Huit conseils de survie pour indépendants [fr]

J’écris beaucoup en anglais sur des sujets qui touchent les indépendants, dans la catégorie Being the Boss et aussi, dans une moindre mesure, Life Improvement. Aujourd’hui, j’ai envie d’offrir à mes lecteurs francophones indépendants quelques conseils de survie. J’aurais bien fait de les suivre à mes débuts, et je suis bien consciente qu’on n’apprend jamais mieux qu’à travers ses propres erreurs, mais parfois, parfois, les expériences d’autrui peuvent être précieuses.

Sans plus attendre, lançons-nous donc.

1. Barricader votre temps personnel

Surtout en début de carrière indépendante, à plus forte raison si l’on a transformé en métier une passion, il est facile de se laisser griser par la liberté des horaires et l’impression que “le travail n’est plus du travail”. Le problème de la plupart des indépendants, c’est qu’ils travaillent trop. Fatigue, stress, ou même burn-out les attendent au contour.

Préservez jalousement votre temps personnel: pour dormir, manger, vous détendre, et fréquenter famille et amis. Même si c’est frustrant au départ, fixez-vous des règles: pas de travail le week-end, ou le dimanche, ou après 19h. Ou pas de travail le matin si vous avez travaillé le soir. Plus tard, avec l’expérience, vous apprendrez quand vous pourrez faire des exceptions sans trop en souffrir. Mais pour commencer, soyez stricts.

2. L’agenda de votre client n’est pas plus important que le vôtre

La liberté d’horaire qui va avec beaucoup de métiers indépendants est très agréable et pratique, mais cela ne signifie pas que vous devez à tout prix offrir la flexibilité maximale à vos clients. Si vous avez l’habitude de concentrer vos rendez-vous sur certaines journées (une pratique que je recommande) et que vous y tenir nécessite de ne voir le client que dans deux semaines, ce n’est pas votre entière responsabilité. Si votre client annule un rendez-vous et veut du coup vous voir sur une de vos plages de temps personnel, apprenez à être ferme.

En donnant la priorité à l’agenda de votre client, vous cédez à son urgence, et mettez le petit doigt dans l’engrenage d’une forme d’esclavage.

Cela ne veut pas dire qu’il ne faut jamais faire d’exceptions. Mais faites d’abord l’expérience d’être intransigeant, pour être ensuite libre dans vos exceptions.

3. Etre plus cher, quitte à perdre quelques clients

La plupart des indépendants que je connais travaillent trop et ne gagnent pas assez d’argent. Souvent, simplement parce qu’ils ne sont pas assez chers. Il vaut mieux perdre des mandats parce qu’on est trop cher (et croyez-moi, si vos prix sont justes vous serez régulièrement “trop cher” pour quelqu’un) que d’accepter des mandats trop gros pour des tarifs trop bas et travailler à perte ou pour 20.- de l’heure, à ne plus s’en voir les mains.

“Gérer” un client (du premier contact, voire des efforts marketing engagés pour l’attirer, jusqu’au paiement final) c’est aussi du travail, et même si vous ne pouvez pas le facturer, vous devez en tenir compte lorsque vous calculez vos tarifs pour rentrer dans vos frais. Ce sont vos frais fixes, si on veut — le “coût d’acquisition” du client.

4. Faire payer des acomptes

Face au client qui est souvent une entreprise, l’indépendant est en position de faiblesse. Si quelque chose va de travers, c’est en général l’indépendant qui casque (comprenez: il ne se fait pas payer, ou cède à la pression de faire du travail supplémentaire pour le même montant). Le client court très peu de risques de payer pour du travail qui n’est pas fait, comme le travail est généralement facturé après-coup. Bien sûr, l’indépendant peut engager des poursuites si son client ne paie pas, mais il n’a pas à disposition l’appareil judiciaire ou les ressources financières (ou le temps!) pour mener ce genre d’opération jusqu’au bout. Sans compter que les sommes à investir dépassent souvent largement celles qui sont dûes.

Afin de partager un peu les risques, il faut faire payer un acompte au client avant de démarrer le travail. 50%, c’est bien — au minimum 30%. L’intérêt de l’acompte est double: d’une part, il vous donne de quoi payer une facture ou deux pendant que vous travaillez sur le mandat (que le premier indépendant n’ayant jamais connu de problèmes de liquidités s’annonce!), et d’autre part, il permet de trier les clients. Un client qui refuse de payer un tel acompte n’est probablement pas un client avec lequel vous désirez travailler — ce qui nous amène au point suivant.

