DonnaM » Freelancing


Staying motivated

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

I wrote last night about my experience of having a settled day in a fairly unsettled period, and a few of the things that helped me do that. This was a good plan for a day, but it raises the bigger question that every freelancer faces – how to keep going day after day, with only you to be the motivator.

Motivation is the killer skill for any freelancer. I know that I’d prefer to be hanging out with my daughter, being with friends, reading, weaving, or playing in the garden. Heck, sometimes I’d even prefer to be doing hard exercise instead of working. But I don’t. I knuckle down and work, often to the point where I don’t do any of the things that I’d prefer to be doing.

How do I stay motivated? I’ve spent a bit of time self-analysing, and here is some of what I’ve learned about myself:

  • I love what I do: With occasional exceptions, I choose jobs I like. That in itself is the biggest motivator.
  • I love being good at what I do: I’m good at what I do, and love being good. Part of my motivation is to do everything better than last time and improve on every project. That keeps me going even on things I don’t learn a lot from.
  • I teach what I do: I take every opportunity to teach other people. That does two things for motivation – makes me think about how I work and how to teach it; and rewards me when someone else does a great job.
  • I like people: I’m in a service job. If I don’t enjoy working for and with people, I won’t do good work. But I do like people, so I’m motivated to do good work for them.
  • I know what I need: I keep my own books, including a spreadsheet that shows my yearly outlays and exactly how much I need to work every week to meet the minimum costs (including my salary). That helps me to remember how much I *do* have to work.
  • I keep track of financial health: Every month I analyse what I’ve done and how financially healthy the business is. I always know where I’m up to.
  • I expect crap to happen: I know how healthy my business is, but always have a buffer for a child with tonisillitis, a client who doesn’t respond on time, an illness. When I’m feeling comfortable, I don’t slow down, because it could happen at any time.
  • I take time out: I don’t panic about working all the time. During the last fortnight I went to a conference overseas (I taught and presented, so it was work) then got home and did some fun stuff. It wasn’t really a holiday, but a mini freelance break. It recharged me for a full week this week.
  • I love what I do: Yes, I already said that. But it is so important it is worth repeating.

How do you keep motivated to work when life is so fun?

Settling back into work

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

The last couple of months have been a bit strange. I’ve had changes to my personal life, moved house and been overseas to a conference. I’ve also been lugging my computer around more and sitting for longer hours in a bad chair.

My usual work pattern is to figure out what I want to do, sit down and concentrate for a couple of hours, burning through work. My colleagues know how much I can get through in a short time and often comment on it. I like being able to work like this. I love the feeling of flow, and love feeling my brain work hard for extended periods.

In the messiness of the past few months, my work has suffered. I’ve been feeling incredibly unsettled, haven’t been able to concentrate and straightforward work has been taking much longer than usual. I hate this feeling. I’m still doing good work, but it is slower and I’m not as happy with it. I’m not getting satisfaction out of working.

But today was different. For the first time in ages, I sat down, wrote my to-do list and *worked*. I stopped a couple of hours later, and knew I had achieved. I felt good.

It wasn’t just a fluke. I did some things to make this work:

  • I had a massage Monday, for the first time in a long time, and am finally not stiff and not in pain. I hadn’t realised how much the back pain was affecting my brain
  • I woke, had breakfast, showered, dressed…then turned the computer on (I usually check twitter and mail before anything)
  • I wrote my list of things to do
  • I turned off mail, twitter and distractions
  • I turned on music
  • I started at the top of my list
  • When I felt like being distracted and checking mail or doing something trivial, I just stopped myself. I just didn’t allow it to happen

Ahhhh…back to normal. That’s nice.

How do you keep going in times of unsettledness?

No! No! No! No! No!

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

See the title – that’s me practicing. I’m practicing saying no, because I don’t do it nearly well enough. And as a result, I am completely overwhelmed. This is my public confession – if I don’t say it publicly, I’ll keep pretending it isn’t a problem.

