I’ve used this space to suffer over my personal work ethic, writing process, and relative lack or excess of projects, and I don’t really want to belabor the point, but . . . here I go, once more belaboring the point in hopes of finding some new wisdom that will make me a better freelancer.

I have a few clients—not many—that I bill on an hourly basis. I don’t like to work this way, but it’s not always avoidable. When you have a client like that you have a basic responsibility, both to your client and to yourself, to accurately track and report your time. But for a long time I was tracking only those projects and not the others, which paid flat fees in one form or another. At some point I heard a good piece of advice and that’s to track all of your work hours, and for a number of reasons.

For me, the most telling result of that data is a look at how that flat fee translates to hourly work. Doing this, I was able to re-prioritize my time, shifting work to projects that ended up with a higher per-hour rate. This also helped me set flat fees, per-word rates, etc., to make sure that I was able to actually make a living doing the freelance editing and writing work that I do.

And let me stress that again: I’m trying to make a living. I’m not independently wealthy. I have demands on me: two mortgages, student loans payments, utilities, food . . . crazy stuff like that. This is what I do not as a hobby or a calling but as a career.

Okay, so I started tracking my work time, rounded to five-minute increments, some months ago and every so often I take a look at that data and try to match it up to my actual work experience, income, etc., to get a sense of whether or not my little one-man operation is on the right track.

I’ll admit, 2015 was hard for me. For various reasons, some I can’t really even identify, I managed to get behind then more behind then even more behind, so I was almost overwhelmed. But by the end of May, 2016, I was at a state where I had dug out of that deadline hole and was as close to “caught up” as I’ve been in some time.

Now I find myself running late on an edit for an extremely talented author who’s been more than patient with a string of broken promises, and I’m getting ready to dive into another project right behind it while having to finish up this current online pulp fiction workshop and the seven 6000+-word short stories that all need edits, and etc., etc., etc.

It’s the first week in July, so after having entered all my time data so far for the year I thought the halfway mark was a good time to take a look at what that work-time tracking was showing me.

Based on the number of week days (I don’t count holidays as days off, and often work on weekends, but . . .) and the number of hours logged as work, I averaged only 3.85 work hours per day in 2016’s 129 work days through June 30. I won’t say what that breaks down to in terms of hourly rate based on income received but it’s low. It’s way too low—a third or less of my actual target.

This is not good.

I feel like I should be working more hours per day and I have at least one late project to back up that assertion.

But what good is the internet if it can’t help us find rationalizations for our bad behavior?

Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot was asked about his writing process in a 1959 Paris Review interview:

T.S. Eliot, at hour 2

T.S. Eliot, at hour 2

But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory. It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.

So, wow. I have .85 hours a day up on T.S. Eliot!

Until you consider that at this time Eliot was also working in publishing at least part time.


Now, going out into the freelance world, I expected that I would work about as much as I did when I went to an office every day, but without the considerable time wasted by the back-and-forth commute, incessant meetings in which three or four minutes of actual new information was wrapped in an hour or more of general office bullshitting, and then some more general office bullshitting, and lunch, and more process stuff, logging things, and so on.

Well, I still do process stuff, still answer emails, manage my social media presence, much of which could be considered “general bullshitting”—but I do have ultimate flex time. Want to spend a Wednesday afternoon sitting on my butt watching TV? No problem—I’ll make up that work on Saturday, or at night, or . . . never?

The office makes us work an eight-hour day, but as freelancers, can we really work an eight-hour day? Where dose that concept even come from?

Leo Wildrich, in his article “The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It” traces the origin of the eight-hour work day to the Industrial Revolution and Robert Owen who raised the clarion call: “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” which was then solidified by Henry Ford as the most efficient way to run a factory. But then Wildrich challenges that with the idea of ultradian rhythm and the 90-120 minute work/20-30 minute rest concept popularized by Tony Schwartz.

Lisa Evans’s Fast Company article “The Exact Amount of Time You Should Work Every Day” doubled down on this concept, quoting a Draugiem Group study that found:

“. . . the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.”

Like Wildrich, Evans goes on to suggest a timer.

