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Ultimate productivity tips for the self-employed

Posted on Dec 11th, 2018 | Productivity

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Breaking free of having to work under the rules of upper management is a massive perk of becoming a freelancer, contractor or small business owner – but it’s important to have your own systems in place to avoid a productivity drop-off. Not getting work done quick enough (or at all) can be a source of enormous stress when the money you earn is directly based on satisfying customers. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of productivity tips that we’ve gathered over the years.

There’s something here for everyone, from total beginners to seasoned professionals.

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Navigating your way through freelancing can be tough. There’s keeping track of invoices, understanding what expenses you can claim, knowing the difference between being a sole trader or a limited company, and – perhaps most importantly – keeping on top of your cashflow.

When it comes to actually getting your work done, there’s a host of freelancer tools out there that can help you twist and turn your way through your freelancing career.

Asana

Asana allows you to create and manage projects more effectively. You can assign different tasks to team members and communicate about the project via a built-in messaging system. It’s super handy if you find yourself collaborating with other freelancers on larger-scale projects and ideas.

Boomerang

Ever wanted to schedule emails? Boomerang lets you do just that. This app allows you to write an email, schedule it, and the rest will be taken care of. And that’s not the best part.

A key benefit of Boomerang is its ability to remind you when you haven’t heard back from a client, for example if you send out some pitches and receive nothing back. Some might have slipped through the editor’s fingers or maybe your pitch was genuinely rubbish. Either way, Boomerang will give you a nudge to follow up on unanswered emails.

Flickr Creative Commons search

Copyright laws are often too overlooked on digital platforms and you could too easily find yourself in a spot of bother through using an image without the right to do so. Flickr Creative Commons search, found through the advanced search option, filters only images that have been tagged as available for commercial use.

Gimp

The GNU Image Manipulation Program is a fantastic free alternative to Photoshop. Gimp is particularly useful for cropping and changing image resolution for upload to the web, with a plethora of tool options that leaves MS Paint weeping at the finish line.

Google

Aside from the obvious search, locate and browse functions, Google’s additional software and plugins make life much easier. Google is a start-up’s best friend – it’s a toolbox in and of itself, providing a plethora of useful instruments including Drive, Documents, Spreadsheets, Hangout, Search, Chat, Calendar, and Gmail. You can have basic versions of all the Google apps for free by getting a Google account (you don’t even have to use a Google email address though it can make things easier)or if you want a professional email address and more advanced features you can get G-suite for your business.

HootSuite

Hootsuite community management tool allows you to effectively oversee all social media accounts relating to your business – including Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn – all under one login.

You can schedule hundreds of posts at once and use the social analytics tools to effectively plan your social media strategy. Scheduling tweets also allows you to experiment with the effectiveness of content posted outside working hours. TweetDeck is also great for managing several Twitter accounts at once, although it doesn’t provide a full social media overview.

IFTT (If This, Then That)

“If This, Then That” is a service that wants to “put the Internet to work for you”, and automates communications between different web services. Users are able to build “recipes” using the “if this, then that” formula – for example, if the Met Office forecasts rain, you’ll get an email reminder to take an umbrella out with you.

These little timesavers quickly add up to very helpful automation, and IFTTT has a huge library of user-created recipes which can save you time and effort.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the Aladdin’s cave of the business world – it’s not only a good way to connect with other like-minded people, learn from their experiences and get yourself noticed within your market, it also allows you to target specific groups and take part in relevant conversations.

It can be a bit frustrating wading through the pretentious ‘motivational’ quotes and spam from recruiters, but it’s a very worthwhile place to find work.

Online accounting software

By using a sophisticated online accountant like Crunch, your accounts are readily accessible to both you and your client manager. You can always see what is happening whenever you want and you can check with your client manager if there‘s anything you’re not sure about.

Spend less time worrying about your accounts and more time doing what you love!

Passpack

Chances are you’ll have many accounts, all with different login details and a company policy that prevents you from storing them on your hard drive. If this is the case, Passpack allows you to store and manage all of our passwords in a safe, encrypted online file.

Pomodoro Time

A much-respected method of working is the Pomodoro technique. Roughly translating from the Italian word for tomato (its creator named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used as a student), Pomodoro involves spending 25 minutes concentrating solely on the task in hand. Once your 25 minutes are up, take a 3-5 minute break. Continue for a full hour and then take a longer 15-30 minute break.

Pomodoro Time – available on the Mac App Store – allows you to time your Pomodoro sections and help improve both your focus and workflow.

