A Freelancer’s Three-Step Guide To Airtight Organization

Unlike office workers, freelancers are mostly left to their own devices. While this provides many liberties that office workers don’t get, it also means having fewer set processes in place. Unfortunately for freelancers, a lack of processes can lead toΒ a huge, disorganized mess.

A Freelancer's Three-Step Guide To Airtight Organization

It’s not uncommon for freelancers, especially new ones, to fall into perilous disorganization. That can make the work seem overwhelming. Instead of focusing on the work, your mind is in a hundred different places. It’s no way to work.

The good news is that there is a relatively straight forward way to turn the tables and become organized. It will take time and focus, but it will pay off in the end. Follow this three-step program and not only will you become organized, but you’ll set up processes to ensure you remain organized in the future.

Step 1: Set Goals and Take Inventory

Before you can start getting organized, you have to get a grasp of what exactly needs organizing. It could be your assignments. It might be your physical space. Maybe it’s something specific like your email, or your physical documents. For many freelancers it’s all of the above.

What do you want to accomplish? Is it a clean inbox that displays only relevant emails? Is it a clear and clean workflow so that you don’t take on more than you can handle and get your assignments submitted on time? Is it a clean working space? The first step towards organization is setting goals.

Start gathering. In order to get organized you’ll have to gather everything you want organized into one place. In some instances that might be done for you. For example, if you want a clean email inbox, you already have your messy inbox in front of you. If you want to organize your workflow, you’ll have to gather information on your current and pending projects.

Once you know what you want to do and have all of your materials in front of you, only then can you start organizing. Try to start the organization process before this and you’ll find it overwhelming and perhaps pointless. Taking this preliminary step will help you put everything in perspective.

Step 2: Implement a System

Perhaps you’ve heard of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. It’s a straight forward system that gives you the processes you need to get and stay organized. While it has proven to be ruthlessly effective, many people find it difficult to understand. That’s fine, though. The principles behind the system, not the specific system itself, are what makes GTD effective.

Here are some of the principles that can help you create and implement a system for organizing your work and life.

Create as few entry points as possible. Part of our organizational problem is that we have stuff coming at us from all angles. The solution is to create points of entry. That means placing all incoming physical items in a single inbox. For digital, your email inbox will serve well — if you can consolidate to a single email inbox, all the better. Having few points of entry means you know exactly what needs processing at all times.

Utilize a filing system. Just as you’ll need both digital and physical entry points, so you’ll need both for filing. A physical filing system can be as easy as a filing crate with hanging folders, labeled A through Z. For digital, email folders work well. You might need a place to organize files as well. While it’s easy enough to do that on your computer, you might want to use a cloud storage solution, such as Dropbox so you can access your files from anywhere.

Set up a to do list and a calendar. These will be covered more extensively in Step 3, but they need mentioning now. To-do lists only work after you’ve taken the steps to get organized. If they have failed you in the past chances are it’s because you weren’t organized enough for them to be effective. The same goes for a calendar. It can be a highly effective tool, but only if used properly. Make sure you provision for a to-do list and a calendar when creating your system.

Determine workflow. The final phase of Step 2 is to determine your workflow. Here’s an illustrative example:

  • Receive email with assignment.
  • File email under “in process assignments”
  • Place assignment on to-do list
  • Schedule project sessions on calendar
  • Create and file a folder for project materials
  • Work on project when scheduled
  • Submit project
  • Re-file email under “completed projects”
  • Remove from to-do list

Of course, your process might look a little different, but it will be the same idea. That goes for all other types of organization, too. They’ll need processes like these in order to work effectively.

Step 3: UseTools

While it is generally advisable to keep your system as simple as possible, there are many instances when different tools will come in handy. They take complex processes and simplify them, freeing up your mind for more important tasks. Freelancers in particular have use for a number of tools.

Task list. A task list doesn’t need to be elaborate to be effective. Yet a simple list might not work. You do need different ways to classify and sort your tasks. In that way, a task manager like Toodledo takes care of the job for free. There is also a paid tier that offers even more features. (Editor’s note: Google Tasks is another free option.)

Calendar. Any free calendar will do. The key is to schedule any task that will take 30 or more minutes.

Invoicing. Sending and following up on invoices can be a pain. Show people you mean business by using serious software. QuickBooks will not only help take care of your invoicing needs, but will help you keep all of your finances straight. It’s not free, of course, but it will make it much easier for you to stay ahead of the invoicing and finance game. (Editor’s note: or there’s the free Wave Accounting as an alternative).

Notepad. Despite our increasing digital reliance, some items just work better on a pad of paper. Keeping a notebook by you at all times gives you an easy way to jot down one-off notes.

Getting organized might seem like a daunting task. For many of us, it’s true. We’ve fallen so deeply into disorganization that the mere thought of cleaning up can overwhelm us. But like any large project, we can break it down into steps and work at it a little at a time. Best of all, the lessons you learn while organizing yourself can be applied to maintaining organization. It will take weeks, maybe months. It will consume hours a day. But in the end it will be worth it. With a free and clear organizational system you can finally put all of your focus on the work at hand — the work that makes you money.

Joe Pawlikowski has worked as a blogger and freelance writer for the past six years. On his personal blog, A New Level, he writes about everyday life observations and how they connect to business.

Image: Gary Jungling/Flickr

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  1. Very helpful. I do find that my already multi-tasking mind gets overwhelmed with the freedom of self-employment and the internet! Dangerous combination. I’m working slowly on getting email under control, but I do need to implement a System of sorts as I pick up new clients.

    • I’ve experimented with many email management systems, Walker. The thing that works best for me is not to look at an email till I’m ready to deal with it, then to make sure I take action in some way, even if that’s just adding a new item to my to-do list.

      • Sharon,

        That’s a good idea (not looking at the email until you’re ready to deal with it). I’m just starting to get more into Freelance and I find this article to be very helpful in setting up processes and organization. Thank you so much!

  2. I have Allen’s book, and completely forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll need to give it a fresh look. πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks Joe, excellent advice. πŸ™‚

    Re workflow, I’ve found Evernote (free) to be truly useful. You can set up a notebook for each client, then share the notebook with the client. All deliverables are posted to each client’s notebook, as well as updates and reports.

    Evernote keeps all your client material organized, so that you can work on projects anywhere, on any device.

    If This, Then That at https://ifttt.com/ (free) helps too, to automate sending material to Evernote. Just do an IFTTT “recipes” search for Evernote. For example, if you use Gmail, there’s a recipe which posts messages to Evernote automatically, when you label a message “evernote.”

    YouTube has lots of video to help you to get started with IFTTT.

  4. Great advice, Sharon! I especially love the “create as few entry points as possible.” Having had to wade through hundreds of emails for one item, I suggested we move our important items to Google Drive. It’s been a godsend. Instead of wasting time looking for stuff, we now know where it is.

    I think the only way I could improve it is to adopt a filing system. Right now, we label things sensibly, but I can see where eventually things will get lost.

    • I use Google Docs a lot for collaboration with clients, Lori, so I agree with you. It makes it far easier to see what’s happening. πŸ™‚ I use color coded labels within Google Drive to help me find stuff and also star current items so I can find them easily.