SMART Freelancing: Are You Being Realistic?

Take a Number

Take a Number

After a small pause to let you all settle into your SMART freelancing techniques, Elizabeth Fayle is here to give you the next key to rockin’ out your freelance biz.

If you’ve missed the series to date, you can read each post here:

The intro to being SMART
The first key: Specific
The second key: Measurable
The third key: Agreed Upon

Welcome to today’s installment: being realistic.

Are you staying up until all hours burning the midnight oil? Does your family refer to you as “the lump by the computer”? Do you not remember what the sun feels like on your face?

Then you are not being realistic when it comes to your business. And you can’t keep it up.

“But I have to!” you wail. “I have all these new clients asking for quotes! I have to keep accepting these projects!”

Why? What’s going to happen if you say not right now to a client?

“Well, duh, I’ll lose the client,” you roll your eyes.

Wrong. Well, you might lose the odd client, true, but that’s not really what’s important.

The most important part of what happens if you say, “Not right now,” is that you’ve stuck up for yourself. You’re booked solid. You have clients clamouring for your attention.

And you’ll fit the client in next Tuesday, thank you very much. That’s being realistic about how much you can accomplish this week.

“But I could fit him in,” you reply. “If I just work an extra hour or two, I can fit that client in no problem.”

No, you can’t. Take your 24-hour clock and divide it into the following:

• 6 – 8 hours of sleep
• 3 square meals a day
• 30 minutes of exercise
• Household chores
• Downtime with the family or alone
• Business administration
• Heads-down project work

I know that a lot of you are shaking your heads at my silliness, thinking you are getting that much sleep, that you do eat, and that you do get the chores done beyond dancing your fingers across the keyboard. You have plenty of time left for that client.

That all sounds very entrepreneurial and go-get-‘em, but it isn’t realistic.

You need sleep, good food, and exercise to perform your job well. You need the emotional bond with your loved ones so you don’t get frustrated and quit. And you need time to take care of the rest of your life, because that’s why you have this business, after all.

Telling yourself that you can make it happen, that all you’re going to do for the next week is work is not realistic. I realize there are times when you miscalculate a job estimate, and you have to work late. But this should be the exception, never the rule.

Doing it all the time is called burning out. Don’t do it. That’s when you become part of the the 90% of all businesses fail statistic.

You’re in this for the long haul. You are not a statistic. You are a SMART business owner. And you’re going to be realistic about your time. All the time.

Establish Core Business Hours

Your core business hours can be flexible insofar as when you’re generally most productive, but they’re set in stone after you’ve chosen them. If you can barely make a cup of coffee at 5 a.m., start your day at 10 a.m. You’re welcome to start work at 5 am if you want, but you can’t start at 9 am some days just because.

And whatever core business hours you pick, stay under 8 hours. If you work more than that, you cease to be productive.

Communicate Your Business Hours

To everyone. To your family. To your clients. Insist those hours be respected. … barring emergencies like water pipes breaking or all-out brawls between your kids involving copious amounts of blood. Keep repeating your business hours to them and find ways to enforce their respect of them.

Stick to it, too. Sometimes it takes people a while to believe you’re serious, especially if you’ve been a workaholic up until now.

Stick To Your Business Hours.

That means if you stop for the day at 5 p.m., DO NOT look at a single work email after that. You know you’ll get sucked in if you do. Your quick email check becomes a written response, some analysis, and finally that little voice says, “What the heck. I might as well just do it.”

It’s not just good for you to be realistic about your humanity, either. That client you told that you could fit him in Tuesday? Being realistic made him think of you as the most sought-after freelancer around. You’re full up and booked solid because you’re that good.

He thinks he’s lucky to get you.

And you know what? He is.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. I agree that working long hours should be the exception rather than the rule. Ideally, we should get eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work and eight hours of play but this is almost never the case. I am not a freelancer as such but I do work from home and I’ve training my boss and colleagues to stop arranging meetings after 4pm (still working on that one), I’ve been forcing myself to step away from the keyboard and to stop checking work emails after hours. Great article once again!

