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I have been freelancing full-time for a few years and have quiet office away from home but am easily distracted with (for example):

  • keeping up with news in my industry
  • staying current in my field of expertise
  • over delivering on projects
  • building credibility on work related forums and social networks
  • email
  • providing free advice to clients
  • research
  • in general, doing too many unbillable hours for clients that they often aren't even aware of

This is especially true when I don't have clear deadlines.

As a freelancer, how can I stay motivated and focused to ensure my billable hours are in sufficient proportion to my unbillable hours?

  • Good question!!! Other freelancers, please show us your work organizational scheme! – Peter MV Dec 5 '13 at 8:47
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    While this is a great question, it's turned into a slight community poll. I've edited this to put the focus more on the asker's problem and not on simply collecting experiences from the community. The answers here are thoughtful, but they're worded more like here's what I do instead of here's what will work best for you, and here's why. As a community who can edit, this is something we should be aware of and try to catch earlier in edits, as the way a question is worded does influence how answers are worded. With edits, we can make questions like this work really well. – jmort253 Dec 6 '13 at 7:15
  • As @jmort253 mentioned, this is definitely a great question :) In reference to your latest edit, my answer remains unchanged. Regarding how can you stay motivated?... umm, trust me... don't believe what the world says... No one can tell you how to stay motivated. You need to find what rocks your boat. Suggestions from other people might give you a push but can never keep you motivated and focused. Follow the 10 commandments and you will do good :) Saying it from a personal experience... – Siddharth Rout Dec 9 '13 at 13:22
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    bottom-line seems to be: a) don't worry about hours and instead work towards deliverables or milestones; b) worry a bit about it and try to create a schedule to fit your day in, so you have a fixed plan on how to pass your days. Sounds correct? – igorsantos07 May 26 '17 at 5:12
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I don't worry about it much to be honest. I concentrate on deadlines not every minute of my day. I choose to work to live, not live to work. I do not focus on billable and non-billable hours. That's too much like a 9 to 5 job. I know I need to make $XXXX this month. If I have 1 project which does that, that's all I need. If I have 4, then I have to complete all 4. If I don't have enough, I need to do some marketing. If I have more than enough, I'm in great shape. I have never looked at things such as I need 300 billable hours this month. (This may be due to the nature of my freelancing compared to yours more than anything).

I may work 2 hours one day, then 14 the next. It all greatly depends upon any deadlines I have and how I feel about that LCD glow on any given day.

The worst part for me about being in a career which focuses heavily on computer use, is the computer itself. I generally do not feel well when I spend too much time in front of a computer. This is especially true if it's constant, steady, and predictable. I purposely started freelancing to get away from the "stare into a monitor for 8 hours" employment positions. If I schedule my days to do just that, I've lost my focus and subsequently motivation and zest for the work. John Cleese stated it best in his "Creativity" speech when he stated all creativity requires a period of play, but play must be scheduled for creativity to be effective (I'm paraphrasing).

I look at five must have important things which need to be accomplished every day:

  1. I need to respond clients in the morning hours of every business day, either via email or phone calls. Often simply to provide quotes or acknowledge receipt of materials.
  2. I need to respond to any "emergencies" promptly during standard business hours. Generally within in an hour. Respond does not mean drop everything and work on whatever it is. It may at rare times. By "respond" I mean acknowledge the client has an issue and provide a time of expected resolution whether it's ten minutes, an hour, a day, or longer. The important factor is to convey a sense of dependability and availability at all times, not that I'll drop everything every time a client asks me to.
  3. I need to meet any and all deadlines without fail.
  4. I need to respond or contact clients in the late afternoon of every business day.
  5. At a minimum, I need to be available via phone every business day during standard working hours. I teach my clients that email is not a form of immediate communication. People in general have gotten into the habit of expecting that since they sent the email 30 seconds ago, you've seen it and expect an almost immediate response. That's not how I operate. I inform clients that email will be responded to within 24 hours, but if there's something more pressing they need to call.

Those are my 5 priorities. As long as those 5 items are met, I'm free to do anything else I please.

It's up to me to figure out that a project needs XX hours to complete (which I've quoted) and I better put in X hours in this week if I want to be ahead of that curve. If I feel like working more, outside the scope of a quote, I will. But if I feel like stopping when a project is at it's expected delivery state, I stop.

I often complete things early and simply let them sit until the stated delivery date. This took some time before I started figuring out that it was actually better to not deliver something too early even if I thought it was complete. Delivery dates are stated and set, if I constantly finish early, and the client knows it, I'll find expected future dates start getting tighter and tighter until it's a problem. If I state it'll be done on the 15th and I finish it on the 12th.... I won't deliver until the 15th. Working this way gives me a couple advantages:

  • Fresh eyes. If I can walk away from something for a day then return to it, I can look at it from an entirely different mindset which may be a catalyst to better work rather than simply more work.
  • Play Time. If I've completed a project a day or two early, that means I don't have to spend X hours tomorrow finishing it so I've got free time to not bask in the LCD glow.

