Pillar #3: Run an Efficient Operation

You might not think of your freelance practice as a business operation. But freelancing is like every other business. You bring work in the door... and then you have to produce and deliver that work.

But unlike in many other types of businesses, you probably won't be delegating the work to an employee. You'll be doing most (if not all) of the work yourself.

Which means that HOW you manage that process is a HUGE determining factor of success.

As freelancers, our biggest asset (outside of our skills, experience, track record and relationships) is our time. In fact, it's our biggest nonrenewable asset. How we use it will determine how successful we become... and how much fun we have doing the work.

There are two operational factors you need to take a look at:

  • How you schedule your projects and your workload
  • How efficient you are in getting the work done

When it comes to scheduling, simpler is often better. But the key is to concentrate on your production capacity.

Lessons from the Manufacturing Industry

Much of my work and thinking on this topic comes from my work with clients that do a lot of consulting in the manufacturing arena. In a manufacturing plant, there's only so much capacity in any given hour or shift. The key is to maximize production during that shift, without sacrificing quality.

So I treat capacity planning the same way a plant manager would treat production scheduling in a factory. (I realize we're not really "factories," but many of the principles still apply, so please bear with me. 😉

A factory has only so much capacity at any given time. Which means that it can only churn out so much product every day and every week. A good plant manager will schedule production runs in a way that maximizes output while minimizing equipment and operator downtime.

When a new order comes in, he has to figure out how to schedule it so that deadlines are met and the factory's resources are utilized as well as possible. If the schedule is full, he can't really "create" more capacity. Instead, he has to look for the next available slot. Or he has to juggle production jobs internally in order to keep everyone happy.

For both the plant manager and the solo professional, this involves a delicate balance between keeping resources (time) employed at near capacity and not going over what the "factory" can produce on any given day or week.

6 Helpful Capacity-Scheduling Tips

Here are some more suggestions that may help you better manage your time and increase your productivity:

  1. Create a simple spreadsheet that enables you to break down each project into manageable chunks. From there, use the spreadsheet to spread out each piece of that project over the next few days or weeks, making sure that each of those chunks has a time associated with it (# of hours). At the bottom of every day, have the spreadsheet give you a total of hours committed to project work. That way you can track how full each day already is and you can keep yourself from overcommitting.
  2. Set working hours, regardless of whether you work part time or full time. This will not only give you discipline and help you stay on track, but it will also allow you to figure out how many hours you have available every week. And if you already know how many hours you have every week, setting hours allows you to distribute them throughout the week, especially if you work part time and your schedule is going to be somewhat erratic.
  3. Schedule your daily activities hour by hour. You can do this either the night before or the first thing in the morning. In my case, I look at my capacity-management tool first thing in the morning and schedule each activity and task for that day in my paper-based Franklin-Covey planner. (Yes, I still use a paper-based planner; I've tried more than half a dozen approaches, and I always end up going back to what's worked best for me over the last 20 years!)
  4. Overestimate project effort by about 20 percent. Don't fool yourself ” no plan is perfect. Things come up. Emergencies arise. That's why you need a good buffer. So if you think a project will require you to work three hours a day for six business days, give yourself another three-hour block. That way, you'll always be on top of the project or even ahead of schedule.
  5. Allocate time every week for othernonbillable activities. Factor in some time for such activities asreading, going to the gym, bookkeeping, returning calls "” even a break or two. Make sure to block that time in your schedule, and try not to give it up unless you absolutely have to.
  6. Finally, update your schedule as changes occur. Things will change quite often, so it's important that you continually update your tasks. That way you'll always have an accurate picture of your availability should a client call with a new project the client needs your help with.

Getting More Done in Less Time

The next key operational factor for freelance success is EFFICIENCY. And by "efficiency" I'm talking about productivity "” about getting more work done in the same amount of time. Or the same amount of work done faster and in less time.

Why? Just like back in grade school, the faster you can get your work done, the more time you'll have to go out and play! And the higher your "effective" billable rate!!

The most helpful productivity tip I've implemented in the last few years is the 50-minute Focus Technique. Developed by marketing whiz Dean Jackson, this technique is like strapping a jet engine to the back of a Ferrari! (OK, maybe not that fast, but still!) It's amazingly simple; and equally as effective. Here's how it works:

  • Get a timer with an alarm. I use an online egg timer, but you can use a wristwatch or a kitchen timer.
  • Select the project you want to work on, preferably one where you really need to make some serious progress.
  • Set the timer for 50 minutes.
  • During those 50 minutes, be totally focused on that project, just as you would be at an important client meeting. Don't check email. Don't take a break. Don't let your mind wander to the plans you have for the weekend. Be totally immersed.
  • When the timer goes off, stop working. Completely unplug from the project for 20 minutes (yes, 20 full minutes!). During that time, you can take a break or get a few nonproject tasks done.
  • After 20 minutes, assuming you still plan on working, do another 50-minute focus.

Fifty-minute focus sessions are like blocks of super-productive time you can squeeze in anywhere, anytime. I find this technique particularly helpful when I'm tired, under deadline pressure or just feel unmotivated for some reason.

Once I get absorbed in the project, my lack of motivation often disappears. Plus, I love the built-in 20-minute break! It's a huge incentive for me, since I use it to read, go for a walk or play with my kids.

OK... that's it for today! But stay tuned for the next lesson, because I'm going to discuss the most underrated and overlooked aspect of growing a super-successful solo practice.

To your success,

Ed Gandia
Co-founder, International Freelancers Academy


Did you get here via a link from a friend or through Twitter? This lesson is part three of a seven-part free mini-course on building a rock-solid freelance business. You can learn more about it and sign up here.