Do you ever look at your fellow freelance writers and wonder how they seem to fit so much into their days? Do you struggle to get through your daily to-do lists? Have you felt forced to work more than 40 hours per week to take care of projects you've gotten behind on?
If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you might be working the wrong freelance writing schedule.
I hear it all the time when talking to colleagues about what we're up to or when working with new freelancers struggling to get started. There's so much to do, and not enough time.
Except, there is.
You have the same 24 hours in a day that everyone else has. It's the one area where all freelancers are equal. It's what we do with those hours that matters.
When I talk to those colleagues about what we're up to, I can often see quickly why they're not getting as much done as they'd like.
They're working the wrong freelance writing schedule.
Now look. I'm not going to tell you there are specific hours you should work. (There are, but your specific hours might not be mine.)
What I will say is you should test a few schedules and find the one that works best for you both physically and mentally.
When I used to tell people about my schedule, they'd treat me like I was crazy.
My Freelance Writing Schedule
I work four days per week. While I'll sometimes put extra hours in on my own projects (if I'm otherwise bored or simply excited to keep going), I'm technically off every Friday. I chose that schedule so I could head out on long weekends whenever I wanted to. While I don't disappear quite as often on those weekends anymore, I stick with the schedule because I find it leaves my head much clearer come Monday mornings.
For a long time, on a "normal" day, I'd be up at 4 am so I could start work no later than 5 am. And I finished around noon. I chose this part of my schedule because I couldn't stand it when I worked a traditional job where it would be dark when I left in the morning and dark some times of the year when I headed home. Now I have plenty of daylight hours to do as I please.
Colleagues would tell me they could never do something like that because they're not morning people.
Neither was I. But I did it anyway. (Tough it out for a couple of weeks and you can change all sorts of habits, including your schedule.)
Is it perfect? No. (And it's not quite my normal schedule anymore. But I'll get to that in a bit.) I still work all-nighters from time to time. But now I do it for my own projects because I want to, not for freelance projects because I'm behind and I have to. And I go through phases where I work other hours. But I'm also at the point where I can tell when my productivity is slipping and force myself back into that ideal schedule to "reset" myself whenever I need to.
I know it sounds strange, but sticking with a rigid schedule for a while gave me more freedom than I'd ever had before. If you simply take the "I can work whenever I want" approach, you won't build any sense of discipline. You won't learn what you're fully capable of. And you'll have a more difficult time spotting problems when your productivity slips.
Where do some writers go wrong?
They get off to a slow start. And they work during hours when they know they're not productive, even if they don't have to.
It's often the old 9-to-5 habit. When transitioning from typical employment to freelancing, too many people try to keep everything else as it is. They want to sleep the same hours (or sleep in because they see it as a new luxury). They want the same free time as before. And they feel like they're supposed to work during a certain time of the day.
But being change-averse will hold you back.
I chose my start time for two reasons:
- I work best during those dark quiet hours when most people around me are still asleep. It's peaceful. And there are fewer distractions -- no phone calls, no neighbors popping by, no noise from traffic or people working outside, and even social networks slow down.
- There's no way around the fact that your mind will be more tired at the end of the day than the start (why I get up early for that first benefit most of the time rather than simply staying up late).
But there was something else -- I knew my least productive hours for pretty much anything are from around 1pm to 5pm. When I would try to come back to work after lunch, my afternoon was miserable. Very little would get done. I'd sit there staring at my screen wondering where the time went. So I wanted to finish before that slower time hit each day.
This is the same kind of thing I'd hear about when talking to colleagues. It's not always the same hours for them. But they try to push through their unproductive hours rather than finding their most productive writing schedule.
Don't make that mistake.
Even during a normal week when I only work 28 hours (yep, full-time living with part-time hours), I get far more done than I used to when I was routinely working 40-60 hours per week, and occasionally even more than that.
Let that sink in. You can make more money. You can get more done. And you can do that while working less, not more.
That's the magic of choosing your freelance writing schedule wisely.
