Freelancing looks like the perfect work-at-home arrangement for many people. It offers flexibility and the chance to “be your own boss.” You can set your own rates, pick your own clients, and only do the work you want to do.

While it’s true that these are very real benefits of freelancing, it’s not the whole picture. Freelancing is also a lot of work... real work. There are no overnight success stories in freelancing, because it takes time to build your business and really become successful.

For many, that end result of success is worth all the hours required to get there. But for some, for whatever reason, it’s not. For every successful freelancer out there, there are others who totally washed out and weren’t able to make it.

What is it that sets the successful freelancers apart from the rest? There’s a combination of factors and every situation is different, but over the years I’ve noticed a few trends. Here’s part of what sets successful freelancers apart:

1. Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is when you make something non-negotiable, and you don’t let yourself off the hook even when you don’t feel like following through.

Freelancing isn’t easy. It’s easier than some jobs, sure, but there’s a lot that goes into getting a freelance business off the ground.

From marketing to client interactions to deadlines and project management, there are lots of moving pieces when you’re freelancing, and a lot of them aren’t necessarily fun. It takes self-discipline to keep going when the situation isn’t ideal.

One of the keys to maintaining your self-discipline as a freelancer is to remember why you started. It surely wasn’t because you had nothing better to do than to wrestle with your website, figure out how to work a P&L, and send out a bunch of pitch emails just to get rejected again and again.

Figure out your end goal. What does success look like to you? How would your life be different (and more fulfilling) if you’re able to get your freelance business off the ground? Is it the freedom to travel whenever you want? Do you want to pay for private school for your kids? Is freelancing is a way to keep supporting your family without harming your body?

Once you’re clear not only on what you want to accomplish by freelancing, but why, it’ll be easier to lean on your self-discipline to get you through the tough patches. That’s why you’ll hear successful freelancers talk about “knowing your why.” Having your “why” defined will be a big help when it’s time to get to work.

2. Doing the Work

If you want to be a successful freelancer, you have to commit yourself to doing all the work, even the unpleasant stuff. It’s easy to hide behind “busywork” to make yourself feel like you’re accomplishing something, but unless you’re taking real action, you’ll go nowhere.

“Doing the work” is the difference between sending out 5 cold pitches, and reading 5 blog posts about cold pitching. It’s finding a guide and setting up BoardBooster campaigns, even if you aren’t 100% sure what you’re doing, instead of poking around on Pinterest re-pinning a bunch of stuff that may or may not be business-related. It’s implementing what you learned in the webinar on sales pages to update your own sales page instead of looking for new webinars to attend.

Successful freelancers aren’t satisfied by just staying in motion. They don’t waste time “getting ready to get ready.” They also don't sit on their thoughts wondering what they should do for months on end. Instead, decide what they need to do next and then take significant action to get to their goals as quickly as possible.

3. Getting Help

The fastest way to burning out, giving up, and shutting down is to do everything all by yourself. Successful freelancers know that it's easier, more efficient, and more likely to work out when they have the help they need. There are three basic ways to get help:

  • Pay for expertise. This could mean paying for coaching, buying a course, joining a program, or getting helpful books. Instead of taking tons of time to figure everything out on your own, pay for a shortcut and leapfrog your fellow freelancers who are still determined to search on Google for weeks or months to figure out what you'll learn in a few hours.

  • Join a community. You need to find people like you who are doing what you want to do and can share knowledge, experience, and encouragement. A great place to start is the Facebook groups run by bloggers you admire.

  • Outsource. When you're in the beginning stages and totally bootstrapping, it's hard to get your mind around hiring outside help. Outsourcing doesn't have to mean paying a VA for 10 hours a week; it could mean using a bookkeeping service, having pins made for you on Fiverr, or having someone transcribe your latest video or podcast. You can save yourself a ton of time to focus on income-generating tasks, get things done faster, and even support your fellow freelancers. It's a huge win all around.

If you don't think you have any money to pay for training or help, I get it. I've had to bootstrap my businesses, too. But I strongly advise you to start outsourcing as soon as you possibly can. It makes a surprisingly big difference, and it's great for your self-care as well as your business.

Further Thoughts

This list is by no means exhaustive. There's no one set of attributes or habits that can guarantee success, no magic formula to get you to six figures in 3 months (no matter what the “experts” promise). But if you can master self-discipline, start taking real action, and get the help you need to advance quickly, you'll be on the right track.

Are you ready to get your freelance business off the ground? Here are 68 in-demand services you can offer as a virtual assistant.