My home state of Tennessee has an abundance of ruby-throated hummingbirds. These tiny feathered gems defy belief.
They weigh about the same as a marshmallow (.1 to .2 ounces or about 3 grams) and beat their wings 53 times per second, on average. They build walnut-sized nests with materials out of a fairy tale: the down of thistle and dandelion held together with spider web and covered with lichen. The nests can stretch to fit the growing nestlings and be reused the next year!
Perhaps most impressive is their yearly journey across the Gulf of Mexico to winter in Mexico or Central America: nearly 500 miles (or 800 kilometers) nonstop for at least 18 hours.
Have you ever watched a hummingbird in a garden? They flit from flower to flower and use their straw-like bills to sip nectar and double their body mass before migration.
Many growth-minded freelancers act like hummingbirds. We hover above one flower, we see another out of the corner of our eye. Perhaps the honeysuckle is better and sweeter? Perhaps we’re wasting our time on the zinnia? We buzz to the more enticing opportunity without finishing what we started.
What is the root problem for freelancers and consultants?
No one can fault our work ethic. We work hard!
Our problem isn’t intelligence either. We read the books and posts. We listen to the videos and podcasts. We know to work smart, on top of working hard, and navigating the challenges of being a creative or consultant becomes a job unto itself.
(Can you tell I’m speaking to myself here, not just you?)
Most of us care deeply about delivering good or excellent quality and leaving clients better than we found them.
If the root problem for freelancers isn’t work ethic, intelligence, or skill, then what is it?
The root problem for freelancers and consultants is fractured focus. Paralyzing optionality surrounds us, and when you’re responsible for everything and everything seems like a priority, it’s hard to decide what is most important:
- Investing an hour in your marketing vs. a client project
- Updating your website vs. updating your LinkedIn profile
- Creating a positioning cheat code vs. creating juicy offers
- Finally niching down vs. emailing clients about your rate increase
- Crafting an email to request referrals vs. attending a local startup event
And that measly list of five barely scratches the surface, doesn’t it?
No wonder we end up feeling overwhelmed. At least hummingbirds can follow their instincts, but we can get tangled up in our own second-guessing, not to mention the abundance of distraction, from inboxes to news apps to kids who act as though they’ll perish unless you get them some Cheez-It crackers right now.
In the absence of a plan we believe in, we overthink where to put our time throughout the day: “Is this what I should be doing right now?”
Here’s a hot slice of irony for you: Some of the smartest freelancers and consultants I know sink the most time into overanalysis because they're so adept at seeing all the angles and possible paths forward.
We can’t think ourselves out of incessant bids for our attention.
What is the solution to the freelance focus problem?
We must instead create a plan we can fall back on when the next flower beckons, when the urgent-not-important threatens to hijack our attention.
Thankfully, I’ve found a fairly straightforward two-step solution for combating complexity and spending less time second guessing myself:
- Create a 30/60/90 plan.
- Break down key objectives into 30-minute sprints.
“Surely, it’s not that simple,” you’re thinking.
I totally understand your skepticism. For the better part of eight years, a frenetic energy defined my daily workflow, my career even. I had high capacity and ample motivation to go with it: As the primary breadwinner for a growing family, I felt the pressure acutely. A productive day for me was one where I drew a line through several dozen tasks. If I managed to reach Inbox Zero, all the better!
Because I could squeeze a lot in, I took on more clients and projects compulsively. I liked most of the work most of the time. I liked making extra money, and God knows my family and I had lean months where I paid bills one at a time and often just in time. When Not Quite Enough has been an unwelcome guest too many months in your home, you develop an unconscious habit of saying yes to everything.
As I gained experience, I gained efficiency, and that efficiency freed up some capacity. What would I do? I’d scramble to book out that capacity, never mind that I needed time for my own business development and marketing. When scarcity mindset tells you to do something, you do it.
So yeah, I’m not here to judge.
Overbooking myself and operating on next to no margin was my habit for the better part of a decade. I had a string of high-earning months in 2013 that were false positives, reinforcing that habit: “Look! My hard work is finally paying off.” Instead of saving the money for a down payment on a house as originally planned, I invested $25,000 in a tech startup. Rather, the idea of a tech startup.
While I acted as the COO for a startup that wasn’t paying me, my freelance business became the side hustle. Within two years, I went from having $20,000 and $30,000 months to being broke and burned out.
Here’s a reliable recipe: chronically overbooked + broke = burnout. I found myself slow to get out of bed in the mornings, and enshrouded in a gray, grim outlook when I did.
How can freelancers get more done without burning out?
I realized that my high capacity had come back to bite me. Through being chronically overcommited and handing out yeses like candy bars at Halloween, I had devalued my greatest asset: me.
When my energy and optimism returned, I didn’t want to forget what I learned: “More” doesn’t mean more effective. “Faster” doesn’t mean better. A longer to-do list doesn’t mean a more fruitful day.
I’ll write about fruitfulness versus productivity another time, but for now, let’s circle back to the idea at hand: You don’t get more done by doing more. You get more done by doing less but better, which is something I learned from Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism. McKeown borrowed heavily from one of industrial designer Dieter Rams’s design priciples: Weniger, aber besser. Less but better.
The truth is, we don’t really want to get more done. We want to focus on the right things at the right time, and push the unimportant stuff to the periphery.
We all get the same number of hours each day, but each of us has unique mix of capacity, energy, and various responsibilities and circumstances vying for attention—everything from chronic pain to caring for children to full-time jobs.
The single best way to get more of the most important work done is to create a simple, actionable plan you believe in. That way, even on the days when you question the sanity of being a freelancer at all, you can give the complexity a rude shove to the side and make definitive progress on what matters most, even if that progress consists of a single 30-minute sprint.
When you have a plan you believe in and you make minimum viable progress each day, you will transform your freelance business—not if but when. Here’s basic math to prove it:
- 30 minutes per day
- 5 days per week
- 48 weeks per year
- 120 hours of focused effort per year
Notice that you wouldn’t be making those minimum viable deposits on the weekend. Notice that you’d take 4 weeks off and give your mind and soul a break. Notice that this approach is sustainable.
If you invested 120 hours in building the business you actually want, where would you be this time next year?
What is the next step?
Download my free 30/60/90 Day Action Plan template. The template includes an example of a plan I created with a client plus a blank worksheet for you.
Spend 30 minutes doing a brain dump with pen and paper and then another 15 minutes putting your key objectives and their discrete steps into the GSheet.
Do you want help with that?
If you'd like some help creating a plan you believe in, then I invite you to invest in a Custom Business Roadmap engagement with me. Here’s how you know you'd be a good fit:
- You want to be more strategic in how you grow your business.
- Once we create a roadmap, you will implement it.
- You're averaging $5,000 or more per month.
- You want to be consistent with marketing.
The Custom Business Roadmap process has 3 steps:
- We do a strategy session and discuss where you're at.
- I put together a custom business roadmap for you.
- We do another session to finalize it.
A writer and strategist named Ben Culbreth created a simple, repeatable marketing plan, and here's what he said in an email on September 29:
“Thanks for all your help. I made more progress in my marketing strategy in the last week than I have all year. Looking forward to our call next week.”
Strategist and Webflow developer Luke Netti had this to say about his roadmap:
"This is exactly what I needed to get through some of the roadblocks I had to move forward."
Progress happens when you get clarity, reduce complexity, and build momentum faster by creating an actionable plan you believe in.
There's more info, including the cost, here.
When you’re ready, here are 3 other ways I can help you:
- Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
- Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make 6 figures as a freelancer.
- Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.