misunderstood
Most of us work day-jobs and have mornings, evenings, and weekends to carve out time for freelancing. If you are serious about freelancing you’ll want to spend as much time practicing as possible.
If you just started, spending five hours per week is a good place to begin, and for people that are serious, spending up to 50-60 hours/week will get you going fast.
Morning routines are great but I’ve found that most people are overdoing it, to the point where it doesn’t help and becomes a productivity status symbol like inbox zero.
For most of us freelancers, these things don’t move the needle in life. When you look back at today, years from now, will you be happy to “just have to write emails” all day?
I bet you won’t and by focusing on the things that move the needle, you could be relaxing on this beautiful beach instead.
Mornings are great to get things done because no one else is there to distract you. But that can also be the evenings or any other time that you prefer. The point with a morning routine is; ROUTINE!
Most of us don’t want to become productivity robots. I went down that path thinking that I could earn more simply by being more effective. I discovered that while it is true, maximizing everything perfectly is not enjoyable day-to-day.
It is more effective for us long term to focus on systems and habits that do the work for us.
Action steps that make a difference
Focus on impact
Focus on whatever has the biggest impact on your freelance business. Often, it will be landing new clients.
I’ve found that the best way to get started is to pick one thing and set a goal to show up for it 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 day. Picking the same time each day will help make it easier in the beginning.
Even if you don’t write any proposals, after a while you’ll get used to it and I bet you’ll eventually wonder what would happen if you sent one.
You might do that for a while and sooner or later, you’ll send another proposal… and before you know it you are sending several proposals every day. Now you have a routine.
Not hearing back from potential clients is one of the things that suck the most. It leaves us feeling demotivated and wonder why we are working so hard in the first place.
If you look at all your proposals at the same time instead of one by one, you might notice a pattern that can help you figure out why you aren’t getting responses.
For example, if you use Upwork you might discover that most of the projects you apply for never hire any freelancer. Thus the challenges might not be with your proposal but rather with the clients themselves.
I like to enter my proposals into a sheet and compare their quality. Here’s a template sheet you can use for free. Click FILE > Make a copy, to create your own copy.
Two impactful things you can do when you are working to land new clients are logging the hours your work and doing the most important thing first.
Log your worked hours
If you log your freelance hours into a spreadsheet, you can look back and see what you spent your time on and if you worked the number of hours you wanted to. The first time I did it, I was surprised by the results!
It also has a bonus component: it will fun for you took look back at and see how far you’ve come!
You can copy my template sheet here. Just click File > Make a copy.
Do the most important thing first
If landing clients is a priority for you, block out at least 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 beginning, that will be finding clients. That might mean researching clients to pitch on Monday, prepare the pitch on Tuesday and pitch them on Wednesday.
Personally, I like batching things such as only doing one task every Monday, another Tuesday, etc.
Notice that I didn’t suggest 500 things to do right now — it’s too much and feels overwhelming.
Pick just a FEW things that will impact what you earn and focus on those that move the needle the most, first.
For most new freelancers, it’s all about sending more proposals, so you’ll want to figure out what’s holding you back from doing that. Then make a list and work to systematically remove them one by one.