Managing Email As A Freelancer

While email is a great way of keeping in touch, email overload can turn out to be your enemy when working as a freelancer. Constantly checking emails and replying only bring you more emails to respond to. Striking a balance between being available and getting your creative work done is difficult.

Set Aside Time For Emails

Inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a business mentor, I now check email in the afternoons once I’ve done a few hours of focused creative work first. This allows me to get my scheduled work done before getting distracted and fragmented with enquiries and small tasks.

Checking email after doing a few hours of focused creative work first helps get scheduled tasks done without getting distracted Click To Tweet

Use Separate Email Addresses

I recommend you set up various email addresses to separate the emails you receive. For example one for enquiries, another for project notifications, one for newsletters and other non-time sensitive information and one for support requests. You can then keep to one inbox if you need to focus. I set the support address to come to my phone and notify me so that gets priority and I see them out of normal office hours.

Write Emails To Reduce Back and Forth

The way emails are written can reduce the number of responses required to reach a conclusion. Offer choices and ask directly for things rather than leaving emails open ended. Another tip that saves me a lot of time is having a bank of canned responses to emails in Simplenote/Evernote/Whatever that I copy and paste when needed.

Inbox Zero?

We aim for ‘inbox zero’ (a term created by Merlin Mann on his now defunct site 43 Folders) and usually succeed in reaching around ‘inbox ten’. By using an online project management system and David Allen’s Getting Things Done method of ‘deleting, deferring or doing’ we can process email in batches and (mostly) clear the inbox. This stops things getting lost in the list and is much less stressful.

Read some tips on reaching inbox zero from Creative Bloq.

Keep Organised

I use folders for each client and then a folder for each of my own projects and organisations I deal with. This keeps the inbox clear and means I can find things when I need to.

Save attachments and delete them from the emails to save space in your email folders and mailboxes.

Warning Signs Of Difficult Freelance Clients

You may encounter freelance clients who have unrealistic expectations or try and take advantage of you. This might not be malicious, it’s just how some people do business.

Red flags to be aware of include:

  • Low budgets or haggling before a spec is even defined.
  • Overly tight timescales. This is a sign that the client may be disorganised and this will make them hard to work with.
  • Asking for work up front before paying anything – in the form of pitching or ‘spec work’.
  • Not wanting to agree to a proposal/terms or pay a part of the project fee before work commences.
  • Saying that instead of paying they will give you exposure or it will ‘look great on your portfolio’. That may be true but you still have bills to pay.
  • Dictating how things will be done without taking your input into account. There are countless people on the freelance marketplaces that can do prescriptive tasks. Doing this kind of work will grind you down long term, so look for clients that appreciate your knowledge and experience and let you lead in the areas you know about.
  • They have used a long list of freelancers in the past. It’s not always the freelancer’s fault things don’t work out and a string of previous providers points to potential issues with the client.
  • If they are negative about previous freelancers or life in general, they may prove difficult to work with.

There are entire websites devoted to ranting about these kinds of clients, but it’s best to just politely decline their project and move on.

You have a responsibility to choose your clients and projects and take on work that fits well with what you offer. If you get a gut feeling that something isn’t right, take notice of that.

Your time and energy is valuable and there’s an opportunity cost to working with clients that don’t treat or pay you well. If you’re working for them you’re not working for client that treat you well and pay your full rate, on time.

Managing Freelance Enquiries

If all goes well you will be generating enquiries asking for your freelance services. To make the best of your time you need to process these quickly and separate enquiries from genuine potential clients from ‘shotgun’ enquiries that are unlikely to lead to paid projects.

Picking up on the blog posts on choosing your target clients, spotting potentially difficult clients and the post about saying “no”, you need to disqualify the unsuitable projects as fast as possible. For example if you don’t offer SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), just thank the enquirer for their time and decline the work (extra points for introducing them to a trustworthy contact for a referral fee…).

People will be at various points in their research and buying process. Good proposals or pitches take time to write. If someone is just researching and has a vague enquiry, give them a ballpark figure and timescale and offer to write up a full proposal if those constraints are acceptable to them.

