What You Do When You Do What You Do (Guest Post)

PB Note: Great guest post from freelance medical writer and author Laurie Lewis. I must confess, I have been less than rigorous in always keeping track of my time. But, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting a handle on exactly how your time gets split up between different project-related tasks could give you some extremely valuable insights. And she shares where those insights can lead (i.e., to higher fees, in some cases). Thanks Laurie! Enjoy.

When I began freelancing a lifetime ago, I used the most basic time-tracking method, simply noting when I began work for the day and when I ended. The best I could say about this practice was that it resulted in a logbook I could show the IRS, if I ever was (gasp!) audited. But to manage my fledgling business better, I wanted a different kind of record: a log that showed how I filled my day. So I started to log by task. More than two decades and many gray hairs later, I continue to keep task-based logs because they are so useful.

Suppose I’m beginning a new assignment. After discussing it with the client, I surf the web for a while and find a couple of good background resources. I spend an hour reading them and make a few notes. Break time! After a trip to the gym and a healthy lunch (not really, but I did say suppose), I get back to work.

More Googling, a few false leads. As I read the good material I’ve found, I realize I might want to take the assignment in a slightly different direction. I call the client to run the idea by him, but he’s not in so I leave a message and follow it up with an email. While waiting to hear back, I start to organize the paper. I see several gaps in my research, and I spend more time surfing and reading until I quit for the day.

My logbook shows that I worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour break. But my project log shows that I spent 2½ hours surfing, 2 hours doing background reading, 1 hour organizing my thoughts, and a half-hour communicating with the client. Four distinct tasks in a single day!

When you keep records like this every day for every project, you have a wealth of information about “what you do when you do what you do”—information you can use to manage your business better and earn more money. Here are a few personal anecdotes.

The client is always right, except when he isn’t
A client asked me to do a two-day job. I thought he was off base on the time it would take, as well as an appropriate fee. I checked old task logs for similar projects and confirmed that he hadn’t sized up the job accurately. I presented my case, listing all the tasks I’d have to do besides writing (research, develop tables, get quotes from experts, prepare a reference list—you know them as well as I do). Impressed, the client gave me a week to do the job and doubled the fee.

Why the 45-minute interview takes 3 hours
I might spend the whole day on interviews and talk to just two people. I often clock more time trying to reach interview subjects than I spend actually talking to them, and my log sheet notes the time-sapping activity with the entry “attempt to schedule interviews.” Post-interview tasks include going over notes, reviewing tapes, maybe transcribing. Logging these tasks separately gives me a good idea of where interview time goes.

Pace yourself
From my task logs, I know to allow slightly more than an hour to transcribe a half-hour interview. I have to plan on as much time to edit my own work as to prepare the initial draft, more if I haven’t done all the research before I begin writing. Knowing my working pace has helped me juggle multiple clients. If I have a looming deadline and I’ve only finished the first draft when another client calls, I’ll ask for a distant due-date for the new work or reluctantly turn it down if a close deadline is set in stone.

The secret to successful project rates
I saved the best for last. When I calculate a project rate, I rely on logs from completed jobs. They remind me of the tasks I may have to do and the time each task might take. With many years of logs, I have enough information to anticipate three scenarios: the cream-puff job, the typical one (as if there were such a thing!), and the job from hell.

What kinds of work logs do you keep?

How do you use the information in your logs?

Do you prefer to log on paper or by computer?

If you use a computer, what software do you like?

Do you keep track of your hours when you work for a flat fee?

Laurie Lewis is medical writer for hire. She also is the author of the multiple-award-winning book, What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants , along with her ebook, Freelance Fee Setting: Quick Guide for When a Client Demands a Price NOW.

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