So here’s how things are for me right now:

  • I’m working 60 hours a week, and my to-do list doesn’t shrink
  • I’m behind on all my projects – none of my clients are worried, but I’m not happy with where I’m up to
  • I’m on two boards for organisations I love, and not managing to do anything substantial for them
  • I’ve been writing my book for 18 months and it still isn’t done (I’m making progress, but slowly)
  • I have two clients I really enjoy working with, and haven’t talked to them in two months
  • I’ve had my first situation where I think a client is not returning calls because I’ve been unreliable
  • My kitchen is a mess and I haven’t swept the floor for weeks
  • All I think about is how to cram more work into fewer hours
  • I got sick for the first time in a year, and still worked 10 hours
  • I haven’t even started to write my talk for Oz-IA and have 9 days to go
  • I haven’t written a decent blog post in ages and I’m sure no-one reads anymore except my close friends

I promise it’s not all bad, though. I have had some achievements:

  • I planted onions and carrots
  • I weeded a completely overgrown garden – it was overgrown not due to me, but because two plovers had laid eggs in it (for my non-Australian friends, plovers swoop and attack when they have eggs)
  • I got my community website up to scratch
  • I planned a usability test one day, ran it the next, had a report finished by midday the following
  • I wrote lots of copy for two important websites that will be released next week
  • I finished judging for the McFarlane prize
  • and lots more…

But I really need to get things back in control. So if you hear me start to say yes to something, print this out, wave it in my face and hold me down until I say no! (unless of course, it is the coolest project ever)

And now it’s time to get back to my book…

Insights from time tracking

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

I’d always heard that time tracking is a good idea, but I’ve never really done it before (except when I was a consultant and even that was only for client work and quite approximate).

But in my new-found goal to be more professional, I decided to give it a try and record my time for anything work-related.

So now I understand why people suggest you do it. I was under the false impression that I worked really hard. That I spent all my time working. But now I know just how much I actually work, and I had better pick up my game. My whole persona is shattered – I’m not actually an overworked martyr after all.

But seriously, this really has been a good thing to do. It has given me some insights into how much I work, my patterns of work and how external things affect my work.

I learned that in the last month, I have few consistent patterns. In the past 4 weeks I’ve billed 70%, 60%, 35% and 70%. I’ve worked between 32 & 47 hours a week. Seemingly-little things affect my available time – in my first week I gave a lecture at university which, although it was an hour lecture, wiped out half my day. Scheduling client meetings efficiently is important – although I have found some good places to work between meetings, gaps are gaps.

I also learned that I skip around a lot (metaphorically – I tend to walk in the house). In a normal day I work on a couple of projects, some free work and some admin. I do like it that way – I find working on one thing very tiring. It is like how regular people work in bursts, but I fill my between-times with a different version of work.

Tracking my time has helped me be more aware of what I do and how I can best use my time. I am starting to think more strategically about my time, not to maximise money, but to re-gain the balance I’ve lost in the past few years. I am still going to do plenty of community work, but I’m not going to do free work unless it is for something that means a lot to me. Of course, that means I’ll still do lots for my communities, but I won’t say yes just because I’m flattered to be asked.

And if nothing else, time tracking lets me tell Lou that I’ve spent 24 hours on my book in the past month (5 hours today!).

Two great freelance resources

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Two of my favourite freelancing resources:

  • Freelance switch: fabulous writing, fabulous advice, awesomely funny. I read this before everyone else at the moment. I even ordered a T-shirt.
  • The Freelancer’s Toolset: 100 Web Apps for Everything You Will Possibly Need. This is where I start when I’m trying to figure out what tool will do the job, cheap. I don’t use all these tools, but do look through them.

Finally – true freelance

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Although I’ve been saying that I ‘freelance’ for a while, I really haven’t been doing it. I sometimes fall back on longer projects and get deeply embedded in a project (at a comparatively low rate). This hiding in my comfort zone was part of the change I wanted to make following the IA Summit.