5. Repérer au plus tôt les “clients difficiles” et ne pas travailler avec

Un client qui commence par mettre en question vos tarifs ou vos compétences, refuse de régler un acompte, annule un rendez-vous ne va pas magiquement se transformer en client modèle pour la suite de votre relation. Si ça démarre mal, il y a de fortes chances pour que ça continue mal et que ça finisse également mal, et que vous ayez eu avantage, en fin de compte, à ne pas travailler pour le client en question. Un client qui commence par être difficile continuera généralement à l’être.

Ayez donc l’oeil vif et alerte lors de vos premiers contacts avec un nouveau client, pour les signes avant-coureurs de problèmes à venir. S’il fait des problèmes pour payer votre acompte, par exemple, il y a fort à parier qu’il fera des problèmes ailleurs aussi.

Le cadre de travail, c’est nous, en tant qu’indépendants, qui le posons. Ce n’est pas au client de dicter les termes — mais si vous le laissez faire, il le fera, parce que quelqu’un doit bien diriger les opérations. Ayez donc un cadre de travail, un processus, que vous expliquez au client et auquel vous vous tiendrez. C’est rassurant aussi bien pour lui que pour vous.

Et renoncez sans regrets aux clients qui s’annoncent trop difficiles.

6. Avoir des traces écrites

En parlant de cadre de travail, ayez des traces écrites de vos accords avec vos clients (on dira que l’e-mail, c’est suffisant dans la plupart des cas). Les discussions se font souvent par téléphone ou en face-à-face, et dans ce cas, dites au client que vous allez lui envoyer un petit mail récapitulatif de votre accord. Terminez celui-ci par quelque chose comme “merci de bien vouloir me confirmer par retour de mail que tout ceci est en ordre pour vous”.

Il n’est pas inutile non plus d’avoir un document “générique” détaillant vos conditions, que vous pouvez joindre à un tel envoi. Versement d’acompte, conditions de paiement, d’annulation, ce qui est inclus ou non dans la prestation, et même, si c’est pertinent pour votre situation, la petite phrase “je décline toute responsabilité en cas de XYZ”.

La plupart de vos clients ne vous causeront jamais de problème. Mais pour celui qui le fera, ce serait quand même dommage de ne pas s’être couvert un minimum. Et le faire par écrit dans un document “générique” me paraît une bonne solution pour ne pas froisser le client normal, bien-pensant, et honnête.

7. Engager un comptable

A moins d’être un pro de la compta vous-même, engagez un comptable. Oui, ça fait des frais, mais que de soucis en moins! Les comptes de votre entreprise seront en ordre, votre déclaration d’impôts aussi, et en cas de contrôle fiscal, c’est un professionnel qui s’en sera occupé, ce qui ne peut que faire bonne impression.

Si votre comptable est trop cher pour que vous lui confiez la tâche de faire toutes les écritures, regardez si vous pouvez trouver quelqu’un d’autre à qui déléguer cette tâche (y compris le classement ordré de vos quittances).

Et si vous le faites vous-même, faites-le à mesure! (Oui je sais, c’est pénible et en général on n’arrive pas à tenir, c’est pour ça que je recommande de confier cette tâche à quelqu’un d’autre.)

8. Facturer à mesure

Entre le moment où l’on facture et le moment où l’argent arrive sur votre compte en banque, il peut s’écouler du temps. Il est donc impératif de ne pas attendre d’avoir besoin d’argent pour envoyer vos factures! (Rigolez, ça paraît stupide, mais je l’ai fait longtemps et j’en connais d’autres dans ce cas.) Dès que le mandat est terminé, la facture part.

Un autre avantage à faire payer des acomptes: j’envoie personnellement souvent mes factures avant d’avoir effectué le travail, précisant les conditions de paiement (acompte de 50% dès réception de la présente, solde à payer x jours après la fin du mandat ou la date de la conférence ou de la formation). Comme ça ma part est faite.

Comme vous le voyez, ces conseils concernent l’hygiène de vie de l’indépendant (et sa santé mentale sur le long terme!) plutôt que des questions pratiques sur le réseautage, la négociation, l’établissement des tarifs, ou l’organisation du travail. Ces derniers points sont importants également, mais les compétences dans ces domaines sont complètement inutiles si on ne tient pas le rythme. (C’est tout lié, c’est sûr, mais il faut bien hierarchiser un peu.)

J’espère qu’ils pourront être utiles à certains!

