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How Freelancers Really Spend Their Time: A Day in the Life

Dec 28, 2020
(updated: Feb 14, 2023)
Lesson duration: 5 min

Full-time freelancers wear a whole bunch of hats. Aside from the skill that gives us the ability to freelance (i.e., writing, graphic design, or programming), we also manage the ins and outs of running and sustaining a full-fledged business (i.e., invoicing, marketing, or networking).

The work that we’re directly paid for is called billable work. These are tasks your client hired you for, like writing blog posts or building websites. Your billable work is what you include in an invoice.

All other (less fun) stuff is non-billable work. Sadly, we don’t get paid here. But this work is necessary for running successful freelance businesses. It can include:

But how is this work broken down for a typical freelancer? Let’s start by painting a picture of the market.

What does freelancing look like in the united states?

The freelance workforce is massive. According to Upwork, freelance workers make up 35% of the United States workforce. That puts the number of freelancers in America at 57 million. And in 2019, freelancers earned about $1 trillion, meaning that the freelance economy makes up about 5% of GDP.

But hours per week, amount of money earned, and work-life balance can vary considerably among American freelancers. For the sake of example, let’s walk through what a typical day might look like for a freelance writer. We’ll call him Bernie.

What’s a typical day for a freelance writer?

7am—8am: Wake up time

Bernie wakes up at 7, or a little earlier if he plans to go running. He gets ready for another day of working from home. There’s no strict schedule here because he sets his own agenda. However, routine is important—especially when you’re your own boss—so he makes it a point to get up early and start his day on a positive note with some exercise.

8am—9am: Breakfast with a side of email

In most traditional jobs, workers begin the day with a quick check-in with their boss or a team meeting. But freelancers are their own team, and most daily communication is with clients via email.

Bernie pours his coffee and eats breakfast while going through email to check for client updates. It’s a quick and efficient way to stay connected and ensure that he remains on the same page as his client throughout the duration of his projects. It’s also a good time for reading up on news and checking LinkedIn.

9am—10am: Client meetings

Freelance writers aren’t typically bombarded with work meetings in the way that full-time employees might be. But Bernie sets this time for active communication with clients. This could be in the form of meetings or by simply messaging via Slack or email. Today, he’s got two back-to-back half-hour meetings. In his first, he’s presenting a project proposal to a brand-new client, and in his second, he’s meeting for a progress report on a white paper he’s been writing.

Note: this first half hour of work isn’t billable, but the second is.

10am—1pm: Client work

Now, we’re hitting the real work grind. For about three hours, Bernie’s working on the various assignments he has from his clients. He typically writes blog posts, articles, and other long-form content, and gets paid at a per-word rate. Client work is, of course, always billable.

1pm—1:30pm: Lunchtime

Lunch! A little bit of unwinding time. TV and social media break.  

1:30pm—4pm: More client work

More grind. Another 2.5 hours getting those writing deliverables completed. Bernie might be completing projects from this morning, going over details, or making adjustments before sending anything over. While writing, he keeps an eye on his inbox to see if anything new comes in from one of his clients.

4pm—4:30pm: Client check-in

Bernie has another client check-in meeting at 4pm. He’s reviewing one of the content pieces he submitted yesterday and getting the green light that the assignment was completed adequately. This client meeting is billable.

4:30pm—5:30pm: Job boards and/or marketing

Now we’re back at the non-billable work. Unless you’ve reached a very high level of success, clients aren’t going to be knocking on your door. You’re responsible for continuing to fill up your client pool so you have a sufficient amount of work to pay the bills.

Bernie dedicates an hour per day just for using freelance websites and job boards to find and apply to new freelance jobs. He uses LinkedIn and his personal website to market his services and build his profile as a freelance writer. None of this work is billable, but it’s critical for obtaining the work that is.

5:30pm—6pm: Invoicing and other administrative tasks

Freelancers are responsible for invoicing their clients and managing their taxes and finances. Bernie sets aside half an hour at the end of each day to perform administrative tasks if necessary.

Freelancing in America

With freelancers contributing $1 trillion to the United States economy in 2019, there’s no shortage of long-term job and career opportunities in the market. But it’s important to know what a day in the life of a freelancer really looks like.

There are many misconceptions and preconceived ideas of what freelancing in America means. Our images of freelancers can range from those “just getting by” to those living glamorously around the world as digital nomads. But most people fall somewhere in between. And everyone balances the actual freelance work (i.e., writing, graphic design, etc.) with the less-fun non-billable work.

Check out another one of our “Day in the Life” articles for some more insight into what freelancing might look like for you.

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