How a retreat helped my freelance business

Back in 2007, I called it quits at a newspaper where I had a fulltime job and began my career as a freelancer. Since then, I’ve worked with many clients on exciting projects that have taken me across the breadth and length of India. These were mostly medium to long term projects that involved filming in the field or editing back at the studio.

Recently, through no effort on my part, I landed a couple of clients I’ve now started working on a retainer basis. This was something new for my business. I’ve never had experience working with multiple clients vying for my attention simultaneously.

I like developing a relationship with clients, and I was unsure if I had the time to take up new clients. Working on multiple projects with multiple clients was also proving to be taxing. It came to a point when I felt overwhelmed. This was affecting my productivity. Before things got out of my control and began impacting client work, I applied the brakes.

I took two days off, after informing all my clients I would not be available and got into a self-directed professional retreat. Two days later, I felt refreshed and more positive about my freelance business and what the horizon looked like.

I’m sharing what I did during my professional retreat to help freelancers like me who are struggling with balancing projects, perhaps taking on more than you can chew or are unclear if that juicy new project is something you can handle.

Here’s what I did.

1. Stock Check

First things first, make a list of all current clients and projects. This includes paying clients as well as personal projects you may be working on. Some of these may be on the back burner. For example, that book project you were researching but have not got around to moving forward.

Put them all down.

When I finished my list, I realised I was engaged with 10 different projects — paid and personal.

2. Evaluate Professional Services, Systems and Tools

Often, when we feel overwhelmed, it’s not because of the number of projects, but because of our systems. A system we used early on, may not have kept pace with the growth of our freelance business.

I listed all the professional services, systems and tools I was using in my freelance work. I use Office 365 for my email server, cloud storage and for apps like word processor and spreadsheets. I use Evernote to organise my projects, clients, interesting sites and articles I come across while browsing, and for general note-taking.

I use QuickBooks Online to invoice clients and maintain my freelance business accounts.

I also had a look at my file systems on my computer, laptop and cloud. I realised my method of archiving work, including the tons of photographs and videos, is something I had started back in 2007. I’ve not found a better way, but this is one of the tasks I’ve added to my projects to-do list.

Once we’ve evaluated our current systems and identified any leaks / weak links, we are ready to move ahead in the professional retreat.

3. Identify Professional Goals

As a freelancer, I tend to take up projects and clients as they come. It’s the fear of missing out in a sense. But professional goals are what should drive actions and plans as freelancers.

If you are anything like me, I am continually identifying Professional Development Goals and learn new skills regularly. I started out writing code for computer databases but soon began writing non-fiction features for newspapers. Writing was something I did in school and college for magazines. I also learnt and handled news design while working at the paper. From there, I began also working on photojournalism projects. Photography was something new to be back in 2004, and I lapped up everything I could to learn the art and craft of photojournalism.

When I began freelancing, the moving image caught my attention, and so I learnt filmmaking. I soon started taking on video journalism projects for international television in India.

Today, I concentrate on writing and documentary film editing projects.

Evaluating my current projects vis-à-vis my current professional goals, I found some projects were carried forward remnants from my earlier work profiles.

While they paid the bills, are these something I really want to take forward? I know I need to gradually phase out these projects replacing them with new projects or even new clients that align with my goals.

4 Create a Work Calendar

Now that we’ve evaluated our systems, current projects and goals, its time for the business end of the retreat — creating a work calendar.

A calendar is the best friend of a freelancer. I’ve seen freelancers on YouTube talk about large wall calendars, calendars spread across their desk and calendars synced across devices. This was one area I severely lacked. I used a calendar only for hard appointments, not for tasks. My tasks were notes in Evernote, following the GTD method. While this is great to have an overview of what’s going on and what needs to be done, I realised I also needed some sort of calendar for project management.

Since I use Office 365, I use Outlook’s calendars.

I first slot in recurring tasks into my work calendar. For instance, I work on my accounting for half a day every week. I also spend half a day each week for promoting my business. This would include working on my WordPress website (I do my own site), applying for project postings and networking on sites like LinkedIn and Quora. (I know, I should do this more often for myself!). I also slot in PDGs like daily writing practice and reading.

Once I’ve entered the recurring tasks, I will add the rest into the available slots in a work week.

I first broke down my current projects — paid and personal, into doable tasks.

For instance, I create written and visual content for one of my clients on a monthly retainer. My tasks for this client include:

  • Research, Interview and write an article (twice a month)
  • Edit 1 video with supplied imagery

Next, I noted the time I expect to take for each task. In the above example, I estimate each article to take 3 days while editing one video with supplied imagery would take me 2 days in the edit suite. I would have to slot this client into 8 days in my calendar.

I ensure there are some buffer days between projects. That would take care of any illness, project overflows and gives me the option to take on some quick last-moment projects that may come along.

The tendency is to pack a calendar without accounting for emergencies or interesting last-minute projects. So don’t forget the buffer.

Creating a work calendar that slots in every project — paid and personal has two outcomes. Over time, I will learn from project overruns and will be in a better position to estimate delivery times. The buffer time can then be used for more personal projects or interesting client projects that come along.

The calendar gives me a visual representation of the work I have on hand and more importantly, I can gauge if I can take on new projects. No longer do I take on more than I can chew.

That means on-time delivery that translates to happy clients.

As freelancers, we all know what that means.

If you are overwhelmed trying to balance multiple projects, are unclear if you can take on new clients or are continually fighting deadlines, then I recommend taking a couple days off for a professional retreat. It will do your freelance business a world of good.

I offer writing services including non-fiction narratives and features, blog posts, web pages, corporate newsletter content and profiles.

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