There are now more than 17.7 million freelance workers in the United States, according to a recent report from MBO Partners (pdf), which tracks the freelance industry.
Freelancing offers unparalleled flexibility but also comes with the risk of not having enough work and not knowing where your next paycheck will come from.
Many freelancers work from home, have multiple bosses, and have to juggle multiple projects at once.
That makes staying on top of everything especially challenging. Here are seven field-tested tips for freelancers to stay organised:
Keep a regular daily schedule.
Working during the same hours every day is essential for happiness and productivity, says Michelle Goodman, a freelance journalist and author based in Seattle. She’s been freelancing for more than 20 years and has written extensively on what it’s like to maintain a career outside of the 9-to-5 lifestyle.
Because freelancers often work from home and manage several projects at once, “it’s really easy to feel like you don’t have a life,” says Goodman. Whether you’re a morning person, a night person, or someone in between, giving yourself structure that you stick to will help you define the separation between your personal and professional lives.
Don’t commit to more jobs than you can realistically handle.
Goodman plans out her work schedule weeks in advance, but allowing herself some wiggle room is one of her cardinal rules. She found that when she was younger, she would take on too many jobs because she would jump at every opportunity. Not only did it make her life unnecessarily difficult, but she realised that she kept turning down great opportunities because her week was packed with less interesting or less profitable assignments. “Learn to say ‘no,'” she says.
Determine how long it takes you to complete certain types of jobs, and leave up to a quarter of your monthly schedule free. Goodman admits that there are times of the year when she’s either busier or less busy than she usually is, but she warns that if your work life seems like “feast or famine,” you’re likely mismanaging your workload.
Keep all your ideas in one place.
When you’re juggling multiple assignments, it can be easy for all of your scribbled ideas and Post-It notes to get lost in a chaotic jumble. Goodman likes to keep a physical idea notebook as a single deposit place for all of her thoughts on different projects.
There are also plenty of programs to arrange your notes digitally, like Evernote. Holly Reisem Hanna, founder of the site The Work at Home Woman, recommends using customer relationship management software like Trello, which is free.
Set aside some personal time.
Because you’re scheduling your projects months ahead of time to maintain a steady income, it can be easy to forget that you could be burning yourself out, says Goodman. If you schedule a vacation well in advance, it helps you maintain your productivity and ensures you won’t be scrambling to fit in last-minute breaks.
Reply to important emails immediately.
Email is hard enough to manage when you have one steady gig, but keeping track of all your correspondences with potential and current clients can become overwhelming for an active freelancer. To make sense of it all, you could keep separate folders for each task you’re working on. The downside of that strategy, however, is you’ll have to spend time sorting every email you get.
Goodman says that no matter how you organise your inbox, make sure you reply to your bosses and clients as soon as possible. The junk can wait; your sources of income must not.
Use more than just a spreadsheet to keep track of your finances.
Freelancers don’t have the luxury of a company’s accounting team or HR department, so it’s especially important that they stay on top of their personal finances. Goodman recommends dedicating a block of time each week to making sure your finances are up-to-date.
Hanna says that using a simple Excel spreadsheet to track your finances can lead to unnecessary headaches. She recommends GoDaddy’s bookkeeping services ($9.99 per month) or Intuit’s Quick Books (starting at $US18.86 per month). These programs can help you keep track of your income and expenditures, as well as calculate how much you owe in quarterly self-employment taxes. If you don’t keep detailed track of your finances, you could get hit with a bigger tax bill than you anticipated.
Have steady clients and an anchor gig.
“Be strategic about the jobs you take,” says Goodman. No matter what your profession, prioritise jobs that are more than one-time deals, and build relationships with bosses or clients that are easy to work with. Try to acquire an “anchor gig,” a part-time job that will serve as a reliable source of monthly income. This will help you avoid a desperate scramble for jobs to pay the bills, giving you some peace of mind.
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