Non-billable work: learn to live with it!

Thanks to reader Lisa Rodriguez for suggesting this post! Lisa (correctly) points out that “even with well-oiled procedures, it is *normal* to spend hours” on tasks like record-keeping, cleaning up bills and outstanding invoices, etc. As Lisa comments, “It’s part of the job…no point in getting bent out of shape about it.”

Yes. Amen. I feel as if many translators have the goal of having zero non-billable time: they just want to translate and get paid for it every minute of every working day. And there’s one way to do that; it’s called a salaried job. As someone who doesn’t have a salaried job, your situation is going to be different. What I mean by non-billable work is what Jonathan Hine would call overhead: work that you cannot bill to any one project or client. Things like:

  • Invoicing
  • Recording payments
  • Professional development
  • Computer maintenance
  • Cleaning the office
  • Following up with late-paying clients
  • Issuing quotes for projects that don’t pan out
  • Marketing
  • Managing your online presence

As a freelancer, your non-billable time is going to vary by the types of clients you work with. If you work only for agencies, especially agencies that do everything through an online management system (so that you don’t even really issue invoices), your non-billable time may be fairly low. If you work with direct clients, or have other lines of revenue like writing books, teaching, or consulting, your non-billable time might be closer to 50% of your working hours. But I completely agree with Lisa’s point: this stuff takes time.

An additional factor: without non-billable time, your business is going to wither. On a very tangible level, you can’t work efficiently in a cluttered office that you never make the time to clean or organize. On a big-picture level, you can’t keep your skills current without doing professional development. One major area that lots of freelancers neglect is consistent marketing, which leads to peaks and valleys in your business (“I can’t do any marketing because I’m already translating 70 hours a week…Oh #*$%, that project is over and now I have no work, so I’ll market like crazy…Here comes another 70 hour a week project.”) The way to smooth those peaks and valleys out is by embracing the idea that you can’t, and indeed shouldn’t be doing billable work every minute of every day. Non-billable work is the undercurrent of a stable, successful business, so embrace it! Or at least clean the coffee rings off your desk…

Readers, any thoughts on non-billable time, or how much of your time is not billable?

20 Responses to “Non-billable work: learn to live with it!”
  1. Tracy Miyake September 12, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 12, 2016
  2. Maria van der Heijde-Zomerdijk September 12, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 12, 2016
  3. Courtney Powers September 12, 2016
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  5. Michael September 13, 2016
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    • Corinne McKay September 14, 2016
  7. Riccardo Schiaffino September 13, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 14, 2016
  8. Annie Brose September 15, 2016
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  10. Julie Dutra September 21, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 22, 2016
  11. Robert Rogge November 23, 2016
    • Robert Rogge November 23, 2016
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    • Corinne McKay November 23, 2016
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