Do You Have Office Hours?

Working from Home Means Freedom

Often the idea of working for oneself means freedom! If you get a wild hare to go shopping in the middle of the day, you can do it and finish up your work later in the day. You don’t have a boss breathing down your neck to get a report done. You don’t have to get up at six in the morning to commute to your job.

When I first started as a freelancer, certainly that freedom appealed to me.

In truth, yes, there is a lot of freedom that comes with being your own boss. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. But being your own boss is often a matter of self-management. That means you’ll need to decide on company policy.

For the longest time, I did not have specific office hours. As long as I was making a target income, I would work to the job, or work to get the job and not worry too much about it otherwise.

That caused several problems. I found myself never taking a full weekend or never feeling as if my time were really my own. Goofing off on the Internet (which I genuinely enjoy) started to merge with work time so that it was difficult for me to assess whether or not I was being genuinely productive at any given time. I hit my deadlines, so my clients were happy. I was always prepared to teach my classes, so the classes went well.

And that was great.

You Still Need Office Hours

But, it was easy to lie to myself, to be externally motivated by deadline and visions of happy clients rather than by my own goals.

My own office hours actually started as a way to ensure that I would not get telephone calls from clients at ungodly hours unexpectedly. I set a specific time when I could be contacted (and included the time zone!) so that if a client needed to talk to me outside that time, we’d arrange for a phone meeting. I like being available to my clients, but for random, off-the-cuff stuff, the office hours worked out better.

Then, I started attempting to analyze my productivity. Other than my accounting software, I really couldn’t. I work to the job rather than to the clock. How much of surfing the net was genuine research and how much of it was procrastinating and screwing around? What about personal projects that were falling by the wayside? What about value-added things I could do for my clients that I was not thinking about because I was too busy laughing at something on Youtube? Sure, sure, I was paying the bills. But was I really being effective?

Since the fluid work habits made it too hard to do an honest analysis, I actually set genuine work hours. I was allowed to work outside those hours if I wanted to (and I usually do), but I was not allowed to goof off within them. I even downloaded blocking software to keep me off sites that were not productive. While I would have been deeply annoyed if my boss had done this to me in a “Real Job”, I confess that as the boss, it sure does help keep focused on work during worktime.

Plug-ins to block time wasting sites

When Should You Have Office Hours?

I chose to make my work hours and my office hours slightly different. Knowing that I am most productive early in the morning, my work hours start long before I’m taking telephone calls from clients. I’m allowed to start goofing off slightly before I stop taking client calls, as well.

Doing this, I’m working smarter rather than harder. I’ve given myself a limited amount of time within which to accomplish my work for my clients, so there’s no use in fooling around. It needs to be done! But when it is done, instead of going off to play, I’m working on other projects that will be useful down the road – creating attractive cheat sheets for the computer classes I teach, working on writing projects that might not have an immediate benefit to my bank account, but in the long term might prove useful, thinking about new and better ways to market my work, thinking about new and better ways to be valuable to my clients. All of these things really are part of my job, even if I’m not directly getting a cash amount for it.

If you’re finding your freelance career stagnating, I encourage you to try office hours for a while and see what it does for you. There’s nothing like the recharge of knowing that you’ve put in a full day, that it’s legitimately done and goofing off with a clear conscience in your off-time. You’ll come back to your work recharged, excited and clearer-headed, ready to meet all the challenges and rewards of being self-employed.

Gorilla Client

When you’re a freelancer and get a really big client, probably the first thing you do is cheer. Money! Lots of work! You can slack off marketing for a while, wheeee!!!!!

If that client is now providing more than about 40% of your business, stop cheering right now and start panicking. No, seriously.

There’s an expression for this sort of client – the Gorilla Client. Sure, that big client seems great, and yes, big projects with lots of work/pay really are. However, like having a big, powerful gorilla in your office, it can be a problem that becomes bigger and stronger than you are. Any problem with that client is now a potential threat to your entire business. You’ll find yourself structuring your business around the needs of that single client. You’ll find yourself tempted to leave off working for other clients and concentrate on that one
[1]. Sure, you want to provide good service. Good service should be at the heart of your business. It is simply that you do not want to rise and fall at the whim of a single client.

So, why do we accept Gorilla Clients? It’s mostly laziness and greed, from what I can see. If you don’t love marketing (and it’s strange how many freelancers don’t), any excuse to be able to work and not market sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re getting plenty of work, it’s hard to be motivated to do something you don’t like.

A good way to avoid this is to budget your time carefully. Since you’re in charge of your work day, make sure you dedicate a certain percentage of that day to marketing no matter how busy you get. Yeah, I know. If work from one client swamps you, it’s hard to make yourself go looking for more work. Suck it up and do it.

Remember that as a freelancer, you can choose how much work you’re willing to accept as well. How many hours a month are you willing to work? I go monthly rather than weekly because there will be plenty of weeks that you’ll be hammer and tongs at a deadline for one particular client. That’s okay as long as you’ve got more work on deck, and are keeping up on your marketing. What you don’t want to do is let any one client suck up your professional time over a significant period.

I consider myself a client for purposes of time management. As a writer, there’s a certain amount of non-commercial “sharpening the saw” that’s necessary to stay fit, stay alert and stay skilled in my profession. I don’t dedicate anywhere a full client’s allotment of hours a month on it, but I do make sure that I leave time to write, to work on projects with no direct result and to make sure that I’m exploring avenues that might be useful in the long run.

This article is meant for the one-man shop. If you’re finding that you need at least 40 hours a week specifically to spend on billable client hours, chances are good that what you need is at least a part-time admin assistant or salesperson. If you’re in love with being a one-man shop, raise your rates. That’ll take care of the problem well enough, and you’ll bring your time management back into balance.

[1] The Pareto Principle might be okay for really large firms, but isn’t an ideal strategy when you’re a small business servicing small businesses.