How to Work Less and Earn More as a Freelance Writer

In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.

It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.

Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.

And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.

Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.

How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning

My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked 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, and was treated to 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 a free site-blocker app 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 sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted 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 for tips, 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.

So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were 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.

You CAN Set Your Own Hours

Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized 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, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.

But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task 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?

Do MORE of What You Love

So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent 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 did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.

Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?

Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. 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.

Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.

This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.

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  • 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!).

  • Awesome! Now that’s what I call focused!

  • 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 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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). 🙂

  • Star

    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.

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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!

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

  • 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.

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

  • Thank you. 🙂

  • Rachel

    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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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 😀

    • Yeah, it’s often that way in the beginning part of your career! Your job now is to market, market, market. Glad you liked the post!