Tools and rules for a freelancer

Tools and rules for a freelancer

As a freelance journalist I’m often asked what it takes to be a freelancer. Answers given vary from hard work to marketing skills, knowing your own worth and being a little of a businessman. Few people point out what actually lies behind all this: being organized, like, super organized. This is a skill that anyone can learn. The difficult part is to upkeep it.

It is an underestimate to say that I have mastered time management. Instead I like to think that I am a wizard in creating time.

I managed to complete my bachelor’s degree earning 224 credits in two years. (The requirement is 180 credits in three years time.) As I studied I worked as service advisor, copywriter and secretary with my total weekly working hours being around 15-20 hours. On top of all this that I managed to exercise and have even some leisure time.

This is what a regular week of mine looked like in September 2015, my second year into university studies. All in all I missed two deadlines and had only one all-nighter during my studies. In the eyes of others my greatest achievement seemed to be that I maintained my sanity. Truth be told it wasn’t difficult.

As a freelance journalist you might find yourself working in a similar situation. Instead of studies and three jobs you’ll most likely have one big story and three smaller articles on your desk. And even though you would like to, you are almost never able to work on one story at a time. So how to make sense of all this, how to keep track and remain sane?

These are my tools and rules.


I carry notebooks with me wherever I go. All four of them. They are like folders: one notebook for one category of thoughts.

The important thing is not to have a notebook or several. The important thing is the purpose they serve: clearing the cache inside your head.

The human brain is amazing in how many things it can handle at the same time but what it is less good at is holding on to all those threads of thoughts. Trying to remember everything eats up a huge part of your energy and efficiency. Stressing about that you forgot something does the same thing.

Getting ideas, thoughts, feelings and unfinished processes safely stored helps you keep focus on what you want.

Synchronized calendars

At the moment my online calendar consists of six synchronized, color coded calendars. Having different timetables synced helps me and others keep track of when and where we need to be or what needs to done by what deadline.

The calendars consist of two different kind of markings: time bound events (e.g. meet interviewee at 3pm) and day bound events (e.g. buy tickets to Helsinki). Time bound events are what dictate the daily schedules and day bound events are the to do -list.

To do -lists are handy but only if you make them right. Instead of having everything as one long overwhelming list of tasks, divide your tasks evenly throughout the week. Set a deadline and stick to it. A daily to do -list will help you prioritize and keep your mind on what’s important.


Especially long term projects may be difficult to keep track of only with the help of a calendar. This is where spreadsheets step in.

The picture below shows a spreadsheet in which I keep track of my salary and study grants. Everything needed can be seen on one climbs. This would be impossible to comprehend and update only with the help of a calendar.

Having a properly functioning spreadsheet needs regular updating. It might feel like a boring thing to do and you might think that you can do it later. Don’t. You’ll lose track of what you have already updated and checking up on things two months old eats up more of your time than giving two minutes to one simple update.

Common to all tools

Never delete or destroy anything. These tools are not meant only for keeping you on track right here and right now. They are also tools for you to check on what you have done and tools to help you get back to what you need to remember.

Sometimes getting started is the most difficult part. Instead of pondering whether you should do something or what you should do, just do it. It takes less time than wondering around. Trust me.

And once you get to doing, keep going. No task, thought or event is too small to for these tools and rules. Write everything you need either in your notebooks (or what ever suits you best), calendar or spreadsheet.

How to create more time?

Sticking to the just-do-it attitude and keeping in mind what is important is what creates more time. Of course and unfortunately this works only if you feel that your work is important.

A journalist’s job is not only a job. It’s a profession that doesn’t count hours. A freelance journalist cannot expect workdays to be 8 hours long because sometimes even 12 hours aren’t enough.

In the midst of all this the only way of keeping track is being organized. I’ve shared my tools and rules, something that took me several years of modifying. It required self discipline as well as knowing my own strengths and weaknesses. Being organized is going to require the same things from you as well.

So where to start? Set a deadline and stick to it.

About the writer


Hanna Tuulonen

Hanna believes that without information there can be no understanding and without understanding there can be no acceptance or improvement. She has worked as an editor-in-chief since 2014 and is now EIC for Finnish Conscripts Union. She has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and Communication with subsidiary subjects in Administrative Studies and Business Studies and is now studying investigative journalism as a masters student in the University of Gothenburg.
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