Freelance Tips: How to Use Processes to Stay Productive

freelance-tips

“How did I forget to follow up with that client?”

There was a time when I used to think that as another golden opportunity passed me by. It’s tough enough being a freelancer and having to both find clients and secure them in such a competitive scene without adding human error into the mix.

Nowadays, I’ve largely mitigated the frustration that comes with making avoidable errors, letting me massively boost my consistency and productivity, and it’s all thanks to process documentation.

Having a documented process to work through is insanely useful. I’m here to tell you exactly why you need to be using processes in your work and give some freelance tips on how you can start noticing the benefits in no time. Let’s get started.

Processes create consistency

When you use a process to complete a task, you’re following a set of instructions which (aside from minor tweaks) remain consistent every time. This means that any project you complete by following a process will have much more reliable results, giving you more consistency in what you deliver to your clients.

We’re only human after all – it’s only natural that if left to our own devices we’ll forget an important detail sooner or later. Unfortunately, those are the exact circumstances which can cause massive damage to your reputation as a freelancer.

Nobody wants to hire an inconsistent worker, and processes are the best (and easiest) way to set a bar of quality that your clients can rely on.

Even something as simple as a daily schedule template can make a significant difference to how consistent you are in delivering work to clients.

Your tasks are easier to track

Speaking of consistency, having a set process allows you to easily track your tasks and measure your core success metrics over time. This allows you to identify problems in the way you work, assess where you can save time, and create a record which you can later go back to.

content-approval-workflow

Again, without the consistency that processes give, even if you could reliably track your performance without them, you wouldn’t have any reliable results. Your method would change too often to make comparing your results mean anything.

Meanwhile, by following even the simplest to do list template you can keep track of your progress through a given process, and know exactly where you can alter your process to improve.

Problems are easier to identify and tackle

Just because you’re following instructions and repeatable steps doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. When you have documented processes to follow, it’s much easier to identify both which process you would see the best return for improving, and which section of the process would be best to alter.

Think of it this way; you can’t improve your business practices if you don’t have a reliable method of doing it in the first place. At best you’d end up doing it better once or twice, then lapsing into old (worse) habits.

However, because of the ability to track your tasks and deliverables using a consistent method to achieve them, you can build a picture of what needs to change in order for your business to improve.

For example, if you’re running an editing checklist for a client’s blog post but upon submitting the final product you notice that a link is dead, you’ll know that you need to add a task to your process to “check all links” before submitting.

Important information is centralized

I can’t count the number of times I lost track of a vital link or piece of information before I documented my processes. Task management might be simple in theory, but there’s little point in organizing and prioritizing your tasks if you have to spend 10+ minutes at the start of each one finding the links to their relevant documents.

To avoid losing track of your progress and resources (from documents to client emails), you need to have a central location where all of your data is stored. This lets you access everything you’ll need to complete your tasks without having to trawl halfway across the internet to get it, and more importantly it keeps your workflow clear of roadblocks.

In my case, I use Trello to store my basic tasks (you’ve gotta love those kanban boards), Airtable to store hefty interlinked data, Process Street to house my processes. With Zapier I also automate much of my data management – by integrating my main apps with one another I can automatically push information between them to make sure nothing is lost or forgotten.

Freelance tips: How to build, document, and automate your processes

Well, I couldn’t leave just after telling you why processes are so important to use now, could I? Instead, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of how to take one of your common tasks, build it out into a process, document it thoroughly, and even automate some of the busy work so that you don’t have to do it all.

By the end of this post, you’ll be a pro.

automate-processes

Select your most common (and important) task

The best way to get started with creating processes to supercharge your freelancing efforts (or really anything at all) is to start with your most common important task.

Remember, processes provide consistency, and even small savings can add up quickly over time if they are made frequently. Therefore, the best way to make a lasting impact and improve your business is to tackle the things that you do most often in order to make time and resource savings.

Also, by “important” I don’t mean that it has to be on the top of your pile every single day. When you’re starting out it’s more important to improve the common tasks and to get those huge savings built up over time. However, you still need to be tackling things that are important enough that you need to regularly carry them out.

After all, it’s useless to improve an extremely common process if the task is optional. You’ll still get the odd saving, sure, but there’s no guarantee of the payoff.

So, instead, select a task you do regularly (preferably every day) that you have to do. That way you’ll be able to reliably track the effect of your process (and any improvements) over time and see the direct influence of any changes you make.

For the sake of argument, let’s take organizing my email inbox as the task we’ll document.