I'm not completely apathetic about billing. I generally have enough work to move onto something new once a project is complete so I don't generally have a lot of time to spend fussing and fiddling with a project that has been completed. If you find you aren't completing one thing to move onto another, perhaps you need more work? Or perhaps you should refocus and put that time into marketing and other self-promotion areas?

In the end, this may not seem like a very disciplined method for freelancing. But it has worked very well for me. The discipline comes in by knowing that in order to complete a project I must work XX hours. Where those hours fall, I'm free to decide. The operative part of freelancing to me is free.

  • Well, that turned into a much longer reply than I intended. – Scott Dec 5 '13 at 12:16
  • Thanks Scott. I haven't worried too much about this either up to now but need to convince a financial institution I earn enough to pay back a home loan. Our cost of living is low as I don't have to commute to work every day etc but this doesn't necessarily tick the all right boxes on finance applications. Being a bit more ambitious with the amount of work I take on would certainly help me to be more productive to meet client deadlines and this is a good tip, thanks. – Neil Robertson Dec 5 '13 at 13:15
  • Like your reply! However it seems that your hourly rate is pretty high when you can afford such a comfortable life. I can hardly have 1 project which will bring my monthly salary. – Peter MV Dec 5 '13 at 18:12
  • @NeilRobertson I hear you. I have a credit card only so I have some sort of ongoing credit history. I'm surprised that tax records aren't enough to show income. Most don't care how many hours you work if the tax records show you can afford things. – Scott Dec 5 '13 at 18:32
  • @PeterMV while a base hourly rate is used to calculate pricing in general, 80% of my work is invoiced on a per-project bases rather than "hours worked". For me, working strictly on hourly rates is not as viable as value-based pricing. – Scott Dec 5 '13 at 18:57
5

What you have there is a very important question... One which I asked myself many years ago...

Unlike Scott, I DO worry about it to be honest.

However like others, I didn't want my answer to be so long but then once I started typing, I couldn't stop...

There are mainly two types of freelancers.

  1. Part time
  2. Full time

The main source of income for Part time freelancer doesn't come from freelancing. They have some other source for monthly income. Be it 9 - 5 job, Or other Part time jobs. I used to fall in this category earlier.

Full time freelancer on the other hand have no other option for their monthly source of income other than freelancing.

The answer to your question will depend on what kind of freelancer are you and what are your plans with freelancing as a career.

Before we visit both of them, here are some common points which are applicable to both of them. I call them my 10 commandments :)

  1. Commitment
  2. Keep On Learning
  3. Time management
  4. Good Communication Skills
  5. Meet Deadlines
  6. Self Motivated
  7. Attention to details
  8. Honest
  9. Strong Work Ethic
  10. Under Commit, Over Deliver

You have to be very disciplined about these 10 commandments to be a successful freelancer. I have explained them at the end of the post.

Not sure what you meant by email in your question but having an email as mentioned is not a part of being disciplined. Replying to emails of clients/vendors/peers/bosses etc on time is though a part of being disciplined.

Now let's understand what Part/Full time freelancing is. This is important so that you understand how and on what you need to discipline yourself.


Part time freelancing

If you are into Part time freelancing then you have two more questions which will decide what kind of discipline, you need to follow besides the 10 commandments

  1. Do you just want to Part time freelance?
  2. Do you want to finally move from Part time to Full time freelancing?

Based on the above two questions, the answer to your question may vary.

If you just want to be a Part time freelancer then your focus would be slightly different. You set your expectations with your clients in a different way. The clients know that you will not be available for a specific period of time... be it specific hours in a day or specific days in a week and so on. So you have the liberty/luxury to play around with the time that you have. Please note that this is not the same as Time management from the above 10 commandments. In such a case, it's very rare that you commit a specific date and time for delivering the project. You will always give approximate date and time. And if you do commit then that is the biggest mistake that you would be making. I agree that most of the time you would be able to deliver. But remember, this is NOT your main source of income. You never know what might impact your freelancing and affect your deliverables. A reputation once lost is almost impossible to regain.

If you want to finally move from Part time freelancer to Full time freelancer, then you need to start behaving like one. And that means you start taking the 10 commandments very seriously. Set specific hours in a day that no matter matter what, you will dedicate to freelancing. Now it is not necessary that you will have a project during those specific hours. So what do you do? You plan! You hone your skills! You Learn! And this is where the commitment from the 10 commandments come into play.


