2,000 Days as a Writer: 2,000 Words You Need to Read
I’ve recently spent some time reminiscing about the entirety of my journey as a freelancer thus far and thinking about what I would have done differently (in a positive growth hindsight rather than festering regret).
This will not be a tactical guide on how to increase your typing speed or rewire your brain. It will, however, focus on the bigger-picture strategies that help you land/keep more clients, perform at the highest levels, and get an income boost as a byproduct of implementing these approaches.
I’d be more than happy to write about everything I did right but anyone could do that and I figured it would probably be more valuable to cover what I should’ve done differently. Read on for the biggest lessons I’ve learned on client relations, true productivity, and personal branding.
Being Easy to Work With
I started figuring this out a couple of years into my career but, after going through some old messages, I realized how annoying it must’ve been to work with me before that. I’ve learned that you should:
- Always be early to meetings and submit content ahead of time rather than waiting for deadlines.
- Bring energy and professionalism no matter how crap your day has been (your family issues or sleep deprivation shouldn’t be your client’s problem).
- Make sure your passion/excitement and gratitude come across through text, voice, or video conversations.
As an example, my longest-running client had the (dis)pleasure of working with me very early in my career when I was an insufferable 17-year-old. Her incredible patience managed to bear with me and bring out the potential that was there but, had she not, I probably wouldn’t be as successful as I am right now.
Not all clients will be this forgiving so be better than me.
Stop Taking Everything Personally
This builds on the previous section but is just as much about how you feel as it is how you communicate. After all, you may be able to contain yourself from whining to your clients but if you still take everything personally then you’re probably going to feel bad quite often.
If payments are late, revisions are requested, or deadlines are moved these probably have way more to do with business operations than anything uniquely related to you. Revision blasts aren’t an attack on your writing/time and late payments aren’t an attempt to disrespect your value or contribution to the project.
Assume that all negative surprises are a result of unavoidable inefficiencies, overworked teams/colleagues, unexpected roadblocks, or someone having a bad day rather than anything to do with (or targeting) you.
I once had a payment that was both delayed and reduced in size (due to one billable being shifted to the next invoice) but had I expressed my disappointment I would’ve likely missed out on the large order that the same client sent me about a week later.
This is a reminder that expressing negative feelings towards a client hurts you more than it hurts them (both emotionally and financially).
Getting Productivity Right
Most people, myself included, get productivity all wrong and spend years using suboptimal strategies or chasing the wrong metrics.
As a freelancer, your income is almost always tied to the quantity of output you’re capable of sustaining (assuming that quality remains mostly the same). But productivity isn’t just a function of morning routines, hacks/tactics, and faster typing speeds.
Instead, productivity is the culmination of growth in multiple areas such as efficiency, focus, meaning, fulfillment, and broad-spectrum happiness (lots of Harvard studies on the benefits of happiness on performance).
This is a whole can of worms but, in general, here are some things that can bring you to true productivity instead of looking/feeling productive:
Focus is the single most important factor for learning, memory, and performance at work. This means no smartphones, multitasking, background media (TV/YouTube), or music with vocals while working.
The underlying science shows that working in 90-minute sprints is ideal (the first 10-15 of which will consist of your brain trying to get into a focused state). If focusing feels awful or uncomfortable at the start of that sprint, you’re doing it right.
Note: Books like Deep Work and Hyperfocus are incredibly helpful if you’re trying to eliminate distractions. As for improving your internal ability to focus, I’d highly recommend listening to Andrew Huberman’s neuroscience YouTube videos such as his Focus Toolkit.
Motivation is something humans have more control over than most people think. On a neurochemical level, motivation is essentially just the amount of dopamine in our brain and bloodstream so finding ways to increase our baseline dopamine works wonders for productivity.
Cold showers in the morning, getting 5-20 minutes of sunlight as close as possible to waking up, and improving sleep quality by avoiding bright lights/screens at night (then getting enough sleep too) are science-backed ways to increase our dopamine baseline and capacity for motivation.
We should also strive to avoid using up/wasting all our dopamine reserves by overstimulating our minds through substances, activities, habits, behaviors, etc. as this will make it harder to generate motivation once we need it.
Cutting my screen time and YouTube usage has had tremendous effects on my productivity by reallocating my dopamine towards work. The YourHour app on Android (or similar applications on iOS) has been super helpful for tracking my screen time.
