Productivity Secrets for Success as a Freelance Consultant

codeforcashbook profile image Zack Burt ・5 min read

This is an excerpt from my book Code For Cash that I coauthored with Jay El-Kaake.

Try not to become a [wo]man of success. Rather become a [wo]man of value.
Albert Einstein

I want to spend some time talking about productivity. Although you may think productivity is a soft skill only tangentially related to the business of software consulting, I’d like to offer a different view.

Why Being Productive is Especially Important for Consulting

The quick bird gets the worm.

If you have a reputation for getting tasks done quickly and reliably, soon enough clients will delegate more and more tasks to you, because you are a reliable way of speeding up the throughput of their engineering organization while maintaining reasonable cost and quality.

Be cautioned however, your speed should never come at the cost of quality. Poor quality development is a red flag that will lose you a client and reference for future clients. Which brings us to...

Being productive leads to more accurate estimations.

When you’re not easily side-tracked by the latest season of Game of Thrones that was just released on Netflix then you can get more done in a week and meet promised deadlines more often. Furthermore, this also enables you to more accurately estimate how long a task will take, and thus deal more effectively with a client’s time/cost budget. The typical software engineering BS of “It takes how long it takes,” and “I don’t know what I don’t know” is just not as acceptable in the consulting world.

The effective bird keeps the worm.

Understanding the client’s need and state of the application you’re working with will allow you to spend more time where you should and spend less time where you should not. For example, if the company is a startup in North America should you be focusing on making the enter platform translatable into right-to-left languages such as Arabic? Well, unless the client has specifically asked for it then you probably should avoid such complexity. Understanding the client's needs is a great way to being an effective freelancer.

How to be a More Productive Consultant

I spent the better part of my late teens and early 20s reading books related to personal development and personal improvement. After having read so much content, I can say that pretty much three books delivered the most value for me (this is the 80/20 rule or Pareto principle: 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions). Here they are:

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Go ahead and read the whole book if you want, but the most important part that I always remember is the two minute rule: if something takes less than two minutes to accomplish, just do it now.

If you decide not to read the book, here are the key takeaways from it:

  1. If your day-to-day life is out of control, it’s almost impossible to think strategically or plan effectively.
  2. Define what being “done” looks like. Many people set tasks that have no specific end state, but that can make tasks really hard to complete. For example, setting a TODO list item as “get the feature to a better state” is not good because the task can go on for an entire day and still not really meet your definition of “done” 100%. Instead be specific about what you want to complete.
  3. Mental work has five distinct phases: Collect, Process, Organize, Do, and Review:
  4. Collecting is the act of gathering input.
  5. Processing is when you examine your inputs.
  6. Organizing is when you arrange your processed inputs in a way that they can be completed.
  7. Doing is when you execute and perform an actions.
  8. Reviewing is when you examine the results of your work and strategize ways to complete the next set of tasks more effectively.
  9. Get everything out of your head. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “better to have short pencil than long memory”.
  10. Projects and tasks are two different things: track them separately.
  11. Focus on the next action required to move forward. The next thing for you to do is all you should be worried about at any given time. Looking too far ahead can get demotivating and overwhelming. As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One step at a time.”
  12. Use the “2 Minute Rule” for small tasks. This means that if a task takes less than 2 minutes then don’t worry about tracking it. Just do it as soon as possible so you don’t forget to do it later.
  13. Use reference and “someday/maybe” files for things that have no immediate next actions. Don’t keep things that might not get done today in your TODO list for today.
  14. Build a trusted system that helps you keep track of your commitments. Put your commitments on things like software or paper that you can rely on so you can reference and compare your productivity later.
  15. Schedule a non-negotiable time for relaxation and weekly review. Your weekly review will serve as a critical time to relax and unwind a well as a great time to look back at what you accomplished, think of ways you can be more productive in the future, and plan out future tasks.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

This book is more or less worth a read in its entirety. It is less concrete and practical than Getting Things Done, but the principles have definitely resonated with my experience. With apologies to the authors, the principles are essentially:

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win-win.
  5. Seek first to understand before being understood.
  6. Synergize - Two heads are better than one.
  7. Sharpen the saw - Improve your skills and tools.

Read the book or the Cliff’s notes. It’s a great investment in your ability to get things done. Soon enough you will enjoy a reputation for being devastatingly productive.

Finally, I would like to suggest:

Personal Development for Smart People by Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is a personal development expert and has read the entire canon of self-help and whatnot. His book distills personal development into seven principles, but on the way explaining, he also shares nuggets of productivity wisdom (as simple as “On sunday night, make a list of what you want to accomplish the next week”). There are too many other fantastic nuggets to list them all here, so I recommend you read the book. His website is great too. Check out this article:

33 Rules to Boost Your Productivity

If you are interested in tools that will accelerate your success as an independent freelance developer, check out our website, Code For Cash.


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Julia Moskaliuk

Thanks for this post.

Here is a new article if you want to know the capabilities of free time tracking software that bring freelance time tracking to a level of amazing experience.