Full time freelancing

What I suggest/mention below is what I do... is what I follow...

Full time freelancers have no where else to go to. Freelancing is the only thing that they know and which will bring dinner to the table. Once you understand this fact then you really don't NEED to worry about discipline! It will automatically come... Trust Me!

A full time freelancer follows the 10 commandments religiously. And that is the discipline he/she needs.


Explanation of 10 Commandments in detail

Commitment

Commitment is not to be confused with meeting deadlines. Commitment is your pledge towards the cause of freelancing. It should be your religion! Your faith! There should be no scope of any lax towards your commitment

Keep On Learning

The career field is constantly changing. The worst thing that you can do is assume that you’ve know everything. I once learned from someone that

“You are never too old to learn and you are never too young too teach“

And if you want to remain in the competition or eventually grow then you have to constantly be in the process of Learning

Time management

This plays a very important role. With me serving over 145 clients in 7 continents (Yes, including Antarctica!), it becomes essential that you plan your time to cater to all different timezones in the most effective possible. If you won't then someone else will...

Good Communication Skills

Fortunately, English is almost globally accepted. Ensure that your English is good or at least easily understandable. You should be able to communicate and exchange ideas effectively. It's good for building a healthier relationship for the future. Please remember that you are not only aiming at just one project but all future projects. Be humorous. Most of the time this breaks the ice. One of my favorite lines as mentioned here

Please remember I am not only aiming at your current project but all your future projects ;-) Humorously put; I want to take all your money :)

Meet Deadlines

Missing a deadline is unpardonable if you want to take freelancing seriously. I understand that there could be moments when you might miss the deadlines. In such a scenario, update the concerned party immediately and re-set your expectations. There is nothing worse than missing a deadline and not informing.

Self Motivated

There would be moments when you won't have a project. Don't get disheartened. Simply utilize your time to perhaps improve on your sales pitch... or creating new business opportunities... or simply revisit the current strategies and improve on them. Be innovative in whatever you do.

Attention to details

Ask questions if you do not understand. Ensure that you understand the requirements correctly. This will not only help you achieve your target of completing the project but also delivering over and above what was asked for. In many scenarios, I came up with suggestions which were not part of the project. This only ended up helping me building up my credibility as a consultant and not to mention client paying me some unexpected handsome bonuses.

Honest

This doesn't need explaining, I hope? Be honest to yourself. Don't take the client for a ride. You can easily loose the client.

Strong Work Ethic

No matter what anyone says, never bill for hours which you didn't toil for. If you worked for 10 hours then only bill for 10 hours! Maintain a strong work ethic.

Under Commit, Over Deliver

When you makes ambitious claims and promises and then fail to live up to them, you end up with irate and disappointed clients. There is nothing better than a client who ends up pleasantly surprised after hiring you. Exceeding customer/client expectations is awesome and good for business.

  • Thanks for your comprehensive and very sensible answer! I have clarified the question to make it clear I am a full-time freelancer. The reference to email in the question is to do with being easily distracted by email. For example, when I am working on a complex project with a deadline, I might check emails two or three times a day and send some quick responses but otherwise leave my email client closed. If I keep my email open, I spend too long replying to not urgent emails that don't earn me any money. – Neil Robertson Dec 9 '13 at 13:02
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    I am a full-time freelancer and only survive off my freelance earnings. Being a freelancer does not mean you must be a slave to a time clock. – Scott Jan 6 '14 at 15:24
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    @Scott: True and hence my point under Time Management :) – Siddharth Rout Jan 6 '14 at 15:34
  • Curious about Antartica! :) – Click Ok Apr 4 '16 at 18:40
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    @ClickOk: You are one of the few who actually asked me about Antarctica. Yes there was a scientist who wanted me to make an Excel App which could crunch numbers based on data collected and some horrific graphs that needed to be created. That guy is no longer there in Antarctica. He has moved back to US. I do occasionally hear from him for small odd jobs :) – Siddharth Rout Apr 5 '16 at 3:13
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Distraction occurs in normal job as well as while freelancing. The difference is that in freelancing you get less money so I'd say you're more motivated in freelancing to be as productive as possible.

For the best works to plan for every day what I do. My plan is fixed and looks like this:

  1. wake up 7.30
  2. drink coffee by the computer reading news and whatever is interesting till 8.30 or 8.15
  3. start working till 12.00
  4. lunch or coffee break till 2 PM
  5. working till 6 PM
  6. after that searching for clients, conducting interviews
  7. after 7 or 7.30 or even 8 PM I do my private things with family

This may seems like a lot of work, but any CEO works even more.

On every distraction like email of skype message, I either reply in 1 line or ask that person to contact me after 6 PM.

