The Danger of Going “Too Broad”

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to communicate my services, when I found myself fumbling recently over the question of my specialty. When you’re talking to people who work in different fields, an elevator pitch that offers a fairly general description of the work you do is usually good enough. But, in a room full of people who do similar work, it becomes important to know how to identify and articulate just where your strengths fit in.

The lesson reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor in college. I was trying to pick out a subject to focus a paper about Absalom, Absalom on and as I kept listing off topics, she kept saying “too broad.” After a fair amount of listing, I finally came up with a focused enough subject for her approval. I ended up writing over 15 pages on one particularly notable scene in the book. She was right, anything more broad would have made for a behemoth of a paper.

I started off freelancing thinking I had to be good at a long list of specialties to make it work, and spent the first few months learning what my professor had taught me years earlier: the importance of having a focus.

You can either be mediocre at a lot of things, or really good at a few.

Having a specialty or niche has a number of benefits:

  • It gives you the room you need to become an expert at something. No one person has the time to be an expert at a long list of skills and subjects, but any one of us can get a lot closer to that title a lot faster by honing in on a particular specialty.
  • It makes it easier to find your target audience. Whether you’re a freelancer or a business, looking for customers and clients from a massive audience is more challenging than being able to focus on a target group. A writer with experience working with oil and gas clients knows who to target, and can make a more persuasive pitch for why she’s the right pick than one casting a wide berth for any client at all.
  • You can become a part of a community. In any field, who you know is important. There’s a wide world of people out there and if you can focus your efforts on making connections with people in a few select industries, you can get more out of the relationships you have.

If you can pinpoint a focus that best fits your skills, you can approach your marketing with much greater efficiency and get more out of the time you spend on the work you do.

Reconsidering Time as a Freelancer

One of the primary reasons I made the decision to trade out working as an employee for taking on contract work as a freelancer was due to an increasing sense that too much of my time wasn’t really mine. I’ve quickly learned that effective time management is one of the first and most important traits you must learn in working as a freelancer.

When for most of the week I gave the same 8 hours to someone else’s business and about the same 8 hours to sleep (this is pretty non-negotiable for me, I’m not nearly the capable person I want to be if I’m working off less than 8 hours of sleep), the windows of time that were left over started to feel too limited.  This was especially true once factoring in the little energy that was left over at the end of the work day; not to mention the non-professional obligations that can sometimes feel like work, such as errands, cooking, cleaning and the like.

I made a realization at a certain point that the amount of hours spent working was less of an issue for me than the lack of flexibility in those hours. If I have a little more freedom to define when I work and where I work, that opens me up to being able to travel more to visit friends and makes me more likely to fit something like exercise and errands into the day before I reach the points of low energy that would often previously begin right at the end of the workday.

The trade off is that where I used to take it for granted that I would have a couple of hours to wind down and do something relaxing before falling asleep each night, I now find myself often doing some form of work until much later into the evening.  My life isn’t nearly as compartmentalized between work time and my time, as those distinctions have in and of themselves begun to blur.

I’ve found it useful to do some reading of how other people in similar positions have chosen to approach time management as a freelancer.  Here are a couple of resources I’ve found useful:

43 Folders: Who Moved My Brain

The Art of Non-Conformity: The Flip Side of Self-Employment and Freedom

A lot of this boils down to planning well and avoiding distractions, even some that we can tend to think of as productive, like checking e-mail.

It’s also important to get a sense of the times of day you work the best and your personal rhythms so you use the time you’re working most effectively. I’m still figuring this part out to a certain degree.

Finally, it’s important that you budget time for yourself and activities that aren’t work.  Make sure you’re not letting your social life or preferred relaxation/entertainment choices slip away into work time.