Look for Levers - The One Piece of Freelance Advice You’re Stupid to Ignore

13 min. read
May 3, 2024

If you’ve ever used a small rock and a long crowbar to lift a much larger rock out of a hole, you understand the concept of leverage. Two simple tools, a fulcrum and lever, multiply the force you exert and give you better results with less effort.

The sooner we learn to look for and use metaphorical levers in all facets of life, the sooner we get the results we want.

My kids are on a Wii Mario Kart kick right now, and levers work like the stars, mushrooms, and bullets you pick up during a race. Hit the A button, and you move faster, blaze past obstacles, or pass other racers.

Levers make it easier to win the game, and once you know they exist, how you play the game changes.

I’m going to share several examples of levers, starting with how I earned a 205% average one quarter in middle school. I’ll end the post with a few more tactical observations about where levers and better leverage come into play for freelancers and consultants.

Lever #1 - Loopholes

My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Piper, set a minimum requirement for a new program called Accelerated Reader (AR). My classmates and I had to read enough books and give enough correct answers on AR quizzes to get twelve points. Any points we earned beyond that she promised to count as extra credit.

Now, this assignment caused some grumbling, even though we had several months to complete it. AR was yet another “boring” English-y task we all had to remember, manage, and do.

I saw more possibilities than problems. I liked to read, read voraciously my free time, so by putting no restrictions on the total number of bonus points any student could earn, Mrs. Piper had offered me a loophole.

Within the first week or two, I’d already finished a book worth more than twelve points and aced the quiz. I then set my sights on longer novels, such as The Story of Doctor Dolittle and Great Expectations, and began racking up the bonus points.

It so happened that Mrs. Piper didn’t give us many tests, quizzes, or graded assignments that quarter, perhaps 200 points in total, so by the time she tallied up my grade, the number of bonus points I had earned exceeded the total number regular points. I hadn’t missed many points on the regular assignments and had a legitimate average of 205%.

At the time, I knew I was gaming the system by doing something I enjoyed for its own sake, but I didn’t realize that my little feat was one bread crumb in a trail leading to an enduring fascination. Some people get better results than other people. Why?

Before I share more examples of levers, let me make three observations:

1. With levers and leverage, our proclivities and curiosity matter.

I liked reading and had good recall after reading, and because I was working with my enjoyment and preferred style of learning (visual rather than auditory), I read more, and longer. To put it a different way, I was willing and able to work harder and longer because I was following my own bent. If any of the key elements had been missing, leverage and willingness and natural ability, I wouldn’t have ended up with all those bonus points. People who enjoy the task often get better results than other people who lack what performance psychologist Jim Loehr calls “full engagement.” (More from Jim in a moment.) I won’t go into it here, but it’s worth noting that when we follow our natural bent, we have a higher tolerance for boredom—that is, discomfort—an advantage James Clear mentions at the end of Atomic Habits.

2. Using levers still takes work.

In this respect, levers aren’t the same as shortcuts. Shortcuts promise less time, energy, and money up front. Advantages usually require more. However, that upfront investment pays in compound interest over time. You’ll still work up a sweat using a crowbar to lift a big rock out of a hole. However, if you learn to look for a less labor-intensive way to solve problems and invest in the tools, you’ll eventually be able to solve more problems, faster, with less overall effort than your poor neighbor who bursts blood vessels straining against that chunk of problem.

3. The idea of levers is itself a lever.

We must know to look for and collect levers before we’ll have them to use. What we think of as mastery often involves the careful synthesis of natural talent or bent, regular practice, and full engagement of focus and energy. If you’ve ever watched a world-class sprinter like Usain Bolt, you have a vivid picture of this. He makes a record-shattering performance look effortless.

I can’t say I’ve been a Bolt at many endeavors, but I was good at school.

No one talked about hacking at the time, but I hacked my classes. Which assignments counted? And which ones proved to be busy work when they came back ungraded? What were the patterns? A secret source of pride for me was putting in the least amount of input for the highest possible output—without cheating.

The point here isn’t that I was a precocious kid but that before I was even aware of what I was doing I was looking for better leverage: Maximizing loopholes like unlimited extra credit. Avoiding time sucks like ungraded assignments.