  2. @Gillian – I have a similar challenge in my 9-5-er. I’m there at 7:30 a.m. which means I leave at 3:30. And yet, meetings get booked for 3:00 p.m. I tell them I’ll go, but I will be leaving at 3:30 p.m. Nobody is going to die if I am not there for part of it, and nobody is going to die if the meeting is postponed a day to a more reasonable hour. My personal challenge is that my Make Way work hours are in the evening, so my trick is to not open my laptop until I have done my ‘family and household’ thing. Then I can settle into heads down work and everyone is happy. Especially me 🙂
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  3. Keeping a schedule has been the hardest thing for me. There is always work to be done and having an office at home makes it hard to ‘leave.’ When I’m not working I have that nagging voice in my head reminding me of what is still on my plate. I am constantly working on this. Thanks for the reminder.
    .-= Heather Villa´s last blog ..When Things Heat Up =-.

  4. @Eliza – I don’t mind if afternoon meetings are the exception rather than the rule. I find meetings more productive in the morning than the afternoon as I have mentally switched off by about 3pm but everyone’s ‘work body clock’ is different. Good for you for leaving at 3:30pm.

  5. I have a weird schedule – I just work when I’m up and not when I’m asleep or spending time with the family. Anything operational from 3am to 7am is a good time indeed. 🙂
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..TIME SENSITIVE Tips – My own Black Friday Sale Starts Today (Simple Traffic and more) =-.

  6. Elizabeth,

    The household chores can definitely go.

    See, I just made an extra hour to work. 😉

    Good post. I follow this at least 1/3 of the time (*hangs head in shame*), and believe me, I notice the difference. Those days are better.


    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..MCE Holiday Gift Guide—for you, for customers, and for special people on your list =-.

  7. This is now getting to be a problem of mine as a freelancer.
    My best time for jobs prospects peak at 11pm to 1am in our time-zone and I just can’t stop working I only have about 5 hours of daily, normal sleep!
    I know I have to stop this.
    .-= poch´s last blog ..“Hope is Fading Fast” Obama T-shirt =-.

  8. I used to work in the publishing industry and would put in 48-hour days. I’m not kidding. I thought I was being industrious and efficient, but I was simply burning myself out.

    Today my philosophy is that life is too short to put in long days. I make plenty of time for myself. I simplify and automate anything I can. I try to remember that there’s no point in escaping one rat race to join another.
    .-= Dean Rieck´s last blog ..9 business-boosting benefits of a freelance website =-.

  9. Kenji Crosland says:

    I like the idea of communicating your business hours to people. Many times I get interrupted simply because people think I’m not working. I should give that one a try. Thanks for the insight.
    .-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..Shutting down the site =-.

  10. Good reminder, I am not exercising at all. .. time for a change! great post.
    .-= Learn Creative Visualization´s last blog ..Ask for the Best =-.

  11. Thanks for the reminder. I have a hard time saying no to clients, especially loyal ones who’ve referred other clients to me. Even after I decide I have all my projects lined up for the month, I still want to accommodate them.

    Another way we can be unrealistic is with our abilities. Sometimes we may want an assignment so badly that we accept it even if we know we’re not the perfect or the right person for the job, but we’d like to build up our experience in that area.

    .-= Lexi Rodrigo´s last blog ..The Winning Proposal: A Review =-.

  12. I always have trouble sticking with business hours. Just this morning, I saw a ‘quick request’ in my inbox and figured ‘oh, this’ll be a snap’ and took care of it, which of course made me ten minutes behind for something else. These tips really hit home that we need to not only stand up for ourselves and establish firm times for clients but also to make sure that WE adhere to those times! A quickie here and there add up and can definitely lead to burn-out over time.

    It was also difficult at first to turn down clients (‘But, it’s MONEY!’). I did learn the hard way what ‘too many clients’ feels like. It’s not pretty for anyone involved and ends up being a disservice to your clients when you’re rushing around trying to please and complete projects for too many people. I’m now completely comfortable letting potential clients know that I’ll be with them in X amount of time and have been pleasantly surprised at the responses! If someone really wants to work with me, generally they’re willing to wait and it makes things smoother all around.

  13. Not only is this a good post for freelancers, but it also good for teaching people how to treat a freelancer.

    I do freelance work and I hire them, so I can see where you are coming from.

    It’s really easy to get sucked in to one more email and lose an entire evening.
    .-= Nathan Hangen´s last blog ..3 Steps to Being Remarkable =-.

  14. @ Kenji:

    I like the idea of communicating your business hours to people. Many times I get interrupted simply because people think I’m not working.

