J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: November 2014

11 Ways to Succeed as a Freelancer


Lance at the ready!

I’ve worked as an independent contractor for about twenty years (with a few breaks to try out working full time, or not working at all). I always came back to “freelancing” (I love that word — it implies you’re in armor, on your trusty steed, ready to ride into battle in exchange for a full coin purse) because of the flexibility, high compensation, and variety.

Blog reader Marcin asked awhile back for insights on freelancing. I’ve done my best to compile a few insights below. Some of these came easy, others “the hard way.” My own field is database application development, but I think the ideas will carry over to most types of freelance work.

1. Go Where the Work Is

It doesn’t make sense to take on the uncertainty of working for yourself unless there is work to do. Generally it’s not a good idea to develop a specialized skill set and then spend time searching for a where to apply that skill (and try to get paid). Successful freelancers find the work first, then find a way to do it (learning new skills as needed).

I think many freelance careers get started with a regular job. If you and your current employer can come to an agreement — specific work for specific compensation — it may benefit both of you. You’ll gain more time, more freedom, and higher hourly compensation. Your employer stands to pay less tax, and less money overall to retain your specialized skills.

2. Your Client’s Success = Your Success

Help your clients succeed. Own their problems and provide solutions. If you adopt this attitude, your clients will come to trust you and depend on you.

3. Underpromise and Overdeliver

Build “buffer time” into your estimates and quotes, both in terms of billable hours (or days) and actual time. What initially sounds easy invariably isn’t — if the work were easy they wouldn’t be paying you good money to do it. Expect hidden complexity, additional requests not included in the original specification, and unanticipated problems, all as a matter of course.

Once you’ve underpromised, work hard to come in below budget and ahead of time. Once again this will build trust in the relationship and you will come to be seen as reliable and dependable.

4. You’re only as good as your last job.

If you blow it, don’t expect to be hired for the next project. As a freelancer, you’re free to say yes or no to both projects and clients, but so are your clients. Don’t expect loyalty.

So try not to blow it. Come through for your clients. Deliver results, not excuses!

That said, you might get fired, and then rehired, and never know it. If you mess up, salvage things as best you can and don’t burn any bridges. You might receive a call in a year or two, when your client realizes you didn’t do such a bad job after all (maybe they tried hiring someone else who did an even worse job).

5. Try to maintain at least five active (or semi-active) clients.

Usually one or two clients will take up the majority of your time. But invariably, even if you have been delivering quality work, things will slow down. Maybe your main contact at the organization will go on vacation, or get a new job. Maybe your client will switch technology platforms, or business focus, or even move operations to a different city. Expect change.

The only way to have a steady flow of work as a freelancer is to reach “critical mass” in terms of the number of clients you support. This will require you to be able to handle multiple simultaneous projects and “crunch times,” but it will provide security in terms of income flow.

6. Expect your clients to mirror your behavior.

Your clients will probably mirror whatever standards you set in terms of communication style and habits, so consciously set a standard you are comfortable with.

For example, if you don’t like working at night, don’t call or email your client (or respond to emails or calls) after 5pm. They’ll quickly get the message.

When I communicate with a tone that is friendly but semi-formal, my clients respond in the same way.  I prefer it when communications are concise, clear, and specific, so I apply those standards to my own communications and generally find them mirrored back.

7. Don’t tolerate abuse.

One of the joys of working for yourself is that you never have to tolerate tyrannical or even unreasonable behavior. This has almost NEVER been an issue — I really like the vast majority of my clients — so when recently someone associated with one my clients was unreasonable and rude during a phone conversation, I was genuinely surprised.

I resolved never to speak with that person on the phone again. I expressed this intention to my client and they were 100% supportive; it turned out there was no need for the two of us to directly communicate. Problem solved.

Very rarely you may find that you can’t tolerate the communication style or demands of a client. In those cases you can “fire” your clients, or explicitly state your communication requirements and allow your client to either conform or find someone else to do the work.

8. Understand and master your internal monologue.

It’s likely that as a freelancer there will be times when you feel confused, lost, and overwhelmed. This could be a result of taking on more work than you can handle, encountering difficult problems, asymmetrical expectations, or communication breakdowns.

At times like these, don’t talk yourself into a pit of despair. Problems feel unsolvable until you solve them (and then, with hindsight, you usually realize they weren’t that hard).

