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Your reputation as a freelancer is pretty much the only thing you have to go on -- your bread and butter.
And your reputation is generally based on two things: the quality of your work, and how well you meet deadlines.
Today, we'll focus on meeting deadlines, as that's the area that many freelancers have problems with. Sure, you can do great work, but if you don't turn your projects in on time, you won't get many repeat customers.
1. Care about deadlines. This is the first step, as many people are very lax about deadlines. You have to be very serious about meeting them, and make them a priority. And make breaking a deadline a cardinal sin in your freelance book. Once you've done this step, the rest is just logistics.
2. Keep a list of projects & deadlines. If you care about deadlines, you'll write them down, and have one place that you check often to make sure you know what's due and when. I use a simple online list, but you could use paper. Which tool you use doesn't matter, as long as you use it.
3. Communicate a clear deadline. Be sure that you and the client are in agreement with a specific deadline, including time of day (and factor in time zone differences as well). If the deadline is fuzzy, you will have trouble meeting it. If the client doesn't give you a deadline, you need to ask for one.
4. Work in a cushion. It's wise to build in a cushion for your deadline. To get a clear idea of how long a project will take, break it down into smaller pieces (see below for more). If you aren't sure exactly how long each of those pieces takes, break them down into even smaller pieces. And for each piece, add a small cushion to your time estimate. Then add up the time estimates of all the pieces, and you'll have a cushion built in. This will allow for delays, and if you finish early, the client will be pleased.
5. Have a clear outcome. You and the client should both agree on a clearly defined outcome. Don't skip this step, or you could be sorry later. If you turn in a project that's not what the client wanted, you'll have to do extra work, meaning that you'll miss the deadline. If you're not absolutely clear what the outcome should look like, ask some questions of the client until you are clear.
6. Break down the project. This is standard advice for any project, of course, but that's because it works. Don't try to tackle an entire project. Tackle one step at a time. Again, you'll want to break it down into smaller steps, give a time estimate for each step. Each step should be small enough that it takes an hour or less, so it's not too intimidating.
7. Focus on the first step. Now that you've broken the project down into smaller steps, just focus on the first one. Don't worry about the rest for now. Give the first step your full attention, and get going. You'll feel satisfied when you complete it, and can check it off your list. Then focus on the next step.
8. Block off adequate time. When you're going to work on a step, be sure to have it blocked off on your day's schedule. If you're not blocking off time for your most important tasks, you're probably not getting the important stuff done. However else you work during the rest of the day, for your freelance projects, block off a good amount of time for each step, and treat it like a doctor's appointment -- you can't miss it.
9. Have a start and complete date for each step. When breaking down a project, give a start and complete date for each step, so you can get a good feel for the timeline of the project, and whether you're on schedule or behind. It also keeps you on track if you know when each step should be started and completed.
10. Communicate with each step. Once you've completed a step, send the completed step to your client if possible. Sure, it won't look like a completed project, but you can show that you're making progress, you keep yourself on track, and you can get feedback communicated from the client. Better to know early on that you're headed in the wrong direction than at the end of the project.
11. Don't overcommit. One of the biggest causes of missed deadline is that a freelancer commits to more than he can handle. Learn to say no if you cannot commit to finishing a project on time.
12. Learn from mistakes. If you bust a deadline, take a few minutes to analyze what went wrong and how you can avoid that in the future.
13. Stay up late. If you planned badly, or just procrastinated, and you're up against a tight deadline, do whatever it takes to meet it. That means staying up late and working long hours if possible.
14. Negotiate and meet a second deadline. If you absolutely cannot make deadline (you probably overcommitted), you should contact your client and negotiate a second deadline. It's much better to do this than to let the deadline go by without any communication. Whatever you do, be sure to meet this second deadline. Two missed deadlines in a row is bad news for a freelancer's reputation.
A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article by Leo Babauta was first published August 21st, 2007, yet is just as relevant and full of interesting information today.