Limiting Time Spent On Enquiries

In answer to the eternal question ‘how much is a website?” I ask them if they have a list of requirements or a specification I can quote on. If not, I offer to write them a spec document after a discovery phase. If they are serious they will go for this, if not you will save yourself hours of educating these clients with no guarantee of a paid project at the end of it.

Again, you can spend longer with people when first starting your freelance business and you have lots of free time, but once you have a regular stream of enquiries you are better off focusing on the straightforward enquiries and projects.

Getting Back To People

If you’re really busy, it can be hard to manage your freelance workload as well as dealing with enquiries. Putting time aside for focused work and admin helps with this – turning off your email and phone while you’re focusing and then dealing with emails and calls once you’ve hit your daily target.

Most people are fine with waiting a few hours for non-critical enquiries, but don’t leave things too long. If you can’t respond fully, a quick call or email thanking them for their enquiry and letting them know when you will follow up is a good idea.

Alternatively, an “out of office” autoresponder can let people know their email has been received and that you’ll get back to them fully at a later time.

Having a set of email responses can save you a ton of time as well, as you can copy and paste and then edit to suit.

Choosing freelance projects and clients

Choosing the projects you take on and the types of clients you work for are both important in building your freelancer business.

Choosing Freelance Projects

It’s tempting to just take on every project that comes your way, especially when starting out. This can lead to problems though if you take on low paid, difficult projects that stop you working on more attractive projects. A common mindset is that clients are doing you a favour, but the project needs to be attractive for both parties. You don’t have to take on everything and can (and should) choose what you want to work on.

For example, I choose not to work with anyone offering ‘alternative’ therapies, pyramid schemes, religious organisations or politically oriented projects. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with these clients or projects, but I choose to not take them on as I don’t enjoy working with clients in these markets.

The ‘opportunity cost’ of being tied up with a troublesome project or one that you are not fully engaged with can cost you time, money and peace of mind. It’s also not fair on your client if you’re not giving 100%.

As we’ll come back to in another blog post, your energy and motivation are important resources and unsuitable projects or clients can drain both.

Choosing Your Target Clients

As a freelancer, you won’t be able to serve all types of clients effectively. You are better specialising in one particular market or type of client.

Doing so will give you more specialised knowledge which will help you gain new clients of this type or in this market as you understand their jargon and they will see that you’ve worked for similar businesses.

It’s also easier to optimise your marketing for a more niche phrase related to a type of client or a particular market rather than ‘web design’ in general.

You are also likely to be spending a lot of time working on a project, so feel free to decline things that will be hard to get excited or motivated about. If you love dogs then working on dog websites/marketing/design will be great fun, not so much if you hate them with a passion.


It’s your business and your life, so choose what you offer and who your target clients are to get better outcomes for you and your clients.

Increasing freelance work via referrals

It can be difficult to market your freelance services for a number of reasons. Making headway against established companies and freelancers can take time, and actually trying to market yourself can result in hitting emotional barriers.


Referrals have been the number one way of gaining high quality business. Since I went freelance, offering a referral fee has resulted in most of my new clients coming from recommendations from existing clients. Referrals act as a vote of confidence and the potential new client will usually be aware of the freelance work you did for the person who referred you.

This has a secondary benefit, as contacts of existing clients tend to be of similar success and attitude. If someone is good to work with then the chances are their contacts will be too. On the flip side, low quality clients tend to refer other low quality clients!

Sources of referrals

Your friends and family might be able to put you forward for jobs, as well as your existing clients or professional contacts. You can also approach businesses that deal with your target clients (accountants and other business services are good) to work out a deal for freelance referrals.

Tips for successful referrals

I have found the cost of paying the referral fees is a great investment. Be clear about how much the referral fee will be and when it will be paid to keep things running smoothly. If you do staged payments for larger jobs, tying the referral fees to the payment stages can help everyone’s cashflow.

The amount and type of referral fee may depend on the nature of your services. For a large project you may offer a percentage of the project cost, or a flat fee. For ongoing work you might offer a cut of the ongoing fee or a flat “finder’s fee”. You may offer a combination of the two.

Tracking referrals is easy using a Google Sheet where you can list the projects referred, the status and details of the fees payable and whether they have been paid or not.


We’ve described how referrals are a great way of developing your freelance career, along with some ideas on who to approach to refer you and how to manage referrals when they happen.