Common mistakes most freelancers will recognise

Working for yourself may be the first time you’ve experienced real freedom in your career. You’re able to shape your career and make all the decisions. But you’re also working without the safety net of managers, colleagues and all the other measures employers have put into place.

Making mistakes is an inevitable part of being self-employed, and even the most successful people have plenty of stories of mishaps that occurred along the way. No-one gets through life without experiencing any setbacks, but how you respond in a difficult moment will probably have a bigger impact on your career than the fact the issue occurred.

And here are some of the most common mistakes most freelancers will recognise, collected from friends, contacts and some personal experiences over the last 15 years of self-employment.

No planning or preparation

Sometimes self-employment happens when you haven’t had time to prepare. But even if that’s the case, you can catch up quickly by booking some time in your first days and weeks to set out your ambitions, budgets, and what you need to achieve over the first six and 12 months.

You don’t need to spend hours creating a full board presentation. But having goals, milestones and deadlines will help you to make progress even when you’re not feeling motivated. And it also helps to reassure family members that you’re not aimlessly drifting towards disaster.

Taking on bad clients

The occasional client nightmare makes for good conversation when you meet up with other freelancers. But if you’re constantly working with bad clients and relying on them for your income, it’s a much more serious problem.

Red flags include a lack of objectives, no clear understanding of what they need or want, and late or missed payments. It’s at this point, you should realise why checking out new clients, setting up contracts and having a set onboarding process can be invaluable.

Even if you spot a potential bad client, sometimes your financial situation will tempt you into still working with them. At least in this situation, you might have your eyes open to the possibility it all goes wrong. Far worse is the hope that eventually you can transform them into a good client.

Not looking after your physical and mental wellbeing

Freelancing can be the best experience in the world, but at times it can also be tiring, stressful, and all-consuming. The occasional late night or long hours to deliver a project on time is fine. But if it’s happening a lot, and you’re constantly trying to push through physical and mental exhaustion, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Try to be realistic about the volume of clients and work you can deliver, and include some wiggle room for projects to require more resources than you expected, or clients wanting additional hours at short notice. And book some time in your diary which is protected for your wellbeing, whether it’s to be with your family, go for a walk, play sport, or enjoy a good book or TV show.

Rejecting routines in pursuit of freedom

The ability to work in your pyjamas, take a midweek day off at short notice or complete projects at 2am are all great aspects of freelancing. But routines actually help you find your freedom by establishing a pattern for you to reliably deliver your best work.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an early bird or a night owl. What’s important is that you have a structure for getting up at the same time each day, getting into work mode, winding down, and resting. You might need to experiment to find out the right routine for you, but once you’ve found it, stick to it.

Constantly missing deadlines and leaving clients in the dark

The majority of your clients will be reasonable human beings who understand that life sometimes gets in the way of even the best plans. Even good scheduling can sometimes come undone, but alerting clients at the earliest opportunity and keeping them updated will minimise any disruption.

And if you’re routinely missing deadlines even without unexpected emergencies, then you’ve either taken on too much, or made some serious errors with your time management and planning. In both cases, it’s worth taking a step back, investing some time in rescheduling everything with realistic deadlines or solutions, and presenting clients with a realistic way to get back on track.

Even if it means passing some work onto another freelancer, or scaling back your deliverables, it’s more likely to salvage your client relationship than letting them down time and again.

Ignoring the bits you don’t enjoy, or understand

A lot of people become freelancers because they want to focus on the parts of their work that are most enjoyable and fulfilling. But ignoring admin, accounting, and other tasks you find boring or complicated won’t make them go away.

Staying on top of invoices, bills, taxes, contracts and more will make your life easier now, and at the end of each financial year. You might find scheduling just 15 or 20 minutes each day allows you to tackle everything around the more enjoyable parts of freelancing. Or it may be easier to automate and outsource as much as possible. But even if you’re brining in a personal assistant and an accountant, it’s important to understand what they’ll be doing, even if you leave the actual work entirely to them in the future.

And don’t be afraid to ask even the most basic questions. Whether it’s about tax, insurance, contracts or any other freelancing task, there’s always the opportunity to get a qualified answer from a specialist in that field. No matter how simple the query, you won’t be the first or last person to voice it.

Forgetting about backups and security

The worst time to think about having adequate backups and improving the security of your equipment is in the minutes after you realise it’s been lost, damaged, stolen or hacked. Without adequate backups and processes in place, it’s often too late to recover anything.

That’s before you consider issues like GDPR and data privacy, or the damage to your business reputation.

Add in the potential for any service you use to also have issues or close, and there are plenty of reasons to invest time and effort into ensuring you have multiple backups and redundancies for anything core to your business.

Being scared to invest or outsource

When you’re responsible for every expense, spending on new software or investing in experts or staff can be daunting. But penny pinching will often cost you more in the long run.

If automated software can save you 3 hours each week, and costs less than you make from spending those hours on client work, then doing it yourself is actually costing you potential earnings.

When your equipment is so old and clunky that it regularly lets you down, then upgrading will allow you to recoup the cost and ensure you’re not passing on those delays to clients.

And investing in specialists can often deliver savings (if you’ve never had a good accountant, they’ll often spot income or cost reductions you’ve probably missed), knowledge, and potentially work referrals in the opposite direction. By bringing in experts when needed, you’re building your network at the same time.

Setting aside some time and investment each year for personal learning and development will also help you stay up with the latest changes in your industry, or help you build new skills.

Constantly comparing yourself to others

In the social media age, it’s easy to find people who are apparently more successful than you in half the time, working on higher profile projects, spending on nice houses and cars, and still able to bake sourdough and do charity work in their spare time.

It’s also easy for anyone to fake it. Or omit the parts they don’t want people to know about.

Working for yourself doesn’t come with a set of requirements that mean you have to build a business empire to succeed, be working 100-hour weeks, or constantly travel to glamourous locations as a digital nomad. Focus on your own life, and the plans and objectives you have set for yourself, whatever they may be.