Becoming a better freelancer is a little like learning to play the guitar. There may be certain songs you know and love to play, but if they don’t present a challenge or teach you something new, you won’t progress as a guitarist. Venturing out of your comfort zone is the only way to improve.
And so it is with freelancing. Your skills progress to a certain point that you can complete certain types of jobs quickly and easily — possibly even building on work you’ve already done before. The pressure of having to complete jobs that pay dollars and cents can make it easy to forget the importance of adding future value to your freelancing business — the importance of building new skills and venturing out of your comfort zone.
Learning a new skill or refining an existing one might not always be something you can do while working for a client. An excuse I hear a lot is: “I don’t have the time to learn how to do X” — usually because the freelancer making the excuse is filling their work-day entirely with tasks that yield short-term rewards. These tasks are vitally important for the success of your business, but a secondary focus on long-term gains should also be a priority.
Here’s a suggestion: try setting aside one hour each work day to focus on a task that adds future value to your freelancing business, for the following reasons;
1. Adding new skills will allow you to choose from a wider pool of jobs.
2. Taking the time to master existing skills will allow you to take on more complicated (and thus usually higher paying) work.
3. Adding new skills will help keep your work fresh and interesting.
One hour per working day is an arbitrary number — it could be more or less, depending on your schedule and the kind of task you’ve decided to do. Just make sure to be consistent: set aside a period beginning at the same time each day. If you don’t, it will be too easy to put off ‘future value time’ in favor of short-term benefits.
If you use the time effectively, it will pay for itself many times over.
Finding real value
New skills won’t help your freelance business much if there’s no demand for them. In the time you set aside, it’s essential that you focus on skills that will allow you to a) charge more for the kind of work you’re already doing, or b) tap into new kinds of work. If you’re learning a skill with no practical application during work time, you’re leeching value rather than adding it.
Here are some starter suggestions for how different kinds of freelancers can use ‘future value time’:
1. Take the time to master that difficult code element you rarely use.
2. Read a design trade mag (even if it’s not about web design). These will give you an idea of the current cutting-edge effects, fonts and color combinations.
3. Practice new software effects and read advanced tutorials for your image editor of choice.
4. Learn a new code language you can use to make your websites better.
5. Learn Flash or Silverlight. If you already know it, master it.
1. Read books on your field of writing.
2. Read and study great examples of work in your field.
3. Practice a different style of writing than the one you most commonly use.
4. Take a course in Professional Writing, Journalism or Fiction writing.
1. Take the time to learn more about your equipment and it’s full capabilities.
2. Experiment with new effects and lighting techniques.
3. Learn to master your image editing software of choice.
4. Take an advanced photography course.
1. Experiment with a new visual medium.
2. Take a life-drawing course.
3. Experiment with a new illustration style.
4. Create a graphic novel, comic or children’s book.
When to stop
Until you’ve mastered all aspects of your freelancing business, there’s always more to learn. In the mean time, you’ll have added new skills to your repertoire and fine-tuned existing abilities. Doing so will allow you to charge higher rates and take on a greater breadth of work. Even better, it will ensure that you’re never bored with what you do. When it comes to quality of work and life, that’s invaluable.