It sounds crazy to say this out loud, but I’ve been freelancing for over five years now. It seems like forever and feels like I’m only getting started all at the same time.
After a few years of pretty steady work and income, I made a few strategic changes and in 2019 my income skyrocketed. Sure, part of that was due to luck and being in the biz for a while, but a big part of it was also buckling down and focusing on some very specific things.
Inside Location Rebel Academy, we often find new members asking for freelancing advice. They often want to know what lessons have people learned that they are willing to share.
While I’ve blundered into my share of mistakes over the years I’ve also discovered a few universal truths too that I’ve seen a lot of other freelancers both struggle with and overcome. So I wanted to share my thoughts on what I’ve seen, learned and done over the past few years of freelancing.
Some of these probably seem obvious, but when you’re in the trenches it’s easy to get a bit lost in your head. And others, well, I wished I learned those from day one instead of day, oh 1,001.
Hopefully, a few will resonate and save you a bit of time (and heartache) along the way!
Lesson #1: Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Ooooh boy, this is the biggie and it can be hard to overcome. But, the faster you do the better off you’re going to be. Here’s the first universal truth: you are never going to feel good about yourself when you compare where you are now to someone who is 1, 2, 5 years down the road.
When you do this, you’ve entered yourself in an unfair fight because 99% of the time, you’re going to lose. And that’s a kick to your psyche before you’ve done anything. So, stop doing it.
Think of it as a video game. You are a level one freelance writer. You are pretty much always going to lose to level 7 writers. Focus on doing what you can do to improve yourself. Maybe you learn copywriting or SEO and add those to your skillset. That’s a much better use of your time.
Also, appreciate how far you’ve come. It likely wasn’t that long ago that you’d never created a website, sent a Tweet, or published a post.
Lesson #2: Get Organized
I know, I know I sound like your mom yelling at you to do your homework. As a formerly non-organized person who has seen the light, I can’t tell you how important this is.
Once you start freelancing, you’re going to have a ton of stuff on your plate. A one person show means everything falls on you, that’s email, social media, pitching clients, doing work, updating your website, everything. It’s so easy for things to fall through the cracks because you’re trying to keep your head above water.
I use a block scheduling system to get work done.
The green is the stuff that is good and makes me money the red is the stuff that’s necessary but I want to minimize. Note, I always make time for marketing and I have a block of time on Sunday nights scheduled where I plan my work for the upcoming week.
Lesson #3: Action Beats Research
Back with the action stuff again, huh?
Yup, it’s that important.
I love this post by James Clear about motion versus action. Here’s his simple explanation of the difference between the two:
Motion is when you’re busy doing something, but that task will never produce an outcome by itself. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will get you a result.
A common trap for new freelancers is they spend a lot of time reading and researching (aka procrastinating). I’m not shaming you, I’ve done it myself. The problem is unless you are putting what you read into action, it’s not doing anything.
You might feel like you’ve ‘done work’ but you haven’t.
Instead, take action, set your self up for success by creating action based goals every week. “Marketing” is fuzzy but “send out two Letters of Introduction (LOIs) a day” is not.
If you get lost or feel stuck, always default to action. More often than not just taking one small step forward is enough to make you feel better and get the ball rolling.
Lesson #4. Take Action Every Single Day
This ties in with the above lesson, defaulting to taking action.
I never thought I’d be one of ‘those’ people, but now I’m a devotee of a daily to do list. I know enough about myself and the way I work by now to understand that I need to have a system in place for getting things done.
For me, that boils down to a weekly ‘main goal’ that is broken down into daily tasks. Every day, I open up my list and go through the things I have on it one by one. When that list is done, I get an A+ for that day. If I want extra credit, I can start on the next day’s list, or I can take the afternoon off, I took action and my tasks are done.
Doing this gives me 52 mini goals to hit each year. Even hitting 80% of them is a massive push forward.
Lesson #5: Focus on the Right Things
This ties in with the two steps above about taking action. Notice this is becoming a theme?
I think a lot of beginning freelancers focus on the fluff and not the important things. They will spend 5 hours picking website themes or the color of an email me now button instead of working on the things that are going to get clients or make money.
I know this well. It’s scary to jump out there and start doing things so you focus on the things that don’t matter as much because they are easier. It’s a good recipe for getting nowhere.
Here’s an easy example: I get emails every week from people asking me tips or strategies for getting freelance writing clients because they aren’t having luck. The first thing I do is ask how much marketing are they doing. In about 95% of the cases, the answer is little to none.
Welp, there’s why you don’t have any clients. So focus on that starting right now. When in doubt, default to focusing on your marketing.
Spend your energy working on the things that are going to build your influence and bring in clients.
Lessons #6: Get Used to Hearing No
When you start freelancing you’re going to strike out more than pickup artist, that’s a fact. You are going to hear no a ton.
Don’t let that discourage you. Don’t think that everyone is going to tell you no and it’s pointless. Don’t get down on yourself and give up.
You have to work on forming a thicker skin around rejection. Yea, it sucks, and it can hurt, but that’s business.
So when you get a no, pick yourself up and move on. Don’t take it personally, more often than not, you’re just not the right fit at this time. If you keep trying, eventually, you’ll get to a point where you start hearing fewer no’s and more yesses.
And, don’t forget, you can always go back to the people who told you no in a few weeks or a few months and they could turn into clients. The power of following up!
Lesson #7: Hours Don’t Equal Work
This is another hard one to learn. I think partially it’s because we hear so much now about entrepreneurship and the hustle, you have to work 20 hour days and never see your family to make it.
That’s not true and, in fact, that is a really awesome way to burn yourself out and blow up your burgeoning freelance business. You don’t need to be working that much, and frankly, you shouldn’t be.
