What's Really Work During Office Hours?

What’s Work?

When you set your office hours, decide what’s work and what’s not.  Please, for the love of Ceiling Cat, don’t limit what you consider work to paying contracts and marketing.  I know it sounds weird. But look at the policies of some successful companies who encourage their employees to take a certain percentage of their time to develop a project that just takes their fancy.   (Google leaps to mind. Gmail and several other Google applications are a result of this policy).  You want to make sure that you “count” time to be creative, to brainstorm, to experiment, get messy and make mistakes.  Just be careful not to fool yourself about what those projects are.    For instance, this book is one of those projects for me.  It counts as work.  If I’ve finished what I intend to do on paying contracts, have finished answering my quota of RFPs and have done my bookkeeping, this is what I work on during my office hours.

So, how do you decide what’s “real” work and what’s screwing around?  Ultimately, you’re going to have to make a choice.  Sex blogs?  That’s a no-brainer, right?  Well, I know of one entrepreneur for whom sex blogs would most certainly be time well-spent professionally!   What it boils down to is, “Is this really in my field?”

I’m a writer who will work on some of the most amazing ranges of things, so this can get fuzzy.  I’ve written on everything from Red Pandas to how to flirt.  I may be called upon to write about almost anything at almost any time.  So, does surfing Wikipedia count?

For me, no.  While my ‘Satible Curtiosity is a boon to professional development, I’ve chosen not to allow surfing for information randomly during office hours.  Oh, I have a ball with it afterwards (under the “learn how to learn” principle).  If I can’t envision a “product” for it within an hour or two, it’s screwing around rather than working.   Does this mean I might turn rants, irritations, debates and curiosities into actual useful material?   Well, where do you think this course came from?

Depending on your field, you may find that you spend less professional time than you intended on directly paying contracts.  For me?  I spend an average of 45% of my working day on directly-paying material.   That’s pretty much par for the course in my field.  If it drops below that, I know my sales and marketing needs work.  If it goes above 60%, I need to re-assess how many contracts I’m accepting.    That sounds really cool and all, but it’s actually a lot more stressful than not enough work.  You won’t believe me until it happens to you, but trust me, it’s true.

This isn’t something you can look at as a daily, or even weekly thing.  I’m talking month to month.  There are weeks when I have bugger all to do for a client, then weeks where I spend all my office hours on directly-paying material.  While you really ought to keep track from day to day, you don’t want your evaluation granularity to be smaller than a month.

This does help you set your rates, though.   My bills are such that I have to bring in at least what I did as an administrative assistant.    But only about half of the hours I spend working directly pay for that.  However, I charge more than twice per hour what I earned as an admin, even though I bid by the job, so it’s not necessarily immediately obvious to a client.  Yes, I’ll be giving a good hourly rate formula to you in a later lesson.

Train Yourself to Work in Weird Places

While routine is good, and it’s a good idea to make it work for you, Life Happens.  Kids get sick, spouses change work schedules so that alone time you thought you had is no more.  You’ll want to make sure that whatever you do, you don’t get so wedded to your routine or work ritual that when that ritual can’t happen, you can’t work.

This is another one of those “speaking from experience” moments.  When I was working on my first novel, I was living in Virginia with my husband.  I had a word count goal for each week day.  We lived in a one-bedroom apartment and my desk was in the living room back to back with his drafting table.  My ritual was to get up, have my mug of espresso, and write all morning until I’d hit my word count.   I would dread “workdays” that he’d take off, or wouldn’t go in because of snow.[1] I couldn’t get anything done.  His very presence was a distraction.

Don’t do this to yourself.  If you’re going to make a living, especially doing creative work, the last thing you can afford to indulge in is artistic temperament.    If you can train yourself to be able to work under a variety of conditions, it’s a good idea.

I really do, no kidding, write when I’m traveling.  In fact, before I started work on this paragraph, I was working on a formatting job for a client – all while riding on a passenger train to visit a friend[2].

Why should you do this?  Well, for one, you don’t want to develop an artistic temperament, even if you are an artist.  Two, you’re going to be working your rear off.  You’re not going to be getting paid vacations, so it’s better to accept that, and learn to work during dead time like travel time, or under unusual circumstances.  Otherwise, you’ll be chained to your house, or you need to raise your hourly rate to save for vacations.

Set Daily Goals

Setting goals is really important to being self-employed.  You’ll need it at first to start getting the contracts, and then to complete them.  You’ll need the goals to have some direction, especially in the beginning when you aren’t bringing in a lot of cash.  You’ll need them as you go along to make sure that you’re making appropriate use of your best commodity — your time and brain.

Setting yearly and monthly goals are a good way to help you plan your daily goals.  In fact, I’d say that the daily to-do list without a general idea of what you want to accomplish over time is foolish.  While there is a certain level of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks in this gig, you don’t want to be too scattered!

This was my goal list for October 2007

  • Prep to teach a kick-ass class in MS Word
  • Get three new clients
  • Make my word count every day on Stoneflower (A novel I was writing)
  • Find one more project or sideline that could bring in $400 in a month.
  • (non-income generating) Keep up on my Poly writing. I might go ahead and do a quarterly ‘zine, but I’m going to play that for a break-even thing and do it for fun. Can’t everything be about money, nor do I want it to be.

This led to a to-do list for a day early in October 2007:

  • Write 500 Words on Stoneflower
  • Have meeting with neighbor across the street to help her make a Spanish class brochure (I count this as client work because I’ll be getting about $200 worth of Spanish lessons for my son).
  • Bid on one project on iFreelance
  • Brainstorm 10 short story ideas for writing contest due Dec 3.
  • Do a brainstorm on the Polyamory ‘Zine to speculate format, how often it will be released, costs to make/send out, etc.
  • Bid on an eLance project
  • Brainstorm some topics for the Polyamorous Misanthrope column that will include more than a one-line topic.
  • Spend an hour brainstorming things that I think I can do that will bring in $100/week.
  • Study the MS Word manuals for the class I am teaching

Now interestingly enough, not everything panned out.  You know what?  Everything won’t.  That’s okay. You want to try lots of different things.  Stoneflower is only about 65,000 words long so far and far from done, though it’s properly plotted, I never did do the poly ‘Zine, I didn’t win the writing contest, and the woman who was going to teach the Spanish lessons never did get back to me.

And yet, I am still in business.  Those daily bids on the freelance boards did pan out eventually, but even that took time.

The important part is that you’re consistently thinking about ways to bring in business, how to refine your business, what new products and/or services you might want to offer, and what works for you.  Your list won’t be the same as mine, as your goals and abilities are different.  That’s perfectly all right!  What is important is that you’re in a stage of constant refinement with it.

[1] This was Virginia.  Virginians tend not to go out in the snow, and no wonder.  It’s amazing the difference a plow, some sand and good snow removal makes!

[2] It would be a rare trip, indeed, that I could not use the time as enough working hours to pay for the trip!

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