Rescue Time

Are you one of those people who is easily distracted? You need Rescue Time. This desktop application tracks specifically where your web-activity happens and allows you to view productivity reports based on your browsing.

Self Control

Similarly to Rescue Time, if you’re really struggling to focus, download Self Control. This application allows you to block websites that are distracting for a set amount of time. If you decide you want to access the website, there’s no way to do so – even if you uninstall the app – until the timer is up.

Slack

You’re on the go and moving from co-working space, to coffee shop, to your living room – all the while trying to keep on top of your freelance email and comms. Stop, breathe, and download Slack.

Slack is a very popular instant messaging service that allows you to communicate with other users via an app for your computer or device. The main benefit of Slack is that it eliminates endless emailing back and forth. You can integrate Slack with other freelancer must-haves, such as Google Drive and Asana.

Streak

Streak is another Google plugin and CRM tool that tracks sales, hiring processes, investors, partnerships, vendors and real estate, all from within your email. This is the perfect tool to help you stay on the same page everyone in your company will become more useful as your start-up continues to grow.

SurveyMonkey

Using the powerful online survey platform, you’ll be able to make smarter and more efficient decisions, while being completely in control of your data. SurveyMonkey allows you to design your own survey, choose how these are distributed, and analyse the results with absolutely no need to outsource to a third-party company.

Toggl

Time is precious when you’re a freelancer and effective time-management can often make or break a business. Toggl allows you to break the mould when it comes to time-management with its easy to use time-tracking software.

Create projects and tasks, then start the counter. You’ll quickly see how much time you’re spending on specific working areas. Toggl also allows you to enter whether a project is billable – giving you the option to show clients on what tasks their money is being spent.

Transferwise

If you work across multiple countries, chances are you quickly tire of being charged large amounts by banks for transferring funds. Transferwise is worth signing up to because it can be cheaper and easier than banks or other services and claims to have lower fees and better rates.

Simply log in, choose the currency you want to convert from and to, and into whose bank account you’d like the money to go, then pay with a debit or credit card. It really couldn’t be any simpler.

Trello

If you need some support organising your freelance work, Trello is your go-to app. It allows you to sort your workload into projects and subsequently into boards. For example, you could create a project called Editorial Work and boards labelled ‘To Write’, ‘In Progress’, and ‘Complete’. In each board you create cards for different pieces you’re working on.

The idea behind Trello is that you move the cards along the boards in time with your workflow. Trello then creates a great visual aid to see the different stages your work is at.

WolframAlpha

This is particularly useful for the writers amongst us. This knowledge engine will generate facts to aid you in whatever piece of content you’re writing. For example, if you wanted to know what a specific currency was worth at a certain time, WolframAlpha will tell you.

Got any other time and energy saving hacks and apps? Leave them in the comments below!

Being organised comes as second nature for some folks. They’re the kind of people who strategically plan aspects of their life and usually enjoy doing so. For others, being organised isn’t as important and they can be more content living each day as it comes, relishing the chaos that this can bring.

If you’re running a business, chances are you’ll have to adhere to some level of organisation. Missing important work deadlines, invoices or falling behind with bookkeeping would be detrimental to your chances of running a smooth operation. Make time to ensure you’re following the following steps and awaken the organisational beast inside of you.

Get it out of your head

Keeping track of all the jumble your brain produces is a way of filtering and processing the bizarre tangle of grey matter. It can be hard to think properly when your mind is darting all over the place. Putting your thoughts down on paper allows you structure, prioritise and work through one thing at a time.

Jotting down and note making can also be a way of alleviating stress. It’s thought that the more organised you are, the less stressed you’ll be. Instead of keeping it all in your mind, it’s on a handy piece of paper for you to reference when you need to.

Stop it and tidy up

A free-flowing chasm of paperwork, cold cups of coffee and God knows what else can be soothing to some, the flip side is that it can be a cause of stress and upset to others. Keep a bin – or even better a recycling bin – nearby to chuck unneeded paper in. Survive on cola? Get rid of the empty cans. Not referenced the notepad in your tray for a year? Put it away.

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg-Carter found that clutter can “bombard our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.” However, for some you might need visual stimulation, especially if you’re a creative.

Think about how you work best. Some clutter might be good but if you have a huge pile of unnecessary things taking up your deskspace you might want to rethink their purpose.

Plan ahead

It’s fantastic when you’re freelancing full time. You’re in total control of your life. Need to take a sunny Wednesday off work? Why not! There isn’t anyone telling you what to do and when. However, you still need to plan and organise your time effectively in order to meet deadlines and get your workload complete.

