As I’ve taken on more and more freelance work, I’ve recognized a pattern in the way I complete projects big and small. When you submit a few new articles a week for publication, you begin to notice patterns like this. My work, I’ve realized, is characterized by a pattern of urgency. I only begin serious work on a project when it becomes absolutely urgent. At the extreme, this can mean finishing an article just hours before it’s due.

After a bit of reflection, I realized that I learned this mindset in school. For better or for worse, we develop our work habits over 12-13+ years of compulsory education. When we begin to create projects for purposes besides school, we often carry these same work habits with us, even if they are poorly adapted to the work we do in the “real world.”

For instance, I distinctly recall the first real “project” I had to complete for school. I was in fourth grade, and our teacher assigned the class to color and label a large map of Tennessee’s counties. All 95 of them. The only rules were that the labeling be correct and we weren’t allowed to repeat the same color.

In retrospect, this was a very easy project. To complete it in a stress-free manner, all I would have to have done was take the number of counties on the map and divide that by the number of days given to complete the project (which I’m fairly sure was at least a couple weeks if not a month). Even with my fourth grade multiplication skills, I could have managed that.

As you can imagine, though, that’s not what I did. No, I waited until the absolute last moment, the day before the project was due. My mom and I spent most of a Sunday afternoon laboring over that stupid map, sorting through every colored pencil we could find to make sure we didn’t repeat the same color. I got the project turned in and earned a perfectly good grade, but it was at the expense of a long, stressful day.

This pattern continued for the rest of my time in school. The projects got larger and more complex, but I continued to apply the same process. Ten-page research paper with a minimum of five secondary sources? I can totally do that the night before. One-hundred pages of reading due for Friday? Hello, Thursday all-nighter. Even with my most recent scholarly project, a 25+ page Junior Thesis, I honestly did most of the work the night before it was due.

Why this cycle of procrastination and sleepless nights? Well, I had no reason not to. I got excellent grades, graduated second in my class, and was able to attend th college of my choice with plenty of scholarship money. On paper, this seemed like an excellent way to do things. If the results didn’t suffer, then why mess with the method?

From School to Work

It was one thing to work like this for school. In school, while your actions have consequences such as bad grades, the stakes aren’t really that high. If you screw up, you get a second, third, and even fourth chance. Your livelihood doesn’t depend on your ability to complete work in the most efficient way possible.

When I began freelance writing my sophomore year of college, I naturally took the same work habits I had used in school and applied them to my client work. I would write most of my posts the day before they were due, and everything turned out fine. The client was happy, the readers benefitted, and I got paid. It seemed that doing things at the last minute would work just as well for freelancing as it had for school.

As I have taken on more clients and projects, however, this old working method has become increasingly problematic. The average client project has a lot more moving parts than your typical school project.

In school, the process generally looks like this:

  • Teacher gives assignment
  • Student completes assignment
  • Student submits assignment to teacher
  • Teacher returns assignment with grade

But in the world of freelancing, it’s more like this:

  • Freelancer has article idea
  • Freelancer submits article idea to client
  • Client accepts or rejects idea
    • If client accepts idea, freelancer:
      • Creates article outline
      • Submits outline to client
      • If client accepts outline, freelancer:
        • Freelancer writes draft of article
        • Adds media to article draft
        • Submits article draft to client
        • If client accepts article as is, it gets published and freelancer gets paid
      • If client rejects outline, freelancer:
        • Goes back to drawing board until client is happy
    • If client rejects idea, freelancer:
      • Submits new ideas until client accepts one, then proceeds with above

As you can see, there are many places for the process to stall and more oversight than with your typical school assignment. Also, if there are hold-ups in the first process, the only thing that may suffer is your grade. In the world of freelancing, though, any setbacks can delay you getting the money you need to eat and pay your rent.

Multiply the freelance project workflow over multiple projects, and you quickly realize that submitting everything last minute isn’t going to cut it. This is especially true when life throws you a curveball such as illness, unexpected family/friend obligations, or computer problems. Not to mention that procrastinating means losing sleep and being chronically stressed, which only increases the likelihood that you’ll get sick and derail the whole operation.

Sufficient Margin

The solution, I’ve found, is to allow enough margin in your work. And to get that margin, you have to finish projects with time to spare. This way, if something does go wrong, you have breathing room. Even if nothing goes wrong (which it won’t, most of the time) you’ll be able to rest easy and devote your extra time to side projects.

It’s something I’m still struggling with, but as I shift my work toward passive income, these time management skills will only become more important.