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7 strategies for freelancers trying to avoid overworking so much

When you’re responsible for everything, it can be hard to avoid working 24/7. Here’s how independent contractors can take back their time.

7 strategies for freelancers trying to avoid overworking so much
[Photo: Jefferson Santos/Unsplash]

During the pandemic, a confluence of circumstances led to a rise in overwork. Overnight, millions of people began working and living under the same roof, leaving some sketchy boundaries between work life and home life. Many companies scaled back their teams, leaving those still standing to do more with fewer resources. Worried about keeping the jobs they had, many complied, spending more time at their desks. Now, as companies find themselves challenged in finding and hiring talent, some are still stretched thin, causing concerns about burnout.

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But it’s a bit easier to spot and find solutions for employees suffering fallout from overwork than it is for independent contractors and freelancers. The self-employed people who provide on-demand services to teams may have several different clients whose needs ebb and flow. And it’s not easy to say “no”—or, even, “not now”—when you work for yourself. It’s no wonder that half of freelancers feel like work is taking over their lives.

“It’s this constant feast or famine thing,” says Melinda Emerson, aka the Small Biz Lady, and author of Fix Your Business: A 90-Day Plan to Get Back Your Life and Reduce Chaos in Your Business. “It’s really unfortunate, because this is what gets them on the train of workaholism, and constantly being stressed out and not enjoying their work.”

For freelance talent, drawing boundaries is essential for preserving your physical, mental, and business health. Here are seven ways to rein in your business if it feels like it’s taking over your life:

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Know your vision for your business

One of the first steps to taking back your time is to get clear about the vision you have for your business, says business and leadership consultant Susan Hance Sykes, co-author of Yes, You Can Take a Day Off: Escape The Nine Traps Of Growing Your Small Business. Are you building a business to support a certain lifestyle or are you trying to grow your business into a larger company? That decision will help you set reasonable expectations and decide how you’ll structure your business to give you more time for your personal life, she says. “Be really conscious of your choice, and make sure it fits those things that are important to you in your life,” she says.

Analyze your numbers

“You have to be clear about how much money it takes to run your business,” Emerson says. Without clear financial goals and benchmarks, you may always find yourself chasing the next project because you don’t know if you’ve made enough to cover your salary, expenses, taxes, and other obligations.

Service professionals essentially trade their work hours for dollars—and you likely only have about 1,500 of those hours to sell if you’re trying to avoid overwork. So, you need to put thought into how you’re setting prices to ensure you’re earning enough that you don’t need to work all the time to be comfortable and profitable, she says.

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Once you have a clear picture of your financials, track them throughout the month to make sure you’re on track. It’s also a good idea to put away a bit of a cash cushion if possible, so you don’t have to feel like you need to take on every client and are able weather dry spells.

Get clear about who you’re serving

Once you decide on the type of business you’re building, it’s important to know who your ideal clients are, Emerson says. Think about your favorite clients—the ones that fit well with your business model, compensate you well, and for whom you most enjoy working. Those are likely the types of clients you should seek to replicate in your business. “[Taking control of your time] starts with really getting clear about your niche customer, then, and then it’s about getting clear about the services you’re really going to offer, right? You can’t just do everything,” she says.

Block your time for greatest efficiency

Another effective way to take control of your time is to use the time-blocking method of planning your day, Sykes says. “It’s important to spend your time in your areas of highest and best use. And then those other things are the things that you want to make sure you’re bringing people around you to do,” she says.

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Bookkeeping, scheduling, marketing, and other tasks can often be outsourced or automated, even if you’re a solo practitioner. That way, you can spend your time on the things that generate revenue, add value, and help you make your business stronger. And time-blocking gives you a visual reminder of how much you can realistically fit into a day.

In addition, get to know the times of day when your energy is best suited for certain tasks and take that into account as you block your time, she says. “I personally know that the times that I’m most creative are early in the morning. So, for me, I block off those times,” Sykes says that when she adapts her schedule to make use of the times when she has the most energy and creativity, she tends to work more effectively.

Streamline (and delegate) your work

As you operate your business, always be on the lookout for more efficient ways of working, advises small business expert Jill McAbe, author of It’s Go Time: Build the Business and Life You Really Want. Look at where you’re spending most of your time? Are there areas of your business that just aren’t working right? Those sticking points are costing you time and need to be addressed, she says.

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One area that saved McAbe a great deal of time was refusing to write proposals anymore. “I would create these customized proposals, and it would just kill me when I wouldn’t get the work,” she says. Now, she has standard deliverables and prices. That way, she wastes no time on customizing proposals and also doesn’t have to deal with tire-kickers who don’t understand the value of what she does.

Avoid the scarcity thinking trap

A common refrain among freelancers is that they’re afraid to turn down work, Emerson says. What if the client never hires them again? Or what if work dries up? So, they say “yes” to too much, overbook, and the work suffers.

In addition to being clear and consistent in your fee structure, Emerson says there’s another way to combat scarcity thinking: marketing. When you’re consistent about keeping your pipeline of potential work full, you won’t be as concerned about where the next job is going to come from. “What makes people panic and stay in hustle mode is because they get a project, and they start working on that project and, in a week or two before that project’s about the end, they realize they don’t have another project lined up,” she says. When you have new prospects that you’re pursuing even as you’re working on current projects, you can be pickier about the projects you choose and how you spend your time.

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Protect your personal time

It’s also a good idea to establish boundaries for yourself and others around you, Emerson suggests. Choose your “office hours” and stick to them. Keep family and personal time sacred by blocking it out on your calendar. And be sure you take at least one day off per week. Constant overwork will only cause your work product to suffer.

McAbe emphasizes not letting others waste your precious time, either. She establishes a standing weekly meeting with her clients to go over questions, issues, and next steps. If they miss that time, they miss it, she says. This approach allows her to keep more control over her calendar and prevents clients from treating her time as less valuable than their own.

When you have a clear understanding of your business financials, work efficiently, keep your pipeline full, and prioritize your own time, you can tame the tendency to overwork. Doing so will help you better enjoy the very reasons you went into business in the first place.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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