29th April 2015

Freelancers are aware of the challenges they face in managing time, and most of us acknowledge that time is a valuable resource. Despite this, time is often squandered.  Perhaps this is because time feels amorphous and can be difficult to quantify.

I have been both freelance and a company director for the majority of my career. In my experience, freelancers often find themselves with too many concurrent projects, or with large gaps in between jobs. So the key is to manage your time when you have too much or too little work.

On the whole, people struggle to accurately assess the amount of time they spend on projects. Perhaps this is because our perception of time is influenced by mood. Consequently, arduous tasks seem to take longer, while pleasurable tasks fly by.  We lose track of time when we focus on one task, and we lose track of time when we focus on many tasks. Finally, most of us estimate the time spent on a project at the end of the day / week, or at its completion, rather than recording it in real time.

I was curious about how I spent time. So I started using a time sheet app on my phone. Since collecting the data, I found that I do a fair amount of unpaid work on projects. This includes: meetings, creative prep, emails, notes, admin, etc., and it often amounts to an additional days work on a short project and much more on a longer project. This matters when you work on a daily rate. Even if you quote a weekly, or monthly rate, it is easy to lose track of how much work you do out of the office, the edit suite, the studio or away from set. I also found that I expected “grunt work” to take longer than it did, and I spent more time on fun or interesting tasks than I had originally allocated. No surprises there.

What about time in between jobs? In my case, I was accurate about  creative tasks. On average, I spent three hours per day writing and three hours per day painting. This is what I expected. However, I massively underestimated time spent on company admin, bookkeeping, website and social media maintenance, exercise and research.

The reality is, many freelancers fail to use their downtime effectively. In addition to the obvious need for rest, this time can be viewed as a gift and is extremely valuable. Instead, freelancers often spend a lot of this time worrying, ironically, about time.

Like liminal social spaces such as carnival, this period in between projects is neither work nor leisure and it is full of potential. I like to cultivate curiosity during these periods; about my field, but also about the world in general. Our brains are plastic and malleable, with neural connections that grow and die and change in response to how we use them.  For me, ‘light bulb moments’ happen more frequently when  I feed my brain a variety of information.

Many people believe that there will come a point in their career when they “have arrived”, so to speak. But in reality, that point never comes, because there is no end point when it comes to learning and creating. Plus, in a hugely competitive marketplace, there will always be new people nipping at your heels.

If you have stopped challenging yourself and expanding your skills, perhaps it’s time too try something new. In which case, the time in between jobs is a golden opportunity to do so.

So use your time wisely and make sure you are appropriately compensated for it. Learn new things. Examine old projects to see how you might improve. Keep up to date on current methods, technologies and styles. Look at other people’s work. Watch movies, go to galleries, take classes, travel, talk to people, and read, read, read. Most importantly, explore your preferences and grow your curiosity. Therein lies the road to passion.


When I was young and about to go out, my father never told me to be careful, or to call if I was going to be late. He never told me to play nice, to wear sunscreen, eat well, or to stay hydrated. Instead, right before the door banged closed, he would always shout “learn something!”. As final words go, I think they work pretty well. And hopefully you’ve given yourself enough time to do so.


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