This month, I've been chatting with lots of freelancers about the problems they face when running a business.
And it seems to me that many of their issues could be solved if they just addressed a few bad habits. Like continually checking their phones or answering client calls out of office hours, for example.
Breaking habits is not so easy. Instagram is addictive, after all. And procrastination is always more tempting when there's a challenging project on the cards that you can't seem to face. But have no fear! They say habits are patterns of behaviour that can be broken with a little discipline.
Here, I'll explore the six, most common bad habits that you freelancers are guilty of and offer advice on how to break them so you can be happier at work and run a more profitable business.
1. You're too easily distracted
You might be procrastinating, or you could be addicted to social media. Whatever it is, you're too easily distracted, and it's affecting your productivity. You need to take action. My advice would be to immediately:
- Switch off all notifications on your desktop, mobile and tablet (that includes whether someone has "liked" your latest Instagram post
- Delete all apps from your smartphone, if you can bear it (especially if you find yourself continually checking Instagram, Twitter, BBC News and all emails on repeat)
- Check email twice daily. No more, no less. You shouldn't be sitting there, hitting "refresh" – the world won't end if you leave your inbox for a couple of hours
- Turn off your phone during busier periods. Make sure your voicemail says something like "I'm sorry I can't take your call right now. I'm either away from my desk or in a meeting. If your call is urgent, please leave a message after the tone, and I'll get back to you asap." That way, if a voicemail notification comes through, you know it's urgent.
Remove as many distractions as possible to free up time and allow yourself to work productively. Because the more chance you have to focus, the more you'll get done without having to work long hours.
2. You're starting work too late each day
"Lose an hour in the morning, and you will spend all day looking for it," said Richard Whately. And he couldn't be more right.
Get up early every day, and you'll get more done in less time. How? Because we create our best work in the morning. It's when our brains are rested and most productive. And if you can be at your desk before the phone starts ringing, even better! You'll have one or two blissful hours of concentration to tackle your most demanding jobs without interruption. You'll feel amazing for the rest of the day.
If you feel terrific, you'll be on a high and able to tackle everything else on your job list before leaving your desk at a reasonable hour. This happiness boosts your motivation to work, makes you more productive and sets you up handsomely for the following day.
3. You're working 24/7
You've been at your desk since dawn, and now it's dark outside and almost time for bed. You have to wonder – are you not charging clients enough, so you feel compelled to take too much work on? In which case, address this situation immediately.
Create a spreadsheet of all your clients and the day rates you charge each one. Consider where the spread of your turnover is coming from. Is there someone you could lose to free up more of your time to work with a more lucrative client? One that pays you more money for less time?
If that's not the case with anyone, then it's time to consider increasing your rates. Now, before you start firing out emails, consider the risk involved. You don't want to alienate everyone in one hit. Best to spread the risk and tackle each client one by one. See how it goes and then decide whether to try another client.
With all new clients, test out a slightly higher day rate. You'd be surprised just how quickly you can boost your turnover by analysing your accounts. Not sure how much to charge? Read our tips on calculating your rates.
4. You've failed to set boundaries
A client might call you on a Sunday evening, but that doesn't mean you should answer the phone. As freelancers, we're petrified of losing business, and that can mean we neglect our work/life balance and happiness, to seemingly keep clients happy. Instead, do the following:
Establish your "office hours" with all new clients... during that initial meeting, on your website, on your social media channels (where applicable) and within your email signature. These might not be the hours you choose to work, but they'll certainly help to set boundaries.
Never answer business calls out of office hours, unless your client pays for 24/7 support. To help, get a separate mobile phone for work (surely, you can afford a basic pay-and-go solution?) and switch it off during downtime. Ensure it has a voicemail that reiterates when you're available and at your desk, i.e. "You've reached [NAME]. My office hours are Monday to Friday, from 9 am until 5 pm. Please leave a message after the beep, and I'll return your call when I'm back at my desk."
If you really can't resist checking emails on a Sunday evening, get the Boomerang extension for Gmail and write a reply to schedule to send on Monday morning, for example. That way, you've tackled the enquiry and can enjoy the rest of your evening. And your client doesn't get into the habit of thinking you're available during weekends or evenings.
5. You're doing work that makes you unhappy
It could be the client who's making you miserable. It could be that you feel the need to say yes to everything, to keep the wolf from the door. Whatever the reason, doing stuff that you're not passionate about is hurting your business more than you think.
You won't be able to shout about the project as much, as it won't become a decent case study. And because it's not something you're proud of, it's unlikely to attract bigger and better projects.
If you're not getting the kind of work you love, then why not consider a side project to showcase your skills and boost your profile? Like animator James Curran and his lucrative "Gifathons". Or Emily Forgot, who said in a recent interview with Creative Boom, "If I’m not getting the kind of work where I feel inspired, I always take a step back and take stock to re-evaluate. I always thought that if I want to be doing work that I love, then I have to be making that work for people to see.
"It won’t always come out of commercial projects so self-initiated projects, exhibitions... finding the time to focus on personal endeavours has been significant and in turn has had a knock-on effect on the commercial side of things."
Take stock, reassess and consider launching a side project to begin to attract the kind of excellent work that makes you leap out of bed each morning.
6. You're sitting at your desk for far too long
Chronic neck or back pain could be yours if you spend too much time sitting at your desk. Hell, sitting might even kill you, according to a (relatively) recent report by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
We're not designed to be sedentary. We should be on our feet for at least two hours every day during working hours. So jump up from your desk, throw on your shoes and get outside to stretch your legs at lunchtime. Don't forget to take breaks during the day. Use apps like Awareness or Workrave to remind you to take five at regular intervals.
And then address your desk setup to keep your body happy. Adopt the right posture. Consider whether your desk is the right height or if your chair is giving you proper lumbar support. Are you reaching too much for your keyboard? Is your screen too far away? Check out these hacks to make your workspace as healthy as possible.