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How Many Hours Per Week Should Freelancers Make Themselves Work?

With a bit of scheduling and a lot of strategy, you may find you can be more productive working fewer hours.

How Many Hours Per Week Should Freelancers Make Themselves Work?
[Photo via Unsplash | By Petra Dr]

The traditional workday is not kind to those who do creative work, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. If you work in a field that falls under the wide umbrella of "knowledge work"—anything from writing to programming to complex mathematical problem solving and beyond—you may find yourself in a work environment where 40 hours isn’t a ceiling but a starting point.

But the 40-hour workweek assumes that 40 hours is an ideal window in which to extract creative output from knowledge workers. The trouble is that it’s not. Over the weekend, a story in the Atlantic posited that the standard 9-to-5 workday is deleterious to creative workers' output. The story cites an article on Salon that examines the origins of the 40-hour workweek—popularized by Henry Ford—and the mistaken assumption that knowledge workers can maintain the same eight-hour output without a drop in productivity.

It would seem then, that the traditional workweek is not set up in a way that’s optimal for creative work. But you can work around it, and maybe even use it to your advantage.

Doing creative work often involves setting aside longer, uninterrupted stretches of time during which progress can be made toward a long-term project. However, our workdays aren’t just big blocks of time where all we have to do is "be creative." There are meetings to have, correspondences to maintain, and other tasks to complete.

It’s to that end Cal Newport, writing for 99u, advocates a system he calls Getting Creative Things Done. It boils down to scheduling time for creative work, but in a very particular way: If we focus on process instead of goals, Newport believes that we allow time for valuable mental detours and release ourselves from the anxiety of having to hit an arbitrary goalpost.

Newport’s method may not work for everyone, but it comes with a valuable insight: Studies show that scheduling is invaluable for doing creative work, and how you schedule is far more important. Pay attention to yourself throughout the workday, and if you find you’re more acclimated to certain tasks at particular times, have your schedule accommodate that. Need some help? Keep in mind that you can only focus for 90-120 minutes before you need a break, and block out your time accordingly. Consider tracking your progress with a tool like RescueTime.

By learning to manage your energy instead of your time, you can game the eight-hour workday to work for you, and possibly get rid of it altogether.