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Weekly Planning: Weekly Routine? [en]

[fr] Je réfléchis à un rythme pour mes semaines. Même si elles se suivent sans se ressembler, certaines choses se répètent de semaine en semaine. J'en suis ici: lundi, courte journée consacrée essentiellement à m'organiser et à planifier la semaine, et à faire un sort à autant de tâches routinières que possible. Mardi, journée bureau. Mercredi, journée bureau ou meetings suivant les besoins. Jeudi après-midi, workshops ou meetings. Vendredi pour m'occuper de ce qui a passé entre les gouttes durant la semaine et faire des tâches "légères" (annoncer et promouvoir Bloggy Fridays et autres p'tits déjs, mettre le blog de l'eclau à jour, compta, paperasse, socialiser en ligne, mettre à jour ma présence sur les réseaux sociaux, etc...)

Attempting to plan my weeks has left me wondering if I should try to settle into some kind of weekly routine — especially when a week like last week comes up, where I realize that I have only one office day planned for the whole week, and on a Friday.

One thing I need to do in advance is plan my office and meeting days. Sometimes they are decided for me: a client wants me to come and give a talk on this or that day — well, that makes it a meeting day. But most of the time, I get to choose. So, which choice is best? What are the best days of the week for me to stay in the office, and what are the best days for me to be running around or seeing people all day?

Though my professional activities vary a lot for week to week, my personal ones are pretty regular. I finish early on Mondays and Fridays to go to judo. My Monday mornings and Thursday mornings are usually booked. I sing on Wednesday nights, or go sailing in summer. People from the coworking space often go out to eat together on Wednesdays.

There are also professional activities that I do or want to do each week: plan my week, for one. I’m the editor for a couple of blogs, and I have the choice between scheduling publications for the whole week at one moment, or publishing day-by-day. I write my column every week (on Sunday, so far). I want to write a few blogs posts every work, do some research, work on my business development, keep up with administrivia, and of course do my client work.

So, with all these different activities, and different types of days, maybe there is an optimal way of organizing my week.

Here’s my thinking so far (and many thanks to Suw who patiently listened to me thinking all this out loud over IM).

Planning my week is something, I realized, which can take upto half a day (scary!) because I’m still learning how to do it. It often involves rethinking priorities, doing a mind sweep (or an inbox sweep) to capture stray tasks that have slipped through the cracks, and sometimes dealing with actual emergencies. As I write this, I realise that my “plan my week” moments have a little “GTD weekly review” ring to them. They aren’t the weekly review, I’m aware of that, but there is some kinship.

I guess in an ideal world I would plan the next week on Friday afternoon, and make that a proper weekly review too. Unfortunately things do tend to crop up during the week-end, and I’m usually pretty tired by my week on Fridays, so I’m not in an optimal state of mind to be doing something new and a bit challenging.

As my Monday mornings are spent out of the office, and my Monday afternoons are pretty short, “Monday” actually turns out to be a good day for me to plan and get organized. Of course, if it doesn’t take the whole afternoon (which I hope!) I will get other things done — but I’ve learned it’s better to plan larger time slots than tight ones.

So, there goes my Monday.

Friday is another interesting day in the week: business is slow on that day, and meetings tend to happen earlier in the week. I’m tired (everybody is). Traditionally for me it’s an office day, and a rather quiet one: not many phone calls, not many incoming e-mails. If my brain is still functional it’s a good day to get things done, but most of the time it’s just not that productive. It’s useful to have it as an office day rather than a day full of meetings or errands, though, because it serves as a safety net to catch any emergencies that might not have been dealt with during the week. When I plan my week, I don’t usually *plan* to do much on Friday, apart from do the stuff I didn’t manage to do during the week.

Ten days ago, I was thinking about the type of activity that would be suitable for a low-energy day like Friday, and actually came up with quite a few ideas:

  • announcing events and promoting them (Bloggy Friday, eclau breakfasts and apéros, etc…)
  • updating blogs, mailing-lists, Facebook presence for my various projects
  • social media gardening: LinkedIn, Facebook, and all the rest
  • uploading photos
  • updating WordPress and plugins
  • trying out new toys or services (light research)
  • pruning my task lists (another hint of “weekly review”)
  • dealing with administrivia and filing paperwork
  • catching up with the week’s invoicing, accounting, and payments
  • getting back to people and socializing online.

A lot of these activities are actually more important than they might seem at first glance, and therefore they tend to slip through the cracks, grow hair and legs, and turn into scary emergency-monsters after a few weeks or months.

