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5 critical skills freelancers should master to get hired

As the freelance industry booms, it only proves that there are more pros to living the freelance life than there are cons.

Aside from the usual sought-out benefits – working your own hours, no boss breathing down your neck – there’s the fact that freelancers are far more likely to re-skill in their career than their traditionally employed counterparts.

This is a major advantage considering the rapid shifts in the workforce. Several jobs that didn’t exist five years ago are now in high-demand, while many other jobs are being phased out.

Freelancers have a huge head start when it comes to these shifting employment trends and emerging job descriptions. What this only shows is that, now more than ever, freelancers must be devoted to lifelong learning if they want to stay ahead of the game.

Shift to performing higher value work

Low value work refers to tasks that don’t require too much skills. Many of these tasks (though far from all) are manual in nature, such as data entry or transcription work.

While there’s no telling when, many industry reports are showing that demand for these kinds of jobs will soon be phasing out. Even if there is some kind of demand, it likely can’t provide a desirable income.

What this implies is that freelancers should be investing in higher value work. Tasks that can’t be done by machines, devices, and AI – take advanced coding or community management, for example – will take center stage in the freelance economy.

By making the shift, freelancers can also keep ahead of their current competition. The freelance industry is already a high-competitor environment as is, so deciding to offer more high value, specialized work for clients makes sure you’ll be in the industry for a long time.

Interested to know what you need to level up if you want to get more jobs next year? Read up on these five essential skills every freelancer must master to stay in-demand.

Cognitive load management

Without getting too caught up in the scientific details of cognitive load theory, cognitive load essentially refers to everyone’s ability to do cognitive activities – such as brainstorming, thinking, and reacting to real-time environmental stimuli.

Taken in a freelancer’s setting, you find yourself doing a myriad of tasks, making a myriad of decisions, and finding new ways to solve client problems all in a single day.

All of this thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving can take its toll. For one thing, cognitive overload is a real problem in today’s workforce. Too much information, knowledge work, and not enough whitespace for processing or breaks can overwhelm even the most intelligent freelancer.

How to effectively manage cognitive load as a freelancer

To minimize cognitive overload in your freelance work, consider a few time- and energy-saving strategies to implement each day.

One of these is called habit stacking, or using the power of one existing habit to get you to stick to a new one. Consider this strategy to create a daily routine that gets you flowing from one task or activity to another.

Here’s a sample habit stack for a fictional freelance graphic designer:

  • After I make morning coffee, I will write down my three biggest tasks to accomplish today.
  • After I write down my three biggest tasks for the day, I will start on the first and easiest task.
  • After I finish the first task, I will check and respond to any emails.
  • After I respond to emails, I will set up my desktop for my next task.
  • After I set up my desktop for my next task, I will step away from my computer for a ten-minute nature break.

...and so on.

This benefits freelancers greatly because it takes away unnecessary decision-making that can take up too much cognitive power. By flowing from one habit or task to the next, you can focus on higher value tasks like creating high quality work for clients.

Alternatively, project management systems are great tools to have for solo entrepreneurs.

Instead of having to remember the status of each project or invoice, using a project management software – popular ones being Trello, Asana, or Monday – can help you update projects and keep things organized. (So you can say goodbye to spending 10 minutes hunting through folders to find one specific file.)

Social Intelligence

Just as important as keeping up with the new hard skills in your specific freelance niche are brushing up on soft skills like emotional intelligence. And one part of emotional intelligence is being able to deal with other people, or social intelligence.

Freelancers who are more socially and emotionally intelligent will become better working partners for clients and can easily make better decisions.

You see, as a freelancer, you are your own PR manager, boss, employee, and account manager. There is no doubting that you will run into difficult situations, negotiations, and problems with clients and different stakeholders.

Being able to manage the way you process these situations and assess next steps can make or break your freelance career.

If a client comes to you with an angrily-worded email, claiming you’ve over-billed them, what do you do? Do you reply with a strong-worded email of your own?

Chances are, doing so can ruin your relationship with that client, regardless of who was in the wrong (if at all).

Being socially intelligent could have prompted you to analyze the situation and get the facts – perhaps the client overlooked the part in your contract that estimated your total work hours for the project; or perhaps you made a typo on the number of hours that bumped up the pricing total.

You would also have been able to remain calm and objective, and more importantly, fair in your dealing with the client.

