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If you remember working in a cubicle, or if you work in one now, you might have dreamed about what it would be like to work for yourself. Wake up whenever you want. Work from home and make good money. Maybe only go into an office once a month or so to talk with a client. Your own schedule! It sounds great, and it is great, but it’s not all sunshine and roses either.
Many freelancers come to the harsh realization that if they don’t manage their time well they won’t make enough money to keep the dream alive. It takes time to hunt new clients, do taxes, market yourself, and still do the dream job you want to do. Will you still be stuck with having to work eight hours, or ten or even twelve, to keep a roof over your head?
There are a lot of factors that go into that question. Yes, in the beginning, you may have to work harder than you ever did in your office just to get the business started. Your job may just take a lot of time compared to others. The keys to successful time management as a freelancer can be broken down into two core ideas.
- Make sure that you are earning enough from your billable hours that you can support yourself and have the time off you desire.
- Compartmentalize your time ruthlessly.
Billable Freelance Work Hours
One of the benefits that employees actually get is a guaranteed wage. Whether you work hourly or for a salary, your employer has to give you that money if you do your job. Freelancers don’t have that assurance, so they must build their client base to make it happen.
Building a client base takes time and you’re not getting paid for it. These are non-billable hours. Billable hours are any portion of time when you’re doing something you’ll get paid for. Tracking down a new client and negotiating a contract with them is non-billable. Actually writing the piece/doing the design/making the web page is billable. Billable plus non-billable hours make up your working hours.
Your goal is not to maximize your billable hours. It’s to find the right proportion of billable hours and non-billable hours to do all the tasks necessary. It’s a little like mixing gas and air in a carburetor. You need just the right mix to keep the engine running.
Here are some things that fall under non-billable hours:
- Marketing and sales
- Hunting for new clients
- Negotiating with clients
- General office work
- Talking with your accountant or lawyer
- Working with other contractors for larger jobs
Basically, anything that isn’t directly earning you money. You need to do enough activity in your non-billable time to earn you enough billable hours at a rate that brings in enough money to meet your needs. This is the fundamental goal of every freelancer.
But what about all that free time? Well, that has to be factored in too. Some freelancers fail to work too few working hours, or spend too much time on non-billable activities, and end up not earning enough cash. Others work way too hard and find their homes, their health, and their mental state deteriorating from the stress. Hard work may be a virtue of entrepreneurs but it must also be smart work.
You must force yourself away from your work to recharge, and we don’t mean sleep. You’ll need to factor in vacation time, sick days, and holidays. You’ll also need to have daily time to do things like take care of yourself and your house. You don’t want code enforcement knocking on your because you haven’t mowed your lawn for a month due to all the work you’ve been doing!
The ratios between billable and non-billable hours, as well as work and non-work hours, will change over time. Sometimes work dries up and you have to work more, or something comes up and you need to work less. It’s a constant juggling act.
Compartmentalization — A Freelancer Must-Have
Another thing all freelancers have to learn is that they have the control over their time. But there are many things that try to suck our time away. Paradoxically, you may find that you have to keep an even stricter schedule than you did as an employee just to keep up. It doesn’t have to be a harsh one, but it must have strong boundaries.
Freelancers that fail to learn how to compartmentalize their time will end up making clients angry. By compartmentalization, we mean dividing your time into chunks where you work on a specific activity or project and nothing else. Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking does not lead to maximum productivity. If you’re working on several closely related tasks, perhaps, but freelancers don’t work on closely-related tasks. Each client job is different. Imagine if you had to write 6 articles by a deadline and you jumped to a different random one every time you finished a paragraph. You’d never get done. The brain’s gearbox would grind to a halt.
Compartmentalization starts by learning your limits. Everyone has limits to how long they can perform an activity before the quality of the work starts to decline. If you know that you can write two hours straight with no problems but a third will mean more time editing later, that’s a limit that must be respected. Since you are responsible for the entire quality of your business, you must respect your capabilities.
Some people prefer to work in large chunks. One person’s work day may look like this:
- Half hour email
- 1 hour working with client A
- 2 hours working with client B
- 1 hour lunch
- 1 hour hunting clients
- 1 hour working with client C
- Half hour email
That’s six hours of work, four of which are billable, and an hour for lunch. Some people don’t like working straight like this and need to break up their time. For instance, they may prefer to work 20 minutes and then take a 10 minute break, or work 45 minutes and take a 15 minute break. Which way works best depends completely on how you work best. You’ll need to experiment.
What breaks these compartments down? Two main reasons. One is the everyday distractions that plague us all. People in the office might goof off on Facebook, but working from home adds a whole new layer of distractions. You have to build the discipline to say that this time is for this activity and this alone. Some people use programs like StayFocusd and Leechblock to stop themselves from visiting time-wasting sites.
The other one is your clients. Some clients will try to get as much work out of you as possible. The polite ones will keep asking for just one more thing and blow out your timetable. It’s great if they’re willing to pay and it won’t interfere with your other clients. The rude ones will try to treat you like an employee and expect that you’ll be at their beck and call, or try to hide such a relationship inside a complicated contract. Freelancing will teach you how to put your foot down and declare your independence.
Just like when you go to a mechanic and they say it’s going to take several hours and a long wait on top, you need to be comfortable saying the same thing to your clients. A client is not a boss. It is a temporary partnership where you trade money for your skills as equals. This is why freelancers are very keen on using contracts, and why you should use them as well.
You can find a lot of time management tips by browsing the net, but managing your time as a freelancer requires an approach that’s different from the usual. It’s not just a matter of raising productivity. It’s about finding an overall balance in your business and with your life so that your dream job can stay sustainable for the long term. If you find that you’ve hit a good balance but you’re not making enough money, then it’s time to raise your rates.