So, let’s say I declare Friday a “casual office” day, to catch up on the leftovers of the week and do the above. That leaves me with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Tuesday is a great office day. I have nothing planned in the evening, so it really gives me a clear day to just get on with work. Wednesday is also a good office day when I’m singing, as I can hang around until 7pm, though not so great when I’m sailing, as I’m likely to head out around 4pm. Thursday is usually only half a day, but will turn into a complete day similar to Tuesday in a few months’ time.

So, for the moment, it looks like I’m going to declare Tuesday a regular office day, Thursday afternoon a regular meeting/workshop time, and Wednesday will be office or meetings, depending on whether I have more “office” client work or more “meetings” client work.

Mondays are there to plan the week and get as much of my regular tasks out of the way. Friday is there to catch up on the “overflow”, deal with emergencies, and “casual” stuff. I’ll continue writing my column on Sundays.

What’s important to note though is that this is the framework. Many of my weeks will not work out like this — just like my days don’t always follow my daily routine. But having this framework is going to allow me to plan ahead better, I think.

Do you have some kind of weekly routine, or do you just go from week to week and deal with them as they show up?

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Weekly Planning After the Winter Break [en]

[fr] Après Paris, la pause hivernale, et la reprise un peu chaotique, le planning hebdomadaire a un peu de mal. Mais on s'encourage et on tient bon!

After the two busy weeks of Paris and post-Paris came two weeks of winter break non-planning, and two weeks of “getting back into it” semi-planning (including the one that is ending now). The two-week winter break allowed me to understand that I need a certain amount of structure in my time to feel good — long unending days of “whatever” don’t sit that well with me.

A consequence of the winter break was that I came back to the office for a week packed with workshops and talks (well, not completely packed, but more packed than is comfy), a rather long list of e-mails and incoming calls to prioritize, and a pile of urgent things “to do”. I good exercise in disruption, if you ask me.

What I’ve learnt is that it takes much more time than I expect to:

  • get organized
  • catch up on daily business backlogs.

So, basically I spent my first week running a little (nothing so bad as what it was in the past, though), ended up exhausted and not having done a pile of things I expected to be able to, and spent this week drilling down my inbox, calling back prospective clients, doing client work, and dealing with a hundred little things that needed dealing with. This makes for days which seem horribly unproductive, because the “big stuff” that’s on my conscience is not getting done, but which are in fact quite productive because all these annoying little things (like emptying one’s inbox) do need to be done.

So, where’s the weekly planning with all that? Answer: in difficulty.

One thing I’ve kept up is keeping my various lists more or less in order. Evernote is always open or just one click away, and I seem to now have the automatic discipline of adding things in my lists whenever I think of them.

I’ve kept my list of week days and placed the urgent/important tasks on days where I had a chance to do them, but as I’ve been running a bit too much, I ended up pushing back the day I’d “plan my week” and end up doing it on Wednesday, because Monday and Tuesday would be taken up by doing “urgent things”.

Clearly, one of my issues now is when to plan my week and how long it takes. I’d like to do it on Friday afternoon but I’m often too exhausted. Monday morning sounds nice but I’m out most of it for judo, and so planning tends to take up the whole afternoon too. Maybe I need to write Monday off as a “planning and administrivia day”. I really do not want to be planning my work week on week-ends, though I might end up looking at what’s in store for me and doing some light pre-planning on Sunday (I do write my column on Sundays).

I’m also realising how hard it is for me to stick to including seemingly “not vital” tasks in my planning: business development and research/writing, specially when I’m a bit under pressure from too much “paid work” stuff to do. (Please don’t understand this at me wanting less paid work. I’m very happy to have more paid work. I just struggle a bit at times to balance what I spend my time doing.)

Next week only contains one office day (eeeek) so I’ll spend the first four days of the week running from one place to another on errands. Ugh, not really happy with myself for taking bites out of what were my office days for various errands. But I’ll live. Thankfully I have three office days the next week to make up for it. I will take whatever free time I have on Monday to plan, and report back on my progress by the end of the month.

Wish me luck! Hopefully things will be “back to normal” by February.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Not Running (Firewalls and iPhone Alarms) [en]

[fr] Je ne cours plus. C'est un pas important: si on court tout le temps, on est toujours en train de remettre à plus tard, et ça ne nous aide pas à résoudre nos élans procrastinateurs. Une vie un peu plus calme est un bien meilleur terrain. Je me souviens de deux éléments importants qui m'ont aidée à changer ça: premièrement, délimiter strictement du temps non-professionnel, plutôt que de travailler tout le temps (un piège surtout pour les indépendants). Deuxièmement, utiliser les alarmes (multiples!) de mon iPhone pour rythmer mes journées et mes semaines (ne plus partir stressée au judo parce que je n'ai pas vu passer l'heure, mais avoir une alarme placée assez tôt pour que je puisse y aller tranquillement, par exemple).

