The Freelancer’s Guide to Working Smarter NOT Harder


“Work smarter, not harder.”

It’s a phrase we hear thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean? And how does it apply specifically to freelancers?

We’ll answer these questions and more in our freelancer’s guide to working smarter not harder.

What Does It Mean to Work Smarter Not Harder?

It’s one of those buzz phrases that has been used so much that it’s almost become meaningless. Or, at least, it’s easy to dismiss.

But at its core, working smarter not harder means being more productive. It means applying yourself to the most important tasks that have the biggest payoff, and finding strategic ways to get all the other little stuff done without much effort.

A really simple example is car work. Probably, you don’t know how to change your brakes. When your car needs new brakes, you’ve got two choices:  

  • Spend hours and hours and hours learning how to do it yourself, or…  
  • Pay a mechanic to do it for you.

Most of us pay the mechanic, because we know our time is better spent NOT learning how to do something that only needs to happen a few times in our life.

You’ve got 24 hours every day to accomplish your dreams (okay, a little less if you are a normal human being who needs to eat and sleep and such). By working smarter, not harder, you are ensuring that you maximize the potential of every hour that you have.

4 Strategies for Working Smarter Not Harder

#1 Create a System

One of the biggest wastes of time is simply figuring out what to do next.

When a freelancer first starts out and doesn’t have a ton of orders or clients, it’s easy to wing it day by day. You’ve got 10 things on your to-do list, so you just do them in whatever seems to be the best order at the moment.

But the “messy desk covered in post-it notes” approach doesn’t work so well once you’ve got 100 tasks on your plate.

Systematizing your everyday procedures ensures that nothing falls through the cracks. So take a few minutes, look at each of the services you offer, and type up the steps that need to be followed to make it get done right every time.

The best part about creating a system is that you can then go and train someone else to follow the procedure for you, or at least parts of it. Imagine you have to spend 10 minutes processing every order before you can even actually get started on fulfillment. If you normally get 20 orders a week, you can save yourself more than three hours a week by outsourcing those simple processing tasks.

See: 5 Reasons for Outsourcing

#2 Use the RIGHT Productivity Tools in the RIGHT Way

Productivity tools can be a great way to work smarter rather than harder.

But they can also be a thinly veiled form of procrastination. Here are some signs that you might not be approaching productivity tools in the right way:

  • You are constantly downloading the latest shiny new productivity app.
  • You spend more time setting up your tools than actually using them.
  • You force yourself to find ways to use features that you don’t really need.

Remember, these tools are meant to serve you. Applied correctly, apps like Trello or Monday save you time and make it easy to streamline your systems. But they are a means to an end. Don’t chase them as a goal in and of themselves. And once you choose one to use, stick with it for at least a couple of months so that you aren’t tempted to chase the next shiny object.

If you’re looking for the right tool for you, check out our list of the Best Productivity Apps for Your Business.  

#3 Remember Your Time Is Your Biggest Expense

You’ve got all sorts of expenses eating away at your profit every month: office space, technology costs, apps, tools, software, and staff—to name a few. But the biggest true expense is your time.

You are the most valuable part of your business, so everything that is eating up your time is potentially eating up your profits.

As an example, let’s imagine that your time is worth $50 an hour. In a given week, you spend 40 hours doing the work that directly brings you money (writing blog posts, designing logos, building websites—whatever it is that you do). But you also spend 10 hours doing menial tasks: answering emails, copying and pasting order details, setting up spreadsheets, sourcing images, etc.

While you may have made $2000 fulfilling orders, you’ve also lost $500 of potential revenue by wasting time. Working smarter, not harder means paying someone else $100 or so to do those tasks so that you can free up that time to focus on the profitable aspects of your business.

See: Your Freelance Fee and You: How to Charge What You’re Worth

#4 Apply the 80/20 Rule (The Pareto Principle)

Since time is your greatest expense, you can save more of it by applying the 80/20 rule, which is also known as the Pareto Principle (named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto).

In a nutshell, the rule states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It can be observed in many different aspects of human nature:

  • 80% of global wealth is owned by 20% of the population
  • 20% of computer bugs account for 80% of errors
  • 20% of workplace hazards cause 80% of injuries

But how does the 80/20 rule apply to you and your freelancing business?

Well, if you take the time to chart and document how you spend your time, you won’t be surprised to learn that 80% of your profits probably comes from 20% of the tasks that you perform. You’ll also likely discover that 80% of your sales are from 20% of your clients.

With knowledge like this at hand, you can see where your time is best spent.  

Those 20% of clients who account for most of your sales? Do everything you can to keep them happy. Those 20% of your tasks that have such a big impact on the growth of your business? Spend your time on those and outsource the other stuff.

Final Thoughts on Working Smarter Not Harder

Remember why you got into this line of work.

If you are like a lot of freelancers, you were probably looking for more freedom. Applying strategies that let you work smart helps you free up time and ensure that every hour worked is as profitable as possible.

About the Author


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