To Earn More As A Freelancer, Don’t Increase “Productivity”

Corey McComb

If you’re a Freelancer who wants to increase income, independence, and security (the Freelancer Trifecta), then the last thing you want to do is increase “productivity.” You want to increase accountability.

Being paid based on the hours you work is the slow and certain death of the Freelancer. And no amount of “optimizing your time” will help you escape this death unless you can create more accountability between yourself and your clients.

The problem is that most people are drawn to Freelance because it promises independence. Work from anywhere! Be your own boss! Because of this, many freelancers hear the word, “accountability” and think, “more work, more responsibility.” But this thinking is one of the great fallacies of Freelance. And in fact, the opposite is true.

For Freelancers, the more your clients are COUNTING on you, the more freedom, security, and earning potential you have.

Low Accountability vs. High Accountability

“Keeping your promises,” or, “doing what you say you’re going to do,” is just the starting line of accountability for a true Freelancer. The real race to run is to move from positions of Low Accountability to High Accountability.

Low Accountability = “If you don’t do it, someone else will.”
High Accountability = “If you don’t do it, I don’t know who else will.”

Low Accountability

When I was in high school I worked at a coffee bar. My shift always started in the afternoon until one morning when my boss called me in a panic. The girl who was scheduled to open was a dreaded, no call, no show (the death of accountability).

“No worries,” I said. “School can wait. I’ll be right there.”

I pulled up and rushed past the line of customers suffering from rapid caffeine-withdraws. I offered a “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” shoulder-shrug, fired up the espresso machine, and made the coffee go drip. And as the cappuccinos foamed and 10% discounts were applied, all was forgiven.

Now, as a worker, Miss. No Call, No Show held a position of Low Accountability. Not because she didn’t show up, but because her physical presence didn’t really matter. The owner just called me. And if I hadn’t answered, he could have thrown a rock across the street and hit another flaky teenager willing to work for $7 an hour.

In Low Accountability relationships, someone is counting on you, but the stakes are low.

High Accountability

To hold a position of High Accountability, you’ll need to provide something that will have a profound impact on the person who is counting on you. It must be something that they cannot do themself, and something that very few other people can do at a high level.

This would include Specific Knowledge, Specialized Judgment, or a set of tangible skills that are difficult to earn and not easily accessed.

Magic Formula for High Accountability: Provide X, Produce Y

If the standard agreement between Client and Freelancer is “Freelancer provides X, which will produce Y,” then you want X to be something that is mysterious and/or intimidating to 99% of the population. X should look like work to others, yet feels like play to you.

Y must then represent an aspect of the client’s business that they cannot live without. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best in the world at X if the Y it produces is not an absolute necessity to the Client.

X = Specific knowledge, specialized judgment, or a set of tangible skills that protected by a steep learning curve of hard things. Should be mysterious and intimidating to Clients and other Freelancers.
Y = A non-negotiable necessity in the client’s business. If Y doesn't happen, then the Client cannot accomplish A, B, or C.

Finding Your X

Accountability = Leverage

Let’s back up for a moment and remember an important truth about Freelance work: Getting paid based on your time or physical presence is slow and certain death. There is a big difference between having multiple clients who are COUNTING on you and having multiple bosses paying you for your time. If your income is in direct proportion to the hours you work, you’re not a Freelancer — you’re a remote worker with a 1099.

To hit the Freelancer Trifecta of high-pay, independence, and security, you do not want to be held accountable for merely “showing up.” You want to be accountable for creating Force Multipliers.

A Force Multiplier is something that produces a profound amount of value compared to the physical hours you put in. And being in a position of High Accountability allows you to charge not based on the two hours you spent working but based on the 100+ hours of value you created.

This is the real dream of Freelance: create a series of professional relationships where you are highly accountable for providing Force Multipliers.

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t have any skills or knowledge that fit into this model — fear not. This framework of accountability is something to work toward. You don’t have to hang up your Freelancer hat if you’re still trading time for money. This is a mental model that can be approached and realized in a few different ways.

First, if your tangible skills are common, you can start by focusing on ways to create more intangible value. Maybe that looks like offering advice on other aspects of the Client’s business. Maybe it’s becoming a friend or trusted confidant. Don’t forget — entrepreneurs (clients) are often lonely and insecure. They walk around day after day with a vision of the future not shared by others. They are often surrounded by people who encourage them, yet do not share the same level of interest or excitement in their wild ideas.

Clients suffer from Imposture Syndrom the same as everyone else, which is yet another point of leverage for the Freelancer.

As a Freelancer, your job is to serve the vision of the Client. However, if you can demonstrate high levels of interest, loyalty, and passion for that vision in a thoughtful way, your Clients will have no choice but to COUNT on you more and more in intangible ways.

Thoughtfulness and sincerity are two things that large agencies cannot scale, and are traits most Freelancers overlook.

The goal of accountability is to provide things that others cannot provide and that Clients cannot live without. This can be a mix of tangible and intangible skills (a mix of both is best). But no matter where you are now in your professional relationships, work toward becoming irreplaceable.

When deciding on new offerings or new skills to add to your Freelancing Quiver, ask yourself:

Will this new skill, knowledge set, or core value force clients to count on me more?

Because when you keep accountability high, you:

  • Capture high wages because your inputs equal massive outputs
  • Capture independence because you are not being rewarded only for your time.
  • Capture security because someone somewhere will always need someone like you.

Don’t run away from accountability — it’s the best way to hit the Freelancer Trifecta of high-pay, independence, and security.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA

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