The 7 Most Important Tasks for Freelancers

Time. We’ve only got so much of it each day. For freelance writers who are also parents, we’ve certainly never got enough of it.

What’s the best way to spend our precious work hours? I’m often asked this question by my mentees. I had one say, “I wish I could follow you around all day and see how you do it!”

While I don’t think that would be pleasant for either of us (and might reveal an embarrassing amount of screwing off and/or snacking on my part!)…I realized that after five solid years of freelancing, I have developed some strong opinions on how to prioritize tasks.

Here are what I consider to be the seven most important activities a freelancer should spend their time on, in order of importance:

  1. Send a bill. Have you finished a project, but not billed it yet? Stop everything and send that bill out right now. Every day a bill isn’t received by a client is a day it can’t be processed and paid. Many companies only cut checks once or twice a month, so a little dithering on your part could easily result in an extra month’s wait for your money.
  2. Finish a project. Do you have a project you’re almost done with — say, an article that’s ready to write? If you don’t have another immediately pressing deadline, then write it today, even if it’s not due now. Clearing mostly-done projects out of the way has a number of benefits — it means a chance to send a bill sooner (notice a theme here?), you write while the topic is fresher in your brain, and getting that assignment off your plate declutters your brain to focus on other pressing tasks.
  3. Find sources. This is one I have to admit I am guilty of procrastinating on sometimes…but you shouldn’t. Locating great sources is often key to writing great stories. The longer you wait to start your search, the more pressure you’re under to find someone, and the more likely you are to settle for a less-than-ideal interview subject. Start early and you’ll have the time to hunt down better sources. You’ll also be able to schedule their interview times when it’s most convenient for you, as you’re not in a rush.
  4. Write. Once you’ve billed, wrapped up anything close to completion, and done whatever source-finding is needed for upcoming stories, you can look at other writing you might want to get done. The more you write, the better you get, and making a habit of writing helps you avoid writer’s block. So find as much time for writing in each day as you can. This is the point where your personal blog might get written, or you might write ahead on a big project that you want to rewrite and polish up a lot before deadline. (If you’re a designer, substitute “do design work” here, or whatever else it is you do as a freelancer.)
  5. Market your business. Even if it’s just a half-hour of connecting on your social-media sites, try to spend a little time each day spreading the word about what you do. Send one query. Sign up for one networking event. Whatever is in your marketing plan — break off a little chunk of it today and do it.
  6. Do interviews. If you looked for sources early and left time to prepare for your interview time, you should be ready to rock your interviews and get fantastic quotes and information. You can schedule your interviews or research time for current assignments after your marketing time because you planned well.
  7. Analyze your progress. This is an often-overlooked but critical step to building a lucrative freelance career. Every month, see what you billed, and what you received. The gap between those two gives you a quick snapshot of your month-to-month trend — is it going up or down? Compare this year to date with last year to date, or this month with the same month last year. Data about earnings, and about how your client mix is changing, can help you budget better based on what income is really coming in the door, and can also help shape your marketing strategy.

How do you prioritize your time as a freelancer? Leave a comment and let us know.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to Make a Living Writing. Free tips on earning more from your writing twice weekly. At least!

(P.S. I’m filing this early because tomorrow, I’ll be at the Seattle Society of Professional Journalists’ All Access Pass seminar and networking event! Hope to see some of you there…and hope to report on my experience later this week. Speaking on a couple of panels…and hope to learn from others as well.)

Photo via Flickr user enigmachck1

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14 comments on “The 7 Most Important Tasks for Freelancers
  1. P.S. Jones says:

    I've forgotten the billing part before. Normally it's with a regular client and the work was so small that I didn't even think about it. But money owed to you is money owned to you. So I've gotten much better about billing in the past year or so.

  2. Carol Tice says:

    All you have to do is let a bill slip once…and find out it now won’t arrive in time to pay your mortgage…to get cured of that! I actually just had a controversy erupt over one of my bills — they submitted the invoice to me showing an incorrect (low) total…and I had to fight a 3-week battle to get it corrected and approved! Cost me valuable time when that substantial payment could have been on its way to me.

    Even though I’m laser-focused on it, I still occasionally call about a late payment only to discover I’ve never sent in the bill. D’oh! It really is job one. Those of us who write to get paid…need to remember to make sure we get paid!

