Why most freelancers have less free time than their cubicle counterparts (and how to fix it)

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As I’ve interacted with many of you here at the blog, I’ve been shocked to learn than many full-time freelancers actually have less free time in their days and weeks than many of you who work full-time somewhere else and still manage to pull off a part-time freelance business.

Whenever I ask about it, the answers are always the same: everything from “It takes a lot of time to manage a business” to “Business must be good if I’ve got no time, right?”

But, chances are, when you started freelancing, you were very excited about the extra “free time” you could potentially have.

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No more punching a clock.

You decide your hours.

And if you want to take the day off and run up into the mountains with your family, it’s a done deal.

Then reality sets in

Once you really strike out as a freelancer, you might be disappointed to find out that, to make the same amount of money (or more) than you were making in your cubicle, you have to work twice as many hours.

At least that’s how it seems.

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Why you don’t seem to have enough time

But there’s a simple fix for not having enough time as a freelancer.

Here’s the secret:

stop using your time to react; start using your time to act.

Two kinds of work

In this world (no matter where you’re employed) there are essentially two kinds of work: reactive work and proactive work.

Reactive work (and how it ruins your progress)
Think about your morning routine. If you’re like most freelancers (or office-workers anywhere, frankly), it probably involves a little bit of time for yourself followed by a full morning dedicated to other people.

You return phone calls that happened after hours the day before.

You check your email and respond to clients and partners.

You browse through social media leaving comments on blogs, responding to tweets, and posting content for your audience.

And before you know it, it’s 3:30 in the afternoon.

So far, your day has been almost entirely reactive, so now (finally) it’s time to start being proactive.

But it’s 3:30pm, you’re sleepy, you’re getting antsy, and you’re ready to be done for the day. After all, you are a freelancer! Shouldn’t you be able to call it quits at 3:30 now and again?

But your proactive work is just now starting.

Proactive work
The other kind of work is proactive work. This is the work that matters most in this world and brings you the most joy. This is the kind of work that let’s us reach our dreams. This is the work worth doing.

Proactive work includes marketing your freelance business, finding new clients, refining your portfolio, perfecting your sales pitch, and the like. Proactive work can even involve working on client projects.

The point is: proactive work is determined by you. You’re not reacting to the “emergencies” and urgencies of other people.

You’re focusing on what matters most to you and your business.

Put proactive first

I don’t know about you, but at the most groggy part of the day, 3:30 pm, is not the time I want to start working on what matters most to me. I should be doing that early in the morning.

So here are a few ways you can put the most important work ahead of the rest of the tasks you have to accomplish every day:

1. Differentiate between reactive work and proactive work. Before we can even talk about putting proactive work first, we have to identify the difference between reactive work and proactive work.

What tasks are you not in control of? These are reactive tasks (responding to “urgent” emails, putting out “fires” with clients, etc).

What tasks do you own entirely? These are proactive tasks (growing your business, creating content, working on projects).

2. Realize the world won’t stop spinning. Sometimes we think if we don’t respond to comments on our blog, reply to emails marked “urgent,” or thank someone for a RT on twitter that somehow the world will stop spinning.

Are these things important? Of course. Will the world crumble without a few extra tweets? Nope.

Find a time each day when you can focus on responding to comments, emails, or social posts and then resist the temptation to do it all day long. Especially resist the urge to take up your most productive hours with this kind of work. Unless your whole freelance business is built around growing an audience, theses sorts of things can wait.

3. Schedule your day. This is really just a post about time management. If you make a schedule, you’ll be able to put the right kind of work in the right part of the day. Are you a morning person? Put your proactive work first thing in the morning. Do you slump around 1pm? Take a nap and then handle your reactive work.

How to you make proactive work a priority?

I’d love to hear what you do to  make proactive work a priority in your freelance career. How do you manage to make time for the most important tasks (proactive work) and still get the rest of the work (reactive work) done? Leave a comment and let me know!


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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. I liked this newsletter. made me smile for all the wrong reasons!
    My proactive work has been on hold for at least ten yrs (on purpose might I add!).
    I find proactive work WAY more stressful compared to my reactive work, any excuse not to commit to my OWN brand! Sad, I know 🙂

  2. What if you aren’t a morning person? I do my reactive work in the mornings because I’m groggy when I wake up and gain clarity throughout the day. But then I still have the problem that I have wasted half the day doing reactive work.

  3. I find following a schedule is the best solution for me. This is what I follow and it works well…

    9-10am – Reactive Work
    10-3pm – Proactive Work
    3pm-5pm – Reactive Work

    I give myself leeway as far as when I close shop depending on my workload, but I find if I can keep at that schedule, I do pretty well as far as work/life balance.

  4. Prioritizing time as a freelancer is definitely difficult. I often find myself spending too much time with blogging, reading, modifying my website, etc rather than actually creating. Having a set amount of time for being creative helps; if you can keep to that schedule. Thanks for the article Preston…it’s’ nice to be reminded of bad habits.

