Freelancers in every field face a constant challenge to achieve and maintain a high level of productivity and quality in their work. One of the ways that you can improve your results is by developing systems or routines for various aspects of your work.
Most likely you do some of the same things day-after-day and week-after-week. Having a proven system for getting these things done can bring several positive benefits. In this post we’ll look at why you would want to develop you own systems and some areas of freelancing life that lend themselves to systematization.
Why Use Systems?
1. Maximum Productivity
The biggest advantage to developing and using systems in your work is the potential for improved efficiency and productivity. We all have limited time available to work, and as freelancers that directly impacts how much money we make. Improved productivity can lead to more income or less working hours, both are good things.
2. Development of Good Habits
We all develop habits of some kind, especially when we’re doing similar tasks over and over again. It’s easy to develop bad habits, especially since freelancers usually have no one to keep them accountable in the same way that an employee has a boss. By consciously developing your own systems or ways of doing things you’ll be able to work on developing good habits instead of bad ones.
3. Better Quality of Work
Not only can systems help to encourage better use of your time, but they can also lead to a better product or service. You probably have a lot of experience in your field and you’ve learned some things over the years that help you to know what produces the best results. Systematically putting these things into practice can lead to a consistently high quality of work.
Different Potential Uses for Systems:
1. Handling Finances
For most freelancers, dealing with finances is one of the most dreaded aspects of the job. Tracking income and expenses as well as completing and managing client invoices can be a real struggle for many people. However, if you’re able to develop a system for handling your finances, you could easily save time in this area and avoid some potential headaches.
A system for managing your finances would of course include a method of tracking individual items, such as using a service like FreshBooks, or simply by using a plain old spreadsheet. Additionally, you could develop a schedule for performing these tasks on a regular basis. For example, you could set aside some time each Friday afternoon to record your income and expenses for the week, and to send out new invoices and to track those that are outstanding.
Without having a system in place it’s easy to overlook something that needs to be recorded, or to loose track of invoices that haven’t been paid yet. You may spend more time handling these duties sporadically and experience confusion about what has been done and what hasn’t. An effective financial system will reduce the amount of time you spend throughout the week or the month on these tasks, and you’ll be much more organized.
2. Pricing and Policies
Pricing services can be a difficult task. There is such a wide variety of services in most industries that it’s not always easy to know what you should be charging and what your potential clients will be willing to pay. If pricing is something you struggle with, you can easily spend way too much time working on quotes before the job is even secured. Of course, spending some time on pricing issues with potential clients is necessary, but too often this task sucks up more time than it should, and that means less time for income-generating work.
By setting some standard pricing procedures you can provide clients with quotes much faster, and you’ll be more confident that your work is accurately priced. Without a system it’s easy to get distracted by trying to figure out what the client will be willing to pay so you price the quote high enough without going out of their budget. With a pricing system you’ll know what your services are worth, and if they’re willing to pay, great, and if not, you can move on to another project. Without some established projects, each quote will be a labor-intensive guessing game.
In addition to just using a system to help determine what you should charge, it’s also helpful to establish your own procedures for when you expect payment and what forms of payment you will accept from clients. Most freelancers charge a portion up front before they’ll start working on a project, and this is something that is good to include in your systematic approach. If clients object it’s easier to explain the procedure by saying that it’s a standard policy that you use with all clients.
3. Time Management and Scheduling
On of the great benefits of freelancing is the flexibility and the empowerment to adjust your schedule more than you would be able to in a typical full-time job. However, too much flexibility and not enough consistency can lead to poor productivity and less-than-ideal use of your time. In order to increase your income or cut back on your hours you could develop a system for managing your time that leads to increased productivity.
For me personally, building some habits into my schedule has helped to allow me to accomplish more with my time. Scheduling certain tasks for specific blocks of time, creating and sticking with to-do lists, and taking advantage of your most productive times of the day can all lead to better results.
Everyone operates differently in these ways, but it’s important to know your own work habits and evaluate what you can do to develop a better system for your own time management. My system includes:
- Developing a to-do list at the end of each day for tasks that need to be done the following day.
- Scheduling a combination of “light” work such as responding to emails and blog comments, and more mentally taxing work such as working on a client’s website for each day to avoid overload.
- Checking the calendar each morning to make sure that I’m on target for any deadlines.
- Scheduling time to work outside of the home office (such as at a local library) to get a change of scenery and usually a boost in productivity.
- Planning time off in advance in order to prepare adequately.
4. Customer Service
Regardless of what type of services you’re providing as a freelancer, customer service is inevitably a part of your work. While it’s impossible and impractical to attempt to automate customer service, there may be some ways that you can use systems to improve in this area as well. For example, you may want to avoiding checking your email constantly throughout the day. Instead you could set specific times to check your inbox and to respond to any customer service issues that arise. Also, if you get a number of emails from customers that ask very similar questions, you could develop some email templates for responding to these issues that could then be adapted or personalized case-by-case.
Developing a system for customer service could be a sensitive issue. While it’s good to evaluate what you can do to improve your efficiency and effectiveness in this area, a freelancer needs to be personally approachable, and having too much that is systematized could lead to poor service.
5. Work Flow
So far all of the potential systems that we’ve looked at have involved different aspects of freelancing, but none have dealt with the income-generating services that keep you in business. In addition to systems for finances, pricing, time management and customer service, your everyday workflow most likely also includes some opportunities for systematization. These opportunities will depend on what you do (designing, writing, programming, etc.) and your current practices.
Designers, for example, could benefit from developing a system that includes standard procedures for getting information from clients at the start of a new project. They could also build systems into their workflow by developing habits that work well for them, such as starting a design on paper, moving to Photoshop, and then to coding. From a coding perspective, developing your own consistent practices or even creating your own CSS framework for use on your projects could lead to improved productivity.
To develop your own systems for your workflow, take a look at the steps that are involved with your typical projects. Where do you spend a lot of time and how could you standardize your approach in a way that would simplify your work or produce better results?
A Potential Downside to Systematization
With the emphasis on using routines and systems to increase productivity, it’s possible to almost become robotic in your approach if it’s taken too far. That will usually lead to a lack of satisfaction in your work and potentially more harm than good. When developing your own systems, use your own judgment to determine what is appropriate and what is not. Once your system is in place, be flexible and willing to tweak your system from time-to-time if needed. Don’t get in the habit of doing things just because it’s how you have always done them. Instead, remember that reasons behind systematization and that it doesn’t have to apply to everything you do.
What’s Your Approach?
I’m sure most of us use systems of some kind in our daily work whether we even do so intentionally or not. How do you use systems and what advice can you share with others?
Editorial Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article was first published in January 6th of 2009, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.
Photo by shimelle.