Use language to reduce the intensity of your emotions, when necessary. Why not consider an “impossible” problem to be “a tad challenging”?

Usually, when you feel overwhelmed, you need one of the following:

  • a break
  • a good night’s sleep
  • someone in your field to bounce the problem off of
  • more information from your client

Try to avoid words like “impossible” and “can’t”. Instead, look for ways to deliver value to your client. And remember most clients will be open to alternate solutions and unconventional approaches as long as they work.

9. Bill fairly (fair to both your client and yourself)

Your client should have the experience of getting good value for the money they pay you. That feeling is more important than the actual amount of money, so make sure they get it. Regardless of how many hours you put into the project, the client’s feelings about the end result will have more to do with:

  • Did the deliverable match or exceed their expectations?
  • Did the deliverable make them look good?
  • Did your work make their job easier?
  • Did they feel listened to and respected during the work process?
  • Did you respond to change requests and other service needs in a timely, helpful manner?

Your clients will feel much better paying $10,000 for a product and process that feels high quality than $5,000 for a difficult process and a shoddy deliverable. Fairness in your client’s mind corresponds to value received, not the actual amount of money.

The amount you bill should be fair to you as well. As a freelancer you will be paying for things that most regular employees have covered or subsidized (health insurance, self-employment tax, savings plan, and so on). Of course you need to consider what price the market will bear, but don’t charge too little for your services.

10. Don’t disregard “small” clients

Make sure you maintain your high standards for quality at all times, even for “small” clients. You never know when a “small” client might turn into a tsunami of work and money. The tiny project you’re working on might only be the tip of a gigantic iceberg.

11. Love What You Do

Even more important than “doing what you love” (though I’m not knocking it) is loving the work you do have.

But how?

For most people, helping people feels good. And getting paid well to do it doesn’t hurt. So that’s a good start. Deliver great value to your clients and feel good about it!

Often the “bad” parts of a job can be eliminated by simply choosing to do things a different way. I have a “don’t” list that I’m strict about. I just avoid the following, because I’ve learned over times these are the precise situations and circumstances that make me miserable (and life is too short to make yourself miserable on purpose).

  • working with a slow or unreliable internet connection
  • working nights or over the weekend
  • working when I’m tired or hungry (take a nap or eat instead)
  • working more than about twenty-five hours a week
  • working for organizations or companies who I don’t think are acting ethically or creating real value

These rules aren’t hard and fast — sometimes I’ll do some work in the evening for a client if it will really help them out. But there’s no reason to work under poor conditions when you have the choice not to.

So avoiding pain is half of the equation. The other half is actively enjoying the work. I find that I consistently enjoy my work more when I do the following:

  • when I’m friendly with clients and get to know them as people
  • when I strive for the highest possible quality
  • when I take the time to learn new techniques and methods
  • when I frame problems as puzzles or challenges
  • when I push myself to learn and use new tools and languages
  • when I take time time to optimize my working environment (light, sound, music, fresh air, ergonomics, etc.)

Remember that deferring happiness until you are successful is always the wrong strategy. When you succeed, your mind will simply pick a new success target, and you will be stuck deferring happiness forever!

Instead, find ways to be happy moment to moment, in the work. Feeling good will increase your effectiveness and chances at success.

Square One

If you are just starting to think about a freelance career, I would recommend this post from Ramit Sethi. Ramit makes the excellent point that everyone has marketable skills, and he provides some tools to help you think flexibly about your own skills (which you might take for granted … it’s easy assume that just because you know how to do something that everyone else does too).

I hope this list was helpful for you freelancers and aspiring freelancers. Please share your own insights below!

Changing Habits — 5 Specific Proven Techniques

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

What would YOU do for a scrap of bacon?

Recently I’ve become fascinated with learning and implementing techniques to replace destructive habits with helpful ones. I’m particularly interested in giving up the habit of aimless web-browsing and other forms of online procrastination in order to become a more prolific writer. I not only want to write more words, but also to increase the intensity of my attention and quality of focus so that I can create higher quality work (I believe the two go together; increased quantity leads to increased quality).

I’ve made some progress over the last two years. I’m regularly reaching my goal of 15,000 words/month on my current novel, in addition to writing 2-3 blog posts a month. I’m curious to see how those numbers will change if I’m able to effectively implement all of the techniques below. Right now, if I were to give myself a grade in regards to how effectively I use my writing time, I’d give myself a C- (barely passing). I know I can do better.

