How do you manage your time as a freelance worker?
September 10, 2012 10:28 AM   Subscribe

How do you manage your time and priorities as work ebbs and flows during your life as a freelancer? What do you do with your days between big jobs? What portion of your time is spent on paying work, managing your business (taxes, bills, sending invoices, etc.), personal/professional development, trying to find more work, networking, etc.? Do you deal with deluges and droughts, or is your work more steady and consistent, and how much control do you have about this situation? What do you do during lulls? How long did it take you to become comfortable with your workload after you became a freelancer?

After more than a decade as a reporter and editor at print newspapers, I quit my job in March to become a freelance journalist, and it's mostly been awesome. I've got a good reputation, a lot of friends in the business in this region, and a decent professional network. As a result, I've found it easy to make enough money to get by. I'm bringing home less than half what I earned before I quit, but it's enough. I don't need much and I'm the happiest I've been in years.

My patchwork of income includes about a full week each month working in a physical newsroom, at most 1-2 in-depth written stories each month, and maybe another 4-6 quick-hit reporting assignments per month. I wind up working about one 40-hour week each month, and then only having having maybe 10-15 hours of work to do the other weeks. Every now and then I get a bigger assignment that will keep me pretty busy for more than a week at a time, but mostly I have a ton of time on my hands.

For a while, I coped with this free time by seeking out ways to fill it -- I spent the summer on an amateur athletic team that required 10-15 hours/week of commitment and putting in full days volunteering at a local museum. But those commitments left me over-scheduled when crunch times came along, and made it hard to accept certain jobs, and so I've pulled back some. Instead I'm trying to channel my energy into creative personal projects -- a book I'd like to write and a blog related to my reporting work and my personal interests. But I'm also reading a lot for fun, going for long walks, watching many, many hours of Netflix.

I haven't figured out how to balance my workload, and how to know how much down time is normal/healthy vs. how much is a sign that I'm slacking and should be doing more. How do you handle this? What blogs do you read that give you insight into your lifestyle? What books and articles do you recommend? How do you, personally, balance your own freelance life? Did it take you a while to find this balance, or to accept a lack of balance? How did you achieve zen?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Work & Money (5 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The main sign that you're not doing enough as a freelancer is when you don't have a comfortable amount of income to live on. Balance is pretty hard to achieve and depends on what you want out of life - you say that you're making enough so that's not really a concern, but you've realised that there are certain activities that you can't do because they encroach on your ability to take paying work. I don't think you should give them up completely if you don't want to, but you have to make appropriate time for them. I worked best when I treated it as if I was doing a full-time job and approached it as such - if it was possible I clocked in and out at the same time every day and tried to make sure that I didn't work unusual hours if possible. That way I could delineate between being at work and not being at work.

The quiet times are great for professional development. Use them to catch up with your network, make some new contacts, learn some new skills or reinforce some older ones. I'd suggest that you spend the time you have doing things you want to do that you could eventually monetise, such as the book you mention. Blogging is a great idea too if you have a niche that you can exploit; it could open up a few new doors too.

If you can predict when you're going to be quiet, that's the ideal time to plan in bigger personal projects or just plain having some time off. If it's possible, try to put some income aside for the inevitable quiet time so it doesn't become a stress situation when it arrives.

There are a few blogs about being a freelancer: FreelanceSwitch is a decent one that covers a lot of ground, but is more for the design crowd than editorial.

This is just some scant advice from my experience of being a freelancer for six years or so. Have to admit, until I got a permatemp contract, I was a terrible freelancer and eventually ended up going back in to an agency full-time. My problem was that I kept giving myself time off to do fun stuff (under the guise of education; to be honest, I was just messing around making web pages for my own amusement) rather than paying stuff and earning enough to live well. Freelancing isn't for everyone, but I'd happily go back to it with more focus and discipline if the right opportunity arose.
posted by peteyjlawson at 12:16 PM on September 10, 2012

Well, you have the first part covered: making enough to live. Your time after that should be spent doing the back end business stuff, taxes, invoicing, filing, keeping your CV updated (much easier than doing it quickly when someone asks for it and then you forget all the stuff you've worked on since you last updated it 4 years ago), etc. A lot of people would also say networking here, but my field doesn't really lend itself to that, so I don't know much about that. After you have that stuff covered, then you can do the teams and stuff.

Some freelancers have no down time at all (partly because they manufacture it and partly because they really don't because they are working so much!). Some freelancers work 2 hours a day and make enough to live. Is that enough? Do you want to work more for personal fulfillment? Then do it. If not, then work 2 hours a day and do other stuff you enjoy. Don't feel bad about being able to provide for yourself on a 10-14 hour work week. Most people WANT that.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:08 PM on September 10, 2012

I'm a little ambivalent about answering this because I think that this varies across industries, by personal preference, and I don't know if I've fully defined this answer for myself. But if you are okay with anecdotal experience and personal opinion, here is a bit of how I've answered the question for myself (I've been freelancing ~3.5 years if it is relevant).When I read your question, it seems like a lot is packed in there question yes, so please forgive me for responding with a wall of text.

