A few weeks ago I remembered to join in with the #FreelanceHeroes Twitter chat on a Wednesday evening. That was a pretty amazing achievement for me.
Somewhere along the way, I got chatting about finding the time to focus on your own business, and one of my comments, which just so happens to be the title of this post, struck a chord with people. It made me ponder.
I understand only too well how tricky it can be to focus on your own business when you’ve got loads of client work to complete. But the fact that my own business is my priority has been at the core of everything I’ve done since I first started thinking about going freelance. Let’s face it, you won’t be there to do all that amazing work for your clients if your business fails.
I’m not suggesting I’m alone in knowing this. It’s not rocket science to work out that putting your business first is important for your own financial stability and work satisfaction.
If we all know focusing on our own business makes sense, why do we struggle to put that into practice?
Deadlines are powerful things.
If we set deadlines within our own business, we’re much more likely to flexible with (or completely ignore) that deadline than we would for a client. The fear factor just isn’t there. Miss a client’s deadline and at the very least their trust in your reliability is dented. At the worst they won’t work with you again, give you bad reviews and might even raise issues over paying you in full.
The vicious seesaw: ‘mind-numbing’ vs ‘mind-bending’.
I’m not sure what a vicious seesaw would be, but it sounds savage. What I’m trying to say is there are two extremes here.
I think there’s something in the fact that a lot of the tasks for our own business fall into the categories of ‘mundane’ or ‘too difficult’. Admin tasks, logging expenses, sending invoices, chasing invoices, researching suppliers for the best deals, electronic or paper filing, all that stuff.
At the other extreme are those jobs you know you need to do but don’t have the skills for. Those jobs feel impossible. Things like financial planning, defining and promoting your brand, getting your pricing right, technical or legal stuff.
It’s no surprise that you’re naturally inclined to focus on client work.
It’s likely more interesting to you and focused on things you’re good at or enjoy, and it brings in money that pays bills! If something needs to drop off the list to make room for the rest of your life, why would you drop the bit that pays and is enjoyable?
So that’s the ‘why’ explained. But what can we do about it?
Understanding the ‘why’ is a great step to making changes, but there are tons of practical steps you can take too. I talked to a few small businesses and asked what realistic, manageable ways they use to keep focus on their own businesses, and then I added in my own experience, and the resulting mishmash is this:
1 Breaking down is good.
I started my career juggling front-of-house management at a historic country house, plenty of paperwork behind the scenes, and all the practical, off-the-wall weirdness which would happen each day. No matter how you planned your time you would never get more than ten minutes sitting at your desk in one go. Something would happen. There’d be a staff crisis, someone needing change for the tills, a first aid call, and a blocked toilet. I’d get called about escaped sheep, lost property, lost children… all sorts. The point is, I learnt to break every task into tiny pieces otherwise I never felt like I’d achieved anything.
These days I still apply that approach, breaking my business admin into tiny tasks which I add to my to-do list with just as high priority as my client work. I’ll pick a few things to look at each week and, although they can be moved around in that week to accommodate client needs, I make sure that they get done at some point.
2 Set aside time to keep up with your day-to-day tasks.
Gareth Alvarez from Social Ink says “the key is not trying to ‘find’ time or ‘make’ time, but actually ‘scheduling’ time in your calendar. Block off time to try something new. To be creative. To have fun.”
Claire Owen-Jones, accountant extraordinaire, suggests that you try to do your bookkeeping daily. “Sounds a horrendous chore but it’ll take seconds to analyse a couple of transactions instead of the mountain at the month/quarter/year end”. Realistically, I’m never going to do mine daily (hats off to you if you do, though!), but what Claire says about it saving time in the long run translates across all sorts of tasks.
[Don’t read this bit, Claire.] You don’t have to do it every week or even every month (well, backing up your online files needs to be done more often), but make sure it is on your to-do list so that it doesn’t all drop on you at once.
Whether it’s a regular day or a commitment to fit in a day each week, set aside time to work through paperwork like logging receipts, filing, backing up your files. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to this, but brand designer Meg Harrop has struggled with this in the past and now has lots of options up her sleeve:
“Decide on a day each week when you’ll work on your own business tasks and let your clients know you can’t always reply to emails or take calls from them then. If not every week, could you do a couple of days per month instead? You’ll be surprised how much you can get done if you don’t check your emails and social media at all! If all else fails, do some bits and bobs in front of the TV in the evening! Let whoever you share the TV with watch what they want, get your laptop out and whack some headphones in if you need to. Get excited about making your business better and your brand stronger. I’m not advocating burning the candle at both ends, but if it’s just another TV night, think of the things you can achieve if you do an extra hour here and there.”
