As freelancers, we all face the problem of feast or famine: sometimes we're overwhelmed with work, and can hardly find time to think, let alone keep up with our other responsibilities, but other times dust gathers on our computers while we wait for new work to arrive. Clearly, marketing our services and finding new clients is important to avoid the "famine" part of the freelance lifestyle, but what do you do when too much work is arriving?
As a freelance editor, my work primarily involves a large number of small jobs rather than a small number of large projects over the course of the year. In this article, I'll use this situation, which many freelancers are familiar with, to provide some suggestions on how to manage your work schedule more effectively and attain a slightly more sane work life. The advice I'll provide is equally suitable for freelancers who work on a few large projects, since even the largest projects can be broken down into smaller and more manageable chunks. (Indeed, the really big projects can't be managed any other way.) The same strategies apply, but with an obvious modification: you'll need to budget time at the end for cleaning up and finalizing the whole project.
There's no foolproof solution to the chaos of freelancing, since life sometimes happens all at once and there's nothing whatsoever we can do about it. But there are several tricks that let us juggle life and work considerably better than if we give up and simply accept whatever life throws at us. One of the first and most powerful solutions involves gaining more control over our schedules. Doing so requires only three simple steps:
Tracking your productivity is important, because it's the only way you'll ever be able to know how long a job will take and thus, how many days you'll need to reserve for a given job. This knowledge is what lets you schedule your work. Each job is at least slightly different from the work you've done previously, but over time, you'll gradually get a feel for your range of productivities, including both your long-term average and the worst-case scenario. A conservative approach to scheduling your work relies on using the worst-case productivity, since that way you can be reasonably confident you'll finish ahead of schedule. Basing your schedule on your average productivity may be more realistic in the long run, but it also means that you'll end up working under significant deadline pressure for half of your jobs and severe deadline pressure for a significant number of jobs.
If you track productivity separately for each client or each type of product, you can further refine your estimates. Best of all, if you get a chance to examine the whole job (e.g., the full text of a manuscript to be edited or a carefully defined functional specification for software) before you are asked to provide a quotation, you can base your estimate on the actual work you'll be doing and come up with a much better estimate for that specific job. However, there's a common gotcha to be aware of: early chapters in a book that you'll be editing or the initial product features you'll be documenting in a user or reference manual tend to have been developed early in the project, while the author or developer was still well-rested, excited by the project, and not facing insane deadlines. Later parts of the job often take longer than early parts because of creative fatigue, loss of interest, or simple lack of time to do the job right. So try to examine the whole project, not just one or two initial components, before you create an estimate.
Once you know how long a job will take, the next step is to schedule the work. Doing so requires some form of calendar, whether you implement it on paper or in software. Basically, your goal is to recognize that there are only so many working hours in a week, and that all your work must be fitted into those available time slots. Once a slot is full, it's no longer available for other work.
In the previous step, I asked you to determine how much time a job will take. Now your goal is to look at your calendar and find the first day when you can begin that work. Mark the day (or days) on your calendar as "Reserved for [name of job]" so you won't double-book those days for other work. One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make is failing to reserve dates for future work on those rare and happy occasions when a client gives us advance warning about when a job will arrive. If you have clients that predictably send you work such as annual reports, quarterly newsletters, or annual funding proposals at specific times of year, reserve those days each time you start marking up your calendar for a new year, and add a note in your reminders program a month before these periods so you can contact your client and confirm whether the work will arrive on schedule.
Don't forget to include down-time and other non-work time commitments that will reduce the number of hours available for work. If you know you'll be unavailable for part of a day, mark that part of the calendar as unavailable. Include doctor appointments, family gatherings, meetings, or anything else that will prevent you from working. Don't neglect the obvious: for example, my first calendars were clearly marked "no work today, idiot!" on weekends and holidays because early in my freelance career, I was constantly working through the weekend and wondering why. As it happened, I'd simply neglected to block in those days as unavailable for work.
Reserve all your known commitments (e.g., an hour a day for exercise or watching your favorite TV show) before you start allocating the rest of your time for the coming month. You won't always be able to honor every commitment, but you've got a much better chance of success if you're at least trying to give your real life equal priority to your work life. For longer allocations of time, such as vacations, add a note in your reminders program to notify all your main clients well in advance so they can plan around your schedule. One useful, though mildly unethical, approach involves telling clients you're leaving a couple days earlier than you really are leaving. This way, if any emergencies arrive at the last minute, you still have time to handle them -- or to find someone else who can do so. Paper works adequately for calendars, but software solutions provide far more flexibility when it comes to rearranging your schedule. Options range from behemoths such as Microsoft Project to smaller and nimbler tools such as the task and calendar tools built into Microsoft's Outlook or Apple's iCal. Everyone eventually finds an approach that suits their unique needs, and the key is to invest some time experimenting until you find an approach that works well for you. I use iCal for reminders and small notes, but I use nested folders on my computer's desktop to organize my work life. I use a single "Work" folder to gather all my work together in one place, and use Macintosh aliases ("shortcuts" in Windows) that point to the actual folders that hold the work for each project. Adding the date at the start of each folder name lets me schedule the work; it also lets me see my work schedule at a glance.
