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How Many Hours Should You Work as a Freelance Writer?

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Chris Bibey of ChrisBlogging.com recently had an interesting post that I'd like to expand upon: Can Freelance Writers Work 7 Days a Week?


I doubt anyone would say you "can't" work seven days per week as a freelance writer - the real question (and one that Chris addresses regarding burnout potential) is "should you?"

My view is this: No. Most people should not try to work seven days per week when taking on freelance writing jobs.

I feel almost hypocritical saying that, because I used to do it myself. But it's from that experience that I'll tell you it can be a huge mistake. This is what my life used to look like:

  1. Wake up. Workout. Shower. Get dressed.
  2. Eat breakfast while checking email, forum PMs, forum post responses, my blog comments, etc.
  3. Start working for my PR clients - anything from writing press releases to ghostwriting feature articles to being on the phone with members of the media.
  4. Eat lunch while going through email and such again, returning calls, returning any emails I didn't return earlier - at least as far as I could work through them (it could take a few days to get back to people during the busiest times). Spend some time networking (forum posting, commenting on others' blogs, emails and calls to colleagues, etc.).
  5. More PR work if I hadn't finished up, and then worrying about my own blogs and sites.
  6. I'd stop for an hour or two in the evening. That's when I'd run errands and such most of the time.
  7. Dinner and freelance writing work.
  8. Hit the sack (usually very late).

Given, I was doing more than just freelance writing for clients, but believe me - you don't want to live like that. It's not worth it.  And that's a very general sense of what my days were like, seven days per week.

I learned the hard way that not only is it OK for the self-employed to take time off, but that it's necessary. I try very hard now to quit most of my work by 5pm on weekdays, and to stay away from client work on the weekends. I'm not doing the best job of it - I spend that time now working on my own sites, e-books, books, etc., but at least it's more personal, so I have a different kind of satisfaction from what I'm doing.

Here's the way I look at it - you need to plan this stuff out from the start:

  1. You need to decide before you start freelancing how many hours per week you want to (and can realistically) work each week. Do not overestimate. If you do, you'll burn out and start to hate what you do in time - and loving our job is one of the biggest perks in freelance writing!
  2. You then need to set your freelance writing rates properly based on those hours (and understanding that your total working hours are NOT equivalent to your billable hours - in other words, saying you want to work 40 hours per week and charge $50 per hour does NOT mean you'll earn$2000 per week!). Figure out your billable hours (in the beginning, it should only be around half if you're properly marketing yourself and dealing with administrative duties).
  3. Set up your work schedule in a way where your billable hours fall in your most productive periods - or as close as possible. This allows you to maximize your billable time - if you do that, you may not feel like you need to increase overall hours, because you'll get more done in less time.

If you choose to work a certain number of hours, choose your freelance writing rates, and you can't earn enough to get by even with that time filled, then you screwed something up in your planning. The solution isn't to cram more clients in at those current rates by working another 10 - 20 hours per week, or another day during the week. The solution is to go back to square one, and re-evaluate your billable hours and fees. It means you're either not charging enough (maybe you forgot to factor in expenses), or that you're not marketing yourself effectively to the best markets.

I'm not saying you should never increase your working hours. But adding billable hours is generally the wrong approach. Instead, spend those extra hours marketing yourself to a high-paying client base to start earning more for the same amount of time (that marketing time is an investment in higher future earnings, and doesn't have to remain as a schedule increase forever, whereas more billable hours don't invest anything into your overall career).

I know it can be tempting to work when you should be enjoying time off. It's something I still struggle with. I'd just hate to see other writers follow in those footsteps when they don't have to - it's all about proper planning, and getting control over your schedule in the beginning. Once you allow yourself to become a workaholic, it's a very difficult habit to break.

So what do other writers here think? Should you work 7 days a week? Should you work more than 8 hours a day? Is it appropriate to try to cram in more clients, thinking about the short-term rather than the long-term planning? Is it OK to make that a regular habit?

10 thoughts on “How Many Hours Should You Work as a Freelance Writer?”

  1. Freelancers should consider augment their income through blogs, information-based products, and other generally more passive income than merely selling their hours for dollars.

    Setting higher rates is one thing, looking for another income option is surely more lucrative.

    Reply
  2. I recently was contacted by a blog I write for the owner wanted me to post every single day. When I joined I made it clear that was out of the question. I reminded him of that fact in my response. I included my original email. I didn’t hear anything more about the issue. 🙂

    I think some people assume that since you write you can do it every day. While it’s true that I write daily I don’t write for pay daily.