    A buddy walks into my house – without knocking, calling first or anything. It’s Wednesday, 2pm, middle of the day. “Hey, you busy?”

    “Yep, working…” I glance up. He’s in the living room, coat off, looking hopeful for a beer. I am WORKING.

    “Oh. Cool.”

    He’s waiting. Not leaving, waiting. I haven’t moved from my chair or barely looked away from the computer. It’s the middle of the day, when all other people are working, and so am I, and here he is. Visiting.

    So I try. “Listen, I have to do this, and then that, and I’ve got a call and… busy day.” There. Clearly, I am WORKING.

    “Huh, sounds like a busy day, yeah.” But he doesn’t leave. “Hey, you gonna set that thing down? I hate it when I come over and you’re tapping away… I’m HERE, you know.”

    Clearly so.

    “Well, I don’t have much time,” I try to be nice. “I AM working. Busy day…I really can’t afford to stop…”

    Yeah. Hopeless. Anyone want a beer too, while I’m up? 😉

  15. Kenji Crosland says:


    Dude, the beer’s on me. We can commiserate on how other people keep us from getting things done. It’s always their fault 😉
    .-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..Shutting down the site =-.

  16. @Heather – I work off of a laptop. I find that if I completely shut it down, it prevents me from sneaking in work during non-work hours.

    @Gillian – I will always accomodate emergency meetings and exceptions to the rule. Where I work it is sadly a rule. But it’s all about setting boundaries, and so far nobody has complained. As a matter of fact, they are probably silently thanking me for being the voice of reason 🙂

    @Barbara – you are coherent at 3 a.m.? 🙂

    @Kelly – two words … cleaning service. And don’t hang your head in shame. I didn’t say I actually followed my own advice to the letter *shhhhhhh*

    @poch – that’s the challenge of working globally, eh? Meeting the hours of all our clients is becoming more of a problem.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  17. @Dean – love this … “there’s no point in escaping one rat race to join another” Exactly! Interesting how we work for ourselves so we have more control over how we balance our work and family life, and then we still ending up tipping the scales in favour of work hours.

    @Kenji – love James’ example in his comment. Everyday in the morning, I tell my husband exactly which hours I plan on working for the day. And he totally respects this. Okay, he wanders in for a kiss once in awhile, but hey, that’s motivating.

    @LCV – good reminder for myself, actually. Back to WiiFit it is!

    @Lexi – interestingly, I was debating which approach to take with this Realistic post. Being realistic about our abilities was one of them. I went this time route, but there is definitely another post in the making on abilities.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  18. @Briana – good point about actually doing a disservice to your clients by taking on too much. Also good point about client reactions to being told they have to wait. In reality our fear of losing clients by asking them to wait is unfounded.

    @Nathan – and one more email, then one more, then one more …. 🙂
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  19. And then there’s my client who wanted me to do a Coaching session with her at 10.00pm….. that’s my bedtime, and even if it weren’t I have very little brain power left at that time of night. She really didn’t get why I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it, although she finally agreed to reschedule to ‘normal’ daytime hours.

    And also, for those who work at home like James and I, there’s often school things during the day that we have to make time for. There’s less time for working then, yet we still try and fit in the full eight hours of work.
    .-= Melinda | WAHM Biz Builder´s last blog ..Why Do I Need a Newsletter List Anyway? =-.

  20. @Melinda – part of the coaching was not expecting anyone to do business at 10 p.m.? Question because I am past this stage. Should work-at-homers consider daycare for their children? People who head off to work obviously use daycare. If you work at home, and are expecting to do so fulltime, would daycare not be part of that?
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  21. Welcome to my world Eliza, and to one of the issues I see over and over again. A lot – a hugely high proportion – of work at home mums are doing so because they WANT to be home with their kids and still bring in an income. And sooner or later they run headfirst into that brick wall called Reality.

    That wall says very loudly that they can’t do it all – trying to run a business full-time with children around full-time is not possible. Their choices are to put the kids in daycare so they can work full time, or lower their expectations of being able to run a business full time.

    Whichever realisation they come to is fine with me, because once they’ve realised that then we can work with it. It’s when they’re trying to do everything at once and insisting that they can make it work that is frustrating and fruitless.

