9 habits that will make freelance life hard + 9 counter-habits that will grow your business

Have you read this book? The highly recognized The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? The actual info on the back says that it’s one of the most influential books ever written.

Bold words.

Anyway, I actually ordered the book all the way from the UK to have it delivered to my doorstep in Poland (I wanted the original language version instead of the translated stuff, and yes, I prefer real books to Kindle).

But why am I even telling you all this, right?

Well, while reading the book, I was constantly getting the sensation of “I wonder how much of that can be applied to freelancing.” And even more curiously, the reverse idea of the habits of highly NOT effective freelancers has stuck with me for months.

The result?

This post presenting a set of 9 bad habits that will make a freelancer’s life harder. But just not to be all negative, I also present 9 counter-habits that will grow your business (along with actionable steps to take now). If I’ve left anything out, leave a comment and let me know.

Bad habit #1: Not having a quality contract

A very obvious bad habit, but it needs to be mentioned nevertheless. Preston has been talking a lot about this in his many posts.

💔 Falling out of love with your clients? Trade some of your worst clients for the best companies in the world with SolidGigs, our premium weekly freelance job list & course library. Love your business again. Learn more »

He even launched his e-book package – Contracts for Creatives to help everybody out and guide them through a sometimes difficult process of finding a good template contract.

Not having a quality contract is probably even worse than not having a contract at all. The thing is that if you work without a contract, you know that the scenario is a bit uncertain and that different things can happen, so you are naturally more careful about what you do.

A crappy contract lowers your guard as it gives a false sense of security, which can lead to even more trouble. (My personal take, feel free to disagree.)

Good counter-habit #1: Never start a project without a quality contract. Note: the only thing I can add to what Preston is advising is that you should pay an equal amount of attention to the following four main elements when building your contract:

  • Your rights as the freelancer.
  • Your responsibilities as the freelancer.
  • Your client’s rights.
  • Your client’s responsibilities.

The idea is to make sure that every possible scenario can be explained and solved by looking at the contract. There’s nothing worse than having to find a solution for a situation that’s not dealt with in the contract.

Bad habit #2: Unprofessional style when working for your family

Every freelancer knows that working for your family or friends is the worst kind of work, and the simple solution would be to avoid such projects altogether.

But hold on, just because your “client” (in this case a family member) is very demanding, doesn’t treat you right and expects top results for low dollar, doesn’t actually mean that they are the bad guy in this picture. You are the bad guy for letting them do this.

Simply, if you start the project off by saying something like “okay, I’ll take care of this on Saturday in the evening, or something, then I’ll let you know later in the week” it makes you look extremely unprofessional and sends a clear message that you are not capable of managing the project, therefore your “client” will manage it for you. Fast forwards a couple of weeks, and you have another scenario of complaint over a family project.

Good counter-habit #2: Always start a family project with a contract. Always. Even if it’s for a relatively small amount of money.

First of all, your friend or family member might get discouraged (homerun), but even if they don’t, they now know very well that you’re treating your work seriously, so they will too.

Exception to the rule. Well, let me just say that signing a contract with your parents doesn’t sound quite right…

Bad habit #3: Having a “by the way” attitude towards business

This sort of mindset is the quiet killer of many freelancing businesses. Basically, a “by the way” attitude is when someone thinks that no matter what activities they focus on, there will always be a never-ending stream of clients to work with.

Well, the reality is often different. I mean, you are never safe as a business owner if you rely on clients coming to you and doing absolutely nothing to reach out to them actively, or to be in the places where your prospective clients are.

Good counter-habit #3: Treat your freelancing like a serious business. You’re not a freelancer; you’re a businessman. I’m mentioning this on the list purely because it’s an easy trap to fall into.

Bad habit #4: Not using beginner tools

I’m a big fan of beginner tools. I believe that they can speed our work up massively when used in a smart way. First of all, by beginner tools, I mean everything that is advertised as being beginner-friendly. Many professionals tend to avoid those thinking that the results they produce are nowhere near what can be done with some pros-only software.

Not always the case, though. Beginner tools have one great advantage over anything else; they bring massive value in relation to the time investment needed to produce a given result.

Good counter-habit #4: Use beginner tools whenever you can (no surprise here). Let me give you two examples:

  • Presenter. It’s an online tool for creating web-friendly animations, interactive infographics (kind of a new thing on the web), online presentations and so on. The output is in an HTML5 format so you can integrate it with anything. Of course, you can animate things in Flash from scratch, but is it really necessary, especially if it’s just a simple effect you’re looking for?
  • Drag and Drop Builder Plugin. This is a creation by Elegant Themes. The plugin allows you to build complex layouts in WordPress by using a handy drag-and-drop interface. I personally can’t imagine a quicker way of building a non-standard layout than with this thing.

