One often overlooked aspect of full-time, salaried, in-office jobs is routine. Your tasks may change from day to day, but there’s a built in “start”, “end” and general structure to your work day. When you start freelancing, then suddenly you’re free to leave in the middle of the day, or start late, or just take a whole day off whenever you feel. There’s no set routine, and no expectations except those that you set for yourself. Great, right?
The importance of structure
It is great, except for when it swings back the other way. You took Monday of, but you still have work to complete, so on Wednesday you pull an all-nighter to catch up. Thursday is meant to be spent on a new project, but you’ve had no sleep, so you start after lunch. Productivity is poor so Thursday bleeds into Friday, and before you know it you’re cancelling plans with friends because the whole weekend is spent playing catch-up.
Structure in your working arrangements can feel constricting, but it also helps you to plan, set realistic expectations, and maintain a realistic work/life balance. A massive trap in freelancing is abandoning the 9-5 structure, and getting yourself stuck in a burnout spiral.
The other aspect of working without a routine is that clients don’t know/understand when you’re available. When you’re starting out, you’ll probably try to impress clients by being constantly available, no matter what. This gives your clients the expectation that you’re always available, always willing to help, and that you don’t have a life outside of responding to their requests.
This will quickly turn toxic. It’ll start with a small but urgent request at 4:59PM, and end with complete projects being handed to you on a Friday so that they can “have it ready for Monday”. Eventually you realise that you don’t get any time off, there’s no “cutting out early”, you’ve had a nasty cough for 5 weeks, and just one more all-nighter might actually kill you. Obviously this isn’t sustainable long-term, and it shows clients simply not respecting you – you become a magical “work” machine.
Creating a routine
Start easy – set business hours for yourself. For convenience, there’s some business hours that a lot of the rest of the world already agrees to. They might get fuzzy if you have a client outside of your regular timezone, but in general you can set your business hours, and go from there.
Once you have business hours, communicate them to your clients – work is not guaranteed (or even likely) to be performed outside of those hours. Any work that has to be performed overnight or on a weekend comes at a premium – that’s your time, and they have to buy not just your skills but your leisure time, too. Note that if you choose to work outside your business hours that’s on you, but if the client requests it, they should pay the premium.
Next, start planning your projects out – try to dedicate solid blocks of time to a single project. If you have a number of small tasks for multiple projects, block them in together as a single task for yourself, or attach them to larger tasks for the project. Try to minimise context switching, because it kills productivity.
When you have blocks of work planned out, you can start filling in your schedule – to begin with, try to only fill half your day with “must do” tasks, and have a few floating “can do” tasks that you can pick up. The reason for this is because humans are terrible at scheduling, and you’ll probably find yourself taking up to twice as long to do your tasks than you expect to. As you start getting used to how much work you can actually achieve in a day, you can start scheduling more (and larger) blocks in. Any days where you have 2 hours or less left in your schedule, and you’ve completed everything you wanted to, congratulations! Now you can take off early, and enjoy that sweet freelancer life.
Eventually you’ll get your routine down, and you can start shifting hours – maybe do a half-day on Wednesday, or make every weekend a long weekend. You set your business hours, and you set your routine. With planning comes consistency, and with consistency, you can plan to make use of your free time. Remember that there’s always going to be “admin” tasks for your business (reconciling accounts, looking for more clients, following up with existing clients, learning new skills). These can work into your routine, and help to keep yourself healthy, and your business on track.
For more tips, tricks, and thoughts on freelancing, please look through our other posts.