  5. Another really thought provoking post!

    I tend to do reactive work 9-10am and then ideally proactive work until 1pm. Reactive work again at 2-2:30pm and then Proactive stuff from 2:30-5pm, but it doesn’t work out that way all the time.

    I’d love to just get into the office and start on proactive stuff, but most of the time I need to check emails, as in the past I’ve just pressed on with a task and there’s been an email sitting in my inbox that came in overnight related to the work I’d be doing that day.

    I definitely find myself working more than when I was employed. It’s something I really need to address, so thanks for the prompt with this post!

  6. Loved this article, thank you. For me the morning is the best time to do proactive work. If I’m feeling particularly strong-willed, I won’t check my email until I’ve completed specific tasks. I don’t always feel particularly strong-willed though! ~ Lucinda

  7. I believe the key to sanity is to treat yourself with the same dignity and quality of time as you would one of your clients. Maybe that means scheduling an appointment with yourself, actually putting it into your calendar. I dedicate one hour every day to proactive work. During that time, I don’t work on anyone else’s projects – that hour is dedicated to ME.

  8. Not getting caught up in reactive work is tough. My solution is to have a couple of “lists” I guess you could call them. One is long term proactive things that need to be done. This really is just a list. Than I have a calendar sheet that I use to diddle out what is going to be done that day both proactively and reactively (or more precise, time for reactive things). These keep me on track through the day/week. Another tough part is not drifting off your schedule you have mapped out. It’s pretty easy to let the web grab you and suck you in (It’s only a click away Luke . . . come to the dark side). So you need focus.

  9. wow. i always thought reaction speed was important. my mindset is always reply to emails as soon as they come in. answer all calls as they come in. this article has changed my tune! it’s going to be hard to break the habit though.

  10. Good reminders. I think for experienced freelancers who have been in their business for a while and have clientele built up, their tendency is to be reactive. Whereas newcomers and people looking to get established fall into the proactive category. Of course, it’s necessary to balance the two. However, I believe we all have a tendency to be more reactive (answer e-mails, phone calls, follow-ups, etc.), that’s just human nature. Eddie made a good comment on his schedule, which I think everyone should have. That is a good first step.

  11. Great article! I think I will give it a try. I’m going to add that to my productivity blocks and see how they go for the week.

    3 hour block doing proactive work
    1 hour block resting and doing other leisurely work
    3 hour reactive block

  12. I think your post has merit, but running a young, growing telecoms consultancy business, REACTIVITY is EVERYTHING. It keeps Customers happy and it is happy Customers that buy things. I think that your comments about non-urgent mails, tweets and blogs are spot on though. At my last organisation, a business that I now compete with, 50% of everybody’s time was taken up with non-productive nonsense. idle chatter, pointless meetings, travel, conference calls, email chains that added no value whatsoever.

    My point, therefore, is that reactivity is great if it enhances your client relationships. The speed and quality of your response will set you apart. Better still, is getting to them first, proactively.

  13. Remember that “cubicle counterparts” sometimes have dedicated teams below to do the support functions, while they concentrate on the core of the business. Sometimes the “noise” or “reactive” behaviour is more ignored due to the simple culture within the working environment. However, within the freelancing world, all the above is produced by single individual. In freelancing sometimes one needs to be reactive in order to sustain the income, but also know where to draw the line. Overall, I do agree that we should be more proactive rather tha

  14. when I’m working on a project, I’m active all day as my mind’s wrapped around the particular task. generally I work better in the morning & I do shift work to night when I got distracted during the day. this article shed light on what needs to be done to save time and maximize productivity.

  15. Discipline is fundamental, but most of “Reactive Work” examples can be minimized through automation. Automation is more important to a freelancer that to a business, because the freelancer is burning his own precious time. Think as a business! First priority is sales: use an automated system to prepare proposals in minutes and track all their evolution. Second priority: delivering what you sold, that should be 100% proactive, Third priority: issues. Use a decent issue tracking system that will save your time and be much more responsive to your clients. Try to avoid email as much as possible.

  16. I found myself reading this because I knew I would relate to it. And would you look at that. It’s 9:30am in the cloud forest I’m currently working in and I’m reacting to a blog post. I think I need to take a break and reflect. But at least I now have something to reflect on. I promise I’ll log out of the time sponge reactors when I return.

  17. Being a very busy free-lancer and now a successful company operator, I disciplined myself to become a ridiculous multi-tasker to keep up with the demands (reactive formation of survival discipline). Crossing over to a proactive survival/work discipline is absolutely critical to continue to do well but it is not at all easy, and right now my only solution is to cut myself off hard by taking my work to anywhere with no internet. But these days everywhere has internet so I’m like a recovering addict avoiding places with people because where people assemble there is internet access most always, especially in big cities, and temptation to get connected is an evil pressure that’s hard to ignore.

