It’s one thing to manage your time as an employed copywriter for an ad agency or corporation, but it’s a completely different beast altogether to manage your time as a freelance copywriter. That’s because a freelance copywriter generally works from home and has to balance their personal life with their professional one in a single environment and that’s not generally a skill that you pick up working as an employee in an office. In this blog post, I’ll recommend some time management strategies that have helped me become a more effective copywriter.
Just as a note to other types of writers – Even though I refer to copywriters throughout this blog post, most, if not all the suggestions outlined here will apply to other types of writers as well.
Freelance Copywriters Live And Die By The Clock
Just like any service professional, such as a physician, attorney or consultant, a writer typically trades their time in exchange for payment. Yes, there are such things as royalties, commissions and advances, but we’re not getting into that in this post. Suffice it to say that for the new copywriter, success or failure really does revolve around the clock and that’s why the single most important skill for the new freelance copywriter, even on par with writing copy itself, is learning functional time management skills that work for them. After all, what it really boils down to is the fact that time is money for the freelance writer.
Protect Your Time
Time is a finite resource to a freelance writer, so it must be protected at all costs. There are two questions that I ask myself whenever I spend time on anything: 1) “Is this billable time?” and 2) “If not, what is the return on time invested?” It’s really easy as a freelance writer to spend a couple of hours engaged in idle chit-chat with a client, or traveling downtown for a live meeting with a prospect or to blow off the day and go hang out with friends, but you always want to filter your activities around the ROI of that time invested. The less time you get to bill on, the hungrier you’ll end up being at the end of the month.
Early on, I accepted too many live meetings with prospects, but I found that they were generally a waste of time because 1) either the prospect wasn’t really a prospect, but rather they were just trying to get free consulting from me, and 2) if the client actually became a client, they were of the tire-kicking breed that caused more problems than they were worth. Now I’m not going to say cut off your face-to-face meetings entirely, as there might be some very good opportunities that might warrant the visit, but in my experience, most of what can be done in the copywriting business can be done via email, phone, postal mail and fax. The key take-away here is to protect your time like Fort Knox and examine the ROI before spending time on anything that you do.
Write A Daily Work Menu
Really, this section warrants its own blog post, but I’ll briefly mention it here. As a freelance writer, you’re going to have more tasks and projects filling up your to-do lists than you could ever accomplish in a single day and I’ve found that it becomes overwhelming to cross off a task only to see pages upon pages of other tasks that still need completing. That’s why I create a daily one-page work menu for myself. It’s based on the fact that there’s only so much time in my day to get stuff done, so I simply ask myself what I want to get done today and place that on the menu. I recommend that you make this a habit every time you start your day because it provides clarity and focus and it feels good to accomplish and cross-off everything that you set out to achieve that day. It also allows you to take time to review your daily agenda and see your current commitments and priorities. I actually enjoy creating my menu everyday over a cup of coffee because once my menu is completed, I feel a sense of direction and purpose in my day instead of handling fires all day long.
Outsource Your Non-Critical Tasks
I’ve already mentioned that a freelance copywriter has a finite amount of time in the day and one of the keys to financial success is being able to convert most of that finite time into billable hours. The way to do that is by outsourcing your non-critical tasks to other people, thereby leveraging your time to focus in on the activities that generate income for your business.
Obviously, this isn’t going to be a strategy for the new freelance writer getting started, but once you get your freelance copywriting business flowing, you’ll definitely want to look at your schedule and daily tasks to see what you can outsource. My personal rule on this is that you should outsource any personal or professional activity that: 1) consistently eats up more than three hours out of your week; 2) you absolutely dislike doing to the point that procrastination sets in; 3) you don’t have a good level of competency in; and 4) costs less than your hourly fee. Some of the work that you can outsource are: housecleaning, transcription, tax preparation, bookkeeping, editing, proofreading, graphic design, grocery shopping, babysitting, laundry, web maintenance, social media, etc.