  3. Amy Spreeman says:

    Uh oh…looks like I need to get my priorities prioritized! I tend to procrastinate. Thanks for these tips.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh, and I never do (cough cough!)…It’s not that I actually do this every day…but I know this is the most important stuff. And I do try my best to get to it. And to spend less time playing Bejeweled…really I do.

      We all procrastinate…but when I have it together, this is how I prioritize what I’m doing. Can’t wait to hear if other folks have another opinion of what’s most important!

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. All 7 of these activities are super important. One more I would add to the list is research, which is in addition to the finding of sources. Regardless of what business you are in as a freelancer, keeping up to date with the latest goings on provides both inspiration for writing (and lot's of content ideas) as well as being able to stay ahead of competition that isn't up to date. Then it's a matter of proper filtering so you don't get buried in the information flood.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Robert —

      Great addition to the list. Not sure where I’d rank it, but it needs to be in there somewhere. Definitely one of my secrets of success is that I always have a TON of story ideas up my sleeve. I try to be ready with a few more ideas to pitch an editor every time I turn in a story. I read VERY widely.

  5. Lucy Smith says:

    I always bill at the end of the month. I have accounting software that does it, so all I need to do is keep track of my timesheets, which I keep monthly for each client, and add in the number of hours into the invoice, and away it goes. I don’t think I could keep track doing invoicing as I finish jobs – and here it tends to be the way it’s done anyway; invoice at the end of the month, payment due on the 20th.

  6. Carol Tice says:

    Interesting, Lucy!

    I'm kind of crazy about getting revenue in the door the first second I can. If I finish a project on the 5th of the month and I'm on net 15 days, I could get it the 25th of the same month. On your system, I'd get it almost an entire month later! While I'm sure it's great to have accounting software managing these things — I sure don't — I find billing immediately means more money sooner.

    I actually just have a simple Word doc (can you believe it?) where I list pending assignments. When they're billed I transfer them over to my "awaiting payment" category, and when they're paid they go down to the paid. I track the date I finished and billed (usually the same day) and the date payment comes. This also helps me keep careful track of who's maybe not paying as fast as they had promised.

    But food for thought there! Perhaps less administrivia on your system. If I could afford to wait an extra 2-4 weeks to get paid, maybe I would try it…but I'd prefer to get my money ASAP!

    Also, on your system it sounds like then all your revenue shows up basically the same week? That would be a problem around here…I like checks to flow in throughout the month.

    Carol

  7. John White says:

    >1. Send a bill.

    Glad you place this at the top of the list. Any new readers here should interpret it as a strong indicator of the kind of blog you’re running.

    >I actually just have a simple Word doc (can you believe it?)

    No, I can’t. You must be using QuickBooks or something similar, aren’t you? It’s possible to run a freelance practice without it, I suppose, but I can’t see how. (Hint: The old versions have less garbage and run better than the newer ones. I’ve been on QB 2003 for ages and won’t switch until Windows makes me.)

  8. Carol Tice says:

    <Covered in shame> I really don't John! I'm just not that kind of accounting-dorky person. I used to beat myself up about it, but my weird little tracking system works for me. I realize I should use an Excel spreadsheet or something at the very least. But I seem to keep good track of things the way things are.

    Had to laugh when you pointed out my order reveals the theme of this blog…now that I'm in A-List Bloggers Bootcamp, we talk a lot about branding, and your tagline, and what is your blog all about and how do you communicate that. So glad I'm succeeding in letting people know I am here to help them earn more from their writing!

    Appreciate your comments, as always.

  9. roclafamilia says:

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

  10. Anne Wayman says:

    Hmmmm… usually Carol and I agree, but not this time… or maybe we do after all. I actually track my income and expenses on a daily basis and I do do that before I write – consider it part of my spiritual practice… along with meditating… but I don't invoice then. No, writing comes next… the first working act of my working day.

    That's because I know I can only write well for three or four hours – anything beyond that and it all starts to fall apart. That writing takes me to lunch usually, and then I invoice – which I don't do often because of the nature of my work… ghostwriting books so I get bigger chunks every month than many.

    And then I market or do whatever else needs to be done.
    Anne Wayman recently posted..See Me On Lori Widmer’s Site

  11. Carol Tice says:

    Hi Anne –

    Well, you do bring up a key point — chronobiology. Some of us can only write at certain times of day. And probably we should write when we can. Maybe I just can't resist sending a bill the minute I'm able…maybe that's just me!

  12. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted to say fantastic blog!
    http://twoj-sms.com.pl recently posted..http://twoj-sms.com.pl

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