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  • Diana Schneidman

What is full-time work for a freelancer or consultant?

One downside of self-employment is that there’s no one to set your hours except yourself. And when you work for yourself, you may have the most unforgiving taskmaster of all.

I find myself sorely tempted to translate my efforts into number of hours worked to determine if I am working “enough.”

When I worked in an office for a boss, I measured hours from the time I got to my desk to the time I turned off my desk lamp and left. If I gabbed with someone or spent time on e-mail that wasn’t really applicable to my work, I didn’t subtract it.

So it was easy to work an 8-hour day and I frequently “worked” 10 hours. I could feel good about a 50-hour work week no matter how little I accomplished. In fact, I had days where I was ill but I went to my desk to avoid using sick leave and accomplished nothing all day.

When I switched over to self-employment, I found it impossible to separate work from personal so I became continually more rigid in defining what is work. My schedule always fell short of my goals no matter how hard I tried!

Then I learned an enormously comforting truth from the experts on Yahoo groups. A full workweek for a freelancer or consultant consists of only 20 billable hours, not 40. This allows unpaid time for email, marketing, invoicing, administration, etc. As a result, a week consisting of 25 billable hours represents a substantial amount of work (like it is!) rather than a laid-back week. And while a week of 40 billable hours is physically possible, it probably takes place at the expense of office tasks and marketing that must be reassigned to others or delayed.

As you start a new freelance / consulting practice, you may have no billable hours but may devote all your work hours to marketing. This can make the separation of work and personal time even more hazy. As the days pass by and you continue your marketing focus without tangible results, the boundary between work and play becomes less distinct. You suspect your marketing activities are having no impact and therefore may simply be “play.” (It takes time for marketing to kick in and generate assignments!)

How people handle this distinction varies. One way is to delineate more clearly between your work schedule (perhaps 9 to 5) and leisure hours and to assign activities rigidly to the appropriate time slots. The advantage here is that you can turn off “work” at 5 and proceed to the other parts of your life.

I, however, prefer the opposite path. Blending “work” with “personal” in a rather seamless way is the ultimate in living life as far as I’m concerned. I’ve chosen the job and the life I most want after years of working in corporate situations where others called all the shots.

Furthermore, many activities that contribute to a business don’t lend themselves to categorization. Is Twitter a type of marketing or is it personal? For that matter, any outreach to others that feels fun and recreational, though it relates to business goals, presents the same quandary.

It comes back to being reasonable with yourself. We think of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) as meaning to be as kind to others as you would have them be towards you. But practice it in reverse as well: Do unto yourself with as much love as you give unto others.

Originally published 4-22-09

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