Of course, sometimes I have to conduct interview before 6PM but I try to minimize such situations.

PS. I am also wondering how other freelancers organize their time since I am also struggling with productivity trying not to become a robot who only works and sleeps.

  • Thanks Peter, sticking to a fixed routine and minimising email interruptions certainly helps. – Neil Robertson Dec 5 '13 at 12:48
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Principle

Although I do like to have a routine, I tend to operate more on priorities rather than a routine.

Dr. Stephen Covey authored a book called "The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People" wherein he explains the Time Management Matrix (pictured below). Basically, I try to operate within this grid. I have some set priorities in each quadrant and as issues pop-up throughout the day, I have to categorize them within one of these quadrants. That determines where they go on the list. There's a good breakdown of the process here on MindTools.com

Time Management Matrix

Tools

-Mozilla Thunderbird with Lighting Calendar extension keeps me on schedule (with alerts) and projects on track using the 'tasks' feature. I use the 'Chat' feature to monitor my Twitter/Facebook feeds and communicate through GoogleTalk and IRC channels

-FreshBooks for time/project/support tracking. And of course, billing.

-DropBox Pro for accessing files anywhere across devices.

-Kindle Fire with FlipBoard for scanning headlines, and mobile apps (WordPress, DropBox, etc.) for productivity when working remotely.

Time

We homeschool our kids so the hours of highest productivity for me are usually 10pm-3am...when everyone else is sleeping.

  • Thanks, this is useful. I think I may be spending too much time in the wrong quadrant! We are also home schooling here and that's why I usually work away from home but I can also be quite productive after my daughter is asleep and the house is quiet again later in the evening. – Neil Robertson Dec 5 '13 at 12:55
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I want to second Scott's answer regarding "not worrying about it". When I take freelance jobs, I schedule a delivery date for the finished product and that's pretty much it. During a project I'll occasionally schedule meetings with the client to clarify or obtain needed materials or feedback. But that's as close as I get to a time clock or a calendar.

I LOVE computers. It's a passion for me. "Code-aholic" describes me perfectly! This passion makes it very easy to get distracted and over-deliver while under-billing as you described. But I don't mind as long as I am bringing in enough to pay the bills. Those distractions and over-producing are part of the passion in this industry that I love so much - I would hate my job if I didn't allow myself that flexibility. This is why I prefer freelancing over a regular 8-5. I could make a killing if I took the regular job, but it's not worth the passionless grind.

Now, as far as financing a loan, that complicates things. Any self-employed worker - freelancers, independent contractors, etc. - should be tracking his or her profit and loss monthly and annually. This is required for properly doing your taxes, but it's also important for any kind of financing. A banker or loan officer doesn't care how productive you are with your time or how distracted you are or aren't when you're working on a project. They care only about your net income after all business expenses and taxes.

If you haven't kept a running P&L statement, I recommend you dig up bank statements going back at least 12 months and put one together. Audit a college accounting class if you need to so you can be familiar with accounting practices and what a Profit & Loss statement should look like. When you have your business P&L finished, that will give you a number that is essentially equivalent to your "net income" on a pay stub from a w-2 job. The banker will look at that number along with your personal and family expenses and credit history when they review your case and make a decision.

If after doing the math you come up short, and what you're really asking in your question is how you can better manage your time to be more productive so that you can increase your net income, then the time management matrices and regularly scheduled work days may help. But create a schedule that works for you and your personality.

From my own experience, a regular schedule can help increase productivity, but if you're not flexible with it, it can also decrease productivity. When I work an 8-5 for someone else (like I'm doing now, since my net income was dipping over the summer) there may be 4 or 5 hours of twiddling my thumbs in an 8 hour work day. There are many things I could be doing during that time that would be very productive, even if they produced no income, but because I am locked into the schedule I am locked out of maximizing my productivity.

  • I should also second Scott's comment - this is way longer than I intended at the start! – Thomas Dec 5 '13 at 15:56
  • Hi Thomas, I have sufficient records to show my income but as you perceptively realise, the question I am really asking is indeed about increasing my net income and given a fixed amount of hours per week, the most obvious way (but probably not the only way) to do this seems to be to increase billable hours. – Neil Robertson Dec 6 '13 at 0:22
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    @NeilRobertson What you need, then, is a way to bill for the time you spend distracted and over-developing. You can over-sell in the beginning of a project so that your "unbillable hours" are factored into your price. You can also divide the project and separate the "over-delivery" into a second project - an "upgrade" you can sell the client later. And I heartily recommend isolating a few tasks to scheduled periods - "staying current" and marketing (social media etc) for sure. And do your absolute best to limit how much free advice you give; free advice should only be a marketing tactic. – Thomas Dec 6 '13 at 4:21

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