There is a caveat to making this work however. The rule that you need to follow is that if you outsource an activity, then you need to make sure that you spend that saved time engaged in income-producing activities, otherwise you’re merely spending money on a luxury, rather than leveraging your time to make more money.
Plan Your Schedule Around Your Optimal Writing Time
Every writer out there has what I call their “optimal writing time” (OWT) during their day where they produce their best work and it’s that time in the day where they are naturally focused and motivated to write. OWT’s are highly individual. Some writers crank out their best work in the early morning hours before the sun comes up. Other writers, like myself are of the vampire variety that write when the sun sets until the sun rises. If you’re blessed with the gift of being able to crank out work anywhere at any time, then I tip my hat off to you because that’s a rare gift.
The antithesis to the OWT is your “worst writing time” (WWT) and we’ve all been there, even if we didn’t know it existed. This is the time when writing even a sentence is like pulling teeth. Writer’s block flourishes and frustration kicks in if you try to work your trade during this period of time. That’s why I recommend that you find out when your OWT is and create a daily working schedule around that time because as a freelance writer, you want to maximize that window of time where your creative writing juices are flowing naturally and work on other non-writing tasks during your WWT when your writing productivity is at its lowest.
Replenish Your Mental And Physical Energy
Writing is a mentally-draining activity. It requires a lot of brain horsepower to produce high-quality work, so it’s important to replenish your mental and physical energy every so often. I personally like to take a small 15 minute break after about two or three hours of uninterrupted work. I spend those breaks either doing chores around the house, or I might step out for a short walk. I find it beneficial to spend my breaks doing something that involves moving my body because I’m sitting in a chair for hours at a time working and I’m sure that’s not what humans were designed to do all day long.
Feeding your brain is just as important as taking mental breaks. It takes a good amount of glucose to run your brain and if you’re not getting adequate amounts of quality carbs in your diet, then you’re going to suffer from brain fog and your writing is going to suffer along with it.
The internet is both a blessing and a curse for the modern writer. It allows us to conduct lightning-fast research, something that would have taken hours and sometimes days to do thirty years ago. Now we’re able to do quality research in only about 30 minutes. However, the internet is also a source of distraction with Facebook, Twitter, email notifications and chat rooms galore – you can literally lose the entire day doing the WRONG kind of writing that doesn’t make you any money! I recommend turning off your social media alerts, email notifications and instant message software while you are writing. Only visit webpages that are relevant to the writing project that you’re working on as well.
I recommend putting your phone on silent and avoid taking phone calls while you are engaged in your writing. I’ve read that you lose anywhere between 15-20 minutes of productive writing time every time you get interrupted. Now that might be difficult when you’re expecting prospects and clients to call, so you’ll have to gauge how much of a distraction calls are for you and how easily you’re able to transition from call-taking back to your writing project. I personally can’t write and take calls at the same time, so I take calls during the day when I’m engaged in non-writing activities and I don’t allow for any calls or distractions when I get to my writing towards the evening.
Having a dedicated writing room is helpful if you live with other people. It allows you a sanctuary where you can focus on your work. However, if that’s something that’s not feasible for you, then the second best option is to get yourself a box of high-quality ear plugs from your local drugstore. They’re honestly my secret weapon that allows me to get into my writing zone where ever I might be.
Stick To A Schedule
You’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, I got into this business to break free from having a schedule!” Okay, okay…Just hear me out for a moment. As a freelance writer, you do have full control over your work schedule, but one of the less glamorous aspects about being a freelancer is the fact that you’re running a professional services business and in order to make it successful, you’re going to have to set and enforce your own work policies now. One of the big problems of being a freelancer is that your personal life begins to melt into your professional one and vice versa. Having a set schedule maintains a level of separation between the two and I think that’s important for overall well-being and longevity in this business. Also, having a schedule provides a nice clean set of guidelines for your friends and family members to follow so that they can respect your professional time boundaries.