Why freelancers should get (and keep) their finances organized

It’s common to let easy things get in the way of doing hard things. Let’s say you know you need to go to the gym for an hour. But then you think, well, first I need to do the dishes and then flip the laundry over and by the time I do all that it will be lunchtime and then I’ll have to wait an hour for everything to digest and at that point if I go to the gym the whole day will be shot! The little to-do list becomes a bludgeon against the big thing that will actually make your life better in the long run.

Getting organized should be an easy thing. We have enough tools and technology at our fingertips today to make it nearly effortless. But it isn’t so easy to get started, and because of that same technology it’s easy to get overwhelmed, distracted, and ultimately discouraged. Many people (I’ve certainly been guilty of this) use the act of getting organized itself as a convenient roadblock that keeps them from the harder work of making the choices that will have a meaningful impact on their lives.

What does it mean to get organized?

It’s having information in a place where you can find it when you need it. For some people, that means a spotless desk and color coding and labeled file folders. For others, it’s just knowing which one of the foot-high stacks of paper has the thing you need in it. There isn’t one system that’s perfect for everyone, but if you find yourself hunting for information all of the time instead of doing the real work you do, you probably haven’t found the system for you yet.

How do I get started?

Triage. You don’t have to get it all done in one day. The accordion file that you’ve been stuffing statements into since 2008? The shoebox full of receipts? The spreadsheet of unpaid client invoices that could pay your rent for the next six months? Write everything down that is costing you time and productivity. Decide which one is the worst offender. Then tackle just that one today. Save the next one for next weekend (or pick a day as Get Things Done-day if you don’t have a regular work week). Repeat until you’ve checked everything off the list. It might take a few weeks or months, but the best way to make sure you’re being thorough and not taking any shortcuts is to focus on one thing at a time.

How do I stick with an organizational system?

For me, it’s getting a routine down and not getting carried away. Organizational systems often fail because they use more resources to maintain than they wind up saving.. Block time off in your calendar for things that that need regular attention, like tracking expenses, answering emails, and chasing down late invoices, then don’t let those things creep into the rest of your day. You may be tempted to get distracted with little organizational tasks (see above re: easy things getting in the way of hard things), but remember that you can only spend your time on two types of activities: those that help you earn money, and those that don’t. Be mindful of how much you’re allocating to each one. Organization is important for the long term, but it isn’t going to cover your student loan payment next week.

Will getting organized automatically make our lives better and put us on the path to riches? No. But it can make it easier to move on to those tough choices and be better informed when it’s time to make them.