This is the fourth post in the series. You might want to read the first three ones: Five Principles, Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping, as well as Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck.

At some point during 2009, I realized that I had stopped running. I had stopped being late, doing things in a rush, and being over my head in emergencies. As with all virtuous circles, not running was at the same time a consequence of my decrease in procrastination and one of the elements that led to it.

If I look at my life now, I see clearly that I am doing many more things immediately (they never end up on a to-do list, and therefore reduce the number of procrastinable items in my world) — and doing things immediately is only possible when you’re not already running for your life.

I’ve been thinking back and trying to understand how this change happened, and I can think of two important things that I started doing during the course of 2008:

  • strictly firewalling off “non-work” moments
  • using my iPhone alarms to structure my days.

The first, firewalling off “non-work” time, might not seem immediately linked to a decrease in running, but actually, it’s very important. To stop running, you see, you need to learn that things can wait. You need to teach yourself that even though you’re behind on the deadline, you can still stop.

Lots of people stay trapped in a life of stress and running by saying things like “I have to finish this”, “I can’t afford not to”, “I don’t have a choice”. We always have a choice. We always choose to stay up late to finish something a client is expecting, for example, rather than face the consequences of not doing it. Not much of a choice, you may say. But it’s still a choice. And being aware that you are actually making a choice, rather than just enduring a situation you are powerless over, will in fact making you feel better.

More importantly, it opens the door to revealing your priorities: I am staying up late to work on this project for the client rather than relaxing in front of the TV after an already long day of work, because it is more important for me to avoid having a pissed off client than having a healthy balance in my life. Sounds a bit guilt-inducing said like that, but the point here is: what does this choice reveal of your priorities? What is more important, the client, or you, or your health, or your relationship, for example? All the time, we make these choices, but our priorities are so hard-wired in that we don’t realize anymore that they are choices, and we end up being victims who “have to do it”.

The time I learnt to make time off work a greater priority for me was when I was organizing the Going Solo conference. It was a huge amount of work, and though I had a great support network, I was carrying the whole thing on my shoulders and doing more or less that had to be done. I was under a lot of stress. I would wake up in the morning, grab the computer from under the bed, and collapse in the evening after trying to squeeze in some food between two e-mails or Skype calls. I didn’t know what a week-end was anymore. I was exhausted.

One day, one of my advisors said to me something like “there’s only so much you can do in a day” or “at some point, you have to call it a day”. I can’t remember the exact words used, but the point was this: even if you have a ton of work to do, even if you didn’t do what you expected today, even if you’re behind… at some point, you have to stop. Turn off the computer, turn off work.

So, I stopped feeling guilty about calling it a day. I also started implementing mandatory lunch-breaks: I would leave the computer, set the kitchen timer on 45 minutes, and go about making myself food. 45 minutes was the minimum time my lunch-break was to last. Yes, at least 45 minutes.

And that’s where interesting things started to happen: I started cooking again, for one. In 45 minutes, I had time for more cooking than just grabbing a piece of bread and cheese — so I did it! I also started relaxing a bit in the middle of the day. I’d read something, or lie down. “Time out” like that is important, because if you’re using to your whole life being taken up by work, you tend to forget what living is really about.

If you’re less stressed, in a general way, you’ll be more fit to tackle your procrastination issues. You can’t tackle procrastination issues if you’re running around in circles from morning to evening. So first step: run around in circles only during “work” time, and have “non-work” time when you don’t run.

End 2008, I opened eclau, the Lausanne Coworking Space, and started working there. That was a tremendous help in the “firewalling non-work time” department. Without really trying to do so, I gradually and naturally stopped working at home, to work only in the office. I’d be able to relax better at home. I never implemented real office hours (and don’t want to), but I started going down there in the morning (it’s two floors below my flat!), coming back up for my lunch break (leaving my computer behind!), and closing house in the evening at some point when everybody else started going home.