The Problem: I either delay or interrupt my own writing process by distracting myself with email, checking social media feeds, checking link sites like reddit, or reading news and opinion articles.

The Ideal Behavior Pattern: Start writing without delay around 8:45am. Take breaks as needed to stretch, pace, exercise, and think, but don’t go down the internet rabbit hole.

The techniques below can be applied to any kind of desired behavior change, including quitting smoking, eating more healthful food, drinking less alcohol (or none at all), not fighting with your children or partner, etc.

Technique 1: Align Your Emotions with Your Intent by Asking the Hard Questions, then Commit

This is an area that I was neglecting until I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I bought my copy used for $0.01 on amazon and it’s worth every penny. Just kidding — even though there are many references to events in the nineties, the psychological techniques discussed in the book are as relevant and valuable today as they were fifteen years ago. You can download the eBook for free using the link above.

The basic idea is to associate pain with not changing the behavior and pleasure with changing the behavior. What do you stand to lose if you don’t change? In regards to smoking and other health-destroying habits, the stakes are high; you could lose your good health, and/or twenty-plus years of your life.

Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.

It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.

I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.

So those are the stakes. The last step of this technique is committing. Was I ready to commit to being a prolific writer? To raise the bar from should to must? Yes, absolutely. Carefully considering the stakes made that decision easy.

Is there a change you’re gearing up to make in your own life? A habit you’re ready to change, permanently? Do the exercise above and you’ll be ready now.

Go ahead. Bookmark this post, stop reading, and do the exercise above. What pain is associated with not changing? What pleasure is associated with changing? Do what it takes to gain the emotional resolve, then commit.

Committing isn’t the end of the process, of course …

Technique 2: Make the Good Habit Easy and the Bad Habit Difficult

This is the part where we use our natural laziness as human beings to our own advantage. Making a bad habit even slightly less convenient (or the converse, making a good habit more convenient) is hugely effective. Google demonstrated this principle by putting candy in opaque jars and healthier snacks in clear ones. Over a seven-week period Google employees consumed 3.1 million calories fewer of M&Ms.

Before I start writing, I disable the WiFi on my computer (unless I’m working on the blog — then I need the internet in order to create links within posts). At other times I’ve used site-blocking software like RescueTime and Freedom to curb my internet use. These tools work pretty well.

On the “more convenient” side I always keep a shortcut to my current manuscript right on my desktop, so I don’t have to dig around in folders to open it.

Other examples that could apply to other habits:

The “make bad habits harder” strategy works pretty well, but I’ve run into limitations. If I’m not fully committed to behavior change, I can always find a way around these “soft” restrictions. Maybe you have a friend who has halfheartedly decided to “smoke less” and therefore only bums cigarettes instead of buying them?

Other issues arise when your family or cohabitators aren’t on board. Maybe you’re ready to give up chocolate but your wife isn’t. Maybe unplugging the internet router would be great for you, but would through a wrench in your roommate’s workflow. In that case you need to support your behavior change with other techniques.

Technique 3: Understand the Cues, and Disrupt the Habitual Behavior

These days, when I catch myself going to a website or checking email or Twitter when I should be working, I make a loud siren noise with my mouth, like a fire alarm going off. Then, out loud, I describe the exact details of the offending behavior, and coach myself back to a more productive mode.

Good thing I work from home, right?

Let me explain how I arrived at the above technique …

Earlier this year I realized I had fallen into a less-than-ideal morning ritual. The experience of turning on my computer, drinking coffee, checking email, and looking at Facebook, reddit, nytimes.com, and other sites (I’m sure you have your own list) had become comfortable, easy, and habitual. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the web-browsing only lasted for five or ten minutes, but I often found it difficult to break out of this “easy web-browsing mode” into the more mentally strenuous work of writing, revising, etc. Major time wasted! I might still cram in some work before lunch, but many mornings I would end up frustrated with myself, even angry at myself for wasting so much time. Yet I felt powerless to stop it.

My first attempt at breaking up this pattern was to NOT start my day with turning on my computer. Instead, I used a pen and notebook to sketch out my ideas, plans, and thoughts about the day. This resulted in a more conscious start. It’s a good habit and I’ve easily maintained it since I wrote that post back in April.

