The Renegade Writer

How to Work Less

Since August, I’ve been working two days per week and still earning full-time income writing for magazines. My goal, when I started this two-day workweek, was to spend more time with my now one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I do check e-mail just to make sure nothing comes up, and if a source can schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’ll do it. But in general, I’m sitting down at my desk and working two days per week.

The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing (which was rare for me), and all I got back was snarky responses about how I should already know the answer. Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.

Then, on a roll, I found free site-blocker software for Firefox and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.

Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.

I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.

So I stopped doing that. If I send out e-mails and can’t take action until I get a response, now I leave my computer, go off and do what I want to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”

One week I felt stressed about all I had to do — I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach about it, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.

I called my goal buddy and set up what we call “boot camp” on one of my work days. On boot camp days, my goal buddy and I call each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we plan to do in the next hour. There are no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.

And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.

After 12 years of freelancing, I’m finally starting to come into the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time. The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done? We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).

Granted, I’ve been freelancing for a long time, so I’m past the stage where I have to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I’m in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it’s easier for me to cut down my hours that it would be for someone just starting out. But even newbies can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query, are you 100% focused on that query or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?

So what am I doing with all this extra time? Well, in May I started a local parents’ group that now has 60 members, so I spend a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I’m about to volunteer to be on a committee for an animal welfare fundraising event.

Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe I was able to cut my hours down so much and still earn the same income. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets. [lf]

Jan 30, 2010 Advice, Motivation, productivity

31 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Linda. It’s exactly what I needed to hear. I, too, spend way too much time surfing the net and justifying it as “work.” I am also taking a step back from writer’s forums (it will be much easier in a week when my membership lapses).

    I just had a friend ask me this week if I was working 40 hours per week yet. As if 40 hours magically equals a full time income! Since I’m so new to “full-time” freelancing, it’s been a work in progess to train my mind to my new lifestyle. Our culture is so wrapped up in certain mindsets, that it’s hard to get past them (but I will!).

  2. Colette says:

    Awesome! Now that’s what I call focused!

  3. quinn says:

    Congrats, Linda – sounds like you’ve not only reached a new level of the freelance “lifestyle” but your entire family AND the greater community are all benefiting :)

  4. Jenn Mattern says:

    Very jealous of your 2-day work week! I’m cutting mine down to four soon, but now that doesn’t sound as attractive as it used to. :)

    My issue that I have so many of my own projects that even when client work is finished, I have an endless supply of things to do. I’ve at least been good about keeping my projects to my normal working hours and not allowing myself to work late on them often.

    I completely agree with you about getting up and getting away from the computer to do other things when you find yourself in a busy work cycle (email is the biggest with me — I’d check it every few minutes if I just sat there). When I get like that, I get up and do housework or workout — anything to get my mind back in the game before going back.

  5. staceharman says:

    Hey Linda,

    I’m not quite at the 2 day week stage yet…

    The confirmed end date of my ‘9-5′ is 30th April, first day of the rest of my professional career is 4th May (Monday 3rd May is a public holiday here in the UK) but I can certainly appreciate your comments on the affliction known as emailcheck-itus. I do that a lot after emailing a pitch or submitting a piece.

    A momentary off topic: ‘Renegade Writer’ has helped me on my way to writing for a living and I recently put in to practice yours and Diana’s suggestions on negotiating contractual terms after scoring a commission, early on in my career, from one of my ‘dream’ publications. I wasn’t actually able to secure any better terms than were originally offered but nonetheless I did attempt it and having broached the subject I will hopefully be in a good position to revisit the negotiations in a couple of published-pieces time.

    Congratulations on your diverse career, you offer a positive example of the many areas that a freelance writer should consider in addition to the staple-diet of simply ‘writing’ for a living.

    Good luck with your 2 day week, I hope that it works out for you and your family.

  6. Wow, I meant to schedule this for Monday but accidentally forgot so I didn’t know it had already gone up…and when I checked my Comments this morning, there were all these great notes from everyone…Thanks so much!

    Stace, congrats on being brave enough to negotiate terms, even if the magazine refused to change them!

    Jenn, if you’re working on your own projects for pleasure, even if they involve writing, I don’t know if I’d count them towards your workday. To me, work is the stuff I HAVE to get done even if I’d rather be doing something else…like doing interviews, marketing, or writing an article on a not-too-exciting topic. Some people say, “I love writing articles so much that I’d do it even if I wasn’t paid.” Not me. There are a ton of things I’d rather do with my free time! (Not that I’m ungrateful…I do love my job. But there are other things I love more. :) Back to the point: If you love doing your projects and that’s what you WANT to be doing, I don’t know if I’d count them towards the work hours you want to cut down.

    Colette, Quinn, and STyle, thanks for your comments!

  7. Style & Inspiration, I know! Like I said (and stole from Tim Ferriss)…what an amazing coincidence that every worker on the planet needs exactly 8 hours to get all their work done. Also, there was a study — I can’t remember the source but if anyone here knows please let me know — that said that the typical 9-5 worker is productive for less than an hour each day.

  8. Congratulations on your success at achieving a two day work week. It’s so true that most of us waste hours surfing the web, flicking through magazines or chatting on social networking sites. Hope this 2 day work week works out for you long term, it seems like the ideal lifestyle.