• Instead of thinking this by "how many hours," change it to "how much are you earning." Set monetary goals per month and year; in my industry, it is seasonal with times of the year that has too work and other times of the year when it is slow, but if you can stay close to the monetary amount, you know if you need to step it up or if it is okay to relax a bit. It is up to you what your goal is, but after a couple years I think that what you earned/year at fulltime employment is and should be an easy goal and it does translate into working significantly fewer hours than a workplace like perhaps half to less than the hours you did before.

• If you have that much time to spare (it sounds like a lot from your description) and you are not hitting the numbers that you did as an employee pay wise, then I would spend some of the time drumming work and experimenting as to how you can drum up work for your industry. For me, in the first few years, I would google companies and then send out "introduction emails" to various companies (this took perhaps a week or two during very slow times)-this always turned into a project or a regular client for me. Some people get great results by doing other things (networking, writing a blog for your customers), but I think that this varies by person and industry -- but experiment and/or assess and try it to see if another technique works for you. The one small thing that I do now that I did not do in the first few years was check in with happy prior the start of the year send an updated CV, send off an "I have upcoming availability email" periodically or as projects are ending, etc.

• Amount of time on other stuff: This is the run down for me -- invoices are negligible because at this point I have a template and keep the same clients (so an hour or two per month max); tax time is negligible for me because I pay for an accountant at the end of the year and pay a payroll services company (and file stuff electronically)- so not much time during the year; finding more work is also negligible for me now because ...I keep the same clients and either people and clients find me (linkedin or I have worked for them before), or I check in with clients (i.e. send off an "I have availability/how is it going" email).

• Think "survival of the fittest" in regards to your clients to maximize your time, if possible. So for example, in the first year I spent a lot of time panicking and chasing bills. However, I've adopted the attitude that if they can't pay on time or need to be chased and hounded more than once, drop them after they pay (there are better clients out there). It is not worth the headache and there are better clients out there. If they have a hard time staying organized (stuff does not get to you on time, they change their minds 50 times as to what they want), you can put them on a back burner ... as in, turn down a lot of their work, and only take it if you are in a low time or if you know it is a time of year that will not have much work. So believe it or not, I believe that you can bring it down to companies and people who you respect (and vice versa), have interesting work, pay on time, are pleasant to work with, etc. - then it is not work to do stuff with and for them.

• I think the last year and a half I finally learned to accept the ebbs and flow of freelance life. That means accepting and working harder during the peak season and during the slow times...just remember you had happy clients before, and they will come back. I honestly take it easy (as you said, read/walk, etc.) - but while also keeping track of the monetary goal to determine if I need to step it up (check in with more clients), etc.

• Don't get carried away with the free time ... I have my own personal rules. For example, I can get the Netflix if I have tons of work and am working round the clock, but not if the work is in the low season, because it may become too easy (for me) to do nothing or get behind on monetary goals. Also, if you fill up ALL your time with something will miss out on other clients and projects. Always think this way if possible (i.e. so if a client comes along and states "We need you round the clock for the next few months"...think very, very carefully because it will mean that you can't take other work. Some clients or projects may not come back. I know this sounds odd, but think strategically...if you do X for one person, then you can tell others that you have this go after the type of projects that you want.

• What to read. I did make the rounds in many blogs, but I concluded that freelancers in particular try to sell things to other freelancers to the point it almost becomes slimy. Search around askmeta and I think the info is more interesting/valuable (for me).

• Deep down I believe that you can define this for yourself and it does not need to equal 40 or 60 years per week just because everyone else does it.
posted by Wolfster at 8:36 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

What Wolfster said. Crikey - everything I was going to say, really! Cool!

I have a blog about freelancing full time (which is not slimy in the least, although book reviews do encrust it like limpets now I've instigated an extra Rule For Freelancing which involves doing more reading), drop me a line if you'd like a link.

And good luck - it takes a while not to panic in the ebbs, but it's so worth it!
posted by LyzzyBee at 8:14 AM on September 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for your thoughts, folks. I just discovered this article on what work is really for that touches on some of the reasons my new life is stressing me out.

I'm used to having to fill a certain amount of time in a traditional work place -- if I have more work then I stay late, if I have less work then I'm still there until the day is done. Hard work and long days are valued, and good work is rewarded with more money, which is the ultimate goal.

But for the first time I'm coming to realize how wonderful it is to have large amounts of leisure time -- wonderful enough to make less money seem perfectly fine, as long as I have enough to pay my bills. Perhaps a life where I can read books, watch movies, enjoy the sun, and go camping or on road trips for 4-5 weeks a year is a better life than one where I can outsource dull chores to badly-paid strangers and where I work my butt off for a single extravagant weeklong trip.

I know freelancers who work as hard as they can to make as much as they can, and revel in how much more they can earn now than when they were in the traditional workforce. Maybe I'd rather work a tenth as much for a third the pay than 50 percent harder for double the pay. Maybe not. It's been seven months, and I'm still figuring all this stuff out as I go.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:29 AM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

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