14 easy rules to simplify your workflow and life as a freelancer

It occurred to me after this post a couple of weeks ago that it might be more useful to discuss in depth the practical but psychological/thought pattern/behavioural tips that you can adopt to help you be more efficient as a freelancer.

I have discussions with people all the time over the way they set up their work and the rules they tend to live by in order to run their business. It differs each time. This is how it works for me. 

  1. Automate everything/do more with less. Hence this post with SOME of the tips and tricks and hacks I use, that I will keep updating as people suggest things or as I remember more stuff. Automating everything saves me time and energy.

    [Tweet “Automating everything saves me time and energy.”]

  2. Bootstrap everything possible. In other words, I need to assess if it is worth paying for a service or a product to do with the business or whether it will just be easier and faster for me to do it myself. Some things such as anything technological in general fall into this category automatically whereas a few other things I do stop and consider paying for.
  3. Do the paid work first. This seems pretty obvious until you stop to think that on any given day, I have tasks related to paid journalism, paid editing, voluntary work, book writing, MA thesis work, tutoring/teaching, speaking and then all sorts of personal odds and ends and business meetings. When I wake up in the morning, I need something that I can usetodetermine what takes priority in devoting time and energy to first.So, paid work first for the day, then the hustling because one must always as a freelancer be on the lookout for more work, and then the book writing or other creative unpaid work and then perhaps the voluntary work if you have time for it. This also allows me to set most of my appointments during business hours. I can write or edit in the morning and teach and meet people in the afternoon and read or work on books and projects or blog posts in the evening. If a friend hasn’t dragged me out somewhere by then.Other people I know, with possibly far simpler lives, state that they divided their calendar into X amount of paid work hours and Y amount of paid work hours and while I can divide my calendar this way, I still have to fit a lot of tasks that have deadlines but no set work times into my day so it gets done. the unpaid/paid work hours set up is handy if you want to see if you are hitting your targets for these each week.
  4. Don’t be freaked out by other people’s definition of “urgent”. This is the “Urgent? Text me.” rule. Basically, if it really is urgent then you would call me or text me. You wouldn’t email me and assume that I, being a geek goddess, would be sitting in front of my email all day. If you email me and complain that I didn’t respond immediately then I am going to point out that “It’s practically on fire kind of urgent” does not equate to sending panicky emails but panicky dialing and frantic texting instead which let’s face it, is more likely to get a quicker response anyway.[Tweet “People should text or call you if it’s urgent.”]
  5. Work according to your priorities and not those of others. So if my priorityright now is work over my studying, then that’s what it is and I am not about to pay too much attention to anyone who wants me to fantastically wonderfully at both of those when I can only manage excellence in one and pretty bloody good in the other with the resources Icurrently have.If you have clients, of course you will try to meet your deadlines and you won’t take on work where you couldn’t possibly meet them. But your personal priorities are still yours  -you cannot do your best work while sick, you cannot ignore one aspect of your life at the extremely detrimental cost of another aspect and so on.
  6. Think both long term and short term. This is not just in terms of resources but also in terms of what I want to do and where Iwanttobe and goals.I want toachieve certain things in life and I have to measure any opportunities againstmyshort term needs andmylong term goals before saying “Yes” to a project or a client.It means I cannot confuse my goals with those of my clients unless they happento be the same.[Tweet “I cannot confuse my goals with those of my clients unless they are the same”]
  7. Be educational to work with and know. Don’t be selfish with what you know. If I can help a client out with some information I will. Not only am I being helpful, I get to showcase perhaps another need of theirs that I can help them with. And if my friends need to know something that might help them, of course I will tell them. And I often learn a lot through the process of helping and teaching others.[Tweet “Don’t be selfish with what you know.”]
  8. Keep your mouth shut. You won’t believe the things I hear. But usually when people talk or discuss others and it’s venturing beyond the need to vent and a bit too far down the road towards rage filled ranting, I just nod and listen. I don’t contribute because that would stoke the fire. Nodding and listening means I acknowledge what they are saying without actually agreeing and they feel safe enough to say what they want to and it goes back down to venting mode which everyone needs to do before they explode with rage anyway. If the person discussed is a friend and what’s being said is extremely out of order, then I will say something but if it is someone mutually known, I generally assume there is a misunderstanding and the person in front of me needs to vent and I usually mutter something to this effect. You don’t need to be confrontational, you just need to plant the idea in someone’s head that they may not have all the information and that most people are usually not that daft/mean/vindictive/unprofessional.
  9. Be informed. This is the “Know what’s under the hood” rule but applies to everything. To me, it doesn’t matter if I hire a PA or an accountant to help me, I still need to know that 1) they are doing what is best for me and 2) that they know what they are doing and to do that, I need to be informed about what I am required to do in my business in these aspects of it. I can’t just hire someone and assume that that part will run like clockwork. That’s not being a responsible business owner or freelancer. It’s the same with knowing what software and hardware I need and what it can do and how it will specifically help me before buying or downloading it.
  10. Push through the fear. Fear is a constant for the freelancer. You have to not care anyway and just go with it. It’s best if you just say to yourself that you have done everything you can andtherefore that there is no point panicking or worrying from that point on. It also helps if you say to yourself that there are thingsto be done so you are only going to pay attention to the fearin case of emergency and that you are going to focus on what needs to be done instead of running around like a chicken with your head cut off.[Tweet “Fear is a constant for the freelancer.”]
  11. Survive with less. This is very freeing. It also means I have pinpointed what is important to me. Over the years I have given up a lot of things that others cannot even fathom but it means I live a simpler and easier life and I am a lot happier. And a lot more flexible. With less stuff, less clutter, less “wants” masquerading as “needs”, it is easier for me to adapt when life changes and to move if need be, halfway across the world. I don’t watch TV anymore, I don’t buy DVDs anymore, the books I read are online, from the library or review copies I get and as a result I have had a more enriching reading experience because I have to read more widely than I would have if I just bought all the books I read. I don’t buy clothes – I never have, really – people gave me a lot and I keep the classic pieces that I know won’t date and buy things that will last. This doesn’t mean I am not interested in popular culture, literature or fashion, far from it, but it does mean I am not limited by a need to spend on it. What I seem to splurge on now is food, especially if I am out with friends, but that’s because I value time with other people and I really love food.Simple is better.
  12. Look for the opportunities everywhere. My Masters degree has already opened up a couple of options for me but mostly through the people I have met as a result of it. Opportunities are weird and wonderful and they are everywhere and you just have to be able to spot them. And sometimes they are opportunities not for direct career advancement or money but for skills and experience and meeting people. And those things are not bad at all andcan be worth pursuing. The trick is not to take every opportunity but to make sure you discern which ones you can take and handle at that moment.I am amazed when people restrict themselves to particular areas or fields or people or social circles and groups and places. I look at them wondering why they cannot see why and how what they know and can do can be transferred elsewhere, enriching themselves and others.
  13. Demand respect. I EXPECT my clients, my associates, my friends, my family, my colleagues to respect me because I will return it as a matter of course and never talk to them again if they don’t. I have a one strike rule on this.Thiscan be a minefield so here are a few pointers:1) I will NOT discuss my relationship status with anyone nor do I expect them to offer to introduce me to people save as business prospects/potential clients or colleagues.2) Do NOT hit on me if I don’t know you as a friend, you aren’t my age or close to it and we are not in anything remotely close to a relevant social situation that could call for it.