By identifying the apps that took up most of my time, I knew which ones I needed to avoid.
Effort itself should be fulfilling. When we frame our work as a means to an end for some external reward like money, shopping, or weekends we shift the internal (neurological) rewards towards the reward rather than the process of achieving it.
Put simply, the effort becomes less fun because all the perceived enjoyment is tied to what we get out of the work instead of the work itself. Learning to enjoy the activities themselves (whether work or otherwise) makes the process more motivating, efficient, and fulfilling than thinking about the outcome or reward.
When you practice deriving joy from the effort instead of the reward, you also rewire your brain (over time) to start seeking out effort instead of rewards. Did you know that I wrote this article on a Sunday morning even if I never work on weekends?
Meaning around your career, projects, and daily tasks will have an outsized impact on your productivity — as well as how happy you are after the fact.
When you’re consciously aware of why you’re doing a task, why the project is important to you, and the reasons behind why you’d like to further your career, making better decisions and maintaining a consistent level (speed/quality) of output becomes a lot easier.
This is where the stupid-sounding “don’t get a job with the goal of earning money” line comes in.
When it comes to meaning, I’ve found Mark Manson’s duology of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fck and Everything is Fcked (which I read in backwards order) incredibly helpful for overcoming any feelings of emptiness but there are plenty of other authors you can check out.
Building Your Personal Brand
Branding is often discussed and thought of in the context of businesses. But you are a business. Any freelancer or job applicant is selling a product or service in the form of their time, skills, and output. You’re a business, and your client or employer is the customer.
The Importance of Branding
How you’re perceived (and in turn whether or not you get projects/jobs) will often relate to the story your website, blog, or LinkedIn profile tell about you. If the online narrative you tell isn’t accurate, interesting, and compelling then good luck finding work.
Worse yet, if you make no effort to tell your story through personal branding then others will do it for you. Remember, Google’s algorithms are extremely good at scraping the web so results will come up for your name — it’s just a matter of whether you want to influence what pops up.
When you throw in the fact that most freelance work comes from regulars or referrals, building a personal brand that helps you land/keep clients (and position yourself as someone worth referring people to) becomes an absolute necessity.
How to Get Started
Building up a portfolio, blog, and solid LinkedIn profile will take some time. That said, you should absolutely get a personal website set up as soon as possible. Buying a domain, getting a web host, and building your website on WordPress.org will only take a few hours.
Note: SiteGround is my preferred web host due to their CS team but there are cheaper options.
You can speed up the process by watching a few YouTube tutorials and using website themes.
Once you’re up and running, start by uploading anything you’ve written thus far (ideally with your name on it but ghostwritten articles are better than nothing for now). If you’ve done zero client work, write some blog posts for yourself and publish those as samples.
You’ll also want to collect and publish testimonials on your website. Social proof is one of the most reliable ways to close deals with new clients. If they see positive reviews from your previous clients then they’ll be more confident in your ability to deliver.
It’s possible to collect and publish testimonials manually through WordPress plugins. However, it’ll take a lot more time and tech savviness than just getting a social proof tool to automate the process for you.
There are plenty of highly-affordable social proof tools to choose from.
Personally, I use Famewall since it costs less than $10/month and lets you embed a testimonial wall into your website that automatically updates whenever a client submits a response on your collection form — all without writing a single line of code.
There’s also a free plan but the paid version is well worth the price as far as I’m concerned.
There’s a ton more to share from the six and a half years (2,400 days) since I wrote my first article but this will have to do for now.
I hope this post was helpful but learning from Andrew Huberman, Cal Newport, or Mark Manson will most likely be far more valuable than listening to me so keep that in mind for future reference (and check out their work after closing this tab).
It’s impossible to cover everything you need to know in a single article and, even if it was, I’m not the best person to summarize the industry since others have been doing this far longer than me.
That said, I hope this serves as a good jumping off point for further research.
I’ve often heard that learning from people who are a few years ahead of you is the easiest way to apply the guidance to your own situation. If that’s even remotely true, this article should be helpful to those who are either completely new or have been writing for less than five years.
Lastly, this article is actually 1,885 words not 2,000 so, if you want to sue me for false advertising, now is your chance.