Document your current processes

Now that you’ve selected the task you’re going to create a process for, it’s time to document the steps you currently take to complete it.

This is where I’ll have to challenge you a little. While it might be a little repellent, you need to accurately document the process you currently follow when carrying out the duty you’ve selected. This is an important freelance tip that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Don’t sketch out the process you think you’re following, the one that you might do if the mood takes you, or the one you know you should be doing. Anything less than an accurate show of what you typically do to complete the task will only lead you astray further down the line when it comes to refining the process.

This shows where the gaps are in your current method and where there’s room for improvement, which in itself is the only way to reliably boost your effectiveness. If you try to gloss over what you do, the only person you’re kidding is yourself.

To carry on with our inbox example, let’s say that every day I open up Gmail and manually process every email sent to me. If it’s a blog roundup I’ll leave it for later, if it’s an update on support conversations I’ll browse the subject lines for new information and delete any that aren’t. If someone has reached out or replied to me I’ll immediately take action and (at least) send a message back.

To document this I’d create a new template in Process Street and lay out the instructions for each type of email in separate tasks. By breaking the whole thing down into a set task list you’ll both make it easier to get started (you only have to take the first step, rather than think about the entire thing at once) and let you give precise instructions to follow for every section.

process-documentation

In my case, my task list would roughly be:

  1. Open Gmail
  2. Check for replies to my previous emails
  3. Send a response
  4. Note any further action required from these responses
  5. Mark as “important” if appropriate
  6. Check for new conversations
  7. Send a response
  8. Note any further action required
  9. Mark as “important” if appropriate
  10. Read any invoices or receipts
  11. Mark them as “important”
  12. Check for support update emails
  13. Delete any that don’t contain new information
  14. Take action on new support information

Then, within each of those sections, I’d lay out some details to follow to try and standardize my approach. For example, I’d lay out guidelines to follow for judging whether to apply the “important” label to a conversation. That way any action I take is consistent, and so can be easily tracked and improved.

Make, test, and deploy improvements

Now that the basic process is down, you need to find ways to improve it. This will usually involve looking at the points where you identified holes or shortcuts being taken and seeing what the best way to bridge the gap is.

The changes themselves will vary greatly, so I can’t go into any details here on how you should improve your specific process. However, I will say that testing your changes thoroughly before using them in a live environment is one of the most important freelance tips, and is arguably even more important than the changes themselves.

A thorough testing process will give you an idea of what will work and what won’t before ever risking whatever your process deals with. Not only that, but it’ll save you a huge amount of time in avoiding pushing something that doesn’t work, and then having to roll your process back to square one.

Going back to the email example, my main problem would be that I don’t actually process my entire inbox down to zero – the blog roundups are currently just left for later (and I never end up reading them).

So, my main improvement would be to add a step to read the blog roundups, then to open any posts that interest me in a new tab, and to read those posts after I’ve processed the rest of my inbox.

There’s no real way to test this in anything but a live environment, and so I would put this into practice and try to measure the effect on my other activities. For example, I’d track how much longer my inbox took to process, how long on average I spend reading posts, and how often that information leads to some kind of tangible benefit.

Automate what you can

Finally, once you’ve deployed your changes and have measured their effect, you can finally settle down and figure out what exactly you can automate to save yourself the effort of doing some of your tasks.

This shouldn’t be done before improving your process (since the process might need to drastically change in order to be effective), but now you need to look for any task that can be reliably completed in the exact same way every time.

For example, Zapier can automatically manage new data and files into the correct location for you, generate an invoice, or even create tasks in other apps.

In the case of our email example, the main opportunity would be to automatically create checklists to follow based on the emails I get. For example, if I gained a new client I will typically label the conversation as “New client”. Zapier can detect this and then automatically run my client onboarding checklist to let me take action without wasting time setting things up.

Processes define your business’ success

It might seem like I’m making mountains out of molehills, but I guarantee that having documented processes to follow will boost your productivity and help nurture fruitful relationships with your clients.

You don’t even have to be a business process management expert to see results – if you’re in any doubt, try just jotting down your basic daily routine and following it for a few runs. You’ll immediately see the difference.

The knock-on effect of processes is huge too – by having a set task list you can more easily focus on each task in turn, which boosts your productivity, which lets you complete projects quicker, which will let you take on more clients, which in turn is the key to growing your freelancing presence.

I’d love to hear what you think about using processes in your freelancing efforts in the comments. If you have documented processes, which ones have you found to have the biggest effect on your productivity?

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