How to Balance Freelance Work with Contracting
Short-term contract work is a worthwhile avenue for the freelancers who are hungry for projects. Register with an agency, and provided you have saleable skills and solid references, you may find yourself fielding contact offers that you haven’t had to source yourself.
That’s a great position to be in. Often, the work’s good, too — I’ve found that contracting provides me with access to jobs that aren’t advertised, and are better suited to my skills and experience than most that are. It’s also nice to have an assured income for a while, without having to commit to an organization long-term. The biggest hurdle for the freelancer who wants to take contracts is that often the contract is full-time.
If you’re on a full-time contract, how will you handle your other clients?
The mental block associated with this question is often enough to put freelancers off contracting entirely. But there are strategies you can use to take on short-term, full-time contracts without undermining your freelance business. These are the ones I use most.
Clear the decks
The last contract I was offered started three working days after I received the call from the recruiter. That doesn’t leave you much time to get the rest of your projects as up to date as possible. On the other hand, if you’re considering the contract, you probably have some unfilled time in your weekly schedule.
Don’t spend that time kicking up your heels and enjoying your soon-to-be-lost freedom. Spend it clearing the freelance decks:
- do any work you can in advance
- send and follow up any outstanding invoices
- review your schedule and shift commitments as required
- reorganize your workspace: there’s nothing worse than realising you’re out of paper at 11.30 on a Sunday night three weeks into your contract, when you need to get the printout into the mail to a client before work the next day.
Set ground rules
For the duration of your contract, you’ll need to work at optimum capacity. And to manage that, you’ll need discipline. Before you begin, set some ground rules. Mine usually look something like this:
- I won’t take client calls on contract hours — I’ll let them go to voice mail and respond to them on my lunch break.
- I commit myself to not taking on any additional jobs during the period of the contract, no matter how great they look.
- I schedule — and ensure I take — break or rest times during the contract period. Just a Sunday or evening off here and there can make a huge difference to my motivation — not to mention my ability to produce good work for the contract’s duration.
I also set ground rules with the people in my life — I tell my friends and family I have a crazy schedule for the next two months, for example. This preempts the “Why don’t you ever return my calls?” calls, and solicits their support at the same time.
Allow extra time
As well as setting ground rules, scheduling breaks, and so on, I usually try to build some fat around the time I’m dedicating to work in that period.
For example, my never-work-on-weekends philosophy is temporarily suspended for the duration of the contact. I don’t want to work seven days a week, but I usually need to accept that I’ll wind up doing some client work on the weekends if my contract’s five days a week.
To accept that, I need to consciously change my mindset, reminding myself the sacrifice is temporary. By giving myself this extra time to get work done, I relieve some of the pressure I might otherwise feel to get work done during the week, and allow myself the time and space to focus on producing good work.
Delegate what you can
If you use freelancers or contractors to support your business, see what you can farm out to them while you’re working on the contract. If you don’t, you may still be able to delegate some tasks — upgrade your time tracking service to invoice clients automatically, for example.
Don’t limit delegation to your work. Make a deal with housemates or your partner so that you’re not trying to fit grocery shopping, house cleaning, a visit to your friend’s house and eight hours of work into next Saturday. Just don’t neglect to hold up your end of the bargain — whatever that is — when the contract’s done.
Manage your time
Having put all these plans in place, be diligent about time management, and about switching off from work when those opportunities arise.
Also, be flexible. Planning is different from doing. If, as time passes, you realize something’s not working, or you find you’re struggling with some aspect of life, stop to consider how you could improve the situation. Don’t blindly stick to your plans on the basis that you don’t have time to rework them, or because “they should work.”
Tweak your approach as you get further into the contract, and you find opportunities to streamline the way you operate.
Don’t forget to tell your clients
Your clients will need to know that you’ll be unavailable during certain hours, between certain dates. The first time I took a contract I was concerned that my clients might feel deserted, or think I was moving out of freelancing and seek other providers. But they didn’t.
Explain what’s happening, and why, and your clients probably won’t be fazed by your temporarily reduced availability. To be honest, I don’t think mine even noticed. I was still responding to calls and emails in a reasonable timeframe, meeting the deadlines I had with them, and getting the job done. No big deal.
What’s your experience of taking a contract while you’re freelancing? What advice can you add to this list?