How to Be a More Productive Freelancer

how to be efficient

In the middle of the 20th century, Toyota began implementing principles called Lean Methodology.

This system became commonplace in Japanese factories, helping that nation to so much of its success in the automotive, electronics and other industries.

Lean Methodology is all about keeping everything in a workplace trimmed and clean — setting aside and casting off anything unnecessary.

This streamlines processes, with efficiency leading to speed and higher productivity.

The methodology is expressed in terms of what is called 5S Methodology — five main principles that all begin with “S.”

Now, working at home is a far cry from working in a factory, but if you’re looking to streamline your freelancing work life and wondering how to be efficient, the 5S construct may be just the thing. Here’s an orientation to it, with some words on how to apply it to working as your own boss.

1. Sort (Seiri)

The first “S” is sort, and it applies to sorting what is useful and valuable from what is not — getting rid of what isn’t needed. This can mean discarding clutter from your work area, cutting out unnecessary components of tasks, and weeding out those things that could distract you or slow you down.

You can start by getting rid of old folders, office supplies you use once in a blue moon, and things that found its way onto your desk a month ago and was never put away. What will have even more potent effects is weeding your computer’s folders of old files, sorting them into those in use and archived ones, etc.

Evaluate each step or component of your projects, looking for ways to cut steps without cutting out overall results or quality. With all the clutter out of the way, you can do your work more quickly and efficiently.

2. Straighten (Seiton)

“Everything in its place” is the boss concept behind Seiton. Now that you’ve cleaned up your physical workspace, files, etc., the idea is to arrange everything properly.

This can be as simple as organizing the various drawers and shelves and cubbies of your desk. It can involve sticking to one workspace at all times so you always have the tools you need.

It can mean storing some of your digital files in the cloud so you’ll be sure to be able to access them at coffee shops or wherever you are, or organizing a little caddie for things like paper clips, calculators, etc. You don’t want to spend time figuring out where things are.

3. Shine (Seiso)

This is all about cleaning and keeping everything in good shape. However, I like to apply it to the work itself, thinking of it in terms of polishing (to a shine) the finished product.

A lot of projects can give us some trouble, but once we get things squared away, if we put a little extra shine on at the end, the client will never sense the difficulty we originally had.

4. Standardize (Seiketsu)

Standardizing is a skill that some freelancers never quite get and that others absolutely master. The circumstance of being a one-person company often teaches a person to be very systematic, and that’s what seiketso is all about.

In the factory environment, it means the whole company doing things the same way, with labels and other written communication making it clear to everyone how to do what — essentially how to execute the other elements of 5S.

As a freelancer, your goal will be to communicate with yourself, being sure to do things in the most efficient way on a constant basis.

If you’ve figured out some tricks and advanced features to streamline your work with spreadsheets, seiketso means being sure to do this every time — it’s easier to forget and lapse into old ways than one might think.

It could mean implementing some slick way of organizing research if you’re a writer, but we know that these methods work only if we use them consistently.

5. Sustain (Shitsuke)

The concept of “do without being told” is big here. Sustaining means keeping up your processes over a long period of time. It’s not hard to get on a kick of working on full efficiency.

It’s a lot harder to do it for one or two years straight. Shitsuke means to renew, very conscientiously, to be sure that your work in the past never goes for naught.

It’s about you as a person and a worker, not about the individual steps. And it’s what sets decent freelancers apart from excellent ones. Shitsuke is how the 5S methods become a way of life.

Enjoy using this method in learning how to  be efficient.  Do you have any tricks? Let us know in the comments.

(Photo by Steve Wilson / CC BY)

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


  1. Jay Stramel on the 6th March

    I liked this article. I work with a team now, but when I was first starting out with consulting I created problems for myself that I could have avoided if only I had a process like this to follow.

    One thing I would add is that you need to account for time management. When you run a company, even a company of one person, it’s easy to work all the time and it’s easy to spend time on the wrong things. We ended up developing, so I may be biased, but I’ve gotten a lot of value out of tracking my time and reviewing it.

    The Seiri step for me usually seems less about the physical environment, or even my inbox, and more about knowing that it’s OK to focus on something to the exclusion of all other things. That’s how I make progress in software development or other creative endeavors.

    But I’ll start to worry that I’m dropping the ball somewhere else and I get distracted. To help with focus I budget my time each week and then review how much time I’ve spent on each project daily. Task lists get out of hand, but I know that if I spend time on a project I will do something productive.

    That’s how I reduce clutter.

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