And that’s the context in which I made my second big step: using iPhone alarms to pace my day. iPhones allow you to set loads of different alarms, repeating any way you like over the week. So I set a daily alarm at noon to encourage me to take my lunch break (otherwise, I would forget about it and end up without having eaten at 3pm — doesn’t make for a very functional Stephanie). I set an alarm in the evening at 6.30 to think about dinner, except on the days when I’d go to judo. On those days, I set a mid-afternoon alarm to remind me to have a snack, and one early enough to remind me to stop working, pack and leave. I set one to tell me when to get ready for my singing rehearsals. I even set myself a “go-to-bed” alarm at 23:30 and a “Cinderella” alarm at midnight, because I was going a bit overboard with late-night DVDs.

Of course, all these alarms worked because they were there to remind me of some important decisions I had made. I wanted to start getting ready for judo soon enough that I wouldn’t arrive late. I wanted to have lunch at regular hours and take lunch breaks. I wanted to be in bed by midnight so I would have enough sleep and still have a morning the next day. But as I know my sense of time is bad (and being in front of a computer is a killer), I used my iPhone to help me. It made my coworkers laugh that every midday, my quacking alarm would go off — but I knew it was an important crutch for me in applying my priorities to my life.

And that’s when the magic actually started to happen: I had the time to prepare my judo and singing things and set off without being in a rush. I had spare time during my lunch break — I would actually use it to do the washing-up. I even had a moment in the evening, in between 23:30 and midnight, to think about my next day and plan it a little (inspired by FlyLady). I would look up train times the evening before if I had to go somewhere rather than sometime in the morning, and then realize I was running late.

Gradually, some areas in my day and life started to slow down. It wasn’t chaos from start to finish. And slowly, that slowness started creeping into the rest of my life, including work. It doesn’t mean I do things slowly, though. But I take the time to do things. I’m not running anymore.

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Income Map Template [en]

[fr] J'ai préparé un tableau pour m'aider à avoir une meilleure visibilité de quand je gagne de l'argent, par semaine et par mois. Il est à disposition si jamais quelqu'un d'autre le trouve utile.

One of the things I want to start doing in 2010 (now that my accounting is in order for 2009, thanks to Buxfer and my brother) is start tracking when I spend time doing “paid work”. Accounting helps me track when I get paid, but not when I am actually spending time doing the work — and in the light of my weekly planning experiments, I want to gain more visibility about how my weeks and months are structured.

After torturing my brain quite a bit, I’ve come up with this Income Map Template for 2010. I’ve made it publicly available as a Google Spreadsheet so you may copy it and use it if you wish (feel free to adapt it and let us know what works for you in the comments).

Income Map Template 2010

The challenge here is that some of my income arrives monthly (retainers), some of it is a project package (one price for a certain amount of work spread over a certain time) and some of it is one-off (giving a talk, or half a day of WordPress training). What I’m really interested in is seeing when I’m doing work that I get paid for, weekly.

This is not about cash flow, although it deals with money (Buxfer takes care of the cash flow), but about time management.

With the help of this spreadsheet, I hope to be able to easily answer the following kinds of questions in 2010:

  • how much paid work do I do in a given month?
  • how much of my income is one-off gigs, compared to regular clients (retainers or long-term projects)?
  • does my weekly income (one-off gigs, aside from retainers and long-term projects) vary a lot from week to week?
  • where should I set the limit to the number of engagements I take in a given week/month?

So, to freelancers out there, who are not clocking time all week: are these questions also interesting to you? Does this make sense? Do you do this kind of “money-earning time-tracking”?

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Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.

Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.

I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.

Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.

So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.

  • Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
  • Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
  • Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
  • End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
  • Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
  • Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
  • Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
  • Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
  • You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
  • Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
  • Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.

This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?

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Stuck Reorganizing my Professional Web Presence [en]

[fr] Où Stephanie se prend la tête avec le contenu de son site professionnel et se demande comment elle va bien pouvoir faire.

I’m itching to try WPML and clean up stephanie-booth.com, my professional site. It’s a mess. Worse than that, it’s an out-of-date mess.

Each time I start thinking about how to reorganize it, my head starts hurting. What belongs here on CTTS, and what belongs there? How do I present what I do to potential clients, when I’m not even sure what to call myself? I do I deal with the fact that I’m talking to very different clients (schools, individuals, freelancers, small and bigger businesses, conference organizers…)?

How do I keep it simple when I do so many things?

Should I change radically and do SB.com blog-like? In that case, does it make sense to keep it separate from CTTS?

Here is a feeble attempt to try and think this headache out loud. Help is very very welcome, as long as it’s not along the lines of “stop doing so many things and pick one”.

