The phrase “freelance lifestyle” tends to conjure up glamorous visions of working from anywhere in the world or making enough money to fund the pursuit of your dreams. Today, more people than ever before are striking out on their own because they are drawn to the flexibility and freedom that self-employment offers.
However, the day-to-day reality of freelancing doesn’t always live up to the ideal. Freelancers can struggle to find enough work, paychecks can be erratic, managing clients can be stressful, and working solo can be lonely. To avoid these pitfalls, here are five best practices to help you become a better freelancer, and in doing so, live the life you want.
1. Be strategic about finding work
One of the hardest things about freelancing, particularly at the beginning, can be finding the right amount of work. Too little work, and you worry about paying rent; Too much work, and you don’t have time to do anything but work. Or maybe you can find enough work, but it’s just not the type of work you want to be doing.
The best freelancers genuinely care about the projects they work on and build relationships with their employers, which is why it’s so important to be selective. Consider writing out a personal business plan or career roadmap that will get you to where you want to be as a freelancer, whether that means only taking on clients in a certain sector or making a certain amount of money a year. The more interested you are in your projects, the happier you will be and the higher the quality of the work you deliver. This, in turn, will translate into more work and new referrals.
To keep your pipeline full, you have to network and build your brand so that when someone needs your skillset, they think of you. Carving out a niche in your field can also help establish your reputation. If you are in the midst of a slow period, use that time to do outreach. If you have more work than you can handle (or if a project isn’t something you are equipped to do), it’s okay to turn an offer down.
Striking the right balance can be trial and error, but it’s essential to freelance success.
2. Know your work habits and keep a schedule
One of the great things about freelancing is that you don’t have to adhere to a strict 9-to-5 schedule, but the lack of structure can also be a challenge. For one thing, your clients may need you to be available during normal work hours. It’s fine to keep non-traditional hours, as long as you are responsive.
In addition, some freelancers find it difficult to be productive without a set schedule. A writer, for example, may have a deadline, but not day-to-day (or hour-by-hour) requirements, and it can be difficult to get motivated. If procrastinating is an issue for you, create a schedule around your personal work habits and commit to sticking with it. It’s fine if you do your best work at night or like to do a long workout in the middle of the day, the important thing is that work gets done. Also search for strategies that help you focus. This could mean renting a desk at a coworking space or investing in a nice monitor for your home office. Don’t be afraid to make investments in your working environment and career.
3. Use contracts on every project
One of the most common freelance complaints is that they do not get paid on time, and in some cases, not at all. For every project, even small ones, have the client sign a contract (or sign a contract from them) that outlines expectations around fees, expectations, and payment timelines. Contracts help create accountability on both sides and reduce the chances that you will have to wrangle to get paid. They don’t need to be exhaustive or fancy, but even a basic contract helps protect you and your interests. It’s something you can point to if a situation becomes tricky.
In the process of agreeing on the terms of an assignment, remember that you can negotiate. It’s important to determine a reasonable fee, based on your work experience and the market rate, that will enable you to make what you want while also seeming fair to clients. Many freelancers think that because it’s just them working with a large company, they don’t have the standing to ask for more money or a different payment timeline, but that’s not the case. Ask for what you need, and get it in writing. If a client refuses to pay what you feel you deserve or won’t commit to a payment timeline, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.
4. Track your income and pay your taxes
As a freelancer, you are your own payroll department. Be rigorous about tracking all your income and expenses. There are plenty of software tools out there that can help with this, and even a spreadsheet can do the job, but it’s essential that you know how much money you are making and what your outstanding invoices are, so you can budget accordingly.
Also remember to set money aside for taxes. Self-employment taxes can be high, and you don’t want to find yourself owing a vast sum of money because you spent everything you earned. Independent contractors are supposed to pay quarterly estimated taxes to the IRS, and while paying taxes four times a year may seem like a pain, it prevents the entire tax burden from bearing down on you at once.
Succeeding as a freelancer isn’t just about having the right skillset. It requires planning and organization because there is nobody to pick-up the slack. In many ways, it’s more responsibility than a full-time job, but when managed effectively, freelancing can yield the freedom and flexibility it promises.