Planning ahead can help you be a lot more organised with your time. Using your phone, calendar, or even an old-school diary to pencil in time slots when you’re working on certain projects can bolster your productivity, allowing you to see what the week holds instead of winging each day. It’s important to plan for some dull admin time too: bookkeeping, receipt filing or invoicing.

Many of us spend our working lives in a state of sensory bamboozlement – juggling endless to-do lists, while practising mindless online procrastination. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Honing productivity is actually very simple – you just have to put the science into practice.

Work in blocks

According to the ultradian rhythm theory, our brains are only able to stay focussed for up to 90 minutes at a time. We’re therefore better able to manage our energy levels for longer periods if we take regular breaks throughout the day.

Working in blocks of 20 to 30 minutes – and taking a short break in between – has been found to make you more focussed, while cutting out the desire to procrastinate.

Exercise for seven minutes every day

We’re all aware of – even if some choose to ignore – the fact that exercise is good for overall happiness and wellbeing. What some may not know, however, is that it’s also been proven to be excellent for productivity.

Research on mice has found that regular exercise helps slow down the brain’s ageing and deterioration process and will help keep you sharper for longer. For freelancers, this is both fabulous and frightening – fab because you can take your exercise break at home without looking like a fool running laps around the office; frightening because there is no excuse not to.

To help you on your way, the New York Times has compiled The Scientific 7-minute Workout, designed to deploy only your body weight, a wall and your trusty desk chair to give you a high intensity workout – all based on science.

Wake up early and avoid the snooze button

Waking up early is a productivity method favoured by a wide range of insanely successful folk. Franklin, Obama, Branson and Darwin have all shunned the lie-in by developing what Robin Sharma refers to as “mind over mattress.”

Waking up one hour earlier each day will gain you fifteen days in a year – suddenly you have time to tackle all those tasks that you generally never quite get round to. The perils of the snooze button have also been linked to reduced productivity.

Take naps

Research shows taking very short naps throughout the day leads to improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking and memory performance. In particular, research has shown that the learning process benefits from napping by helping us take in and retain information better.

This technique isn’t so appropriate for the office dweller, who very probably can’t just peace out to snore upon their keyboard, but is a very viable option for freelancers. Napping will not only help you avoid burning out but is beneficial for solidifying memories and helping us retain new information.

Develop a daily routine

According to Parkinson’s law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and with so many daily distractions, this is likely a sad fact of many people’s working lives. As freelancers, it’s even more difficult because there’s no definitive cut-off point from which to leave the office and head home. Instead, you must take control of your working routine.

Developing a daily routine is a brilliant way of sectioning out each day and prioritising tasks, while setting time limits, taking breaks and practising all of the nifty tips that have previously been discussed. Routines also help to condition the brain to concentrate on specific things at specific times throughout the day.

Many of history’s greatest thinkers followed very specific routines and by creating your own system, you’ll find that you not only become a more productive person, but also eliminate the stresses that come skipping along beside a chaotic and disorganised working life.

Getting your head around the intricacies of the British tax system as well as credit control, business development and marketing while still having a functional family and social life can seem all-but impossible.

Once you’ve decided to go freelance, there are thousands of things you can tweak to make your job just that little bit easier. We’ve picked out our favourite practical tips to help you become a master freelancer that tiny bit sooner.

Answer machine – set up a custom voicemail

If you’re the kind of person who hands out business cards willy-nilly, there are lots of bits of paper with your phone number on floating around. Quite logically, this might mean you get a higher-than-normal number of phone enquiries, but nothing will put off a potential enquiry faster than an anonymous, robo-voicemail.

Take five minutes and record yourself a nice friendly, professional greeting. You’ll be surprised by how many more voicemails you get – and you can respond at your leisure rather than answering the phone on the toilet.

Business processes – do they need evaluating?

A wise marketing man once said, ‘If it’s not speeding the boat up, it’s slowing it down’ – assess which of your business processes and activities are not adding value and either restructure them so that they are, or say ‘ta-ra’.

Think about what you want to achieve this year. Perhaps you want more clients, to learn extra marketable skills or increase your rates. By putting your objectives into a manageable format such as a chart or spreadsheet, you will be able to effectively measure your progress.

You’ll also need to think about what needs to be done in order to achieve your aim, how much this will cost and set realistic timelines. By following this more structured method, you‘ll be constantly aware of exactly what you’re doing and why. You can then evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

Client-base – do they need rethinking?

