Seven things freelancers know about time

I used to experience time like any other person. Then I went freelance.

Seriously though, working for myself has made me see time differently. I’ve spent my whole editorial career – whether as an employee or self-employed – focused on deadlines, but since running my own business, somehow they matter more. The responsibility for sticking to schedules lies with me alone.

My understanding of time has also evolved. At the start, I assumed that if I simply put more time in, I would get more money out. But over the months and years, I came to realise it’s not that simple.

1. Some things take a (really) long time to build, but you need to be able to make quick decisions

Marketing is something every person who sets up their own business soon learns is essential. But most marketing isn’t instant – interest can take a long time to translate into an income stream. Over the years I’ve made initial contact with people who have then gone very quiet, before coming back to me 18 months later with a project.

Relationships with clients also take time. I’ve worked with several of my clients for five years or more. One or two I have worked with right from the start. Some clients send me a one-off project, and then come back after two or three years when they have completed another.

This slow pace of building a business is why it takes stamina, and the persistence to nurture potential opportunities on a number of different fronts.

However, it’s not all slow. Now and again, a work lead will come in that seems intriguing, but perhaps suggests a new direction, a leap outside your comfort zone. You want to take it, but you’re worried. Are you up to the task? Will it be good for you, or will it just sap your energy? Might it blossom into a positive professional relationship? Can it teach you something? Does it pay well? When faced with decisions that can affect the trajectory of our working lives for months or even years, there’s often not the luxury of time to weigh up the pros and cons. If we dawdle, the prospect will go elsewhere. The ability to quickly judge when to say yes or no (or yes, but) is crucial – not just for the outcome of one working day or week, but for a lot longer.

2. Everything takes a little longer than expected

Assuming that you get to the point of filling your schedule with projects, it’s really important to leave a little breathing room. This is because things don’t always go to plan. Despite their best intentions, clients don’t – can’t – always send things precisely when they say they will. (You have to, though!) If something is promised ‘by Thursday’, the chances are it will arrive at one minute to six on Thursday evening, just as you’re packing up and thinking about what to cook for dinner.

Once you’ve got stuck into the project, you can’t bank on it taking exactly the number of hours you’ve calculated. This is not because the work itself should take longer (one thing you urgently need to be able to do is correctly estimate the length of a project), but because all the little things you do in the course of a working day – getting up to make coffee, answering the phone, answering the door (not to mention, right now in the UK, checking the kids have done their schoolwork or sitting with them while they do) – will slow you down. They might seem like small incursions into your schedule, but they add up and must be managed.

Apart from all this slipperiness of timing within projects themselves, other stuff happens. My colleague Melanie Thompson has written usefully and reassuringly on how to stay calm in a crisis. Things will always happen when you don’t have time to deal with them. But you can guard against this completely derailing you professionally by being prepared and building contingency into your own schedules.

3. The proportion of time spent on billable work is smaller than you think

Most freelance editors I know reckon on spending about five hours per working day on actual editing. Some may do more, some less. Most of us don’t manage eight or nine hours of billable work per day on a regular basis, though that doesn’t mean we’re not effectively doing a full-time job, when you count all the admin, marketing and other supporting work. Even so, I’m certain I get much more work done in a shorter space of time than I ever used to manage in the office.

When I started out, I therefore reasoned that if I could fill all my waking hours with work, I’d make a pile of money and therefore could count myself a successful freelance editor. In fact in the first full year of freelancing, I did earn a lot more than I’d ever made as an employee – but I was also exhausted, disillusioned, and I ended up letting one client down so badly that I never worked with them again.

This leads me to my next point.

4. You need to break the link between hours and earnings 

One thing I’ve found is that it doesn’t benefit me to get too hung up on exactly what I’m making per hour. This doesn’t mean I don’t know how long work takes. Far from it – I am fastidious in tracking every project down to the last minute. I want to be absolutely sure that if I expect something to take 16.5 hours, it doesn’t take a second longer, unless an extension to the work is negotiated and paid for.

What I really mean is, time is not money. If you start seeing time as money, work will dominate everything. I have no problem with working hard, doing an excellent job for my clients, and to some extent pushing myself. But at the end of the day, I want to be able to put work down and have a life, and it’s hard to do that if I am thinking that if I could just work one more hour, I could pay for that new pair of jeans/school trip instalment/gutter repair.

Time is not money. Time is time. No client could pay me what my time is actually worth to me.

5. Maintain boundaries – don’t cede control over time management

This brings me on to one of the main benefits of working for myself – my time is my own, to manage as I see fit. As long as I do the work and meet the deadlines, it’s up to me when I schedule it in. Well, that’s the dream, but we all know it doesn’t always work out that way. In the real world, clients are going to want to sometimes call me up and speak to me, or ask me to do a rush job at short notice, or hope that I will prioritise their project. This is human nature, and to a certain extent as a freelancer I will accommodate this. Just as not every hour we work is billable, so not everything we do for clients is tangible.

BUT. It’s important to remain vigilant, and not let anyone take the piss (publishing terminology). It’s too easy to let ‘touching base’ morph into daily updates via Skype at 10pm. Give an inch by all means, in the name of client relations, but do not let that turn into a mile.

6. You can only go forward

If there’s one thing running an editorial business has made me aware of, it’s my own mortality. Time is inexorable in its procession towards the next deadline, the next new project, the next chunk of time in my diary to fill, the next social media break, the next coffee. Until one day, there won’t be another project, or another coffee. One day I won’t need to make sure I’ve got spare mouse batteries or red pens or printer cartridges. (Actually, I already don’t really need to worry about red pens or printer cartridges.)

The good thing about all this is that the forward march of time is a massive learning opportunity. I’ve learned that it’s OK to make a certain number of mistakes (don’t ask me to put a percentage on that, because I won’t), but it’s not OK to make them again. I used to spend ages dwelling on any criticism I received from a client. Now I simply thank them for the feedback, say that I’ll apply it in future, make a note to ensure I actually do that, and move on. And the business changes over time, in ways I’ve never been able to predict, which keeps it fresh and interesting. Many of the things we do can seem repetitive, but in reality they are never the same twice.

7. Blog post inspiration will strike when you really don’t have time

Did I have time to write this blog post? No, I did not – but I did it anyway. I’d been thinking about it all week, and I finally sat down and wrote it this morning at 7.45, before starting client work, and finishing at the time shown in the clock at the top of the post.

2 Comments on “Seven things freelancers know about time”

  1. Thanks, Liz. I recently went full time with my editing business and the work is flooding in. While that is, of course, a good thing, I’m still learning how to schedule the work into my week in a way that doesn’t exhaust me, and how to draw a line between work and home life.

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