In last month’s post, which argued against the feast-or-famine mentality, I mentioned that I currently try to work a maximum of 25 billable hours a week. A reader asked how I divvy up my non-billable hours, which was an excellent question that also hinted at a common source of confusion: what tasks are considered non-billable, and why do they matter to us as editorial freelancers?
Let’s start by looking at some examples of both billable and non-billable tasks.
I used to assume that billable tasks comprised any time I spent working on a client project. I quickly learned that this just isn’t true.
For example, will I bill the client for phone meetings? What about the time I’ll spend researching, if applicable? Some editors charge for these kinds of tasks, and some don’t.
Here are some examples of my billable tasks:
- The specialized skill that the client is paying me for (editing, fact-checking, etc.)
- Phone calls and meetings with current clients
- Revisions, if applicable
I break non-billable tasks into two categories: business development and business administration. Business development includes any task that helps me build and expand my business, such as marketing and networking. Business administration is mainly made up of the nitty-gritty tasks that keep everything running smoothly, like invoicing clients and buying new equipment.
Here are some examples of my non-billable tasks:
- Going to a networking event
- Interacting with potential clients
- Writing proposals
- Managing my social media accounts
- Updating my website, or blogging
- Following up with past clients
- Strategic planning
- Learning a new skill, or improving my current skills
- Preparing for a client meeting
- Drafting contracts
- Invoicing and bookkeeping
- Reading and replying to emails
- Managing current clients
- Project management
- Keeping my files organized
- Researching and buying new office equipment, supplies, or software
WHAT MY WORK WEEK LOOKS LIKE
Only billing for 25 hours a week may seem outrageous to non-freelancers. After all, we’re taught that we should “work” (and get paid for) a 40-hour week. But in the freelance world, billing less than 30 hours a week is actually fairly typical. (Side note: If you’re working more than 35 hours a week on client projects and still barely making ends meet, you probably need to raise your rates).
How many billable hours you enjoy working each week is completely up to you. I used to work 50 to 70 hours a week on client projects, and it nearly drove me, and my business, into the ground. That wasn’t sustainable, and nowadays, I’m more realistic about my own limitations. For example, I know that I can only work on client projects for about 5 hours a day before my attention starts waning and my productivity drops dramatically.
I have two main techniques for making sure I have a predictable number of billable hours:
1. Breaking my day into chunks
- 1 hour of non-billable business administration in the morning
- Then, 5 hours of billable client work (with breaks)
- And finally, 1 or 2 hours of non-billable business development or administration to end the day
2. Having a designated day for non-billable tasks
I’m always experimenting with new ways to structure my week, but I often use Wednesday as my designated “non-billables” day.
On this day, I get a big chunk of administrative tasks done (especially the ones I tend to put off, like reorganizing my digital files). I also work on my business by brainstorming new services or classes I could offer, scheduling social media posts, seeking out new referral opportunities, attending networking events (or managing my own Meetup group), and answering emails.
PRO TIP: TRACK YOUR TIME
My secret weapon for managing my billable vs. non-billable hours? Tracking my time—and not just the client projects. I try to track all the time I spend in the office, and then I review once a month in order to find ways to spend less time on non-essential tasks (like, say, checking Facebook 10 times a day).
I use a free, web-based app called Toggl to track my tasks, but a lot of freelancers also rave about Freckle, which costs $19/month for one user and includes detailed reporting features. Some productivity apps based on the Pomodoro technique, like Brain Focus, also include time tracking.
However you do it, tracking your time will help you get an objective view of how you’re actually spending your days. I was surprised when I looked at the reports and saw how scattered my tasks were throughout the day—no wonder I felt so frazzled!
Tracking your time is crucial if you’re serious about optimizing your billable hours, and it will also help you free up time for radical self-care, such as mandatory vacations.
Did you miss the earlier installments of this series? Check out Part 1: What Is Your Actual Income?, Part 2: How to Better Manage Your Freelance Income, and Part 3: Why It’s Time to Drop the “Feast or Famine” Mentality.