Finding Your Best Freelance Writing Schedule
As I said, your ideal work schedule might not look like mine. But I sincerely hope you'll give it -- or a similar schedule -- a try. And don't stop there. Test other schedules too. Give them each a couple of weeks to let your body adapt. And make it a point to track your work so you find out when you truly are most productive.
This isn't easy for everyone. I get that. When I chose this schedule I was living alone, and my time was completely my own. If you have a family to consider -- especially children who might have their own rigid schedules while in school -- you'll need to adapt around that. But you can probably find more flexibility than you think.
For example, you don't have to go from waking up at 6am to 4am. Try getting up just an hour (or even 30 minutes) earlier. You can always ease into an earlier start time in smaller increments until you find a schedule that suits you.
What if, like me, you suffer from afternoon lulls?
If you can't start early enough to finish work before then, consider a two-shift work day. Work for a few hours in the morning. Have lunch. Then go for a walk, or take a nap, or run your errands, read a book... do whatever you need to do to get through those slow hours without leaving yourself even more drained mentally. Then come back to your work in the evenings.
I knew one writer who worked best at night. But she had kids that needed her attention in the evenings. She hated having to work while they were in school, so instead she started sleeping when they were away. Then she stayed up all night working. She had a tough time adapting to a totally different schedule in the summers, but she made it work.
So try something new. Get up earlier. Stay up later. Take breaks in between blocks of work time. Just do something other than what currently isn't working.
Getting Over Slow Starts
In addition to working the wrong hours, another trend I've noticed is the habit of very slowly easing into your day.
One colleague a while back was complaining about how she felt like nothing was getting done that day. So, knowing she was another early riser, I asked her what she'd done with all of her time that morning if she wasn't accomplishing much. Her morning looked something like this:
- Wake up.
- Have breakfast.
- Drink a couple cups of coffee while reading the news.
- Feed her cat.
- Help her husband get ready for work so he's out the door in time.
- Take a shower.
- Get dressed.
- Check her email.
- Start working.
No wonder she wasn't getting much done. She would get up early so she could get a jump on the day, but instead she was wasting an absurd amount of time and losing what would normally be her best hours.
Look. Feed the cat. Of course. And have breakfast and coffee and such. But you don't need to spend a lot of time prepping it (if you're spending more than five or so minutes prepping breakfast, try something easier -- a bowl of cereal, a quick fruit salad, some oatmeal, or do what I do now and cook your breakfasts in advance and freeze them so you have something healthy to just toss in the microwave each morning).
And why assume coffee was something to be done before work rather than during? It was just a relaxing routine she'd gotten into. Relaxing doesn't get you going for the day. Rather than reading news (which risks setting a lousy tone for the day anyway), she could have gotten started on a client project while she had her coffee.
Her husband was a grown-ass man who was fully capable of getting himself ready for work in the morning. So that's another easy place where she could have saved time. (Yes, it's nice and all if you have the time. But not when it means you're respecting your own work less than your partner's. In this case it was negatively affecting her business.)
Even her need to hop in the shower and get dressed for work was a holdover from her previous job. She couldn't break the habit.
You can always shower in the evenings instead. (It might even help you sleep better.) And frankly, some of the worst advice I've seen is this idea that freelance writers all need to get dressed as if they're going into an office. Look. If you need that, fine. Just be quick about it. And don't put that on anyone else. If you're just as productive in your PJs, don't waste time primping and preening only to wonder where the hell your morning went.
The worst thing on that list though, by far, was her morning email habit.
Task Order Matters
Optimizing your freelance writing schedule isn't just about working the right days and the right hours. It's also about how you juggle tasks and responsibilities during that time.
For example, try leaving email and social media alone until you've knocked out a key project. It's very rarely as important as we treat it.
I did this when working on a manuscript -- nothing else until I'd written around 2500 words each day. And I flew through that draft as a result.
Did it negatively impact anything? Nope. So now I try (still occasionally fail, but try) not to touch email in particular until I've gotten through a key project or two each day.