So, first there is the “about me” stuff. Bios, CVs, about stuff. Here’s what I have:

A contact page (this is not too much of a headache):

Stuff I’ve done:

Stuff I do: the big headache. Maybe I should use three entry points:

  • delivery mode (training, speaking, consulting, doing)
  • theme (teenagers and social media, social media as communication and marketing, improving one’s online presence, blogging, events, freelancing, coworking)
  • audience (individuals, businesses, schools, non-profits, freelancers, events)

I’m not sure how useful this is… Also, my francophone audience and my anglophone audience have different interests, so my content does not overlap perfectly in both languages (not a problem, but it probably means I have to think the FR and EN sites separately).

There is also content on SB.com which I think does not belong there. It’s more CTTS-like, and might have been good at the time, but it’s a bit dated. I might retro-publish it in the blog so it doesn’t just disappear. And there is content on CTTS which is a little “business-oriented”

Right, so, how can I make sense of all this? Although with most of my clients I feel like a site architecture and content wizard, I’m aware that I’m really not that good at it (particularly with my own content, unsurprisingly).

So, help welcome. Thanks in advance.

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Weekly Planning, Two Weeks [en]

[fr] Après deux semaines de planning hebdomadaire, je vois que j'ai été un peu trop ambitieuse cette semaine. Ça va s'arranger!

So here I am, at the end of my second “planned” week. As I suspected, I was a little ambitious this time around. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • writing a blog post for a client takes up the better part of half a day; sometimes it’s way less, but I mustn’t count on it
  • sorting through 300+ photos also takes up the better part of half a day
  • I need to remember that days with judo are short, as I need to leave the office around 5pm

As I planned “too much”, I ended up giving priority to client work and things others were expecting from me over my personal projects. It sucks, but it’s kind of normal. If I have too much stuff to do “for others” in a week, it means that

  • either I have been saying “yes” too easily
  • or I have not done enough of it over the previous weeks (lack of foresight).

Learning to say “no” more (when necessary) is an ongoing process, and I’m pretty proud at how far I’ve come. It is just not a viable option to say yes to everyone and everything, or you disappear in the process. (Merlin’s time and attention talk, which I’ve started watching, touches upon this.)

As for foresight, it requires longer term planning. Having a view of one’s month, or of the two weeks to come. However, I’m not there yet. It’s no use trying to plan further ahead until I’m at least a brown belt in weekly planning — just as it would have made little sense for me to try and plan my weeks when I was still struggling with the idea of planning my days somewhat. It’s an incremental process, step-by-step.

The fact that I’m not planning beyond the week right now also allows me to relax a bit about the stuff I haven’t got done this week. It’s not like I already have a plan for next week and it’s going to be all disrupted by what I didn’t do this week. I’m going to put the “undone” things back in my master lists, and reevaluate if I’m doing them next week or not.

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More Thoughts on Weekly Planning [en]

[fr] Planifier mon travail sur la semaine me rassure sur le fait que je vais faire le travail "obligatoire" qui est sur ma liste durant la semaine, et que je peux donc me permettre de prendre du temps en cours de route pour des tâches qui me paraissent moins cruciales (mais qui, au fond, sont tout aussi importantes à mon activité professionnelle que le travail payé).

So, enter my second week with a weekly planning, after the first. I spent a good part of my Monday morning getting organized.

I’ve understood how having a weekly planning is helping me make progress in the neglected departments of my “work”: bizdev, research, more writing, etc.

When I work as I normally do, day-by-day, I am only digging into the pile of “things I must do for others”, or “urgent things”. I do not feel I can afford to devote time to less urgent tasks, because there is always this feeling that I should be doing more important things.

With a weekly planning, laying out my week means that I have an overview which reassures me that the “urgent/important” stuff can and will get done, and that it is in fact OK for me to stop and read an interesting publication for an hour or two even though I still need to upgrade some WordPress installations for a client or write a blog post for another. That’s why it works.

The challenge, for the moment, is that I still overestimate what I can do in a day. Or I underestimate the amount of time I need to set aside for the unexpected. And I still have trouble prioritizing, which means that I spent yesterday morning agonizing in front of the rather long list of client work which absolutely had to be done this week.

Yesterday worked out well, but today is being a disaster. Too many rocks, and one task in particular that I completely underestimated: it took me the better part of the morning (granted, there were interruptions and emergencies) to sort through my 350 photographs of Troyes — which I needed to do as I’ll be using some in an article I’ll be writing for a client.

