Recently I’ve stumbled into a rich seam of freelance work… one of those sweet projects thats grows into three or four with the same client, and a healthy working relationship blossoms.

{Insert excuse for not writing a blog post for ages here}.

This is great news financially of course, and one of the reasons that moving from London to Glasgow was a no-brainer. I’m sorted for work for the next 3 months at least, and have plenty of time to establish myself north of the border before finding my next client.

But instead of working on one project at a time as a solo unit—which is how I prefer to work when possible—I’m now split across multiple work streams, all with shifting scopes and deadlines, and with a team based in three cities.

The delicious irony is that as a result, I’ve had little time or headspace for the book I’m writing… working title “How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Sanity”.


So today, I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’ve been using to stop myself feeling swamped by work.

Don’t forget to invest in your number one asset — yourself.

When you’re running your own business, the business is you. And it’s all too easy for a week to be gobbled up by the day-to-day minutiae of running this business. Admin, emails, accounting, phone calls etc. Boring, but necessary.

Last year I started to do some long-range planning for the next phase of my career: taking a step away from the tools, and becoming a consultant.

Then something struck me… but not in a painful way thankfully…

I’d never actually hired a consultant myself.

How could I sell myself as one without having been on the receiving end of some consultancy myself?

This has lead to a change of mindset for me.

You don’t spend time and money improving your skillset, you invest it.

So in the past year I’ve started hiring consultants to advise me on SEO, on business strategy, and project management and fee structure too. (Ian Sanders was generous enough to do one of his “walk and talk” sessions with me for free, and I’ve also been working with Paul Boag amongst others).

Knowing that I can pick up a phone and get expert advice on a problem has also given me the confidence to take on bigger and more demanding projects.

There are ways to create a support network for free of course — hunting down a good Slack group for freelancers in your niche is a great way to start.

Don’t forget to use your superpower

As visual people, it’s easy to forget that some people find it much harder to picture things in their head.

Whilst you might be able to imagine the idea you’re describing, your client might be thinking “Hmm, ok… but what does it actually look like?”

If in doubt, simply grab a pen or pencil and start sketching.

Here’s an example.

I had a meeting at the end of last year to agree a scope for a new website project.

The conversation had stalled slightly, as we struggled to thrash out the scope of the project.

But this changed in a second when I grabbed a pen and starting sketching a sitemap for the website.

A lightbulb went off in the client’s mind, and he said “Ahh, I can see you understand the problem now”.

That’s the magic of drawing — it makes thought visible.

So don’t forget you have this superpower :)

It’s a winning move in meetings too… as the person who can grab a marker pen and visualise the problem (or solution) being discussed will hold the floor.

Geek out on tools and shortcuts

Now that Sketch is officially leading Photoshop in the “software for digital designers” arms race (w00t!) I’ve decided to get serious about how I use it.

This means: learning all the keyboard shortcuts, reading lots of Sketch tutorials about design systems and nested symbols like this, this and this, and installing time-saving plugins like Artboard Tricks, Utility Belt, and of course InVision’s Craft.

Regardless of the tools you use, there’s always a case for setting time aside to use them efficiently.

The funny thing is that when you’re busy, it can feel like you don’t have time for this — in which case you should refer to this handy chart to make sure….

Hire the best people you can afford

Because of the scale of my current project(s), I’ve started to subcontract designers for the first time.

As someone who has never wanted to start a design studio proper or have people on my payroll, this has been a huge eye-opener for me. And I can’t see my stance on this changing in case you’re wondering… so kudos to anyone who does run a studio.

Managing other freelancers when you’re one yourself is hard work, as everyone has other commitments, shifting deadlines, and likely flexible working hours too. (Not that I don’t encourage the latter… it’s one of the biggest perks of self-employment for me).

To combat this, I decided to hire the best people I could afford.

Which has meant my friend and awesome digital designer Guy Moorhouse for starters. (Guy’s been helping me develop a design system and component library for my current project, which I’ve found to be a surprisingly therapeutic process on the whole. Again, this has involved nerding out in Sketch with nested symbols).

Enough about tools.

When work feels like it’s taking over your life, there’s one thing that you can always do to put things in perspective.

And it’s the simplest thing of all…

Take a deep breath

If you’re feeling swamped by work, stop everything and focus on your breathing for a few minutes.

Take a deep breath in, all the way.

Hold the air in your lungs for a second.

Then slowly (and audibly in fact) breathe out, so that your belly pushes out a little.

Then take a deep breath in, all the way… and repeat.

Wherever you are, even a minute of intentional breathing—with your eyes closed if possible—will make you feel better .

I’ll do this on the subway, when I’m walking to work, or first thing in the morning if I’m looking after myself properly.

If you’re new to meditation, apps like Headspace or guided meditation recordings like this (ignoring the cheesy intro) are a great way to get started.

The ability to spend time on your own, with just your thoughts for company, is hugely underrated:

On which note… I’m off to a remote cabin in the Scottish Highlands tonight for a few days of walking, whisky drinking and writing.

See you on the other side!


PS. If you’re a new reader (hi!), don’t forget you can download my most popular articles as a free ebook here.

Posted to freelancing, graphic-design in 2017.

Join 2,474 readers receiving my thoughts on life, design and making stuff happen each Sunday