How to gain back control of your life when freelancing

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Freelancing can take over your life. You can easily spend every waking moment, hunched over your desk trying to make ends meet while dealing with over-demanding clients who place unrealistic deadlines on you.

It's certainly the case when you first start a business – but you'd be surprised just how many freelance veterans are still dealing with these common issues.

If you're reading this and you've grown to despise freelancing, it's time to take stock, reassess and come up with a strategy that will help you get back in the driving seat and gain control of your life.

Start each day a little earlier

I love those days when I've showered, dressed, exercised and had a healthy breakfast before 6.30am. It doesn't happen often. But when it does – I have the most productive day imaginable. And I feel happy and in control. Those two or three hours before the phone starts ringing allow me to focus and concentrate on any problematic projects that need my complete attention.

It's also a part of the day when I'm feeling the most creative. Plus it's fantastic to have emailed all of my clients before they've even woken up, showing them some complete work. It not only impresses them, but it starts my day with an absolute bang. My advice? Early nights and early starts make a happy freelancer.

Tackle the small, unwelcome jobs first

Do you know how those annoying little jobs seem to hang over our heads like a stormy rain cloud? They can make us feel unproductive, ruin our day and stop us from making good progress. My advice is to tackle them as soon as possible. I tend to get any annoying or unwelcome jobs out of the way first thing every morning. I then feel fantastic that I've accomplished them and feel like I'm 'on a roll' for the rest of the day, tackling my remaining workload with a scary level of efficiency and passion.

Keep a clean and tidy office

You know what they say – tidy home, tidy mind! And this is the case when it comes to our work environments. Keep your desk clean and clutter-free, and you'll feel in control and happy. Take some time at the end of each working day to file things away and organise everything. If you're reading this on a desk that could do with a spring clean, buy some office supplies or storage boxes so you can start to enjoy the benefits of a tidy office.

Set boundaries and deadlines

To gain back control, establish a regular working routine and make sure you stick to it. For example, you could say to yourself that you'll work at 8am until 5pm with a one hour break for lunch at noon – and two 15 minute breaks during the morning and afternoon. Make sure you stick to this routine by setting the alarm and being strict with yourself.

You should also set boundaries with how many times you're allowed to check your email. As email can be very distracting and take your focus away from real work, it makes sense only to check your inbox once or twice each day. Some recommend not checking emails until late morning and instead focusing on essential jobs first thing. I'd agree with this – but I set myself two periods to check email: once at 10am, and another at 3pm. It has helped me significantly to stay productive.

Create lists and tick things off

I use Things for essential task management, and I keep it regularly updated with all my daily projects. Once I've completed a task, I remove it and feel a huge sense of satisfaction for making progress. Use this or a similar service to keep on top of your workload.

Charge more, work less

If you're working long hours, it's time to get tough and reassess all of your clients and what you're charging them. Prepare yourself for a regular 'annual review' where you outline all your achievements to each client and how you've successfully supported them – all to justify a necessary (and unavoidable) increase in rates. Write a letter well in advance to warn clients of a potential rate increase, and how much that will be. You might even decide that some clients have to go, so increasing rates might help them to walk away.

But to spread the risk – approach some clients in July, halfway through the year, and some in December. Read my Tips article on how to increase your rates without losing clients and also how to weed out unwanted clients and grow your business.

Be tough with time-wasters

For some strange reason, people assume that freelancers have a comfortable life and loads of spare time. It isn't the case at all. So deal with time-wasters accordingly. Tackle unwelcome visitors, phone calls and emails politely but with efficient ruthlessness. Establish boundaries with friends or family who want to 'pop in for a brew' or chat over the phone during office hours.

Say 'no' to people who want free favours. Learn to tackle freeloaders and make them back off. Get better at spotting potential clients who never intend to hire you. Read my tips on how to deal with time-wasters and you'll be on the right track.

Learn to say no

Learning how and when to say 'no' will become your saving grace. Whether it's friends who want to use your skills for free or a client asking you to work through the weekend to meet a Monday deadline. Saying 'no' will set you free! Establish boundaries and stick to them. Make it clear that you're not available to work for no money and you certainly won't give up your Saturdays and Sundays to suit other people's needs.

You need to have more self-respect. Put your foot down, but do so as politely as possible. Being firm, but fair is critical here. Read our tips on when and how to say 'no' when freelancing.

Avoid the vampires

When you become a success, there will inevitably be people keen to share – or even steal – that success. You'll be approached by competitors, other freelancers, larger agencies or even just 'friends'. They'll always be trying to get your attention and 'go for coffee' to pick your brains. But the meeting will almost always weigh in their favour, as they try to sniff out anything that might suit them. You walk away wondering why you bothered.

While networking is generally positive and helpful, leading to some beneficial connections, there will be some 'vampires' who are only out to get you. My advice? Don't be naive – but treat everyone with the same open heart and don't assume the worst. Always give people a chance but keep those cards even closer to your chest.