I’m starting to see how longer-term planning (it’s not for straight away, mind you) will come in to help me be better at determining how many projects or how much client work I can take on for a given time period without getting “swamped” in the end.

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Weekly Planning, First Attempt [en]

[fr] Cette semaine, pour la première fois, j'ai réparti mes tâches sur la semaine au lieu de travailler au jour le jour comme j'en ai l'habitude.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I felt the next step to take in my “work life improvement” series was to plan beyond the day, and start looking at my weeks so that I can start building in time for long-term projects. I’ve done this for the first time this week, and overall, the result is pretty positive. Here’s roughly how I did it and what I learned.

1. Define office days and meeting days

This has to be done in advance, obviously, or the calendar fills up. I usually have either two or three of each in a week (minimum one). Every now and again exceptions slip in and an office day turns into a half-baked errand/meeting day, but I try not to. I think I can still improve the way I plan and manage these days (for example: errands vs. meetings, laundry days, exceptions for “immediate” paid work…).

2. Define “areas” that next actions fall in

I’ve refined the list I brainstormed in my “balance in the office” post and come up with these four areas:

  1. things other people expect me to do (paid work, projects involving others, getting back to prospects…)
  2. longer term business development (taking care of my sites, creating documentation, direct marketing…)
  3. stuff I want to do more of (blogging, research, fooling around with cool toys, write ebooks and fiction…)
  4. admin and daily business (personal and professional, checking e-mail, emptying physical inbox, accounting…)

These are my areas — yours might be different. Suw and I chatted about this on Skype on Monday and hers are slightly different from mine. Just find something that makes sense to you.

Looking at my areas, it’s easy for me to see that “bizdev” and “stuff I want to do” are the two areas which will easily be left aside if I just work day-by-day doing things as they become urgent (in bad cases, call this the “Fireman Syndrome”). If you don’t do stuff people expect you to do, sooner or later they nag you or you get in trouble. Same with admin: forget your taxes or invoicing long enough, and you’ll get in trouble.

As there were almost no tasks in these two areas, I realised that to fill them up, I probably need to do a little longer-term planning. For example, what are the things I want to do in the “bizdev” department over the next 6 months? Over the next month? That will help me generate next actions. Otherwise… I’m just flying blind.

3. Sort upcoming next actions in those defined areas

The way I’ve worked these last months I would have one “master” next action list (in EvernoteI love Evernote) and I would regularly “pull out” the 3-10 next things I was going to deal with, under headings like “today”, and then “next”, or sometimes a specific day.

What I did this week is that I first sorted this “master list” into the four areas I defined. I just made four big headings in my list, and that was that.

4. Plan the week!

This is the fun bit, actually. I just made another 5 “day” headings at the top of my list (Monday to Friday) and then started moving items to given days, making sure the urgent stuff was in there, as well as a certain amount of less urgent stuff (specifically from my two “left aside” areas, bizdev and stuff I want to do more of). Two things to pay attention to:

  1. don’t plan to do stuff on errand/manager days, even if you see you will have some office time (a weekly plan is for the “minimum to accomplish” — if you have too much time you can always grab things to do from your master list or even… take time off!)
  2. remember that a fair amount of what you do in your week is going to appear during the week, so leave plenty of buffer time for the unexpected and the unplanned.

5. As the week rolls on…

One of the reasons I like having my tasks in an Evernote note is that they have these neat little “todo” checkboxes (keyboard shortcut: alt-shift-T) that I can check as I go along. Sometimes I’ll do something that wasn’t planned for precisely this day, or that is still on the master list. Well, I check it, and it feels nice. It’s also nice to see a day with a list of completely checked tasks by the time I leave the office.

My Tuesday was a meeting day, but I made the mistake of planning quite a lot of stuff to do on that day because it looked as if I was going to have enough time in the office. Big mistake. So halfway through my Tuesday, I grabbed nearly all the items I had placed under the Tuesday heading and dumped them under Wednesday (a full office day).

On Wednesday, I didn’t manage to do everything I had planned (unsurprisingly, as I shifted the “Tuesday problem” to Wednesday). So I checked the actions I did accomplish and left the others unchecked. This meant that Thursday, in addition to the rather modest list of things I had planned to do (buffer time, remember? specially at the end of the week) I was able to go back and check tasks that were leftover from Wednesday. But I didn’t move them over to Thursday — somehow it felt better to be able to start Thursday with a “clean slate” and catch up when I felt like it.

So, Monday morning, I’ll be wiping the slate clean and planning next week — looking forward to it!

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