The freelance lifestyle comes with plenty of benefits: You can choose the projects you work on, the clients you engage with, and, in many cases, the hours you work, making it one of the best ways to create a job you love or simply boost your existing income. But all those perks don’t come without hard work, dedication, and some serious organizational skills.
One of the most important realizations is that you are not alone. There are a lot of tools that freelancers can use to feel connected to others and make the most of the time they spend growing their business. The best part? They’re the kind of tools you can get without making any monetary investment—unless you want to, of course. By making simple adjustments to where and how you work, you can reap the benefits.
Ahead, find out the skills and tools career experts say can make or break your business as a freelancer.
A Top-Notch Work Environment
While some freelancers go directly to their clients’ offices to do work, they more often work from home, says Gia Ganesh, a career coach. “In such situations, you need to have a professional environment set up to do quality work,” she explains. That means a separate area that is mainly designated to be used during your work hours, designed and stocked with all the things you’d normally need to have a productive workday. She also notes that if you don’t have the ability to set up a home office that you love, it may be worth looking into co-working spaces in your area in order to create a clear separation between work and home life, and ensure you have access to an environment where you can do your best work.
A Strong Support Network
It might sound unnecessary, but having a network of contacts in your industry can make a huge difference in how you handle the day-to-day challenges of being a freelancer. “The goal of a network is not to simply complain about clients not paying or being overly demanding, but to offer actual support to one another,” explains Mary Warriner, an HR expert and career coach. While it might sound a little touchy-feely, Warriner says it’s crucial. “Learning from trial and error takes time, and having a group of people to learn from gets you much further along in a short amount of time,” she explains.
Think of all the extra income you can earn in the hours you’re not spending trying to figure things out. “This type of network also allows you to keep up-to-date on industry news, trends, and tools,” she adds. “And if you can’t find a group, create one yourself.”
A Method for Tracking Your Hours
Switching between projects for various clients in one day is quite common for freelancers, so it can be tough to figure out how much time you’re spending on each project. Ganesh points out that understanding how much time each of your clients gets is important, especially when it comes to deciding how much to charge in the future. Whether you opt for a spreadsheet system or go old school with a notebook to log your hours, it’s worth the extra effort to learn about how long tasks take to complete.
Plus, you’ll get a handle on how many hours you’re working per week, which is valuable information when you compare it with your monthly or yearly income.
A Sense of Accountability
“When you’re on your own, there is no boss telling you when your project is due or scheduling check-in meetings,” notes Warriner. That means all your drive for getting your work done needs to come from within. “You need to have a system in place to be sure you are staying on track with projects, growing your business, and not taking on too much,” she explains. This could take the form of a weekly project review meeting (with yourself), a friend or a member of your networking group to talk about your deadlines with, or even a career coach who helps you stay on track.
“The value of this last option is that, as a stranger, the coach is detached from the situation and less likely to allow you to make excuses,” she says.
The Ability to Unplug
If you’re already a freelancer, you know that separating work from your personal life is not always easy. “When you work on short-term projects and constantly work remotely from home or from a personal studio, it can be difficult to learn how to shut off and have your free time actually be free from work,” says Valerie Streif, a senior advisor with The Mentat. “Learning how to turn off and on is super important to avoid losing work/life balance. When you’re working, pour everything you have into it.
Banish distractions, and just go,” she recommends. “When you’re not working, stop checking your work email, and don’t make little changes to projects or think about what you could be doing to make more progress. Just enjoy your free time.”
A Killer Website
It might not seem like a necessity, but “a place where people can go and find out who you are and what you do is important,” notes Warriner. And it doesn’t have to be anything fancy to start. “Even a one-pager will do the trick,” she adds. No matter what business you’re in, having a digital presence is a requirement in today’s work world. Think of it this way: Even if you get most of your work through word-of-mouth, if a potential client googles you, you want them to be able to find you.
A Goal That You Stick To
Getting your business off the ground as a freelancer is a great start, but what comes next? “Do you dream of making a six- or seven-figure income freelancing? Or do you want to earn the same income as you were working full-time, and spend more time with your family? In either case, you need to start somewhere with pricing and most likely need to increase that pricing as you go,” says Warriner. Often, people get caught up in the work they’re doing and lose track of their goals, she says. “Keep your vision for your business top of mind.
Write it out or draw it, and put it up in your office,” she recommends. “Take clients who will help you get there. Turn down jobs that won’t. Keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak.”
A Future-Focused Mind-Set
“This is probably one of the hardest skills to develop,” says Streif. That’s because, as a freelancer, you’re likely to be rooted in the work you need to get done now. “Freelancers tend to pour their heart and time into whatever current thing they are working on and have a hard time putting it aside to examine the future opportunities that could be popping up.” The problem? Your freelance projects aren’t permanent. “Being able to stay motivated and forward-thinking—looking to the future for more work and projects to take on once this one ends—is a key skill to have to avoid lulls in employment (and income),” she says.
Are you a freelancer? What are the most valuable tools and skills you’ve developed?