After a five-year stint as an employee, I went full-time as a freelance writer in January 2020. I’d been laid off from a short-lived job in December, so I scurried to find work and took any assignments I was offered.
I made enough to make a living in the first few months, but it was well below the salary I’d made as an employee. After two months of scavenging for work — and accepting the reality that I was running a full-time freelance business — I became more choosy about the assignments I’d take on in an effort to boost my income and save my sanity.
In April, I nearly doubled the income I’d made in each of the prior three months.
As writers, we’re certainly familiar with all things Google Workspace (formerly GSuite) from Google docs hacks for completing assignments to Google docs add-ons to tracking changes in Google docs.
An unexpected Google product became super handy in helping me figure out the best balance of work to create the business I wanted: my Google Calendar.
How I use Google Calendar to optimize my freelance writing business
Here’s how I’ve used time blocking in Google Calendar to quickly increase my freelance income and decrease my stress over the past year and a half.
Block time for each assignment
Instead of just keeping a running to-do list of work, I block time in my calendar for every assignment I accept.
That makes it really easy to see whether I have the bandwidth to take something on when it’s offered. No time in the calendar before the requested deadline? Say no.
Adding assignments to my Google Calendar lets me see my workload alongside scheduled meetings or events, so I avoid accidentally taking on deadlines that clash with a day full of client calls — or over-scheduling client calls during a week full of assignments.
This is important: I don’t put assignments in my calendar based on due dates. I block time based on “to-do” dates.
That means I estimate how many hours it’ll take to complete an assignment (in my case, either writing or editing), and I block that many hours in the calendar ahead of the deadline.
Record actual time to complete work
Regardless of how I’m being paid for an assignment, I keep track of the hours I spend working on it. My Google Calendar time blocks make that easy because I can adjust them if I spend more or less time on something than expected.
Keeping track of my time helps my business in two ways:
- I get better at estimating how long it’ll take me to complete work, so I know exactly how much work I can take on each week.
- I can quickly see which clients take up the most or least of my time. (🤓 Pro tip: Color code client tasks on the calendar to make this easy to see at a glance!)
Calculate earnings per hour for every client
Because I know how much time I spend on every task, I can figure out how much I’m earning per hour from every client, even the ones that pay by the word or deliverable.
For those that don’t pay an hourly rate, I take the amount I earned for the task and divide by the number of hours I spent on the task.
For example, if I took five hours to write a $250 article, that works out to $50 per hour.
Calculating an hourly rate creates a level way to compare all of my clients, regardless of the kind of work or pay structure.
This is how I figured out — to my surprise — writing is much more lucrative for me as a freelancer than editing.
Prioritize high-yield clients
As an employee in media companies, I’d been working as an editor. After starting as a staff writer, becoming an editor was the natural progression to level up, gain more responsibility and increase my salary.
So I sought editing gigs when I transitioned to freelance work. I was excited when I landed some regular clients, including one gig that promised around 20 hours of work per week — half my roster filled in one fell swoop!
Then I got a few writing assignments.
Because I was accepting everything, I took on some writing clients with pretty low per-word or per-article rates. I figured they’d help fill in around my anchor editing client.
Until I did the math.
Even with low rates, I was earning way more per hour from writing than from my hourly editing clients.
That’s in part because I work quickly, and hourly rates punish efficiency. But it’s also because clients have a skewed bar for hourly rates, often measuring them against what they’d pay an hourly employee.
It’s a lot harder (in my experience) to ask for $50 per hour than to ask for $250 for an article that’ll take five hours to write.
Once I realized this trend, I prioritized finding writing work and dropped my hourly-rate editing gigs one by one — starting with my 20-hour-per-week anchor client.
Dropping that client and the guaranteed work felt like the dumbest move I could make just a couple of months into scrambling to make a living after being laid off. But it paid off. I more than doubled my average hourly rate after that and earned nearly twice the income in Q2 of 2020 that I’d averaged in the first quarter.
One year later, prioritizing around my earnings per hour has helped me double that monthly income again — with average hourly earnings around three to four times what I’d been charging that “anchor” editing client in early 2020.
Schedule work based on income goals
When you’re first starting as a freelancer, setting income goals can be challenging. How do you know what to aim for before you know your potential?
You can set that number in a lot of ways: based on your salary from a previous job, covering your basic expenses, or hitting an arbitrary target that feels like success to you, like earning six figures.
However you decide to do it, I recommend setting income goals, because they’ll guide how you spend your time.
I have a weekly earnings target based on how much I want to earn this year, divided by 48 weeks (leaving four weeks of vacation, sick or mental health days). Combining that target with time blocking my assignments makes it super easy to stay on track — and adjust my workload or client roster when I’m off target.
The method also makes it easy to give myself permission to work on side projects, like my newsletter for writers, without worrying about the unbillable hours.
Here’s how that works: As I block time for assignments in the week to come, I add up my expected earnings for each assignment. Once I have enough assignments on the schedule to hit my target for the week, I stop.
If I only have to work through Wednesday to hit my target? That’s two days free to enjoy a long weekend or make progress on a side project!
If I fill all the work hours in my week and fall short of my earnings target? I have to evaluate and re-balance the assignments I’m taking on from each client to make sure I’m not filling my time with low-rate work.
Why Google Calendar for business?
You can track your hours and block time for work using just about any planner or calendar method you want, on paper or online.
I use Google Calendar because:
- It’s what I use to schedule everything else. All of my meetings automatically show up there, so it makes sense to schedule my work in the same place.
- I can be “busy” during work blocks. Creating calendar events for my blocked work times lets me show up as “busy” to prevent people from scheduling meetings during those blocks.
- I can keep track of all the information I need for an assignment. Google Calendar lets me add notes and live links into an event’s description and attach Google Docs and other assets directly to the event, so it’s easy to use for personal project management.
- It comes with notifications. I can set event notifications, so I’ll get a ping when it’s time to move onto the next assignment. If I’m not ready to move on, it’s a good reminder to adjust an event’s time to keep track of my actual time spent.
Using this system has helped me stay on top of my freelance work, even as I’ve added more clients and more irregular work. It’s helped me figure out what kind of work is the best fit for my skills and goals, evaluate the value I get from clients, and optimize my client roster and workload to increase my income and create the kind of business that fits the life I want to live.
Photo by Zan on Unsplash
About the Author: Dana Sitar
Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for digital media since 2011, with bylines including Inc., the New York Times, Slate and more. She shares advice for writers, editors, students and educators on how to write well at danasitar.com
Website | @danasitar