When many people start freelancing, they’re completely focused on one thing: mastering the skill that they’ll be selling to clients, such as web design, illustration, or copywriting.
But they’re overlooking a big piece of the puzzle. Not only do freelancers have to wrangle their technical skills into place, but they also have to master the meta-skills of freelancing itself: the business and time management skills that help you make money without losing your mind.
After all, many people become freelancers because they want to have more flexible schedules. But that increased freedom to thrive also comes with the freedom to fail, and many freelancers find themselves taking on more projects than they can handle. When that happens, you can burn out fast.
Here, we’re going to try to nip that problem in the bud and provide you with a few time management tips that you can use to make sure you’re keeping your revenue high without pushing yourself too hard.
Before getting into any concrete steps, it’s important to lay some conceptual groundwork. The first thing you need to ask yourself is: “why am I freelancing?” For many people, it’s because they want more control over their schedules. For others, it’s because they can make more money on their own than at a regular job. And for some, it’s for the pure thrill of running their own business.
These reasons are going to be your guiding force as you figure out how much work you can and want to take on. After all, maximizing revenue doesn’t mean making as much money as possible, it means making as much money as possible within certain bounds.
In this case, those bounds are twofold: the outer bounds are the limits of your sanity. The inner bounds are what you hoped for when you decided to become a freelancer. If you stay within your inner bounds, you’ll be in your sweet spot, living the life you were dreaming of.
However, If you’re constantly pushing yourself up against your outer bounds, that’s when you’ll experience burnout. While it’s generally fine to push yourself to the edge every now and then, if you sustain that amount of stress for too long, it could become a serious problem.
What Is Burnout?
You might think that burnout is just a slang term for a lot of stress, but it’s actually a legitimate medical condition with its own ICD-10 code — that’s the same set of medical codes that health care professionals use when diagnosing everything from heart disease to schizophrenia.
Burnout occurs when someone’s job presents more stress than they can handle. The symptoms? Loss of passion, cynicism, reduced motivation, negativity — basically, nothing good. In fact, the symptoms are pretty similar to depression.
But contrary to common belief, burnout isn’t caused solely by having too much work. Instead, researchers have identified six factors that contribute to burnout:
Essentially, when you feel you have too much work, that you have no control over your schedule, that the rewards aren’t equal to the effort you’re making, that your community isn’t supporting you, that your boss or clients aren’t fair to you, and that your work doesn’t line up with your values, that’s when you’ll start to burn out.
Fighting Against Burnout
Luckily, as a freelancer, you have a major weapon in your fight against burnout: control. While the average employee can’t exercise much control over their working life short of finding a new job, as a freelancer, you’re your own boss, you set your own hours, and you can exert a degree of control over all of the six burnout factors to ensure that your mind stays healthy.
For example, you can decide to only accept work that is in harmony with your values, to only work with clients that you believe will treat you fairly, and to only accept work that pays a reasonable amount. Of course, you can also choose how much or how little you work.
So, let’s jump back to our bounds. The outer bounds are going to be the ones that, if broken for more than a short time, could lead to some serious psychological trouble.
But most people don’t become freelancers because they want to push themselves to the limit and test their sanity. Rather, a large portion of freelancers gets into the biz simply because they want to have a better work-life balance. With that context, aiming for the outer bounds, which are the upper limits of what you can handle, is counterproductive.
Instead, you should be aiming for your inner bounds: what drove you to become a freelancer in the first place. However, since the freelance lifestyle can be erratic, it’s important to have some outer bounds set as well just so you can be more aware of when you’re approaching the danger zone and give yourself a bit of leeway.
Calculating Your Needs
Now that we have that theory in place, let’s start running some numbers.
If you were applying to a traditional job, you’d usually have some type of salary range in mind. For example, you might say that you’re hoping to find something that pays between $50k and $60k or between $100k and $120k.
Deciding what that range should be is a whole topic in itself, but you can generally give yourself an idea of what you need by calculating your current expenses, including any saving you’d like to do.
As a freelancer, this part of the job isn’t all that different. You’ll still need to set some “salary” expectations, but the main difference is that you then need to piece that income together from multiple sources. That means that you’ll need to have some metrics in place to figure out how much you need to be working and how much you need to charge to make that all come together.
There are two methods that freelancers commonly use to determine how much they need to charge and how much they need to work. Here, we’ll call them the Work Hours First Method and the Rate First Method.
The Work Hours First Method
In this method, you’ll set your routine and workday schedule down first and then calculate a rate based on that.