Practicing social intelligence as a freelancer:

  • Be very clear about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Don’t be quick to react or act out based on the first feeling you get; stay calm under pressure and don’t respond to strong emotions with strong emotions.
  • Practice moving forward even in the face of setbacks; losing a client can be disheartening, but analyze why you might have lost them and see what you can do to avoid making the same mistakes
  • Listen to clients and other people you might work with (assistants, accountants, etc). Read messages clearly, ask questions when things are unclear, and make yourself approachable.

New media literacy

New media has emerged more prominently in recent years than it has in decades. For one thing, new media can refer to the new ways of communicating between freelancer and client, such as messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack, or Skype.

Freelancers are expected to adapt to these new platforms and modes of communication, mostly because companies and clients themselves are adapting and using these new media.

On that note, consider this scenario. If a company were deciding between hiring Freelancer A or Freelancer B, but Freelancer B tells them they don’t use Skype (the company’s preferred way to correspond on updates), which freelancer do you think the company would be quick to disregard?

New media literacy also serves as a competitive advantage for freelancers who constantly have to market themselves.

By having your own content strategy as a marketing technique – such as having a professional website, for example – you can easily attract the right clients to you, and almost entirely on autopilot.

At the same time, you need to develop some basic troubleshooting and maintenance skills to ensure all the tools and platforms you use are functioning properly.

For instance, if you’re getting most of your client offers, you’d want to make sure that you know how to prevent your website from going down so that potential clients can access it at any time.

In its own way, this can also prove to clients that you are digitally savvy and stay on top of trends. This makes you a more desirable hire than the competition.

Improving new media literacy as a freelancer:

  • Keep open-minded about emerging modes of communication (or don’t make clients feel like you’re unwilling to use certain media).
  • Show off your expertise with your own professional website, LinkedIn account, or social media presence.
  • Create a high-converting content marketing strategy. Consider outsourcing or reselling white label SEO services for an added bonus for clients.

Virtual collaboration

As more freelancers enter the game, startups and small companies are embracing forming growth teams and using growth hacking as a way to grow their businesses quickly.

One thing we can assume from this new dynamic is that, even though you may be a freelancer who works on their own, there’s a big chance you will be collaborating with other people — be it employees from your client companies or fellow freelancers.

Virtual collaboration means being a productive member of a virtual team. Things like Facebook At Work have been introduced to try and bring teams together on the web.

How to practice virtual collaboration as a freelancer:

  • Be open to your clients’ preferred ways of correspondence.
  • If you have a small team of your own, use team collaboration tools like Slack channels or Monday boards.
  • Be active in these communication channels. Share files as requested, leave feedback when needed. Show that you’re actively participating in the team’s effort to work together, even if it’s separately.

Adaptive thinking

If you’re to survive in the constantly changing freelance landscape, you need to actually be open to the changes happening in your industry.

When new strategies and technology emerge, learn about them and see if you can use them for your business.

If there are concepts or techniques that aren’t familiar to you yet, make the effort to learn them.

For example:

You’ve been hired by a client to write content for their website. On your weekly meeting, your client tells you that they want to include creating affiliate marketing content to your list of responsibilities.

Unless you want to lose this client, you’d start learning everything about affiliate marketing, so that you can fulfill your new responsibility.

This is also where fixed and growth mindsets come in. Freelancers with fixed mindsets will be stuck in their own “I don’t know this, so I can’t offer or learn it” way of thinking. Meanwhile, freelancers with growth mindsets think, “I don’t know this yet, but I can always learn and see how this can fit into my business.”

How to be a more adaptive thinker as a freelancer:

  • Keep up to date with your industry by following thought leaders and industry giants (LinkedIn and Upwork, for example, constantly publish industry reports about the freelance industry each year).
  • Get inspired by consuming relevant content related to your niche.
  • Stay updated with trends and updates from tools in your industry. For example, artists can keep on top of updates from Adobe, or social media managers can stay ahead of new features from tools like Hootsuite or Later.

Freelancers must never stop learning

For any freelancer to thrive, a commitment to lifelong learning is their biggest strength. Master the five essential skills listed above by implementing the recommended tips under each, and soon you’ll be well on your way to becoming a fully booked, highly-demanded freelancer in your niche.

Kevin Payne Kevin Payne is an inbound marketing consultant. When he's not advising startups on SAAS strategy he writes about the many lessons he has learned from the trenches.

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