But for the past few weeks I have truly been doing freelance work. I’ve designed interfaces for a company in New Zealand, done content migration plans for a Government Department, planned & conducted a remote usability test, edited new content for a website, designed & built a website for a friend, and updated content for a community event. I also caught up with a bunch of writing work and other community work and lectured at university.

Gosh it has been good. Where some people like stability, I love variety. I genuinely like starting each week wondering what I’m going to do. I love setting my weekly must-dos and try-to-get-to. I love rubbing things off the whiteboard.

I’m still doing good, deep work. I still have money in the bank. And I have time for non-paid work.

All is good.

PS. Three weeks ago I mentioned that I didn’t sign a continuation contract that meant I would start work without a rate increase. The paperwork didn’t end up happening and rumor is that the rate increase wouldn’t have happened. Wow, that was the right decision.

Freelancing 101: Sign contracts!

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I haven’t done anything terribly interesting business-wise in the past two weeks but I have been thinking about an incredibly boring and incredibly important freelancing issue: paperwork/contracts.

Two interesting things happened to me in the past week.

For the first, I turned up to a new client with my signed contract in hand and apologised for not faxing it over earlier (I live out of town and getting a witness for my signature can be tricky). The client commented that most people turn up and say that the paperwork is on the way. I was horrified – who would start doing paid work without a contract.

Another client asked me today to sign an ‘extension’ contract, which wouldn’t include an important variation that had not yet been approved (yes, a rate increase). I was horrified – who would work without having a signed agreement about rate.

Contracts are important and should be considered important by both parties. Legally they represent the agreement between the two of you. Professionally, they represent that you know what you are doing and that you think enough of your skills to ask for what you need.

If you are a freelancer or contractor, you should never start work without a contract. Sometimes it may mean you go without a few days work, but it is more important to respect your skills than risk giving away free work or looking like you don’t know business.

If you are a freelancer, it is worth getting a short services contract drawn up by your lawyer (you do have one?). Mine cost only a small amount, and it is great to set the ground by saying ‘I have a services contract. Here it is. Shall we use this?’. It gets you started quickly and shows you know what you are doing (it should be a fair contract – this isn’t about screwing your clients).

So guess what I’m doing this week? Catching up on my backlog while waiting for paperwork!

On professional seriousness – post 1

Monday, April 16th, 2007

Two weeks ago I promised I would post regularly about progress on my new plan to take myself seriously and work on my freelance business.

Like all things that sounded like a great goal but hasn’t quite worked out as I thought it would.

It truly is funny how things work out. In those two weeks I was asked for proposals for four pieces of work (not bad given I have been out of the market for a while) and to get involved in two exciting, secret-for-now projects. I think the latter has a connection to my decision, but the former is a co-incidence.

I did a lot of boring admin. My tax is up to date, my books are good and my bills are paid. I even sent chasers on overdue invoices. That’s a good thing. As boring as it is, I do have to keep on top of paperwork (yes, I think it is time to hire someone to do it).

I’m feeling more organised. I have been using my filofax, my new little whiteboard for day-to-day goals and my big whiteboard for projects and big goals (categorised and all) (thanks to my hubby for mounting this).

my wall mounted whiteboard, showing lots of projects in various colour-coded categories

So I think I have made some progress. Not huge, but decent foundation. You can’t see it on the photo because I blurred it, but there are some good plans in my ‘business dev’ square.

Being professional: appearing organised

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

I took a tiny step today towards being a more professional freelancer. This may seem trivial, but helped me with the commitment.

I’m fairly organised, and can keep track of most of my appointments in my head. I don’t usually use a diary or ever appear to write things down. And I don’t forget (well, except a few little things for the IA Summit, but you don’t know how many little details I did manage to remember).

But if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t just trust that I’d remember if I didn’t write things down. So today I decided to take a step in at least looking organised, and bought a diary. While I like gadgets, I decided that needed too much research, and bought the old-fashioned leather and paper kind.