My second attempt at breaking the pattern was to manipulate the cue of drinking coffee. I recognized that drinking coffee had become a cue for web-browsing, so I experimented with not drinking coffee until I was actually working on fiction-writing. This worked reasonably well and increased my word count, but it wasn’t the ideal strategy. Coffee drinking was a trigger, but it was also a reward, and sometimes I just delayed coffee drinking until I got a minor caffeine headache. The process started to feel too convoluted and unpleasant, so I abandoned it and went back to studying how habits are constructed from cues, behaviors, and rewards.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is constructed of a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. If we can develop an awareness of what sensory inputs trigger the behavior we want to change, we can modify our response to the cue.

So far I’ve noticed several cues that precede my habit of internet browsing, including:

  • turning on the computer
  • finishing a chunk of work (a scene or even a paragraph)
  • hitting a mental block … not sure how to proceed

Now, if I find myself starting to go down the internet rabbit hole, I use what Tony Robbins calls a “pattern interrupt” to disrupt the behavior (thus the siren noises and out-loud verbal self-coaching).

So far this has been very effective. But it only addresses part of the habit — the cue or trigger. What about the reward?

Technique 4: Understand and Reprogram the Reward

For lasting habit change I knew I needed to identify the reward I was getting from self-distraction, and find an alternate means of getting it.

Getting a better understanding of the triggers helped me understand the reward. I think the reward I get from self-distraction is a break in intensity, a rest for my brain.

The problem with using the infinite entertainment and distraction potential of the internet is that a five minute break can turn into a twenty or sixty minute break all too easily. Also, I don’t get the full benefits of a break, like moving around, looking at something besides a screen, doing a quick household chore, or even briefly exercising.

A household chore as a reward? Really? If you don’t understand this, you’re not a writer. 😉

Even worse, if I check email there’s a good chance my brain won’t get any rest at all, but will be pulled into a different problem. Too many times I’ve lost writing momentum because I read a client email, and my brain got sucked into how to solve that problem. It’s not fair either to my creative process or to my client to give each half my attention.

So if I feel the need for a break, I give myself a break. I might sit in a chair in my yard and soak up some sun, or do some pullups on the plum tree, or sit and meditate for a few minutes, or get a water or coffee refill. Ideally I try to keep it physical and short, then get back to work.

When I took a break from drinking, I found I was able to achieve many of the associated rewards without actually consuming any alcohol. San Pellegrino in a wine glass went a long way: something a little fancy, treating myself well, hydrating, mouth sensation, etc. Sometimes I found the craving for wine was actually a craving for sugar … adding a little juice to the carbonated water helped satisfy that need. The substitutions I used for wine, beer, and scotch help me understand that when I thought I was craving a drink, at times I was craving something else (water, sugar, being nice to myself, relaxing, time with family or friends). I probably drink about half as much now as compared to before I took the break.

Technique 5: Repeat and Reinforce Good Behavior

Eventually a good habit rewards itself. When I changed my eating and supplementation habits and eventually was able to breathe normally, the idea of going back to my old lifestyle habits held zero appeal. Nothing beats breathing.

But when you’re just starting to change a bad habit and/or establish a new one, it’s important to reward yourself immediately when you do something right.

The rewards don’t have to be big. But at least pat yourself on the back. I use out-loud verbal coaching to this effect, congratulating myself when I take a minor step in the right direction. When I reach a major milestone I usually treat myself to something … a small purchase or a nice meal.

It’s important to keep rewards simple and immediate. A complicated reward (like a trip to a foreign country) requires a great deal of work to implement. Your mind might not perceive it as positive reinforcement by the time it happens.

The most effective reward schedules are intermittent and variable. Don’t always reward yourself for good behavior, and mix it up both in terms of the kind and size of the reward. After a good writing session I’ll sometimes reward myself with dark chocolate, a walk around the neighborhood (sometimes I’ll stop by the local record store). If I finish a draft I’m going to splurge on something. My brain is going to know I did something right.

I guess there’s some possibility of creating a new bad habit by reinforcing a new good habit. You’re not going to replace smoking with candy bars, or drinking beer with drinking soda, are you?

Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down

It’s not a bad way to approach life change. Line up the bad habits and turn them into good habits, one by one. After I kick the aimless web-browsing habit I have a few more in the queue.

What habit are you committed to changing in your own life? Step up and comment below.

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