When a client contacts you to discuss new work, always ask two questions:
Often, there's a significant gap between the two. When you record the job on your calendar, carefully record both dates. If unexpected or more urgent work arrives, knowing the true deadline provides an opportunity to juggle your schedule (i.e., push back the date on a less-urgent job) so you can fit in the new work.
This approach is a specific example of a more general principle: always build in a day or two per week of empty time that you can use when a job takes longer than expected or something urgent arrives. The more flexible the schedules of your clients and the more predictable your workflow, the less empty space you'll need to set aside. Over time, you'll gradually get a feel for how much work is likely to arrive in a typical week. For example, my major client typically sends me two to three jobs per week, and more than that during busy periods. Knowing this, I no longer accept more than two or three jobs from other clients in any given week because doing so might leave me unavailable to that primary client. If my major client is less busy than usual, it's easy for me to complete other work earlier than originally scheduled or accept work I'd otherwise have to decline or delay, thus giving my other clients a pleasant surprise.
As I noted in the previous section, I've implemented my own advice by marking my Fridays as unavailable for work. This serves two purposes. First, I'm growing sufficiently old and prosperous that free time is becoming more valuable to me than a few extra dollars. During slow periods, this means that I can often take a 3-day weekend and use the extra time to work on my own writing. Second, this automatically gives me one day per week of flex time that I can allocate to rush jobs or unexpectedly long jobs that require more time than I budgeted. I still often end up working most Fridays, particularly when I know that I'll be leaving for a long trip and need to store away a bit of extra money to cover my lack of earnings during that period, but asking clients when they really need a job returned often lets me defer a job until the following week. Then, if I do need to work on a Friday, or if I know something big is coming the following week, I use the extra hours on Friday to avoid a serious work crunch the following week.
I started this article by noting that this approach can be modified to cover a range of other situations. For example, what can you do if you receive offers for two large projects that must be worked on simultaneously? Although it's clearly more efficient to focus on one project at a time, it's often appropriate to budget half your work week for each project, and switch horses every Wednesday at noon. Each job will take roughly twice as long as if you worked on only one project at a time, but if you designed your initial scheduling estimates to account for this situation when you accepted the work, you should still be able to complete both jobs on schedule. Often, different parts of each project progress at different rates, and a slow period for one project will overlap a work crunch for the other project; in that case, you can adjust your schedule to fit in more of the crunch project and less of the slower project. For this approach to work, you need to discover factors that might impose the same deadline or a non-negotiable deadline on two large projects. The only way to discover such pressures is to ask your clients whether any such factors might affect their delivery schedule for the product. (Note that I said their schedule, not your schedule. Clients can sometimes be amazingly clueless about how your schedule relates to their schedule, leading to unpleasant surprises.)
Learning to schedule your life more sanely also has strong ties to what may be your most crucial task as a freelancer: establishing a slush fund to cover your expenses those times when the work stops flowing or illness prevents you from working. (This also helps you to afford periodic vacations.) This isn't optional if you freelance: make it a priority to build up 3 to 6 months worth of savings that you can tap during slow periods or illnesses, even if it means giving up beer and movies for a couple of months to save that money. If you have a family to support, consider buying disability insurance to cover you against illnesses; other forms of income-replacement insurance may be available, so ask an insurance broker about your options. Knowing that your slush fund is full lets you sacrifice work on the occasional Friday, whereas knowing that it's underfunded or that you'll be drawing it down soon (e.g., to pay a quarterly tax installment) reminds you to work longer weeks.
The freelance life isn't always predictable, and is sometimes unpredictable in a very stressful way. But the first step in mitigating that stress is to take steps to gain some control over your schedule. Your own work situation will clearly differ from mine, requiring various modifications to the approach I've proposed, and there are other stresses I haven't covered that require different solutions. But as this article shows, the important thing is to decide that you're willing to devote a little time to developing strategies that will minimize those stresses -- and these strategies don't need to be particularly complicated. Such simple steps can take you a long way towards a more enjoyable freelance career.
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