Let me guess: You wanted to become a freelancer so you could be your own boss, right? While a big perk of freelancing is the autonomy that it brings—with great freedom, comes great responsibility.
I’ve been self-employed since 2013, and for the first two years of my business, with no prior entrepreneurial experience, I felt like I was moving from chaos to chaos. What was missing from my freelance life was not talent nor clients nor drive. What was missing was the ability to manage myself. I didn’t know how to be my own boss.
If you want to succeed as a freelancer, mastering self-management is crucial.
What Is Self-Management?
Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary definition of self-managed:
“making your own decisions about how to organize your work, rather than being led or controlled by a manager.”
When you’re a freelancer, you don’t have a manager; you are your manager. One way to master self-management is to ask yourself, “What would a good boss do?” If you spent time as an employee before going freelance, it could help to think about the managers you had. What qualities did you appreciate about them? How did they help your career? Take note of these things, and then be that good boss to yourself.
For many of us, self-management won’t come naturally. The good thing is, there are ways you can practice it until it becomes second nature.
10 Ways to Master Self-Management as a Freelancer
1. Know your values.
During the branding process, every company takes the time to define its core values. Why? Because values drive decisions. To self-manage well, you need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Here’s an example of how a core value can influence a decision: Let’s say you decide that one of your core values is “Family first.” One day, a huge opportunity comes through—a client wants to pay you an extra $10,000 on the rush delivery of a major project. But there’s one complication: You already had a week-long family vacation planned for the same timeframe. That means you have to choose between canceling the family vacation or declining the amazing project. If you stick to your core value, the decision is easy: decline the project.
Values help you prioritize and stay true to who you are. If you don’t know what your values are, you’ll struggle with making business decisions.
2. Define your goals.
In the same vein of values, you also need to define your goals. What do you hope to accomplish in your freelance business? This, too, will help you make decisions and ensure you feel fulfilled in your career.
Is your goal to start as a freelance graphic designer and eventually scale to a six-figure design agency? Or is your goal to have a lifestyle business in which you stay small and make just enough to fund a comfortable lifestyle?
Where you hope to end up will dictate which steps you take.
3. Stick to a work schedule or routine.
Freelancing can be chaotic enough without the added instability of having no work schedule. Remember, you don’t have a boss holding you accountable. If you wanted to sleep till noon, roll out of bed, and spend an hour playing video games—you could. But, that doesn’t mean you should.
4. Create a project management system.
As your freelance business grows and you’re juggling multiple clients and deadlines, you’ll need a project management system to stay sane and professional. You can use to-do lists, physical planners (the Productivity Planner is one of my favorites), or even project management software such as HoneyBook, Asana, or Dubsado.
As a freelance writer, I find that planning my assignments one month in advance works well. I use Trello, a Kanban-style app, along with its Calendar Power-Up to map out my assigned articles and their due dates. I like the visual drag-and-drop style of Trello’s lists, where I can move an article from “assigned” to “in progress” to “submitted.”
Experiment with different project management systems until you find the one that works best for you and your business.
5. Check in with yourself.
It’s common for supervisors to have one-on-ones with their subordinates. This is their chance to review goals and progress and address any concerns. To master self-management, you need to check in with yourself. This can be on a weekly, monthly, or even quarterly basis.
Some solo business owners even set aside a couple of days for an annual business retreat during which they review their goals, see how they measured up, and plan for the coming year.
6. Track your time.
You can’t master time management if you don’t know exactly how you’re spending your time.
I use Toggl to track every second I spend on my freelance business. The app generates weekly, monthly, even yearly reports, so I can analyze how I use my time and where I can better optimize it.
Time-tracking reports are essential when you’re creating quotes for proposals. You need to know how much time certain projects take you on average. If you don’t know and you underestimate, you’ll end up charging too little.
7. Ask for feedback from clients.
Since you won’t have performance reviews like you would as an employee, your next best chance at self-awareness and growth is to ask for feedback from your clients. I find that the best time to do this is immediately after completing a project so it’s still fresh on the client’s mind. It can be as simple as an email that asks:
- What did you enjoy about working with me?
- What specific results did I help you achieve?
- What could I have done better?
- Would you recommend me to a colleague? Why or why not?
The positive feedback is what you should use in testimonials for your website (with your client’s permission, of course). But the negative feedback is what is truly valuable because it will shine a light on your blind spots. Use the criticism to improve yourself and your processes.
8. Pursue professional development.
Every good manager helps their team members grow, whether that’s through promotion, mentorship, or opportunities for continuing education. When you self-manage, you need to be advocating for your own career growth.
To do this, revisit your goals and your client feedback. Is there a particular area that needs improvement? Do you have a goal that you still haven’t been able to reach? For example, last year, I wanted to improve my fiction writing, so I signed up for a creative writing workshop to hone those skills.
Even solopreneurs need community to grow, so why not form your own mastermind with other freelancers in your field? You can do a monthly conference call to share what you’ve learned and hold each other accountable.
Keep growing as a freelancer by seeking professional development opportunities on a regular basis.
9. Know when to delegate.
Self-management does not mean doing it all yourself. A good manager knows when to delegate tasks. If you’re overwhelmed with your bookkeeping, hire a bookkeeper. If you need help monitoring your inbox and scheduling meetings, hire a virtual assistant. Knowing when to delegate or outsource will save you a lot of time and headaches, and it will help you scale your business.
10. Give yourself a break.
Above all, you need to know when to take a break. Burnout is real, especially for freelancers. A 2019 survey by HoneyBook found that 92% of freelancers work while they’re on vacation, and 60% do it because they feel they “have to.”
As a solopreneur, it’s all too easy to overwork yourself because it feels like everything rests on your shoulders. If you stop working, who will take care of your business? But that’s precisely why you should take a break: If you burn out, no one can take over for you. Just as employers give their employees vacation days every year, you need to give yourself a holiday!
Here are some tips to get that much-needed vacation time in:
- Start saving months in advance. Unlike an employee, you don’t have paid vacation days as part of your salary package. You must set aside money to cover you while you’re away. Set up an automatic transfer of a certain amount every month that goes from your business bank account to your personal savings, and earmark it as your vacation fund. That way, you don’t even have to think about it.
- Give clients at least one month’s notice. The more notice you can give, the better. If the work you do for your clients can’t be paused during your time away, help them find a replacement for you while you’re gone.
- Set up vacation auto-responders. Make sure you set up an auto-responder email that alerts people of the dates that you’ll be unavailable and when they can expect to hear back from you.
- If needed, hire a VA to monitor your emails and alert you of any true emergencies. Often, when I go on vacation, I designate someone to watch over my inbox, and I give them my phone number to call me if something demands my attention.
The initial days of that first vacation as a freelancer might be anxiety-inducing as you learn to let go of the reins, but I promise you it’ll be worth it when you come back recharged and ready to tackle your business goals.
From Stressed to Refreshed: Self-Management Is Freelance Freedom
While freelancers talk a lot about freedom, there can be no freedom without mastery of self-management. Without discipline, organization, and control, your solo business can easily devolve into chaos (trust me, I’ve been there).
If that’s where you are right now, don’t worry! Practice these 10 tips until they become habits.