    We all need “me time” I make sure I take time to relax and do things I enjoy like spending time with the family, reading, exercise, hiking…

    Reply
  3. This can also apply to full-time jobs as well. I’ve often looked at my current full-time colleagues and wonder why the hell they are killing themselves for a job that while interesting & rewarding financially, doesn’t give them the true “reward” that they need. This is why I leave my desk after 8 hours of work, regardless if my daily task list is done. I hope to translate this work “ethic” to my freelancing life, because in the end, we are here to live, not here to work. Life outside of work is important.

    Reply
  4. I shouldn’t complain too much because I had full time freelance work and a client waiting list, but I quit freelancing last month. The offer was one I couldn’t refuse – as full time community manager at BlogTalkRadio – and I could work from home.

    Something wonderful happened after I got rid of all my freelance gigs and began to work a 40 hour week – I had more time for my family, I spent my evening watching tv, swimming or reading instead of working and my house is clean and organized. Now, this is my own fault. I could have said no to many of my freelance gigs. But being able to shut down at 5 or 6 each day and not have to work on nights or weekends is wonderful.

    I probably wouldn’t have taken this gig if I couldn’t work at home and if it doesn’t work out I’m back to freelancing. But I doubt I’ll ever give up my weekends for freelance work again.

    Nice food for thought.

    Reply
  5. I hear you Deb. I have periods where I’m really good at leaving work behind during evenings and weekends, and periods where I’m terrible at it (right now I’m struggling with it). Work seems to be my version of comfort food sometimes – when I’m stressed or upset about something else, I drown it out by keeping insanely busy. I’ve had a lot to drown out the last few weeks – although working on improving that (spent a good bit of time this past weekend on housework – and boy did it need to be done!).

    I’d heard about your new job a while back. Congrats. 🙂 I haven’t used BTR in quite a few months now, but was considering running another show for one of my sites. Thanks for bringing that up – reminds me that I need to check it out and see what, if anything, has changed there. 🙂

    Reply
  6. This is without a doubt my #1 struggle as a freelance writer. I came from a high-stress corporate middle-management job where I routinely worked 60-80 hour weeks, and before that I had worked full time while attending college full time, which averaged out to basically ALL the hours in the week. (I was a history major, and I swear I thought about Manifest Destiny in my sleep.)

    For a long time, my attitude was, “It has to get done and I have to be the one to do it.” Now, though, as I run my own business, I work more than ever, but I also at least can write my own Work/Life Balance policy. Though I may not be great at stopping at 5pm yet, I at least see the problem. And isn’t that the first step to a resolution?

    Maybe, just like you mentioned with business plans last week, we freelance writers should all also write our own work/life balance policies, too. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    Reply
    • Oh goodness. I remember those crazy college days. I didn’t have the full-time job, but 3 part-time ones (plus an internship senior year) on top of full-time school. Yuck. While I wasn’t a stranger to 60+ hour weeks when I first went into business for myself (not uncommon during the startup phase), I’m happy to say I’ve left that life behind. While I work late occasionally these days, it’s only ever because I want to (usually meaning getting the work done that evening means I can take time off the next day to do something more enticing). While I didn’t write a formal work / life balance policy, I think that’s a fantastic idea. Maybe that’s a free resource you could put together and release through your blog – a sample or template to encourage other freelancers to do the same. 🙂

      Reply
  7. I don’t know if anyone reads these posts months later, but I have a follow-up question to those or would love to hear the perspective of other freelancers.

    I am a relatively new freelaners (9 months), and like most people new to this, I have limitted experience in the types of writng that I do and would like to acquire more experience, etc. Also, as a freelancers (for me) there are feast/famine times. Also, some of my projects from 1 clients are intensive (20 to 40 hours per week…for a few weeks).

    So 1) I need to get and try more clients 2) I need to get $ at the feast times (and save for the famine times) 3) I want the experience/new type of work if it presents itself.

    I also rationalize working more hours (even if it is below my “rate”) because I used to work 40 – 60 hours per week. So if I did it before…why not do it now?

    Also, if you don’t work the extra hours, how do you balance the other stuff (eg, famine time will come)

    Curious how others rationalize this.

    Reply
  8. I plead guilty to the crime of laziness! I am interested in only devoting 30-32 hours a week to my freelance business. Money is important (duh!) but I would be happier working 30 hours a week for $35,000 a year than working 60 hours a week for $70,000. I volunteer 4 hours a week, love reading and going for walks, being able to spend time with friends, pray and meditate throughout the day, and you get the picture…Plus I have wrestled with poor health the past 20 years and still have to spend 4 hours a week in therapy. Ideally on days I don’t volunteer or have therapy I would work from 9-4, with an hour off from 1-2 for lunch, maybe at a cafe with a friend. On therapy days, the sessions last 1-3, so I would have to work afterward from 3-5.

    Reply

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