The Secret of a Successful Freelance Schedule

I think a lot of new freelancers feel if they’re not available 24/7 clients won’t hire them, their paychecks will disappear, and everything will fail and the world will end.

The truth of the matter is you might have clients who will drop you if you’re not available 24/7 — but my experience is they are the toxic clients who aren’t worth the work, anyways.

You are a human being first, and a freelancer second. You have a life, you should have hobbies that aren’t related to work, and there is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself.

I worked 24/7 when I was starting out as a freelancer. I was always on call, and always in front of my computer. Or on my Blackberry, or iPhone. I needed the money, and I was also so excited to start working. This naiveté and passion turned out to be something of a lethal combination.

I had a client who always wanted everything done immediately. And she would send emails out at 10pm and expect me to reply in real time, no matter what time it was.

I had a client in Los Angeles who repeatedly sent me messages at Sunday night around 10pm my time, with follow up emails sent at 1AM. I lived in New York, and she seemed incredulous when I told her I don’t operate on West Coast night owl hours.

We were working on a huge project and she moved my deadline up by 10 days, and when I was trying to get the first part ready to deliver everything went wrong. She called me nonstop until 4AM the day of delivery, acting as if she were entitled to be such a nightmare.

The truth is, no one is entitled to behave like that. As a freelancer you are not only a creative professional, but you’re also a business. While I do believe in client services — hello, it is still a service industry — I want to remind you that you need to establish boundaries.

This nightmare client received a polite email outlining my schedule land the times she could expect to reach me in the office. She chose to ignore this, and while it wasn’t exactly pleasant, she received a stern email after she continued to demand work at odd hours of the day.

So what’s the secret to a succesful schedule? The first thing is honest, with yourself.

Are you a morning person? Are you like me, and need some time to yourself to get things situated and in order before you start out?

My schedule is as follows:

  • 7 — 8AM
    • I wake up. The first hour of the day is spent reading blogs, catching up on Instagram and Twitter, and reading the news. Hi, Facebook News Feed. I’ll usually look at my blog to see if anything needs fixed. There is usually coffee involved, although not always. I’m more of a tea person in the wintertime.
  • 9 — 10AM
    • This is when I start working, but I’ll spend the first hour doing personal work. I’ll read my email, but I won’t start replying until 10AM.
  • 10AM — 2pm
    • I’m working on client work, and then I take a lunch break.
  • 2 — 3pm
    • Lunch break. Yes, I typically take a European lunch break. I use the time to get outside for a bit, and probably send an email or two, or maybe troll around on Facebook again. Sitting at my desk means I get cramped, so this is my chance to stretch out and not turn into a hunchback.
  • 6 — 8pm
    • This is when I usually wrap up my day, depending on what I’m working on. If I’ve gotten started a bit later, I’ll stay at my desk until 8:00 or so. My brain clocks out around 8, so this is when I usually break for the day and head to the gym. I’m not a natural born fitness person, but I’ve found that exercise is really the only thing that helps me keep my sanity when I’m on deadline and things are just crazy.
  • 9 — 10pm
    • I’ll come home from the gym, have some dinner or a protein shake, and since I’m currently launching a business that has me dealing with China, I’ll continue with emails from about 10pm until 1am, depending on what gets done or what needs a response.

That’s how I work.

Sometimes this changes if I’m shooting, or traveling, or it’s something like fashion week, where I’m off the grid for non-fashion week clients. I make this clear, and make sure anything that needs done before these blackouts come up.

Is there some big secret? Not really.

But I do think everyone needs a schedule — if I don’t have my set routine then I’m totally out of whack and I really can’t perform to my best standards. Everyone thinks creatives are crazies who work mere minutes a day at random hours, but the reality is most of the freelance creatives I know are all people with very defined routines. Because while “routine” might be a boring, dirty word, the truth is boundaries and guidelines are what enable people to slip into the mental process where work actually gets done. The best thing I ever did for myself was getting into a rhythm, and sticking with it.

Granted, sometimes things change. My schedule might get off track, or totally change depending on life. That’s ok, too. I adapt and adjust as necessary. In the summertime I’m up way earlier, and in the Fall I tend to revert to my Night Owl status, and my days don’t get started until later in the evenings.

The other thing I will say is that as a freelancer people assume you don’t have a schedule, that you don’t keep regular hours, and then you’re generally available at their whim. It’s just the reality. You have to be protective of your schedule and stick to it — sure, being flexible is just a part of the business, but you don’t have to compromise all of the time. For a while I had a personal trainer and that hour was sacred — it was blocked out of my calendar, and I simply wasn’t available. If a client tried to book a call or meeting during that time I told them I was on a call with another client. That client was my own self, and I have no qualms admitting that now, although depending on the client I might not be so up front. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, and there’s no real reason you can’t take an hour for yourself.

The key is understand how you work so you can create the routine that will enable your optimal performance.

Jeff Smith

Jeff started in photography and short format video, and he's been at the forefront of the web tv movement. He’s worked on haute couture shoots in Paris, shot street style in Milan, and is currently developing a steady roster of beauty, fashion, and digital clients in NYC.