  9. Jenn Mattern says:

    Most of my projects do fall under the “work” heading, and they’re a part of my business so that’s why I keep them to working hours. A big part of the business plan moving forward is to write for myself full-time and cut down on client work drastically, so I have to treat it as much as business as my client work is (and while I love it in general, I could say the same about my client work, so there isn’t much difference). :)

  10. Star says:

    I still come to this site—Is that OK? And to about five others–I have dumped the aggregation sites that list cheesy stuff and I spend a lot of time critiquing our govt, but I still start at 7 AM putting up my recession blog (http://hopeycopey.blogspot.com) and quit at 2 PM.

  11. Anne says:

    Ouch, did this hit home. I especially like the idea of having to call someone once an hour (I think I’d lie, though). What I need is not just site-blocker software, but software that tells me how long I’ve spent on each site!

  12. Dan says:

    I’ve been writing on a freelance basis for a few years now and whilst I could probably manage on that income alone, I still work a 9-5 job Monday to Friday for the additional security. It currently takes my working week to over 65 hours a week, which makes me look forward to vacations a hell of a lot!

    The one part of your post that has really – and I mean really – made me think about everything is when you quoted Tim Ferriss saying “every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?” (which i’d never heard before).

    I won’t go into paragraphs and paragraphs here, but this has made me think a lot about my writing work and how I could get a lot more from it, if I concentrated a lot more and organised everything that little bit better.

    I believe this may be called a Sunday night revelation!

    Congratulations on being able to work two days a week and still earn a full time income,

    Dan

  13. Hi Linda,

    You mentioned this recently and I’m so glad that you wrote about it. I am definitely inspired. And I’m going to take your excellent example to heart.

    Thanks for the challenge!

    Christina

  14. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Ah, Jenn, I understand. It’s great that you’re cutting your workweek down to 4 days!

    Anne, there is free software that you can program to let you only on certain sites, let you surf only a certain amount of time per day or per hour, and more. Dang, I can’t remember what it’s called! Maybe later I’ll remember.

    Dan, I’m so glad this post inspired you!

    Star, you’re totally not allowed to dump this blog. :)

    Christina and Katarzyna, thanks for your nice notes!

  15. Jenn Mattern says:

    I can thank my writers for that when it happens. They free me to up to get my work for clients done faster, and give me more time to work on admin and marketing things for the sites without having to work that extra day. Best move I’ve made, and probably making it with two more of my sites soon. :)

    Have to agree with Dan — a very inspirational post. It’s always good to get a kick in the pants as a reminder that no matter how well you’re doing, you can always do better if you work on that productivity!

  16. Okay, Jenn, now I’m curious…what business are you running that you have writers of your own? Spill, please! :)

  17. Jenn Mattern says:

    Most of my sites are blogs these days, so I hire bloggers periodically. I also hire designers when I don’t feel like doing a design myself (usually do it myself and just hire the coder; sometimes do the whole thing myself if it’s a simple design / coding job I can knock out in a day), and I hire coders to develop tools (like the freelance rate calculator we just released at AllFreelanceWriting.com yesterday). All of that combines to bring in more traffic and ad revenue, which supports more writers, contests, tool development, etc. And it leaves me more time to work on billable client projects, my e-books, and my book. So far, so good.

  18. Jenn, that’s wonderful! I wish you tons of success!

  19. [...] real irony, not the fake Alanis Morisette kind) that I read The Renegade Writer’s post on how to work less while spending part of my weekend catching up on work. And ouch, did I recognise myself in that. [...]

  20. Rachel says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. I’ve just sent out emails to drum up sources for an article and now I am twiddling my thumbs, ahem, “working” when I could actually be doing something productive. Too many days, I’m at the computer when I feel like I should be working, when in fact I am caught up and don’t want to / need to add more to my workload…but I’m loathe to let myself off the hook. Reading this made me realize that I need to be more focused when I am working and then I’ll find myself “working” less. So I’ll be following your advice and will begin to take advantage of perks that freelancing affords.

  21. Thanks for your comment, Rachel! I think it’s about giving ourselves permission to turn off the computer when we’re not actually being productive. Sure, it feels like work to surf the Internet all day while waiting to hear back from sources, but is it really? Better to head out and get some fresh air! Changing your scenery will help boost your creativity as well, so you can call THAT work!

  22. [...] of thinking and working, mind shifts. It was a mind shift in the summer of 2009 when I decided to cut my workweek down to two days (while maintaining the same income), and it was a mind a year before that when a coach talked me [...]

  23. Linda, just wanted to say thank you for this post. I just started down the path, but have goals like this in mind already. Much appreciated!

  24. [...] de quatro dias se você trabalha num lugar que dá abertura para as ideias dos funcionários. Aqui, a jornalista freelancer Linda Formichelli conta como conseguiu reduzir a semana de trabalho a [...]

  25. Vinil Ramdev says:

    I should admit that we all slack off surfing the net rather than sending those query letters that we should be sending.. Cutting down the time we work and focusing on things we love definitely brings about a balance that helps us perform better at work.

  26. Joe@spizzio says:

    Great article and I agree with the element of the time suckers. There’s only one of us and so many of them. Stay focused, stay on task, stay in a niche and do it now… Thanks again _ Joe

  27. Tricia says:

    Nice. I can’t wait until I’m where you are! I’m running around so much and getting barely any sleep.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! Very motivational :D

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