For example, imagine that you’re planning to work a 40-hour week and you want to make $50k per year before taxes. Let’s assume that 35 of those hours are billable, and five are not (spent making invoices or in courtesy client meetings, for example). If you want to hit your income goal and also take two weeks of vacation, you can calculate that your hourly rate needs to be at least $28/hour (($50,000/50)/35).
However, you don’t need to be a full-time freelancer who sticks to a 40-hour week. If you decide you want to work 20 hours per week instead, you can figure that you need to make $52/hour for that to work for you.
The Rate First Method
Unlike the last method, this one assumes you already have your rates set. As such, it’s a bit better suited towards experienced freelancers.
Here, you take your rate and try to figure out how many hours you would need to work to get to your target income. In this way, you’re optimizing for hours worked, not maximum hourly rate.
Let’s take the same example as the last one but from a different side. Let’s assume that you have a freelance rate of $75/hour, and you want to make between $50k and $60k. To find out how many hours you need to work, you can take $50k and divide it by $70, which will tell you that you need to work approximately 714 hours per year to make that income with that rate. Now, split that into weeks by dividing by 50 (to account for two weeks of time off) to see that you only need to work approximately 14 hours per week to that hit that goal.
By playing around with these two calculation methods, you can figure out a schedule that works for you. To do so, you’ll likely need to experiment with both of them to arrive at a realistic number.
As far as burnout is concerned, these methods give you two ways to set bounds: you can either set your bounds in terms of the lowest rate you will accept or you can set them in terms of the maximum amount of hours you want to work per week.
Intraday Time Management
What we discussed above is an overarching way to look at your time management as a freelancer. But quite a bit of what goes into time management happens within a single day, i.e. on an intraday basis.
Although we might not like to admit it, one of the major factors that lead to stress and burnout is poor management of distractions. When we can’t keep our attention and procrastination in check, it’s easy to become stressed as deadlines approach and you realize you haven’t gotten nearly as far in your work as you had planned. This in itself can lead to burnout if you’re not careful, as even a modest amount of work left to the last minute can lead to two back-to-back 20-hour workdays if you’re not diligent about planning ahead.
That’s why it’s important to schedule yourself in advance and block time for your work. That way, you can retain control of your work and get it done in a reasonable and stress-free manner.
Here are a few tips to help you accomplish that.
Make a Concrete Schedule
As a freelancer, managing your time can be especially hard because there’s less of a clear divide between work and personal life. After all, if you work from your couch, when exactly is it work time and when is it relaxation time? The two can easily blend together, and then you’ll find yourself scrambling to complete a project before the deadline — one of the most stressful situations you can find yourself in.
To fix this, you can schedule your working hours in advance instead of letting yourself act on your whims and moods. If you really struggle with this, you can even make timesheets for yourself and track your time with a time tracker like Toggl just to keep yourself accountable.
You can also use a calendar, like Google Calendar, and a project management tool, like Trello or Asana, to organize your time and make sure you’re moving towards concrete goals. Traditional to-do lists can also be extremely helpful for this purpose.
Turn Off Social Media
Make sure that when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. Unless you’re working as a social media manager, you’re doing client outreach, or you're conducting research, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like serve no purpose other than to distract. Save that for your free time.
If you have trouble with this, you can use a site-blocking tool to restrict access to those sites during specified time periods. If you don’t want to go that far, consider turning off notifications for a while to remove some distractions.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique that helps you break your working hours into smaller, more manageable chunks. In short, you work 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break, then repeat. After you’ve done this about four times, you can take a longer break of 15-20 minutes.
If this method seems useful to you, then you can download a Pomodoro timer and try it out for yourself.
Set Up an Optimal Work Environment
The environment we’re in affects us more than we tend to realize. If you’re in a messy work environment, it can become harder for you to effectively manage your time due to the general lack of organization.
Even though it’s not directly related to time management, keeping your workspace clean and organized can help you do deep work and stay on top of your schedule.
There are two levels you need to be aware of when it comes to using effective time management to avoid burnout. First, you need to make sure that your schedule isn’t overloaded with too much work. Second, you should be sure that your day-to-day is well planned and relatively distraction-free.
To plan your workload out, you’ll need to do some serious thinking about what you’re trying to get out of your freelance career.
When it comes to managing your daily schedule, you may want to consider using the Pomodoro technique, a time tracker, and a project management app to help you stay on top of things.
No matter how you manage your time, you can’t maximize your revenue without sending invoices. Blinksale provides freelancers with professional templates that you can use to make getting paid fast and easy.