During a recent presentation to college students about entrepreneurship in the arts, I asked the class what they thought a freelance writer did with her time all day. Their guesses included “thinking about character development” and “writing,” and bless their hearts, that would be amazing. But as any freelance writer can attest, the business of pitching stories, research, contacting sources, waiting for sources to call back and interviewing sources takes up the bulk of one’s life. So much, in fact, that I often (or, rather, daily) find myself with this problem: I feel so accomplished by the time I finally hang up the phone after an interview call, that I’m all, “Done! I’m finished! Let’s go fishing or whatever!”
Before becoming self-employed, it never occurred to me to assign a dollar value to my time. I suppose that was probably to the advantage of my employers. When self-employed, however, it’s crucial. One you’re past the I’ll-take-every-assignment-that-comes-my-way-oh-god-please-don’t-let-me-starve phase, you absolutely have to know what your time is worth to assess whether an assignment is worth taking, which gigs have priority over others and which jobs (or clients) are simply sucking up too much of your time.
That said, there are traps one can become ensnared in after growing comfortable with the monetary value of one’s time.
You can undervalue the jobs that take longer and pay less, but are always there. Big paying jobs often come and go. Part of the monetary value of the hours spent on the “regular stuff” is made up for by not having to search out new work.
It’s easy to begin counting every hour of your life in monetary terms. Is going to the movies really worth it? Sitting there and losing money for two hours? Is taking a three-day weekend totally insane? If you add money lost per hour to the cost of getting away, you will literally never leave your house. And especially when you work from home, you really need leave your house sometimes.
Monetizing time overvalues efficiency and undervalues things like connecting with people in person, careful editing, making time to think creatively and exploring new ideas.
Again, not to get all contradictory or anything, but knowing the monetary value of your time is an absolute must. Knowing which hours to measure and why, however, is just as important.
The traditional American workplace has developed around making sure employees work hard enough, but not too hard. Labor laws give workers hourly limits; bosses provide accountability. For the typical employee, knowing if you’re working hard enough is as straightforward as waiting for a reprimand or the urge to sue your employer.
In the comparatively anarchic world of freelancing, insecurity over whether or not one is working hard enough causes many freelancers to work themselves into insanity. Maybe it’s the whole bit about only making as much money as you earn. Maybe it’s the tinge of guilt we feel from getting to work at home in our yoga pants. Whatever it is, I’ve noticed far more overworking than underworking from my peeps in the freelancing business.
I got caught up in overworking myself in my first years of freelancing, only stopping when when I would suddenly feel like my soul was bleeding. That’s not a fun way to live. But ever since conscientiously pulling back, I’ve walked around with this little guilt devil on my shoulder that constantly whispers in my ear, “Are you working hard enough? Shouldn’t you be working more? Couldn’t you be?”
That’s a surefire way to ruin a good mid-day dog walk or cancel your plans to go to the gym. Because I’m determined to make freelancing a sustainable career, it’s crucial that I’m able to make a living and avoid working my way through the things that make life fulfilling. What I’ve found is that while labor laws and looming bosses can’t be the productivity guardrails for freelancing, a series of indicators help keep me in balance. These are a few.