Routine work tasks can end up more of a distraction than something that helps us earn our livings. So streamline them or save them for times when you're mentally fading and can't work on something more creative.
Along those lines, schedule your most mentally or creatively taxing tasks earlier in your work day. Tackle them when your energy is at its highest rather than waiting until you feel drained or discouraged by something else.
Dealing with Discipline and Distractions
I talked earlier about how having the discipline to put myself on a strict schedule is what allows me the freedom to break those "rules" without also screwing up my productivity. But that's something that comes with time. First you need to build that discipline through better habits. And a big part of that is eliminating distractions and finding your most productive routine.
I already mentioned how work tasks can become a distraction if you tackle them in the wrong order. But when you work from home, it's easy to let personal distractions become a problem too.
For example, you shouldn't be chatting with friends and family during your work day. If they're initiating it, they're not respecting your business like they would if you worked in a traditional office. And it's up to you to lay some ground rules. And if you're initiating it, knock it the hell off. You have to respect your work before you can expect others to.
It's also easy to get caught up with personal updates on social media. So try to keep that separate from work time on those sites for marketing and networking. Commenting on a work-related article someone shared? Yes. Commenting on photos of your friend's new baby when you're supposed to be working? No.
If you have family nearby, or even someone living with you who happens to be around all day, again, you'll have to set some ground rules to avoid distractions. People randomly stopping by or letting themselves into your office isn't going to help you do what needs to be done.
Even hobbies can become a distraction. You might be tempted to marathon a show you've heard good things about on Netflix. Or you might think that because working out is good for you, it's no big deal if you randomly leave for a walk or time at the gym. Or perhaps you'll decide to curl up with that new novel you just bought when you know you should be writing.
I get it. My schedule today is a bit different than the 5am-noon one I worked for a long time. I schedule workouts and housework throughout my day just to get me away from my desk a bit more. And I'm more often up by 3:15am than 4am now (eww, I know).
I've only been doing this a few weeks, and it's my next round of testing as I'm always looking to improve productivity where I can. I may very well go back to my old schedule after I've given this one a solid month or two.
I knew sitting there working for 7 hours was becoming mentally draining, so my hope is this will help me keep my energy up more evenly throughout the day.
I have my own distractions to deal with, from wanting to get outside in the gardens on a nice day to wanting to randomly go to the lake to read and clear my head. I'll do those things when I really need to. But the only reason I can without messing up my productivity is because I've spent years building discipline to a point where I let myself get away with nothing. If I want to break one of my own rules, I cut myself an I.O.U. and have to make up that time (usually same-day). The moment I can't trust myself to do that is the moment I go back to a more rigid schedule until I can again.
Sticking to a schedule isn't always fun. It's work. It can be frustrating. And it can mean telling other people "no" even if you don't want to.
But it's about discipline. It's about self-respect. And it's about taking your freelance writing work seriously as a business rather than seeing it as some sort of false freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, from Day One. That's a recipe for disaster.
You may get to that point. But you won't start there. And trying to exploit that kind of benefit from freelancing before you've done the work can hold you back, waste your time, and cost you quite a bit of income. I've seen it more times than I can count.
So for this week's Monday Motivation exercise, look at your own freelance writing schedule.
Figure out where you're losing, or wasting, time and how you might get more out of the hours you put in. Come up with two or three alternative schedules you'd like to test. Track your current one better to see how productive you actually are. And start figuring out how you can work smarter, rather than harder, to take your freelance writing business to the next level.
Jenn has 18 years experience writing for others, around 13 years experience in blogging, and over 10 years experience in indie e-book publishing. She is also an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.
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Latest posts by Jennifer Mattern (see all)
- The Sitting / Standing Desk Combo That Eases My Back and Neck Pain - September 13, 2017
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- Review of Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Craft - June 28, 2017
- Why Don’t Some Writers Take Time Off? (And Why You Should) - June 12, 2017
- Feeling Stuck in a Freelance Writing Rut? Stop Making Stupid Choices. - May 1, 2017