3 Set aside time (separate to the daily task time) to focus strategically on your brand and marketing.
These are both really important. Most businesses will need to keep up their marketing when they’re busy with client work, otherwise they could suddenly find that client work dries up. As Social Ink’s Gareth Alvarez says, “showcasing who you are all the time will hopefully have clients chasing you, and not the other way round.” And that, in turn, saves you time (and grey hairs) as you’ll know you have a steady stream of work lined up.
Ironically for a brand designer, Meg Harrop’s business suffered from not getting this balance quite right. She’s really open about this, saying “My business experienced a slow season in part because I’d been concentrating on client work. I hadn’t been creating much in the way of new content to help my audience and hadn’t given myself time to think about new and exciting things I could be doing with my marketing. It’s no wonder there came a point where new leads dried up. Since then I’ve built the momentum back up and I’m now a true advocate for working on your business as well as in it!”
If you can’t afford to outsource your brand design (or don’t want to), Meg has a free brand template you can use to get started.
4 Remember that time you spend on your business social media is time spent working.
Don’t feel guilty for spending time during your working day on social media if you’re doing business stuff. If you’re watching cat videos or chatting about the latest ep of Game of Thrones, that’s not work, but don’t push your business social media into your spare time otherwise you’ll resent it, rush it or both.
5 Get a separate bank account for your business.
This isn’t mandatory if you’re a sole trader, but it makes keeping track of your finances so much easier. Seriously. Do it.
6 Send out your invoices promptly.
I find that clients pay invoices much quicker if you invoice them as soon as the work is done, rather than waiting and sending all your invoices to clients once a week or once a month. I know lots of small businesses who’d disagree and say it’s quicker to do them all in one go, but for me, the time spent chasing those invoices later outweighs the time spent in the short term. Sending the invoice as soon as the work is done reinforces to your client that it’s important that it gets paid in a timely manner, and they will likely still be thinking about the work rather than having moved on to something else new. It doesn’t work with every client but it saves me time overall.
7 I’LL SAY IT AGAIN: Treat your own work tasks with the same respect and priority as those for your clients.
I’ve said this already but I reckon it deserves its own bullet point. It’s fine to allow some flexibility so that you can fit client needs in, but that doesn’t mean that the task should be completely forgotten. It just means that it can be put aside for a day or two before you do it.
8 Find tools that work for you.
Using online software to help manage parts of your business can be really worthwhile. Finance is a great example of where this can save you oodles of time. Claire from Loud and Clear Accounting says “the robots are coming so they might as well do some of the work for you. Use accounting software and add on bank feeds if you can, or if the thought of Xero or FreeAgent stresses you out, there are halfway houses like 1-Tap to help you with your expenses.”
There are loads of other freelance favourites out there to help with non-finance parts of your business too, like organisational tools (Asana, Trello, etc), social media schedulers (Buffer, Planoly, Hootsuite), tools to help replace face-to-face meetings (Zoom, Slack), and many, many more.
9 Think about outsourcing.
If you have enough cash in the coffers, think about getting some help in. It doesn’t have to be regular or scary. Sophie Livingston at Kickstart Content is a big fan of this approach: “The best bit of progress I’ve made lately is this: upping the level of support I’m getting. My earnings are up, and I’ve used a bit of that extra cash to bump up my salary, but I’ve put a bit back into the business, too. I’ve been able to pay for things like a conference, a meet-up, a graphic designer, an online course, new software, and more 1:1 support managing the admin and finance aspects of my business. It’s all made a difference, whether in mindset or the actual day-to-day of how I get stuff done.”
Accountant Claire Owen-Jones agrees, pointing out that “If you’re unsure, invest in a bit of training – an hour of an accountant or bookkeeper’s time running through the software could save you hours of scratching your head later on.”
Heard it all before?
That might well be what you’re thinking right now, and I don’t blame you. None of these is a secret fix to all your time management troubles, but if you work through each point and do a little teensy tiny bit from each one, that’s where you start to make progress. I never said it was easy – it’s not – but I reckon if we keep sharing tips and tricks, keep reminding ourselves how important WE are (or our businesses at least), we’ll be OK. Keep on paddling, everyone.