    3) The client SHOULD NOT undermine my ability to do a good job on whatever work I have been contracted to do. Especially if there is a contract. If things need to change, a new contract and a discussion is needed, NOT office politics or some weird facsimile of them. This goes for agreed upon payments as well.

    4) People should NOT assume I am “not playing the game” because I don’t hold the same opinions as they do or refuse to gossip about people or because I have enough self respect to stand up for myself. I am not playing the game because the game is stupid, counter productive and I don’t play games. I either work for someone or I don’t. I don’t work for people who want me to be a cookie cutter cutout or flatter them instead of making sure the work gets done and if that starts to be the case then I am the one who will opt out quite happily as I have better things to do with my time and energy.

  14. Get involved. Get out and about and meet people, get to know people. You cannot keep to yourself and be successful. And don’t evaluate everyone you meet as a potential client/colleague/contact – that’s not fair. It’s not about getting you more work, it’s about helping others too and ensuring you have enough of a social life so that you don’t go mad.

If you have any others, leave a comment below and I will add them to the post and credit you. 🙂




  • Kirsty Stuart

    The automating, bootstrapping and doing the paid work first are right to be at the top of the list I reckon Marisa! This really resonates with me – thanks for a great post.

  • Nichole L. Reber

    Point 7 especially speaks to me. I’m writing a guest blog post about that very subject right now; it’s something that’s bothered me for years. Why are people afraid to share editorial contacts with other freelancers? That’s like keeping a secret about where you bought the ham you’re serving for Sunday dinner. Sharing is mutually beneficial. If anyone would like to tell me their stories about how someone shared with you and set something forward in your career, contact me. Perhaps your story will be in the guest post. Cheers, all.

    • Marisa

      Thanks Nichole. Yes, I have learnt a lot from my editing colleagues and we all help each other out. Ditto for the journalists and writers I know. The West Australian based writers support each other like crazy on FB and twitter, constantly blogging about, posting about and sharing each other’s work and publicity. The editors run a mailing list and help each other out with queries. The journalists, if you can corner them for five minutes, will happily help you out.

    • Paul Neate

      Nichole, I’m not sure what you mean by “share editorial contacts”, but if you mean giving other freelancers the names and contact details of people who employ me, people who I have been cultivating a relationship with in some cases for many years — then no, I don’t share that kind of information with my “competition”. That seems to be equivalent of giving away one’s trade secrets. I do, however, frequently refer my clients to other freelancers if I am unable to take on a job or if it is not within my area of expertise, if I am confident that the person to whom I am referring my client is capable and trustworthy.

    • Marisa

      As for stories, as a science journalist, I sometimes find stories that I can’t do or don’t have time to do so I send them to the editor and they get passed on. As an editor, if we can’t take work on, we pass it to others. Former colleagues and friends who know what I can do, often send me work. I often pass all sorts of work through social media to people. Right now I’m looking for someone to take minutes at a meeting once a month. Yesterday someone needed a scriptwriter. Now I have a fairly good idea of how to find those people so I help out.

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