Bad habit #5: Not being crazy about data backups

Okay, I admit it, I’m a bit crazy when it comes to backing up my data. Here’s the extent of my craziness:

  • I have two separate cloud services in place backing up my data every minute.
  • I have separate backing up services taking care of my sites.
  • I have two main computers that receive all this cloud data – so they become an additional backup on their own.
  • And to top it all off, I have two physical disks on one of those computers, where one disk is an exact copy of the other.

But guess what happens when one of my computers goes down?


I can restore my data in hours just like that on a completely different machine. And that’s the best thing. By being crazy about data backups, you don’t have to worry about anything that’s computer-equipment related. I guess that’s enough said.

Good counter-habit #5: Back up every piece of data that might come useful. Disk space is cheap anyway.

Bad habit #6: Not sending well-crafted proposals

The proposal is the first real decision point in your client-freelancer interaction. It’s where you say what you’ve got and what benefits it holds for the client, and ultimately, how much you’re going to charge for it. You only have one chance at making a good impression with your proposal.

Good counter-habit #6: Treat your client proposals seriously and spend some time creating your own perfect templates.

Since you’re a designer, you can build proposals using a combination of software, but a lot quicker solution is to simply use a tool like Bidsketch (this somewhat follows my advice about beginner-friendly tools). In short, it’s a piece of online software that speeds up the process of crafting your proposals, sending them out, and even letting your clients respond to them right away.

In a word, it does make you more effective, and that’s what we’re all about in this post.

Bad habit #7: Not increasing your rates

Let’s stick with finances for a minute.

Rates are a difficult topic for many people. When you first started out, you were most likely uncertain what rates you should charge early in your career, and arriving at a number surely felt a bit uncomfortable (“Is it enough? Is it too much? Am I worth that much?” – I bet these questions sound familiar).

Anyway, many freelancers forget (are afraid or don’t want) to increase their rates on a regular basis as they gain more experience.

Good counter-habit #7: Increase your rates gradually over time. You don’t have to have a reason. Do it just because. Try going bold with this.

As a test, you can even go as far as increasing your rates slightly for every other client. Be careful with returning clients, though. They are rarely receptive to increased rates.

Bad habit #8: Being a one man show

Hold on, I know that this might sound a little offensive at first, but I really have nothing against solo-entrepreneurs…at all.

The thing I have in mind here is that it will be very difficult to continue growing your business if you’re not ready to bring other people on board at some point.

Yes, you can grow your profits by increasing your rates (like mentioned earlier), but you can’t do it forever.

There’s always a limit – an amount of money that begins to look ridiculous for web design services.

There’s no limit, however, for the amount of business you can do when you have a team of people to work with.

Good counter-habit #8: Always think about expanding and bringing new people on board. The most effective way of approaching this is to start by hiring personal assistants, just to be able to get on with your mundane tasks better.

Then, you can start looking for other like-minded designers to help you out with your main projects. And then, well…the sky’s the limit (forgive for sounding a bit cliché).

Bad habit #9: Not growing in the community itself

Being an active member of the community (the community of designers) is a great thing on a number of levels.

First of all, you can boost your credibility by publishing links to your articles on prominent design sites. This sends a clear message to any prospective client that you are the real deal.

Secondly, you get to learn a ton of new stuff if you’re active on forums, blogs (comments) and a mastermind group or two.

And on a personal note, I regret to say that I didn’t do a lot of it when I had my design business. This was a mistake.

Good counter-habit #9: Spend at least some amount of time socializing with your fellow designers. You can start slow…with an hour on Sunday or something.


This sums up my point of view on the topic.

However, I’m sure there’s probably a dozen more habits of highly not effective freelance designers and their counter-habits that present a quick fix for the situation.

So the stage is all yours. What other things would look good on this list? Comments are here.

tweet share share pin email

Keep the conversation going...

Have a question or something to add?

Over 5,000 of us are having daily conversations over in our free Facebook group—and we'd love to see you there. Join us!

About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at codeinwp.com. Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.



About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with codeinwp.com, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.


  1. I learn’t a long time ago that being a one man show is not the way to proceed. If you don’t bring people on board, or at least outsource key parts of the work, your going to struggle to grow as a business.

    • I can surely agree with that. A good place to start is to search for help with some of the mundane tasks that keep your business going.

  2. I do agree with the importance of contracts. I for one when i started freelancing seriously did I not really use them or even have one by the way. Some people tend to get scared of a contract. Growing in the community also has helped me meet other designers and appreciate the industry even more and also to know what is going on in the industry.

  3. I wonder if you could go deeper into your backup setup. You seem to have invested a lot of resources into getting it right, and your opinion would thus be valuable.

