It’s Monday morning, and you’ve just sat down at your desk. You log into Basecamp to see you’ve got two client projects due this week. Both should take about twenty hours each, so you’re feeling pretty good about getting them done on time. Then, you open your to-do list, where you keep track of miscellaneous items that also need your attention. There are ninety-four items on the list. Your heart sinks as you pull an energy drink from the fridge and prepare for another seventy hour work week.
Does this scenario sound familiar? If you’ve been a freelancer, I bet you know this grind all too well. I’m here to share a few ways you can run your freelance development business…without losing your mind.
Set your own hours!!!1!
The freedoms that come with being a freelancer or small business owner in the digital space are amazing. The allure of being able to work from anywhere and to set our own hours is what pulls us in. When I ran my own company, I would often joke, “As a business owner, I work half-days. And I get to decide which twelve hours I work each day.”
Constantly working twelve hour days doesn’t make you a hero, nor does it mean you’re being more productive. Over time, I found that I was most productive when I started setting specific hours for my work day. I also found that if I knew I was only going to be at my desk eight hours on a given day, my focus during that time was stronger and I’d usually get more done in eight hours than I would on days when I was there for twelve or more.
It also really helped when I started using Rescue Time to track where I was spending the bulk of my days at the computer. Those extra four hours at the desk each day were typically wasted time on sites Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter.
Setting consistent hours doesn’t mean you have to treat it as you would a typical nine to five job. If you decide you want to see a movie at noon on Wednesday, great. A mid-day break can be just what you need to help get your mind right before sitting down to dive in and focus on your work.
Focusing on your core
As a freelance web developer, our clients tend to think that since we were able to build their website, we can help them out with anything related to their computer or the Internet. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never installed a printer driver for a client. The client was more than happy to pay me for my time and the money looked the same in my bank account. But was I really doing either of us any favors? Probably not.
When I started my development agency, our focus from the beginning was 100% WordPress development. If somebody wanted a site build on another platform, we politely declined. If they wanted help with a site on Square Space or WIX or another platform, we turned that down, too.
Why, you ask?
By choosing to focus on WordPress, every project we worked on taught us something new that we’d be able to use on the next project. We also built up a tremendous amount of reusable code which, over time allowed us to work smarter, not harder, for each client and provide them a better end result.
Being specialists for a specific platform helped in our marketing and in speaking with new clients. If they ever had concerns about our hourly rate, I’d simply tell them “We’ve been working for ten years on nothing but WordPress. Something that might take another developer eight hours to figure out will typically be solved in four to six hours.”
Being a specialist helped us become more efficient. Being more efficient meant faster turnaround and lower costs for our clients–all of which they appreciated.
But I’m just one man (or woman)
You started freelancing because you love building WordPress websites. You pick up a handful of clients, and wake up one day to realize that the actual building of the websites has become only a small portion of what you do. The rest of your day is spent emailing with clients, taking sales calls, writing content for your blog to help with marketing, making invoices and other accounting related tasks, plus going through the other dozen tasks that take you away from what you would most like spending your day doing.
I’ve seen it with so many freelancers and speak from personal experience. There can be a fear of spending money on things that we can do ourselves, but that’s a completely ridiculous way of thinking.
Let’s assume you spend roughly four hours per month dealing with invoices and other accounting related tasks. If you bill $50/hour for your services, effectively you’ve lost $200 of potential income. For less than that amount per month, you can find a service to take those tasks off your plate.
Not only do you gain back four hours, but a hired accountant is likely going to do a better job at accounting than you are. I mean, it’s what they do, right? You wouldn’t expect them to be just as good at your core competency as you are, and clearly, that can go both ways!
Is something burning?
Def Leppard said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I can only assume they have no experience working as a freelancer. Burnout sucks!
Earlier, I talked about working twelve hour days. For many freelancers, that’s the reality. Go to any tech meetup and you’ll hear people talking about it as a badge of honor, with comments like, “I pulled an all-nighter to finish up that project.” I want to smack them and say that’s not something to be proud of! It sounds like you screwed something up earlier in the week that caused you to be up against that deadline.
Putting in some overtime now and again isn’t, by itself, an issue. It’s going to happen from time to time that you simply have more work than you can realistically get done in a day/week. As long as it remains an exception and not the rule, you’re probably fine. But if twelve hour days, six days a week becomes the norm, you should be concerned.
If you’re working twelve hours per day, you’re most likely not taking care of your body. Sitting at a desk for so long has been proven over and over to be bad for you. Hopefully, you’ve got a standing desk or you are taking frequent breaks during the day to move around. There are also other ways to stay healthy and prioritize your well-being while working at a desk all day.
And don’t even get me started on how easy it is to develop terrible eating habits when working this much.
You’re probably not getting nearly enough sleep, either. Your mind and body require sleep in order to perform at a high level. Four or five hours per night is simply not enough. If you’re deprived of sleep, you’re on the fast track to burnout.
As you continue to work crazy hours without regard for your own well-being, there’s one other thing that’s going to suffer: Your work itself.
I read a quote the other day that said, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It immediately reminded me of my time when I was working far too many hours day after day. I was making silly mistakes and giving my clients an inferior product because I wasn’t performing at my best. I wasn’t taking care of myself and, in turn, not taking care of them.
Do you want the secret to becoming a happier, healthier and more successful freelancer or business owner? Get more.
Get more focused.
Get more exercise.
Get more help.
Get more sleep.
By taking care of yourself first, you’ll avoid burnout and put yourself in prime position to take care of your clients, your business, and your loved ones.