You may find you still have a few clients from the beginning of your career who pay much less than others and, in some cases, require more time and attention. This is a good opportunity to assess which clients are holding you back and practice the “first-in, first-out” method, where you get rid of the clients that pay less and replace them with ones that pay more, thereby increasing your daily income and managing your time cost effectively.

Contracts – get a standard one

It’s an easy situation to get yourself into. You find a new client, you agree some work and excitedly get started – all without getting the all-important contract in place.

This isn’t the end of the world as certain rights – including the right to payment – are legally enforceable without a contract. In most cases you’ll always be in better shape if you both sign a contract though. This frequent omission can be easily rectified by knocking up (or finding) a standard contract.

Get into the habit of shooting this off to new clients before you start work and all your problems are solved!

Cost effectiveness – examine your projects

A good way to visualise the cost effectiveness of your work is to create a graph using Google Charts and enter how much each job costs, the time it takes to complete and the profit you then make – you will quickly see what type of jobs pay off and what don’t and can then focus on building more cost-effective projects with clients that pay.

Email address – only use one

One of the best things about modern email systems is the ability to pool multiple addresses into one inbox – but this can be a double-edged sword. Accidentally email a client from your personal rather than business email address and you’ll be, at best, confusing them. At worst your email could get lost in the quagmire of a badly-configured CRM system and ignored forever!

Either stick to a single email address across the board or enforce a strict line of demarcation between business and pleasure. Consider keeping them in separate inboxes and only opening work emails during business hours.

File names – Use sensible ones

"Bad

The above is a surefire way to drive yourself to insanity.

Ever received an email from a client asking if you can “just resend your most recent invoice’”, only to find yourself in a fit of sweaty rage two hours later, cursing your filing system to the depths of hell?

Avoid organisational nightmares such as this by implementing sensible file structures and naming conventions – and keep your clients in mind too. If all of Acme Inc.’s freelancers sent them invoices named “Acme Invoice 2018″, then finding your particular invoice on their system is going to be a bit tricky, yes?

Marketing – make it a priority

Many freelancers work by the maxim of ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, and concentrate on the jobs they have, rather than thinking about where the next one is coming from. This can often lead to the familiar scenario of a manic period of working all hours, followed by a period of doing absolutely nothing.

To avoid this you need to set aside time each and every week – no matter how busy you are – for marketing your services and publicising yourself. This could be through networking, responding to job adverts, advertising, social media, cold calling or a multitude of other methods. However you do it, just make sure it is a set part of your schedule, rather than being done in a haphazard fashion when you have nothing else on.

Portfolio – does it need updating?

Hopefully, you’ve had a superb year, and as such have many more projects to add to your portfolio. Take this opportunity to ensure your portfolio is up-to-date and has the pieces you are most proud of displayed most clearly. This will be important when you come to look for new, better-paying clients.

Reminders

This might seem obvious but you’d be amazed how many miss deadlines because they simply forget. At the start of the year, set reminders well in advance of each deadline, on top of the dates set in your calendar, this way you will be bamboozled with reminders and won’t ever miss a date.

Suppliers – do they need reviewing?

Every year there are more and more cheap options for stationery and supplies available online. Regular paper, printer ink and stationery costs can be trimmed at sites such as Staples and Viking Direct, while Vistaprint and Moo does great deals for printing and business cards.

Web hosting also needs to be evaluated. Is it the most cost-effective option available?

Although it’s tempting to just renew contracts each year, by taking a few minutes to research your alternatives, you could save a fair bit of cash overall.

Taxes – don’t ignore them!

For the sake of your sanity, and your business, never leave anything to the last minute, least of all Self Assessment. Start good habits now and keep on top of your finances every month as you progress through the year. Once you get the momentum, you will find it takes hardly any time and removes a large chunk of the stress and anguish felt in January.

Missing any of the Companies House or HMRC deadlines could cost your company in the thousands and you could be at risk of losing your company altogether.

Filing Self Assessment early also gives you time to save for your tax bill. If you leave it all to the last minute, you could find you don’t have the extra cash required to pay the full amount outright, which will also incur you extra fines.

This jargon-free blog post will also help you figure out how, what and when you need to file as a limited company director.

Need Self Assessment help?

At Crunch, we’re experts at looking after life’s numbers, so you can trust us to make your Self Assessment as worry-free as it can be. Our expert chartered accountants will take care of you, just like we did for over 7,500 clients in the last tax year.

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Written by Tom West

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