Or: What a Dead British Guy, a Student and a Cake-Obsessed Tax Advisor Can Teach You About Being a Productive Freelance Writer.
Are you the sort of freelance writer who stresses about a piece of work way before it’s due? Do you spend a lot of time researching, planning and executing?
Or do you spend more time looking for freelance writing work and less time actually doing it?
Parkinson’s Law and freelance writing
Any task or work will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for completion.
I can scarcely believe that Cyril Northcote Parkinson – the guy who articulated this concept – was a Brit.
I can scarcely believe it because I live in Britain. More specifically, London, and from my experience of living in the capital nobody – and I mean nobody – seems to have any idea about maximising work productivity.
Parkinson came up with this concept in the fifties and both the 9-5 corporate world and the workforce in various industries have been steadfastly ignoring it ever since.
The freelance writing work day
I recently agreed to answer some interview questions for a budding freelance writer who is at college and thinking about making freelance writing her career. One of her questions really sparked off my thinking about work productivity. Here it is, along with my response:
How many hours do you work a week?
I have no idea and I kind of like it that way. In the day jobs I’ve had in the past I had to work 45 hours or so per week, no matter how much work I had to do. That seemed odd to me. If I didn’t have much work on I’d have to stretch it out to fill the time, and if I had too much work on I had to try and fit it all in. With all the changes going on in the world and the way people work it baffles me that people think this makes sense!
These days I mostly work until the work is done. How simple is that? The hardest thing was not feeling guilty for not working 9-5 after I became a freelancer – that way of thinking really shows how embedded this work-day structure is in us. Some days I work 10 hours and it flies by because I’m focused on a great project. Other days I work a few hours – or not at all.
Then, just last week I met with my wonderful accountant advisor-type lady, Rosie from onemanbandaccounting.co.uk (see right). Also self-employed, Rosie pointed out that it wasn’t so much the ‘working for somebody else part’ of the ordinary day job she didn’t like, but the hours she was forced to keep as a result.
If you start work at nine and don’t get home until six or seven in the evening, you are forced to schedule every single other element of your life around this.
What’s more, it’s rare to have any energy, creative or otherwise, for anything meaningful by the time you’ve finished your working day and battled home in rush-hour.
(Wise words, great brownies and awesome meeting on Hamstead Heath, including tea and cakes – what more could you want from your tax advisor?)
Should you readdress your perception of work and time then?
I have a habit of spending a ridiculously long time writing my clients’ blog posts. Even though I know the topics, the structures and what works for each readership, I still give myself way too much time to complete the posts.
And guess what? I always spend all of the time I allot to this. The work truly does ‘swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for completion.’
This is definitely a hangover from working so long in 9-5 jobs in the past.
So is spending so much time perfecting my freelance writing work a good thing or a bad thing?
I’m not entirely sure I’ve figured that out yet. I definitely enjoy writing blog posts for my (mainly travel) clients, and feel as though I’ve done a better job the more time I spend on them. But I also have personal creative projects to make time for that are incredibly important to me and my future as a writer.
Could rushing your work up your game?
Perhaps my blog posts would be just as good if I spent less time on them? Better even?
Back when I was at university, I remember manically having to research and write an essay the night before it was due in. (Let’s not get into why I had left it to the last minute…)
I was usually more prepared (honest). I usually had notes. I usually spent ages on research, and much, much longer on writing.
Yet I received the best mark for that essay than I did for any other essay I wrote in the entire three years I was at university. Until that point I could never reach more than a ‘2:1’ score for any of my essays. For the rushed one that I perceived to be only just good enough? I received a ‘1st’ (the highest grade).
Still though, I went back to being a bit more organised after that – I couldn’t handle the stress of leaving it all to the last minute – but never again did I receive more than a ‘2:1’ for an essay.
Time 'aint nothing but a concept
Time as we know it – clocks, breakfast meetings, midnight snacks, graveyard shifts - are all completely made up phenomenon designed to place some sort of structure into our lives. Time as we’ve come to know it keeps society in order and the economy ticking over.
And it does a pretty good job.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is, freelance writers aren’t part of this 9-5 society. Nor are any other types of self-employed workers. Trying to force the archaic day job work model to apply directly to our freelance business just doesn’t work.
I know because that’s how I worked for the first year or so of freelancing. (Well, what else did I know how to do?) For me, applying the 9-5 rules to my life as a freelancer is simply not a productive way of working.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what all the principles at play are here, but it’s certainly interesting to mull over if you’re a freelance writer (or freelance anything).
Maybe we should all be a bit less stressed about being time-strapped. Maybe we’re not time-strapped at all.
Maybe you perform better working in 90 minute increments starting at midnight and finishing when the sun comes up.
Maybe you get your very best work done when you reduce the time it takes to complete it.
Have you ever experimented with your working day and week? What did you (or could you) discover and improve upon if you did?
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