Getting it done: managing your time as a freelancer

As freelancers, we wear a lot of hats. Some days, I feel like translation is the easy part of my job: the harder parts being my roles as an accountant, marketing director, customer relations manager, office ergonomics expert, and so on and so on, not to mention the rewarding but time-consuming gigs as a wife, mom, daughter, friend, chef and suboptimal housekeeper. Based on my own experiences and some ideas that I shared during a previous Speaking of Translation conference call, here are some tips. These range from quick-and-dirty to big-picture, so just bear with me as I jump around! And of course, feel free to add your own ideas too.

Prioritize what really matters to you

This involves accepting that you simply cannot do everything you want to do and remain sane, unless you only need 45 minutes of sleep a day. But you can make time for the things that are critical to your happiness and/or to the success of your business. For example, I find that when my e-mail inbox is backlogged, I feel panicky about work. So I make that task a priority, and I really try to end every weekday without pending items in my inbox. In my personal life, I know that if I don’t exercise for about an hour on most days, I start to, for lack of a better way to put it, go crazy. So even if that means doing a YouTube yoga video at 10 o’clock at night, I do it. In the same vein, no matter how busy my family is, we really try to cook a real dinner and eat together almost every night. Other things (see above reference to suboptimal housekeeping) might slide, but we try to maintain our family dinner routine. Also, I absolutely do not do all-nighters or really even work past 11 PM. I feel that this is important to my mental health and my family harmony, so I force myself to avoid really crazy deadlines that require this kind of work.

Create as much uninterrupted work time as you can

The reality of life in the 21st century is that our attention is constantly pulled in 127 different directions. And in order to produce good translations, you need some mental space and some time that is free of distractions. Here are a few of my strategies to carve out this time:

  • Keep a running to-do list next to the computer. When, as seems to happen about every 12 seconds, a to-do item (“buy cat food;” “can I make electronic deposits into my retirement account?;” “did Southwest announce when they’re starting flights to Hawaii?”) pops into my head, I write the item down instead of interrupting what I’m doing to perform that task. Then, when I need a mental break, I go through a few to-do items at once. I try to do the same with phone calls: write the item down, then book the snow tires, the dentist and the furnace cleaner all at once.
  • Avoid inbox alerts. “You’ve got mail” almost all of the time, and if you read it as it arrives, you’ll spend your entire day doing that. So, shut off the alerts and just check e-mail every so often. I say “every so often” because ideally, I’d like to check e-mail only a few times a day and answer it all at once. But realistically, clients sometimes need a quick answer right away, so I’d say I check e-mail about every 15-30 minutes.
  • Find a time of day when you can catch up. For many people, this is the early morning. I’m getting my family out the door at that time, so although I don’t love it, I often work from about 9-10:30 at night. This slot has the added advantage that neither my US clients nor my European clients are normally at work at that time, so I can send e-mail without generating an immediate response that then requires another response from me.

Work on long-term projects in small, daily chunks

Here’s an illustrative example. I published the first edition of my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator in 2006. On January 1, 2008, I shook my fist in the air and said “If I finish one long-term project this year, it’s the second edition of that darned book!” Who wants to guess the actual publication date? May, 2011 (no, really). Basically, I was waiting for a big chunk of uninterrupted work time, fantasizing that I would take a month and do nothing but work on the second edition. News flash: unless you’re independently wealthy and have no responsibilities to anyone but yourself and have someone who cooks your meals, cleans your house and does your laundry, that chunk of time is never coming. So after taking two years to accept that reality, I resolved at the beginning of 2010 that I would work on the second edition every single day, even if I only wrote one sentence. This sounds like overstating the obvious, but here it is: even if you work on a project for only 15 minutes a day, you will eventually finish it. But if you never work on it, you will never finish it. So stop waiting for that elusive block of time, and start working with the amount of time you have. This works for other goals too; I once did a training program to run a marathon, and the coach told us that we were never allowed to use the “not enough time” excuse to avoid training. His advice: “If you only have 5 minutes, do Burpees for 5 minutes and you’ll be ready to drop. If you only have 20 minutes, run sprint intervals for 20 minutes. Even these small amounts add up.”

Fit stuff in, within reason

I kind of hate the term “multi-tasking” because I like to give my attention to one task at a time. Also, I have ways in which I absolutely will not multi-task. For example I don’t talk on the phone while I’m driving, even with a hands-free device. But I do try to combine certain kinds of activities to save time. We don’t have a clothes dryer (more on that in a forthcoming freelance frugality update), so I often talk on the phone while I’m hanging laundry on the clothesline. I’ve learned that I can prep a batch of bread dough while my husband and daughter are eating breakfast and getting ready for work and school in the morning, then it can rise while I’m working. And sometimes, you can fit in extra work time in a way that works well for your family: now that my daughter has 30-45 minutes of homework per night, I make a habit of sitting with her at the dining room table while she’s working, and that’s when I work on my long-term writing projects.

Accept that your other options are worse

I admit it: there are times when I get tired of being highly effective. There are days that I wish I could just fluff off, hit the celebrity gossip websites and then go to a hot yoga class. But I try to focus on my other options: making less money, having less time to spend with my family, using after-school child care or being up until 2 in the morning to finish my deadlines. In that light, things seem pretty good!

27 Responses to “Getting it done: managing your time as a freelancer”
  1. Riccardo Schiaffino December 3, 2012
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