The hours worked don’t count nearly as much as the focused work does. Most people can get more done in three hours of super focused, no interruptions no internet type work than seven hours of ‘working’ between listening to a few podcasts, checking Facebook, and researching.
I mean, think about your day in the office. Your tush might be in the chair for 8 hours but, with some exceptions, you’re wasting plenty of time each day gossiping with co-workers, taking extended bathroom strolls, hovering over the candy bowl that one admin always has, and sneaking looks at your phone 17 times an hour.
This also means give yourself some slack. Three hours of great focused work is awesome. Celebrate that.
Lesson #8: Breaks are Ok
Not only are breaks ok, they are advised. No matter how awesomely your biz is running there’s a lot of stress associated with freelancing, even if you don’t always feel it. A lot of that is due to the pressure of everything being on you.
So it’s really important that you allow yourself to have breaks and even schedule them into your life. These can be super small like meeting a friend for lunch or a coffee or taking three or four days to unplug. If you have your business set up the right way, you can take these breaks and not miss a beat when you come back.
Even though the temptation is there, don’t work 7 days a week to start, build in time not only for your friends and family but for yourself too.
Lesson #9: Have a Life
Work is not your life and life is not your work. Don’t get so bogged down with creating a new business that you forget everything else.
Yes, before you complain, growing a business takes time and if you have a full-time job (like I did when I started mine) it’s already hard to find the time.
But you have to. Don’t ignore friends and family and the things you like to do.
Make time, if it’s once every few weeks or once every few months to spend time with them without work hovering in the background.
Go for walks, enjoy your hobby, go to the beach in the middle of the week, don’t just sit at your laptop all day. And, if you ever get the feeling that you’re stuck of you’ve hit a wall, take a break, and come back to it a day or two later.
Lesson #10: You’re Going to Get Overwhelmed
“Not me,” she cried, as she collapsed into a puddle of tears on the co-working office floor. Yup, you (and you, and you). This is commonly known as ‘being overwhelmed’ and it’s going to happen so get ready for it.
Thankfully, there are a couple of things you can do to lessen or avoid overwhelm.
First, follow step #8, when you’re exhausted and stressed out overwhelm can strike really easily.
Second, stop thinking so far down the road. Overwhelm commonly happens when you focus on step 100 without doing steps 1-99 first. Focus on the step directly in front of you and get that done, skipping things does not make you money or get you famous more quickly.
Use a system where you can break your goals down into smaller more manageable chunks and you’ll be in much better shape.
Lesson #11: Practice Self Discipline (and Self Awareness)
If you are someone who needs to be told to do something 15 times before you do it, things as a freelancer aren’t going to work out so well.
You need to be well versed in self-discipline and project management if you want to succeed as a freelancer and if you’re not, you’ve got to learn how to start.
One way to do that is to be self-aware. Understand where your weaknesses lie in getting things done and work on ways to improve them.
It might be as simple as building that self-discipline muscle to get you in a better place. Or, you might need to hire someone who can take care of all those tasks that need to get done but you find yourself unable to do consistently.
Lesson #12: Done is Better Than Perfect
Nothing is ever perfect. Not you, not me, not this post according to someone who will email me and tell me I spelled something wrong. And guess what? That is ok.
When it comes to this lifestyle, go to the backyard and bury your perfectionism, otherwise, you’ll never make progress.
And, no, that doesn’t mean you can turn in sloppy work to your clients. With that stuff, you want to make it as perfect as possible. I’m talking about working on your own products, projects, posts, and guides.
Don’t wait for everything to be perfect before you share it with the world. You can always (and should) go back and improve things later.
Lesson #13: Cultivate a Good Reputation
Here’s another universal truth, the online world isn’t quite as big as you think it is. This is especially true when it comes to certain niches and influencers. So, if you’ve had a run in with someone that wasn’t a good look on your end, other people are probably going to hear about it.
This is common courtesy from our kindergarten days, but it bears repeating, don’t be mean or screw people over. Word travels fast.
If you’ve been burned or feel slighted by someone, take a deep breath and wait a day before you send that email. It’s natural for our emotions to get the best of us sometimes, but you don’t want one out of character email because you were mad ruin all the good work you’ve put in over time.
Lesson #14: Get into a Mastermind or Accountability Group
Taking the leap and joining a solid mastermind group was one of the things I still point to today as a key to being able to make it as a freelancer. My first group was a bunch of other Location Rebel members who are not only all seeing success in various different areas, but who I’m still friends with today years later.
While the mastermind portion is really important for the business side of things, I also think it’s key for the mental and emotional side too. Let’s face it, building an online business still isn’t that common, so having people who understand what you’re going through is crucial, especially at the start.
If you’ve been thinking about creating or joining your own mastermind group, check out this post.
Lessons #15: It’s Hard Work
All of this isn’t easy. There is no magic scheme, no simple tool, no special product or service that is going to turn you into a force overnight. You need to put in a lot of work on the right path. I think this short video from Noah Kagan touches on the hard work part pretty well (NSFW).
Virtually every single ‘famous/rich/happy’ person you see online has put in years and years of hard work. They’ve taken crappy paying jobs, they’ve dealt with bad clients. They’ve heard thousands of no’s.
They have also had periods of being overwhelmed, being broke, and have thought about quitting it all and going back to an office. It might only be for a few moments, but it’s happened. So, when you feel that way, you’re not alone, we’ve all been there.
So these are my big lessons.
No doubt you have (or will) experience some of these, as well as your own. Just know that it is possible to get things done and freelance consistently over a long period of time.
You’ll have your ups and downs but knowing how to get through them can really make all the difference.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far? Share in the comments!
Note: This post was updated in February 2020 for accuracy.