For most freelancers, especially solopreneurs, I think the most difficult aspect of being a freelancer is self-discipline. There are simply too many other things we would rather be doing.
The challenges to a disciplined workday come from many quarters. If the weather is particularly nice, we want to take advantage of it. If we have children, we want to attend their activities. If we feel a little lazy today, we want to relax. These are the often thought of types of challenges to the disciplined workday, but they are not the only types of challenge.
Also challenging is the need to socialize — the water-coolering need. Even more than the activities above, this need or desire is, I think, more problematic for the average freelancer than any other work-related need. Our need to have contact with others manifests itself by the amount of time we spend at online water-coolers like LinkedIn, the Copyediting-L list, and other similar places.
We easily justify the time we spend as “marketing” — as getting our name out there, letting people know we are available, doing the things that will make us memorable so when services like those we offer are needed, we come to mind. And I have no doubt that the justification is legitimate.
Discipline doesn’t mean not doing those things that keep our name in front of potential clients. Instead, it means regulating the time we spend doing such tasks so as to maximize the marketing and minimize the wasting of time. That balance is difficult, especially for the solopreneur, probably because these are the social outlets that are available to the isolated freelancer and which are needed to prevent unhealthy isolation.
The internet has changed the dynamics of people interaction and has become the method by which water-coolering occurs for freelancers.
But in the absence of a disciplined workday, it is difficult to take on work and make the level of income we desire. Regardless of how we classify our time online, most of it is not financially productive. Sure we may turn up a client or two, but for most solopreneurs the income earned from those clients does not translate into a high effective hourly rate if we count the time we spent trying to lasso those clients.
Which, in a roundabout manner, brings us to this point regarding self-discipline: tracking our time spent “marketing” or “socializing” online during the workday. Most freelancers only track the time they spend working on a project. But that gives an incomplete picture of the workday, the effective hourly rate, and the freelancer’s real earning power. If our workday is 8 hours and we spend 4 hours socializing and 4 hours editing and bill for $200 for the day’s output, our hourly earning power is not $50 ($200 ÷ 4 hours editing time) but is $25 ($200 ÷ 4 hours editing + 4 hours socializing).
If during that 4 hours of socializing we get a new project that can be directly attributed to some of our socializing/marketing time, then we need to add that attributable time to the time spent on the project to determine what is our real earning power. If it takes us 40 hours of socializing time to get one new project, and if our effective hourly rate in the absence of socializing is $50, then we have spent the equivalent of $2,000 (40 socializing hours × $50 EHR) to gain one project whose value may be less than, equal to, or more than the acquisition cost.
And that is really the concept we are slowly getting to: acquisition cost. The less discipline we have as regards our workday and the more time we spend each day water-coolering, the higher the acquisition cost of each project. A key to business success is to keep work acquisition costs low.
Marketing time needs to be targeted time. It should be focused and carefully oriented toward a business goal. And it should not devour the workday when there is billable work at hand.
Some thought should be given as to how best to tame runaway water-coolering. For me, one way I do that is by not receiving emails or email digests from forums. For example, on LinkedIn, my setting for every group of which I am a member is no email. I allocate 15 to 20 minutes a day to visit LinkedIn and I am choosy about which “discussions” I participate in. Similarly, I do not receive emails from the Copyediting-L list. I check it once a day online.
I schedule a maximum of 90 minutes of my day for online activities — and I stick to it (the one exception is the time I take to write this blog). I often am able to do all I need to do online in less than an hour; then I turn to billable work.
I have built my business so that if I do not discipline myself and keep my online time to a minimum, I will fall behind on my billable work and not meet deadlines. Not meeting deadlines is a sure way to lose clients, which acts as an incentive for me to keep focused. By eliminating emails from groups of which I am a member, most of the emails I receive are work related — inquiries about availability, questions about current projects, offers of new projects. It is not that I don’t get some spam as well, but I get very little email that is not work related.
The consequence is that my cost of acquiring work is low and most of my time is billable. There are times when I would like to be water-coolering, and occasionally I indulge, but I have trained myself over the years to be disciplined with my time.
As I noted earlier, this is the hardest thing for freelancers to do; we are already isolated because of our choice to be a freelancer and now we need to impose self-discipline on our time. We need find that balance that works well for us. But when we seek that balance, we need to not forget that there is a cost to water-coolering. That cost may be worth paying, depending our personal needs, but we need to account for it so that we understand the true cost.