Let’s start with ‘flow’
By now, most of us have heard of the concept of ‘flow states’, body and mindsets that are inherent in high performance, whether it be athletic, mental, or creative. Flow is when everything aligns and you feel you are making full use of your skills and experience.
Skills are things we learn to do and experience is what we learn from applying them. I can be taught to paint a wall but until I’ve painted many of them I don’t have the experience to know how to do it quickly and professionally. And when I reach that point, painting may become a flow experience done naturally, efficiently, and with confidence. It is no different with writing, design, or any other freelance business practice. Som how do we achieve flow and how can we refine it?
Workflows are linear patterns we follow to accomplish tasks
To achieve flow you have to have a context for when it happens and why. A competitive runner, for example, will have a ritual or process they follow religiously before every race. Their sleep the night before, their diet, how much fluid they drink, stretches, and a mental rehearsal or visualization they go through. The same preparation in the same order, every time. It is something they have refined into a winning formula for them.
Freelance workflows have components that may not appear connected at first glance:
- Skills development. My writing for places like Medium is practice for me, a way to organize my ideas while improving my writing through that practice.
- Marketing. Organizing your portfolio, pitching new business, keeping a blog or website up to date, maintaining your presence on social media like LinkedIn.
- Research. You get a project, you need a process for getting up to speed and developing expertise, expertise you will use again later as a marketing tool.
- Draft. A messy early version for your eyes only. A sketch, an outline, a wireframe. Something you can play with until it makes sense. You may discover a gap in your knowledge requiring more research. Loop around again.
- Refined draft for client feedback. This is a critical stage in your workflow, as it may require several iterations or ‘loop backs’ until you and the client are ready to finish it up.
- Client communication. A big one that many of us do not handle well, especially if we are in the weeds, uninspired, or behind schedule. Two tips here: always tell the client that these things are happening before they get out of control. They may be able to help. The second tip is that the only way to get past these roadblocks is to keep working, even if it’s crap. It will get polished.
- Money. Proposals, pricing, invoicing, billing and collecting, taxes, etc. These things need to be incorporated into your workflow just like anything else. Many freelancers are uncomfortable talking about money. Set of series of policies and convey them to clients when they come up: rush charges, terms, any payment stages, minimums. When you say“my upcharge for rush work is 100%”, it sounds like you are quoting company policy. And you are. And your client, who likely has company policies, will probably accept the terms.
- Follow-up. The single most powerful thing you can do when delivering a completed job. A follow-up thank you with a suggested next project or series of projects, based on what you know, is my most effective marketing tool. I say something like: “while I was researching and working on this, it occurred to me that a series of follow-on articles on XXX might make a lot of sense”. You planted a seed, and it is amazing how often they grow into something beautiful. It may come back to you months later, often as the client’s idea, but who cares? I always do this.
Discipline is the framework that makes workflows effective. The discipline to follow a process, leaving nothing out and cutting no corners. Over-delivering, ahead of schedule. Always delivering the best you have. Always looking for a value-add to throw in. Never delivering sloppy, unedited work.
Always communicate proactively. That means returning calls, emails, Slack messages, etc. ASAP. This alone can be a key to success.
Story: My brother ran a successful kitchen design business for many years, working by himself and doing very high end work. We wrote a best selling book on the subject that has been in print for over twenty years. He knows his stuff. His success tip:
“I always returned calls as soon as possible. If competing for a job, this often beats out price or anything else as a deal maker”.
Designers and contractors are notorious for not returning calls. He knew this and leveraged it. It was an important part of his workflow.
Write or draw your workflow and start refining it
If you do this, you will leap past your freelancing competition because of a dirty little fact: most are really bad at this stuff, especially creatives. I know, I am one. Developing processes keeps me from procrastinating, a state I thought was my norm until I applied a workflow mindset.
When you write your workflow out, build a flowchart (yes, that is exactly why they exist) or simply do a sketch, you will be able to look at it and see your areas of weakness. That’s where to focus.
Another story: When my piano teacher started me out with simple pieces, he would have me play them and he would mark each place where I hesitated, struggled, or lost the tempo. It became my assignment to practice those hard parts more than the rest until I could cruise through them. This had been incredibly useful when taking on any task- focus on the hard parts first and you’ll cruise through the rest. That’s flow!
There are a million tips out there for successful freelancing. Understand and refining your workflow is the best one I have. It will change your work and your quality of life as a freelancer.
Note: I write frequently about the business of freelance writing. You can see a list of the articles here.