I am not, I will admit, the most organized person in the world. Left entirely to my own devices, without the external pressures of bills to pay and work to be done, my days would be a jumble of "where did I put that?" and "what was I doing?"
This is death to a career as a freelance-anything, or for any small- or medium-sized business, for that matter (it'll even kill a Fortune 500 corporation, though it might take a few decades). Disorganization leads to inefficiency, inefficiency means your resources—including your time—give diminishing returns, diminishing returns eventually put you out of business.
Add in the stress caused by misplacing the things you need on hand, forgetting about the things you need to do, and rushing to get it all together by a deadline, and "creative chaos" isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Greater efficiency means doing more—and earning more—with less. Less time, less effort, less waste, and a better product for your clients with more money in your pocket. Efficiency is that cool, and here are three simple tips for getting more of it in your business.
Keep a #&!*$ To-Do List
From first grade through some college courses, I've heard how it important it is to write down my homework, write down reading assignments, take note of test dates, tec, etc, etc. In my pre-writing days in retail and customer service, lists of tasks for opening and closing the store or carrying out complex transactions on the register (credit card refunds used to be hard) were par for the course.
I avoided making or consulting these lists almost out of spite, and even though I had to ask a classmate for the reading or forgot to restock the gum every now and then I told myself writing down my duties and responsibilities was just a waste of time
Then I became a freelancer, and suddenly no one else cared about my duties or responsibilities, and no one else was keeping track of them, either. I could forget a project here or a deadline there, and the only one that suffered was...me.
I despised the suffering more than the lists, so I started making them. At first, it was just going through my emails every morning, trying to piece together the most urgent work, and writing down everything I wanted to do that day. It was still hectic, and not especially effective.
Now, as soon as I agree to take on a task—write a new article, make edits after client feedback, have a phone or Skype chat about a project—-it goes on my to-do list. Literally the FIRST thing I do after writing the confirmation email, hanging up the phone, or having the idea that needs further checking out is head to my to-do list, make myself a note, and give the task a deadline.
I cannot tell you how much time and stress this has saved me, or how much money this has earned me, but I promise it will yield you all the same benefits.
So do it. Listen to your teachers, your bosses, your Internet-article-writing-friend. Paper and pen, a calendar program, or a to-do list app: the options are many, the effect is the same, so use whatever you know you'll use consistently and start your list.
Use the Tools Available for Your Niche
There are apps, websites, softwares, and actually physical tools for literally every job you can think of. This includes every type of creative freelancing/contract work out there, from writing to video production to graphic design and beyond.
Some tools, like invoicing software or communication platforms, are useful to all types of freelancers and small businesses.
Other tools are designed specifically for certain collaborations, tasks, and creative endeavors, and specialized tools can cut your costs and your communication time dramatically.
Look into some of the tools available for your niche. For writers, things like Google Docs that enable comments from multiple users right on the same draft is awesome.
For video production, Screenlight is an app that accomplishes the same thing: clients and others can leave make suggestions and comments at specific points in the video, with a clean interface that makes understanding the requested adjustments quick and easy.
What tasks are creating bottlenecks for your business? Where are things backing up on your process, and what's leading to wasted time and effort on your part?
Identify the problem tasks in your business and find the tools that solve the problems.
Take the time to test out your options. You'll earn the same time back with a few weeks of more efficient work, and you'll lower your frustration level to boot.
Research, Research, Research
If you want to reduce stress, work faster, and deliver a better product that you can charge more for, you have to know more about your clients, their customers, and what it is they do.
That means you need to do more research.
"But wait," you say. "I'm supposed to be learning how to be more efficient—how to do better work in less time—and you're telling me I need to do more in order to get there?"
Well...yes. Because the time you spend researching will come back to you tenfold during the actual creative process.
Work you undertake without the right amount of research is work you'll more than likely be touching up or re-doing later, and that's not efficient at all.
The more you know, the faster the work will flow and the more solid, specific, and scintillating the final product will be. You'll have all the information you need readily at your disposal, rather than having to switch back and forth between finding facts, doing a chunk of work, finding more facts, and so on.
Get all of your information gathered first, and make sure it's adequate—more than adequate—to cover the length and breadth of the project you've signed up for. If that means spending a day or three on the project before you have anything to show your client, then that's what you do, and on days four and five you'll do work that will blow your clients away (in a friendly, metaphorical way, of course).
List. Tools. Research. The cornerstones of efficiency for any creative business.
Start putting them to use, and you'll start seeing your work flow out almost effortlessly—and the profits flow in with similar ease.