Now, I’ve tried something similar to that and though I will take Leo Wildrich’s advice to turn off all notifications, I actually tend to get distracted by the act of eliminating distractions—looking at the timer to see how many minutes of work time are left, trying to pull away when the time is up, wondering how far over I can go, then being distracted by something else in the “rest” phase, which quickly stretches from 17 minutes or 20-30 minutes to one episode of Game of Thrones, which turns into two, then there’s the day.

That just hasn’t worked for me at all. Is it because I’m too old?

The BBC reported on an Australian study that claims “Three-day working week ‘optimal for over 40s’ ” Is that it? Am I just too old to work more than twenty-five hours a week? I actually find that difficult to believe. I mean, I’m over forty, but I’m not actually that old.

And that article is more about older people holding down part time jobs, not for freelancers like me. Even then, a 25-hour week would mean a 1.15 hour/work day increase for me.

Tamara Berry took a deeper look at the peculiarities of the freelance life in her SparkPlugging article “How Many Hours Does the Average Freelancer Work?

Working from home is tricky because you aren’t punching in and out, you don’t take regular breaks, and if you’re like me, you always do a quick email check before you (insert pretty much any activity here). I find it hard to track the total number of hours I spend working for this very reason. For example, I just got done writing about fifteen catalog descriptions. It took me an hour, but the only reason I know it took an hour is because I was watching one of my favorite television shows while I did it. Does that mean I was really working? Does it count as an hour? A half hour?

As I said, I do track my work time, but I assume that some minor distractions count into that. I don’t stop the clock to choose another album on iTunes, read a couple tweets, or take a quick bathroom break. I do stop the clock for my own social media efforts, reading a full article online, etc., but the time it takes to, say, edit a chapter also includes breathing, glancing up at this or that, and being a human, not some kind of gear in a machine.

Faster, you damn proles! Work faster!

Faster, you damn proles! Work faster!

Lest anyone think I’m now rationalizing my 3.85-hour work day, how about some tough love from Samar Owais in his “9 Things You Should Know About Freelancing Full-time” at Hongkiat:

Freelancing full time means you’re responsible for yourself and your work more than ever. There’s no one around to monitor how much work you’re getting done or whether you’re meeting your targets.

For you to be successful as a freelancer, you need to be accountable for yourself. Otherwise, you might end up spending half the day tweeting and going through your RSS reader.

Ahhh, damn it. He’s right. Even when he also says:

Set your own hours: if you can get your work done in 4 hours instead of 8, no one’s forcing you to stay in the office. How cool is that?

It’s pretty cool, and you couldn’t force me back to an office, but the evidence of late projects, low average per-hour rate, and some financial stress is a clear and impossible to ignore or rationalize sign that I need to get my butt in gear.

I extended my own math out to get a better picture of how much actual work I can get done in an hour, and so on, and it looks as though the target number, five days a week, is six hours. I bet that put me, sans “day job,” in roughly the same territory as 1959 T.S. Eliot, an hour over Australians age 40+, and a full two hours ahead of Henry Ford’s factory workers.

Wish me luck!


—Philip Athans

P.S.: Writing and posting this article? Almost exactly 120 minutes.



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to MY 3.85-HOUR WORK DAY

  1. You seem to be procrastinating by writing this blog. Your students aren’t rich either and they paid a lot of money to take your class. Don’t you think they have mortgages and loans and families as well? You are obliged to them. When you let them down you only hurt yourself, for they will tell their friends not to take your classes. While the internet is vast, word will spread and eventually catch up to you. Maybe you shouldn’t spread yourself so thin.

  2. Beverly Buchanan says:

    I am one of those students and I don’t mind waiting for comments from Phil since they are worth it. If it takes a couple of days or more, it’s not that bad. I usually have to wait 2 months for comments from an agent. My money has already been spent on the course and I doubt I will recoup that from my pulp fiction story. On the other hand, the editor’s comments hold up progress on my novel, which I hope will help pay the bills.

  3. I am just starting out at that age. I find it tough to spend 8 hrs. on a day-to-day basis as errands etc. come up. I do my best. Time will tell.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…7/11/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  5. Pingback: SCREW IT, I’M TAKING A DAY OFF | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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