The beautiful thing about freelancing is its pure possibility — there’s always a new project on the horizon. You apply your skills to new projects and work with all sorts of people, and it’s exhilarating. And tiring.
As you become more successful and start to accumulate work, the more overlap you have between jobs. So you have to learn how to prioritize projects, to make sure work gets into your clients as scheduled. As a freelancer, reliability is king.
So how do you do it? We can’t stress it enough: organization. Yes, a scary word, so mundane and uncreative. But tracking and organizing everything from your projects, to your clients, to your time — hour by hour — is the key to a professional independent workflow. Get creative with how you track your work, and it’ll help you be more successful in the long run.
1. Communicate with your clients
This is a huge deal, and is always your first step. It’s easy to hear about an interesting job and want to just jump in. But that can get you stuck in a crazy mix of requirements and expectations, projects growing in scope before your eyes — without the accompanying compensation!
Before you even accept a job, make sure you and the client are on the same page. Know what you’re going to produce and for how much, how long it is going to take and how flexible both sides can to be if things don’t go as planned. Make sure you hash this out and write it down in your contract.
Keep in mind that this isn’t relegated to the start of the project, either. Things are going to go differently than expected, so have a plan for that. Establish from the beginning how often you are going to update the client and make sure you keep consistent with that.
Best tools for the job: 1-to-1 projects and e-mail
Make sure you get everything down in writing somewhere, as memories can be fickle things. You and a client may not remember things the same way after a couple of months, so make sure there’s a place you can both refer to for those details.
2. Record every offer
When you receive a request for work, make sure that you track it from the beginning. Maintain a single document with all your ongoing work. You should be able to see everything in a single place as a general overview.
The most important information to include is:
Client and project name
This will help you organize your work—especially if you’re working on multiple projects for a single client.
Initial request date
Establish the order in which clients came to you for help by recording the day of first contact from each one, for each project you work on for them.
Estimated start and complete date
This will depend on how you’re structuring your work, whether it’s ongoing or on a project-by-project basis. What’s important is to know how much of your time on a larger week-to-week or month-to-month basis you want to dedicate to this project. If this seems too difficult, a good way to get started is to break down into milestone tasks.
Hours per day/week/month to complete
This goes hand-in-hand with the goal above. Based on experience and self-knowledge, record how much time you have dedicated to spend per project. You can modify this later, but knowing from the get-go will help you decide which projects you do and don’t have room to take on.
Best tool for the job: A spreadsheet
A simple Google or Excel document is perfectly suited to this task. It allows you to compartmentalize and modify information, sort it by varying factors, and is easily shared between teams. Once you have this document sleek and ready to go, check it every single day. That way, you will have a holistic view of what needs to get done when you’re creating your day-to-day schedules.
Let’s face it, some jobs are more important than others. It’s a powerful or connected client — maybe a repeat client, a more creative brief, a larger scope of work. Create your own system for determining which projects you need to prioritize before others.
3. Track daily responsibilities
Ok, now that you have a record of the broad strokes of your projects, you’ve got to make a daily to do list. Each time you have a project, break it down as much as you can into individual tasks. The key here is having everything on this list directly actionable and ordered in a timeline of what can needs done, when.
Best tool for the job: Trello
We’ve talked about Trello in this blog before, it’s how we get a lot of our work done in the 99designs office. But with its ability to create larger projects with individual tasks, color categorize them, and built-in calendar capabilities, it’s a one-stop shop to set your schedule.
Keep a log of what you do each hour. It’s easy to get caught up on a job and have no idea how much time you’ve spent on a specific task. But being deliberate in how you spend your time will help you both in running your current and future projects.
For example, if you know that you’re spending too much time on a project as you’re in the middle it, you can scale it down to a more reasonable workload or negotiate more time with a client. Additionally, having this data for your past projects can help you keep track of what kinds of clients and tasks give you the best ROI – return on investment.
Best tool for the job: Toggle
There are a lot of apps available these days for time tracking. For example, take Toggl, which allows you to track and report projects by client. If you want to find out more, here’s a full review of the tool.
Keep at it
It does take a bit of your time to implement and complete these kinds of organizational processes. But it’s an investment that can seriously help you take what you learn from each project and apply it to the next. It will make you a better and more efficient freelancer.
You can also read our annual freelance report – Design without borders to gain a fresh perspective on how freelancers like you think, feel and operate around the world.
When it all comes down to it, the best organization tools are there to help you know yourself.