These spreadsheets will streamline your freelance career

Mar 25, 2021

Amidst the rising awareness to the topic of burnout, lists and spreadsheets have started getting a bad rep. No one wants more to-do lists, complex charts and timetables than they already have, and admitting that you love making spreadsheets immediately puts you in a certain unflattering light. But if you freelance for a living, some sort of self-management and structure is essential; in fact, good organizational skills can often make or break a freelance career.

There are plenty of software solutions out there that offer workflow infrastructures for freelancers - Trello, Asana and ClickUp are just a few examples - but some of them aren’t free, and their interfaces can be clunky and hard to get used to. Instead, when done right, a simple, specific Google Sheets spreadsheet you routinely tend to can help with time management, budgeting, and even growing your business. One Google Sheets document (let’s call it Work Stuff if you want to be demure, or, if you’re me, Goals and Actions 2021) with the following five tabs should keep your work streamlined and clutter-free, with just the right amount of aspiration. Let’s start:

The Money Watch

Invoicing and keeping track of payments might be your least favorite part of being a freelancer. While there are variety of aids to help with the task, there’s something to be said about a straightforward tab that shows a clear picture of your monthly financial situation. Envision a Money Watch table divided by months; every month, dedicate one line in a column to every project you’ll bill, and in the column next to it - the billable sum. A handy SUM formula at the bottom of each month will show you how much money you’re looking to earn - add projects as you go, and the sum will adjust automatically. Bill at your convenience (cross out the project when billed) and uncross and highlight when the payment is received. Plugging in work that way will allow you to see how far you are from your goal monthly salary, as well as providing a visual reminder of sums that are yet to materialize in your bank account. Advanced spreadsheet lovers can add a table of Prospective Business Expenses to this tab - tracking all the money coming out for services, supplies and other work-related needs.

The Goals

A freelancer’s career is never stagnant - challenging yourself and constantly pushing forward comes with the territory. That’s why a spreadsheet dedicated exclusively to goals is indispensable; visualizing and voicing what’s ahead can contribute to succeeding, on the very neurological level. In your Goals tab, name one table Quarterly Goals - it’s not too late to tackle Q2, Q3, and Q4. In each column corresponding with a quarter, outline 3-4 detailed, clear goals that would take that much time to achieve; anything from ‘Add three new clients to my billing cycle’ to ‘publish in X magazine’. Next to each goal, insert a few steps you can be taking to achieve it. While goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) matter, also leave room for goals that simply set intentions and pinpoint to larger dreams - so next to Quarterly Goals, add a list of Big Picture Goals, without a time limit. Would you like, at some point in your life, to write a book? Speak at a convention? Mentor a student? Write it down.

The Big To-Do

How and why anyone engages with to-do lists can sustain millions of articles, But we’re not here to muse - you need a good system, and there’s no way around it. Domestic and family-related, short-term to-do items (call the plumber, order ink) are best kept in a note on your phone, but for anything work-related, consider the following: a multipurpose To Do tab, with lists dedicated to: Emails and People (reach out to X, answer Y), Self-Promote (post on LinkedIn, send newsletter), Projects (complete pitch, order illustration, submit deck) and Maintenance (update portfolio, pay accountant). Fill in as you go, cross out when done, delete completely when all follow-ups are done and over with.

The Time Management

When the world turned to working from home, everyone finally realized what freelancers knew all along - managing your own time is difficult. Sometimes, what works best is the simplest: A  monthly chart, divided by weekdays and time slots - noon to lunch, lunchtime, 1pm-3pm, and 3pm- end of day. Each week, fill the chart with what you’ll be working on, plugging in items from the Big To Do, meetings, calls and deadlines. Consult the chart when accepting new work or scheduling new engagements - and don’t forget to leave some breathing room for mind-cleansing activities like walks, meditation or art.

The Inspiration and Ideas

Freelance life isn’t just about executing, billing, and staying productive; leaving some room for inspiration is essential. Whether you work on assignment, or pitch projects to prospective clients, make this tab a safe space for anything that might spark inspiration or result in a project later on. Name one list in this tab Project Ideas - be it a story you want to tackle, a new design idea you’d like to try, a social media project in the making, or an initiative you’d like to start. Even a few words are enough - just make sure that the next time you look at them, you’ll know what you mean. Check in with the list monthly, making steps to turn ideas into actionable items. Another list, right next to it - Check Out: that cool new art film someone mentioned on Slack? Your friend’s upcoming podcast? List them all here, with links. The last list - Connect. Here, include people near and far you’d like to talk to, collaborate with, or work with in the future - make sure to reach out to at least 2-3 people a month to schedule a phone chat, coffee date, or Zoom meetup to expand on your spiderweb of like-minded creatives.

Flora Tsapovsky

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based style, food and culture writer and creative consultant. She teaches at AAU and Write Like a Honey Badger.