Levers show up everywhere.

All this might be a drab detail of my adolescent years if I hadn’t later discovered that levers show up everywhere: every field, profession, trade, art form, sport, hobby, and facet of life. From friendship to fashion, romance to parenting, art to entrepreneurship, some things just matter more than others, especially when you’re trying to get better than average results.

Masters of a craft, more than amateurs, can point you to the factors and techniques that make an outsized impact. This kind of selective attention—what to pay attention to and what to ignore—may be closer to an ethos, or it may be closer to a practice.

Director Dave Brailsford brought an ethos to the British cycling program, one he called “the aggregation of marginal gains.” After moving past more obvious 1% better improvements, Brailsford and his team began looking for unexpected ones—for example, determining which type of bedding helped each cyclist get the best rest. The Brits went from having not won the Tour de France in 110 years to five victories in six years.

LeBron James has an expensive practice: He reportedly spends $1.5 million a year on personal chefs and nutrition, trainers, and physical therapy. James will make $50 million in 2024 to 2025, so perhaps it's more accurate to say that not investing in his body, recovery, and longevity in the sport would be more expensive. He’s one of only six NBA players to play 21 seasons.

You’ve got to wonder why more professional athletes don’t spend the $1.5 million!

Sometimes, the lever involves doing the opposite.

It’s like we all need to develop a nose for efficacy: Out of all the myriad ways we could spend our time, focus, and money, which ones will enable us to accomplish our goals faster?

Before Tim Ferriss wrote The 4-Hour Workweek and became a bestselling author, he was an account executive for a tech company that sold data storage. When Tim made sales calls during regular business hours, 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM, he ran into the same problems as his coworkers: Administrative assistants and a calendar full of meetings made the executive decision-makers difficult to reach.

Most of us learn early on, through negative reinforcement, to not rock the boat, especially when parents, teachers, coaches, supervisors, and friends say, “This is how we do things around here.”

After several months of “smiling and dialing,” Tim asked himself a question that changed everything: “What if I did the opposite?”

For forty-eight hours, he conducted an experiment: cold emails during regular business hours and sales calls between 7:00 and 8:30 AM and 6:00 to 7:30 PM. Tim discovered that the CEOs and CTOs often arrived earlier at the office and stayed later than their admins. When he called in those time windows on the edges, some decision-makers would pick up the phone.

The difference in the results was immediate and dramatic, and that successful experiment led to others. In his last quarter in that job, Tim outsold the entire L.A. office of his company’s biggest competitor.

Tim’s story reveals to other types of levers:

  • Questions
  • Strategies

In Tim’s case, the better question (“What if I did the opposite?”) turned up the better strategy (calling before and after business hours) that gave him better leverage.

Sometimes, the lever is what top performers do unconsciously.

Sometimes, like Tim, we discover such strategies on our own, and sometimes, we find them in the work of scientists and researchers.

Jim Loehr is a performance psychologist and author, and when he was working at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy with 240 of the best players in the world, he noticed that if he only looked at the time between points, not the points themselves, he could identify who the extraordinarily good competitors were (and were not).

Get this: Tennis players spend only 30% of a match actually playing. The other 70% of the time passes between points.

Jim noticed a high correlation between what the best competitors did with their between-point time and the outcome of the match.

No one had ever considered between-point time, and when Jim started talking about it, they dismissed him. “People thought I had lost my mind,” he said.

Rather than be put off a potential advantage for players at the Academy, Jim doubled down on research:

“We took the best competitors on the men’s and women’s tours at that time and looked at all those things that they did in common that were not just personality dynamics or anything else, and we developed a training system between points based on those 16 seconds.”

Jim’s team started working with players to adopt a “16-second cure,” a deliberate recovery ritual that they used between points to clear their minds, calm their emotions (especially anger and frustration), and lower their heart rates.

By more effectively managing the stresses of competitive tennis, players were spending more time in flow and minimize unforced errors.

Levers are advantages.

“Levers” is the word I use to draw a circle around different types of advantages, including the examples I shared above (loopholes, time sucks, an ethos or set of practices, questions, strategies, and rituals).

