One of the many joys of freelancing is not being held to the typical, 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek. Freelancers have the option to crave out their own schedules, work whenever convenient, and turn down projects when it’s not suitable for work-life balance — or simply because they don’t want to do it.
Not many full-time employees can say that.
This kind of freedom allows many freelancers to trim down their working hours to half that of salaried folk, while some manage to do the impossible: A 10-hour work week.
How? Well, that’s a good question.
What it ultimately boils down to is knowing your habits — like what time of day you are at your most efficient and working with your constraints — as well as being strict with time management and clients.
A 10-hour work week may not be possible for every freelancer, but a few simple tricks may help maximize output and minimize time spent at your desk.
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Know your expertise
When journalist Lola Méndez started freelancing five years ago, she did so with the intention of spending more time abroad, and less time working.
In the last few years, she’s travelled to Uruguay, Thailand, Vietnam, and Mexico. She took on a lot of writing assignments, too — even those that weren’t in her wheelhouse.
Every night when she returned to her hotel, she would stay up late cranking out stories about finance or branded content, when what she really liked to write about was travel, social justice, and women’s health. She quickly realized her workload was unsustainable.
“I learned that I don’t like writing things I don’t know anything about,” Méndez said. “Having insight into the topic reduces my research time. I already have people in mind when I think of interviews, I outsource transcriptions, and I ask the publication to cover the fee, which saves me a lot of time.”
Because of her expertise in a few key areas, Méndez works anywhere from 40 to 70 hours a month, and said editors are more likely to reach out to her for assignments, saving her time on securing future work.
Freelancers who are just starting out may not have a sense of how long certain work-related tasks take. Time tracking apps, like Toggl, Harvest, HourStack or Indy, can offer a glimpse at how you spend and prioritize your time. For the organizationally inept, or those who crave structure, a time tracking app can also help visually calendar block your day.
Find your rhythm
Increasing productivity means paying attention to your workflow — kind of like a circadian rhythm, but for when your performance is at its peak. While not many people feel creative in the morning, others, like freelance digital marketing consultant Rachel Vandernick, like to get a start on the day before the sun.
“I structure my workday around when I'm most effective, so all of my brain-intensive work happens before noon,” said Vandernick, who rarely works more than four days a week. “I'm online between 6 and 6:30 in the morning, because that's when my brain is firing on all cylinders and no one's in my inbox interrupting me.”
But routine isn’t for everyone. For some, work is done better on a whim.
“I don't work when I’m not in the mood to work,” said Mendez. “If I’m not feeling creative, I follow up on pitches, or update my portfolio. I only write in the mood to write, if you’re pushing yourself to produce, your draft is going to be [bad] and you’ll be spending more time on edits.”
Jenni Gritters, a freelance writer and career coach, realized, almost ironically, after having her first child last year that she became more productive.
“Constraints require me to be very efficient and aggressive about the number of hours I have,” she said. “I'm not putting an arbitrary wall on those hours, I just actually don't have any more hours to work than that.”
Focus on finances
For freelancers, time is money. It doesn’t make sense to take on a time-intensive assignment with little financial payoff. But it’s an easy trap freelancers fall into.
To avoid this, the biggest piece of advice Gritters, who works 15 to 20 hours a week, gives her clients is to sit down and do the math.
“Figure out how much you want to make per month, then break that down into how many hours you want to work,” Gritters said. “Take that rate and bump it up by about 20% to account for taxes, and that is the number that you want to make sure you are hitting. Next, you can do some time tracking with your clients and figure out who is helping you meet that rate and who is not, and then you kick them out and replace them.”
Méndez has a similar framework. She employs the “80-20 rule” — where 80% of output (income) should come from 20% of input (work). Méndez believes an easy way to cut down on how many hours you work is to raise your rate and focus on the clients who help you achieve your financial goals (she aims to make $100 an hour).
Quit the comparison
Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t a freelancer by any means, but he got it right when he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Looking over your shoulder is always going to put you behind.
“Your goals don't have to be somebody else's and your work style doesn't have to be somebody else's,” Vandernick said. “Sometimes I think people take that contrast as criticism of their own system or that they should change it.”
Hustle culture, naturally, is to blame. And uncoupling “the hustle” from how you measure your own success is time intensive in itself.
“I encourage people to sort of think about the root of being busy,” Gritters said. “What does busy do for you? Typically overwork is a coping mechanism, so in order to work less, you’re going to have to dissect why you work a lot.”