How much ‘should’ you work as a freelancer?

This is the photo Wikipedia uses as its lead picture on the Tandy 1000 page. Guess it's not a frequently photographed computer. :) Used under CC-BY, credit Wiki user JohnnyMrNinja

A couple of years ago a freelance friend of mine sent me a link to a blog post where another freelancer had outlined her typical schedule for the day. I can’t find that post now so I’m recreating this basically from memory, but bear with me — I promise this will be relevant.

The freelancer’s schedule was demanding, in a way, but also very flexible to this person’s specific needs. So while she got up fairly early and checked her email, she would then take an hour-long break to cook a big healthy breakfast and walk her significant other to the train station. Then she’d do some more work for an hour or so, and take a long lunch. The afternoon was more work time broken up by a generous workout, and she stopped working around 4pm to do errands and cook dinner. She’d meet her husband on his way back from work to get more walking in, they’d have a nice leisurely dinner, and then they’d finish out their night with chores around the house and a little more emailing for this freelancer.

My friend sent me this schedule and asked what I thought of it. I looked at the long walks, the leisurely cooking, and the 4pm quitting time. I thought of the clients I was juggling, the seemingly neverending stream of non-billable work that still has to get done, like answering emails, sending invoices, and organizing papers. And I said, “There’s no way I could do that.”

My friend said, “I agree. She’s working SO MUCH.”

So, what I had thought was “not at nearly enough time to get anything done” was my friend’s idea of working nonstop. And let’s be clear here—in some ways, the things you accomplish are not at all related to how much time you put in. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just talking about hours worked.

This told me two things. One: everyone has a different idea of how much they ‘should’ work. Two: My friend was having a lot more fun than I was.

But mostly, it’s a reminder that what works for one person is not what works for another. I kind of like the idea of working (roughly) 9-5, Monday through Friday, with (short) breaks for exercise and lunch. I don’t take an hour for lunch and I don’t quit at 4, but I also try not to check my email before or after work hours.

Other people might want to only work in the mornings, and spend time volunteering or taking care of family members in the afternoons. Others may sleep late and work until 8 or 9 at night. Whatever works for you. There’s a myth, I think, that the person who works the most is going to be the most successful freelancer. But I’m not sure that’s true.

There’s also the concept of an internal set point. There are lots of ways to calculate your rate as a freelancer but in general you probably have a decent idea of how much money you need to get you through the month feeling OK. That number may be a squishy range, but you probably have a general idea of what it is.

And if you’re on track to make that number, you may find yourself, as my mom says, “farting around” a little more. Maybe you’re spending a little more time on Facebook or sleeping a little more or spending more time daydreaming or thinking up new ideas for your business. If you’re not on track, your internal accountant is lighting a fire under your butt to get you to hustle. So of course money will affect how much you work. But beyond that, if you want to only work a few hours a day and spend the rest of your time cooking tiny meals for hamsters or catching up on Netflix, you do you. If it makes you happy and you’re making a dollar amount you can live with, you’re winning.


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