In the last interview he gave before passing away in December 2023, Charlie Munger gave advice that I’ll summarize this way:

“Figure out what works and do it. Figure out what doesn’t work and avoid it.”

That advice seems so obvious that it’s easy to ignore.

How many of us really make a habit of looking for levers and deliberately employing them with our lives and businesses? Perhaps the better question is, why don’t more of us seek out these advantages?

In his essay “How to Do What You Love” Paul Graham gives us a clue:

“If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong.”

Because life and business are hard, because they hurt, we don’t always realize when we’re making them harder. We’ll persist in doing things that obviously aren’t working, the same as Tim’s fellow account executives making calls when decision-makers were least likely to pick up.

This is precisely why the best freelancers, consultants, and solopreneurs stack up two advantages which then enable them to stack up more:

  1. Experimental mindset → “I wonder what will happen when I do the opposite… .”
  2. Mentors

Mentors aren’t valuable because they offer advice. You can get advice anywhere. It’s cheap, and usually, it’s garbage. When LeBron James joined the NBA at the age of 19, I doubt the older players told him, “Invest an exorbitant amount in your health each year.”

No, mentors can tell you what didn’t work for them—what Munger would call “the standard ways of failing”—and if you spend less time dragging your bloodied self out of tiger traps and recovering from avoidable mistakes, you’ll have more time and full engagement to experiment, to sift your experience, and to find levers.

I promised to end with a few tactical observations:

  1. Inbox management. Whether we like it or not, email is still the de facto form of communication in business. Most creative entrepreneurs spend a ton of time on it. Believe it or not, I consider inbox management to be a lever. We’ve got to manage our reputations and deliver a satisfying client experience, but every minute we don’t spend on our inboxes is one we can spend elsewhere. Here are 12 of my email productivity tips. Step 1 is to free up more time by spending less time in your inbox!
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. Generating a surplus of project leads will make many of your other problems disappear. Many of us don’t have enough leads because we treat marketing as an afterthought, especially when we’re busy. However, if you do your marketing first thing in the morning, then you don’t give yourself a chance to procrastinate, and if you make a habit of it, with no excuses or exceptions like going to the gym, then eventually it becomes automatic. So, a morning marketing habit (all three words matter) gives you a leverage because it simultaneously shuts out most of the factors that disrupt an always-be-marketing practice while also paving the way to the one thing every freelancer and consultant wants: predictable revenue. I’ve gotten a ton of positive feedback on my Morning Marketing Habit course with 31 tiny lessons, which help you do the thing, that is develop the habit. Buy it for $149 here.
  3. Followup. Bigger projects tend to have longer sales cycles. Plus, potential clients get busy and distracted. Some of them aren’t great at managing their inboxes. Some of them even forget about you. (Crazy, I know.) One lesson the Southern, middle child, peacekeeping, people-pleasing earlier version of Austin needed to learn was that the answer is always yes until you get a clear no. We must keep following up—at least five times. I heard Zig Ziglar say in a sales training once that most of his business came after five follow-ups. That has proven out in my experience, too: Probably 50% of my first projects with new clients required at least five follow-ups before I won the project and cemented the relationship. Funny enough, the reason I’ve fumbled follow-ups is I didn’t know what to say. By concocting reasons to follow up and email templates in advance, I removed the guesswork and friction. Following up with potential clients is easy for me now. If you want my 12 email templates (levers!), go here.

I could keep going. In fact, my Business Redesign program is built on 6 key levers that give freelancers and consultants better results with less effort: pathfinding (more specifically, clarify where you want to take your business), positioning, packaging, pricing, pipeline, and process.

When all these levers work together, they give you an effective and fulfilling growth strategy, the $300K Flywheel. You have a clear advantage over people with a similar skillset who don’t stand out, don’t have juicy offers, and don’t know how to generate new project leads predictably.

If you’d like to save 100s of hours by not trying to figure this out on your own—and if you’re smart, you probably can—you can learn about the Business Redesign program here.

Whatever you do, look for levers. Use them, and if you feel like you’re cheating but you’re not, then you’re on the right track.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (Closeup.fm), a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


The only weekly freelancing email you don't want to miss...