    • Sure thing.

      I started by signing up to SugarSync as it did offer more free space than Dropbox and allowed me to sync multiple folders instead of just the one called “dropbox.”

      Then I subscribed to Backblaze to back up all of my data for $5 a month (they put no limit on the disk space). It’s a bit less functional than SugarSync though because there is no syncing ability, just backups.

      The physical disks are a standard setup synced with SynchronizeIt.

      For websites I use Online Backup for WordPress. I also used codeguard for a brief period of time. Cool service. I resigned because I didn’t have to budget to keep it going.

  4. Great list! I think point #2 is really important — and if you really stick to treating business as business with friends and family, I don’t think it’s something yucky you have to avoid, even having your parents sign a contract! Awkward feelings come when one person or the other feels taken advantage of because of the pre-existing relationship. Spell it ALL out as stated in point #1, and enjoy growing your business as your friends & family enjoy investing in your success. Yessss, I learned these things the hard way first.

    • We probably all experienced these things at some time. I know that signing a contract with friends is not a popular approach, but hey, it works.

  5. I do agree with all the list. Seriously I do. However, living where I live, makes some points of this list almost unthinkable. To be honest, here in Spain, almost not one mid-sized client accepts signing a contract. It may be true for the big accounts and agencies, but not for entrepreneurs or small studios. In fact, trying your client to sign a contract is usually looked as a lack of confidence. Of course I know it is just the other way around, but…

    And as for the one man show/growing the studio: sincerely I can’t think of a way to do that. Even if you are running high on leads and projects, the taxes and expenses of having an employee are so high that is almost suicide to even think of it. Most of businessmen I know had to ask for loans or re-mortgages on their houses and some of them eventually lost it.
    In this scenario, adding team members is a dream if you want to do things right and pay them as they deserve.
    On the other hand, there’s almost no occasion where the budget comes into question. Even in the no-crisis years I always had to adjust numbers to win a client.
    You usually -and luckily- get paid after 3-months, sometimes even 4, 5 or even 6 months. And government seems to not give a damn on it since most of the times they are the first ones to delay payments, so chasing debt is even more difficult than chasing tigers in a dark forest at night.

    Sorry for being the party smasher. I’m not the kind of guy who is always complaining for this and that.
    Nevertheless I feel somehow happy whit my design business and its clients but I felt I had to put my two cents on it.

    • That’s a very interesting opinion regarding the freelance space in Spain. Most of my freelance design experience comes from Poland. Here a contract is a standard thing and working without one rarely happens.

      When it comes to hiring help, I don’t necessarily mean doing it on an employer-employee relation. You can always reach to people online and work with them on a standard paypal invoice basis where you basically treat them as another business. So you don’t worry about their taxes and only buy the work they’re doing. You can also get a lot of mundane stuff done for low cost through oDesk or even Fiverr at some times.

      Again, I can’t say much about doing business in Spain, but for the clients we got in Poland there never was a problem with receiving a fair advance before even starting our work (50% being the standard).

      By the way, I’m sure Preston will be happy to feature an article about the Spanish freelance design market and its traits.

  6. Thanks Karol for taking the time to follow-up this thread. I’m always interested in reading as many different opinions as I get.

    Yes. You’re quite right on the team-building words. We sometimes have outsourced parts of projects or even the project itself (except for the creative direction). Didn’t know about oDesk or Fiverr. Worth taking a look at.

    As for the upfront, I can say that as far as I know, almost nobody asks for it. And it is just because almost every client refuses to pay before-hand even a small amount of the budget.
    In general, here in Spain, we are certainly not that business-minded people as we should. Perhaps my generation and the young ones coming up are more focused iin the business part of design; still there is a long way to walk, IMHO.

    Spain, as everybody knows, is now more than ever a complex society inside an even more complex time.
    Everybody is “re-inventing” themsleves and yet almost no-one knows what this stands for.

    That said, I am quite confident things are slowly changing and truly one can see know minor clues of mind-focusing (whatever it is) and lastly, a slow yet steady increase of leads which will eventually transform into a stronger, “cleaner” and focused design business (as well as for other niche markets and business).

    And, oh, yes. I pretty much will be more than happy to collaborate if any of you is writing on the Spanish design scene, which –of course– not only consists of our (although from the outside may seem the opposite) well loved design-excellent-minded Catalonian neighbours.

    Have a nice week all! 😉

  7. These are some great tips.

    I love #9 especially. It speaks to having a mentality of making yourself useful (over simply nickel and diming), which is one that will keep most freelancers in business for years to come.



Need more clients?

Download our free guide:
25 Top Freelance Job Sites for Real Clients with Big Budgets