I spent ages in the office supply store. I wanted something small and light, but big enough to be useful. I wanted it to look professional (but not too granny), and definitely didn’t want someone’s brand screaming at me every time I got it out.

So I bought this lovely filofax. Look ma, no branding. Just good, solid leather & elegance. I feel like a grown up.

my new filofax. brown leather cover, elastic strap

Taking myself seriously

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

When I posted my IA Summit wrap up a couple of days ago, I mentioned I had made a decision this year (in my IA Summit decision tradition).

This year’s decision was not as profound as previous, but still important to me and my year and I want to tell you about it. But it needs a little back story.

You may know I quit my consulting job 2 years ago, in order to work for myself. I chose to freelance – to work for clients or other companies. I think freelancing is different to consulting in that it allows more hands-on, deeper work, which is why I chose this approach. It had been working well – I did a few pieces of work for small web design firms and a few for government clients. I continued to speak at conferences and teach occasional workshops.

Late last year I took on a contract I was initially uncertain about (so took 6 months rather than a year like everyone else did). I was unsure about it as I worried about getting buried in an organisation & losing my ability to take on a variety of work with a variety of clients. The potential benefit was that the work could be interesting and the team could be good.

Well, predictably, I became more buried than I realised. I cut my hours back this year, but was definitely getting embedded in this organisation.

And then came Summit…

Somehow I ended up having a long conversation with Jared Spool and Dan Willis about my work situation & later revisited the discussion with Lou & Ant. I justified my approach and stood my ground. But a few days later, things started ticking over in my brain and I realised I had allowed myself to drift into a (dis)comfort zone.

So, to cut a long story short, I made a IA Summit resolution. This year it is to take myself more seriously. I need to acknowledge my skills, value them and sell them. I need to stop drifting. I need to manage my business better and more professionally.

To that end, I may try an experiment. I think I’ll do a fortnight-by-fortnight (week-by-week is too fast) look at my freelance business. I’ll discuss how I’m managing my business, how I’m promoting it, how I’m working with clients. I think I can do this discretely and in a way that will help other freelancers. It can’t hurt to try…

PS. Thanks Jared, Dan, Lou & Ant guys for giving me a kick in the pants!

On why I gave up consulting

Monday, April 10th, 2006

I’ve told this story in person more than once, but thought it might be good to get it out in writing (if any post is to come back and bite me in a couple of years, this will be it).

As you may know, I left a consulting job last year. I was a usability specialist with a good company who had sufficient client work and a nice team. They paid me well. I was able to write and teach workshops and sometimes to design stuff. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

But there came a point in time when I realised it wasn’t for me, or perhaps I wasn’t for it.

I think user experience consulting in Australia is similar to elsewhere. Client asks consulting company to bid for work. Client usually has a budget in mind already. The playing field is fairly level, so consultants compete a lot on price (there are some different skill bases, but for many services there is not much difference). Consultant has to determine up front what they will do (with little knowledge about the real details of the project), how they will do it and when they will do it. Client accepts someone, writes a fixed price or capped price contract. Consultant signs it and starts work.

This model is OK for easy work – straightforward user research, straightforward usability testing, expert reviews. But it doesn’t work for anything more complex than that. The real world doesn’t fit into the neat project proposal that you write. People aren’t available to meet, there is less information available than you expect, the team doesn’t have required skills, the assumptions you made about users are plain wrong. On a project of any complexity, particularly design projects, you can’t learn how complex it is until you really get your teeth into it (and that would take all your allocated time).

So what happens:

  • The consultant ends up doing the easy work because it is possible to define up front, scope and cost
  • The consultant ends up delivering broad, high level work (like the top level hierarchy of a site) because it is impossible to estimate and scope the real work
  • Work is done as one-off chunks, ‘delivered’ to the client and the consultant disappears
  • Clients do the design work and get a consultant to usability test

It’s clear who ends up doing the hard work – the client!