  18. As a recruiter for the creative industry in Perth, Australia (and previously in London) I find that the freelancer has an uphill battle to earn more than they did before in paid employment… HOWEVER, it can be done (people double their income in Perth at times!), the key to success as a freelancer in my opinion, is to think of yourself as a small business, rather than someone who just picks up work when they can. You need to network, you need to make friend in the community you work in, you need to market yourself and you need to show people you care. I also have a really good system I use which allows me to achieve small goals throughout the day, and then reward myself with the fun stuff (aka Procrastination!).

    At SevenTwenty, we have a third payroll company we work with that takes ownership on chasing invoices, which to most is the WORST part of the job, (“I am a creative, I dont want to argue about money” I often hear) and I am sure there are plenty around the world. Not pitching for business, I just think its a really good way of ensuring you get paid weekly but still have control over who you work with. Feel free to email me if you want me to guide you on this. I repeat, not trying to win business!! Just happy to help.

  19. Thank you Preston you article helps me to get back on track I kept procrastinating on proactive work.

  20. I second what Eddie Lepp said and follow a similar schedule. Basically my coffee habit falls in line w/ reactive work. I drink coffee and respond to emails first thing in the morning and then I breakout into production / creative mode for the middle part of the day. Then I return to the emails, phone calls, etc. towards the later hours. If I can get 4-5 hours of billable work in a day, I’m doing great. Good article!!

  21. Even at my busiest I consider every second of my ‘freelancing’ career free time. No commute, no boss, and for the most part – no crap.

  22. Great article—to encourage me to get to the proactive side of things I make a “rule” for my inbox that all LinkedIn articles, any business reading that comes in gets sent to a “just read” folder, so at my leisure I can peruse my business blogs, my LI articles, and my business newsletters. Then I’m not wasting time throughout the day weeding through those emails when I can be looking at client correspondences.

  23. Great article! I’ve been to seminars that discuss this same thing. I think it really extends beyond the freelancer to any office position really. They key is planning your day and sticking to it. Even at my office job, often times I spend more of the day doing something reactive than proactive. Just yesterday, I spent over four hours on the phone solving an issue than I did working on my projects.

    I try to spend an hour or so on Monday’s planning my work week on my calendar and adjust it as things come up. I’ve found that when I’m extremely busy, it’s hard to do that because I need to spend an hour on my projects and not my calendar.

  24. – in other words stop reading newsletters, dont write comments here and get on with your work 😛

  25. Truth be told, Companies are not hiring at all. I believe that they won’t let the newbie a chance at all. It’s even worse for professionals with disability. I’ve been doing creative work since I could write. But this creativity won’t guarantee you work at all. I’ve been looking for a job since June 2012.

    In reality, not an interesting topic to me.

  26. Being retired, a can look back and see that my reactive time was a “get it over with” time first thing after my early morning walk and coffee (6:30am to 9). So then I could concentrate on the fun proactive work. Of course most of my 40 years of freelancing was “email free” which meant I was one up with only phone calls to react to. By 3 or 4 in the afternoon I could stop for a while. There were times when 5 hours wasn’t enough to complete projects. I often worked after a relaxing dinner which put me ahead for the next day. I figured 20 hours a week of proactive work would be my ideal work load and it mostly worked out that way except when I let myself accept one too many jobs.
    Even now happily retired I still do some work. Mostly volunteer work which I can pick and choose. I don’t for the most part let clients force me to be reactive. I do check my email first thing every day. (Get it over with:) As for marketing myself, while I was actively looking for work (until 10 years ago) I was lucky to get work by word of mouth. In slow times I contacted printers who recommended me to their clients in need of graphic design or photography. Some of my best clients came from my connection with printers.
    In my early career (starting 1957) I worked for a studio and found it difficult to be in a very busy and often contentious atmosphere. Freelancing gave me a freedom I appreciated–glad to say it worked out great for me.

  27. It is as if you were talking to my habits DIRECTLY. I must say I am really touched by the article. I am an afternoon person so to speak. Nonetheless the article applies as we all need to score and still be happy and healthy at the end of the day… Thank You Preston!!!

  28. This is a really great post. I love the proactive vs. reactive activities.

    To help me guard my time, I have list of what these “reactive” tasks are keeping me from. ie. mountain biking, being with my family, and bringing in more income to take that trip to Europe next year.

    I like to document the systems that I use to run my business as well. They keep me on track and helps me pass off tasks to my team. I’ve found it saves a lot of time on projects which leads to more profit.

  29. This is so true, I generally devote all morning hours to proactive work and leave the reactive for after lunch when I am not at my peak anyway.

    This is incredibly valuable advice.

    Thanks Preston. 🙂

  30. Awesome article really needed this!


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