    Having said that, there are some mums who do manage to run a profitable business from home while looking after the kids. They are in a definate minority, and in most cases are not required to talk directly to clients on a regular basis so it doesn’t matter as much if the kids are making noise in the background.

    But yes, to get back to your original comment, expecting me to be working at 10.00pm is crazy. I did do this for awhile, and burnt out very quickly. I’ve realised I’m far more productive putting in less working hours – because I can then find time for the other things I need to do. Like spending time with my family and sleeping. Housework, well, it can always wait…. LOL

    I do try and get this across to my clients, but sad to say that most of them need to discover this for themselves.
    .-= Melinda | WAHM Biz Builder´s last blog ..So What Do I Do With My Newsletter/Autoresponder Now? =-.

  22. Something I meant to add: with that particular client I was quite prepared to lose them if they weren’t willing to schedule within reasonable hours. She was quite surprised when I said that, and I think that was the tipping point where she realised that I wasn’t going to be working at 10.00pm and I wasn’t going to be pushed into it.
    .-= Melinda | WAHM Biz Builder´s last blog ..So What Do I Do With My Newsletter/Autoresponder Now? =-.

  23. all your discussions really give me a lot help and the big thanks goes to James..Good to be here.

  24. @Melinda – thanks for the daycare response. I was trying to figure out how a stay at home business owner could do BOTH taking care of their children and a full time business. Raises the point that we all have to decide how we want to spend our waking hours based on priorities, needs and wants. It doesn’t have to be about children. We have to be realistic about all the things we want to, and need to, accomplish in a 24 hour period.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The Mis(Adventures) of Mike: A tired business owner =-.

  25. Melinda,

    Re: The difficulties of wanting to be with the kids while working at home—Very, very true. That’s contrarian realism that more folks should be prepared for when they choose to work from home. Having watched James work with childrens’ chaos swirling in the background, I can say that it takes not only a special breed of person, but a special breed of family to work like that.

    Until later,

    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..MCE Holiday Gift Guide—for you, for customers, and for special people on your list =-.

  26. @ Kelly – For some things in life, hyperfocus is a blessing. 🙂

  27. Hyperfocus is not something I’ve been blessed with. Just regular garden-variety focus. If you ever bottle it, I’ll be first in line to buy some.

    New! HyperFocus! You kids can set off bombs in the basement and your deadlines will still be met when you buy this little miracle-in-a-bottle!


    Until later,

    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Inspiration Points: Blessings in Disguise & T-day Hype =-.

  28. As someone who is on the client side, this is a timely reminder to respect freelancer’s hours and stop calling them at five minutes to five! This often happens because we’ve got our own pressures but we always need to be mindful that freelancers also need to clock off for the day.

  29. @Paul – when we go to a physical building as a client we have visual reminders about the biz hours. A sign on the door stating the hours. A locked door after hours. But when we do biz online we don’t have those clues, so just start typing or pick up the phone. Odd how we expect 24/7 service just because it’s online. We are all guilty of this to some degree. Interestingly, as clients we shouldn’t be doing biz 24/7 either. We also need our ‘shut down’ tiime.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The (Mis)Adventures of Mike: Mapping out business processes =-.

  30. I must say, these SMART articles are really hitting home for me. I have a regular 8-5 job and moonlight as an amateur freelancer. I had client referred to me by a friend of a friend and suddenly find myself 1) underbidding the hours 2) not being specific enough (and loosing time & money because of it) and 3) working on this far longer than I ever wanted to – and for a charitable non-profit, no less! – so I feel guilty saying “Hey, my services are worth more than me just giving you work for free as a donation.” Suffice it to say that it has been a hard learning experience, and a has shown each and every facet of the SMART approach to be dead-on target. Take it from me: learn and live this advice now, or suffer later!!!

  31. @kingworks – ah yes, the guilt about charging what we are worth because, well, it’s church or charitable organization. Trust me, I have worked for both churches and charitable organizations and they *know* they are running a business. Most are better at running businesses than for-profit organizations are! Family … friends .. churches .. non profits …. business is business. Charge what you are worth.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..The (Mis)Adventures of Mike: Mapping out business processes =-.


  1. […] SMART Freelancing: Are You Being Realistic? – Men With Pens […]

  2. […] The intro to SMART freelancing The first key: Specific The second key: Measurable The third key: Agreed Upon The fourth key: Realistic […]

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