This is all backwards – the client is the person who is least able to do the complex work, which is why they hire out in the first place. Usability testing and user research are dead easy compared to designing the system. Creating top level items is a no-brainer compared to placing all content within a structure, identifying content relationships and creating an IA that sings from top to bottom. Doing an expert review is a piece of cake compared to redesigning and implementing changes as a result.

We know that the best work is done iteratively. Design, test, tweak, design, test, tweak, leap, design, test, tweak. Lots of small improvements, products out earlier, ability to fix things that aren’t quite working. The consulting model just doesn’t allow this. Everything takes forever as the purchase process takes so long and there is no room to design iteratively.

After 18 months I finally had enough. I knew I was doing sub-standard work, skimming the easy stuff and leaving the client to do the hard. I knew the process wasn’t going to change.

Now I’m not saying all consulting is bad. It does suit high level strategic work and discrete activities that are easy to define. It suits clients who have the flexibility to hire well and design well. It also suits clients who have a high level of skill and just need a short term prop to their skill set. But I never worked with any of these, and don’t see many of them around. Maybe my experience was unique.

My solution to this problem was to freelance. For me, that means I work on fewer projects in a year, but I do them more deeply. I hang out with the team instead of in a separate office. I spend as much time mentoring and sharing skills as I do creating designs. I encourage the people I work with to be confident in the skills they have (and understand the ones they don’t).

I produce work that I’m proud of, and that’s the difference.

Marketing for freelancers

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

I’ve been freelancing for only 5 months and I just realised something about all my clients so far – they have all come from different sources.

These include:

  • My first gig – personal contacts via LinkedIn
  • Next – someone I met from a local user experience group
  • Current contract – from one of the job boards
  • Current mentoring client – from an article in Digital Web, then through my website
  • One that I turned down – from a product demo I attended years ago, and kept loosely in touch with the vendor
  • Next contract (not confirmed)- a previous speaking engagement, then keeping in touch on a professional level

That’s interesting, isn’t it. Shows that it is more about being out there and people knowing I’m available than any sort of direct marketing.

So Donna, how’s freelancing going?

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

I’m three months into my shiny new freelancing career and a few people have asked me how things are going. So I thought y’all might like to know.

I’m in the very final stages of a small website redesign project. Nice neat little site, straightforward user research, IA and page layouts. In a gap from this project, I ran a usability test of a search system (mentioned in my last post). Before that, worked with a remote team doing lots of IA documentation.

So far, all has been going well. Projects have been fairly simple, but that’s to be expected as I have to completely rebuild my portfolio, and have to let people know I’m available.

Speaking of that, there’s lots of interest from local small businesses, glad to know there is a good IA/IxD that they can ‘borrow’ for projects. Some potentially interesting things in the future.

I’m starting a new project shortly (as soon as paperwork is sorted) doing UI design for a complex business application. I’m looking forward to it – they’ve brought me in right at the beginning of the project, which is ideal. Small team, smart people.

And I’ve been talking to another bunch of nice, smart people who would like some IA mentoring, working through a couple of projects together, soaking up some of my experience. Looking forward to that one too…

Freelancing suits me. I have had good flexibility so far, balancing my working day around what needs to be done. I don’t mind working flat out for a couple of weeks, then having some down time. For me this is far better than working regular hours day after day.

I’ve been doing some work from home, which is far, far more efficient for me than in an office – though I’d never sacrifice the face-to-face. Working from home means I regain all that driving time (my previous office was more than an hour either way). I’m more relaxed, less rushed and we generally eat much better as I have time to cook.

There seems to be enough work around. There has been a steady trickle of user interface design and IA jobs advertised. A steady trickle is just about right as there are few people contracting/freelancing in these areas. Demand is higher in Sydney and Melbourne, and seems to be exceeding supply. At the moment, I don’t seem to have a lot of local competition, which is a good and a bad thing. Good because it means I’ll win most of what I apply for, bad because some organisations won’t hire unless they have three applicants (!)

So, all in all it’s going pretty well.