A Time Management Plan for the Self-Employed

The ideas in this post, written in September 2016, served me well for a couple of years, and got me to the point of being able to take on some permanent staff and turn my business into a Limited Company. I hope you find them useful.

I’ve heard the following piece of wisdom many times, from far more successful and educated people than me: “build your plans around survival; consider anything above that a bonus.” So that’s where we start.

Survival for me is £1800 a month. That’s not quite subsistence living, but I don’t want my family to suffer just because ‘dad’ is following his ridiculous ‘publishing entrepreneur’ dreams — we need decent shoes, trips out etc. and we can have all that for £1800.

Wasn’t this supposed to be about time? Time and money are irretrievably linked; that’s possibly the most important thing I ever learnt about self-employment. They are just different forms of currency.

On the subject of time, though, I find I like to work six hours a day, five days a week, 48 weeks a year. This may change in the future, but at the moment that’s the perfect level to avoid boredom and stress. I do enjoy my work — either running Valley Press or doing related freelancing — but there’s nothing that I enjoy so much I need to do it more than 1,440 hours a year!

A bit of maths will tell you that works out at £15 an hour, but that figure is meaningless when self-employed — not all work earns income. When I do stuff like my accounts, or author royalties, it earns the business nothing; but that stuff still needs to be done.

What’s valuable is the productive mode that, like all amateur bloggers, I’ve started calling ‘deep work’ (a term possibly invented by Cal Newport). This is work done with Gmail closed; for me, it’s editing, design or marketing, the sort of thing you need to concentrate on and that actually earns money.

I find I can do 2–4 hours of this at once, with brief breaks to refill my glass or stretch my legs. So I plan using the average, and assume each ‘deep work session’ will last three hours. This means each six-hour day has two parts, and means I split my five-day week into ten segments.

But sadly, that can’t be ten sessions of deep work. I set aside two of those for clearing my email inbox; research into ‘task batching’ (again, see Cal) shows emails are best dealt with all at once — you get into the ‘email groove’. I absolutely find this to be true for me. I like to clear my inbox on a Monday and Friday afternoon; there’s no science behind this, it just feels right.

So that’s eight segments left. I set aside one of these for shallow work; these are the little fiddly tasks that don’t deserve their own segment but still have to be done. Stuff like uploading a finished ebook to Kindle; you’ve got to fill out the form, dream up some keywords, check the preview. It doesn’t take three hours, so into the shallow work segment it goes.

We’re now down to seven, and there’s one more interloper — I use one segment for meetings, phone calls, Skype chats, trips into the town centre and so on. It would be productive to knock this on the head; it’s mostly slacking off, but I like it and prefer to think of this as the social segment. No man is an island, I’d go mad if I didn’t sometimes talk to other people! There’s always weekend socialising, but that’s not done with people in the industry and with a work-y outcome in mind.

So we’re left with only six three-hour deep work sessions per week, or 288 a year. Money wise, that means to earn my survival salary, each one of these sessions needs to earn me a clear £75. That is a crucial figure, and I find it really helpful to keep that in mind when planning.

This figure means that (to extend the thinking from this article), if I’m sure a new book can bring in £600 profit in its first few months, I know I can spend eight of my deep work sessions (let’s call those DWS) working on it. When doing freelance, I can charge based on how many DWS I think it will take — but then, I always add a few on, these freelance jobs can get ugly! Equally, if I get invited to give a lecture and it takes up half my day with travelling etc, I know my profit from the trip needs to be at least £75.

This approach also works great for scheduling; I can note each project in my diary as if it were a series of meetings, and know at a glance how busy I am next week, next month, or months into the future. If things get rough, I can knock one of the ‘inbox clearances’ on the head to free up another session; or in a real emergency, find three hours on a Saturday morning for a DWS. Alternatively, if I finish a project ahead of schedule, I have time to write something like this … or hit the beach?

Of course, the mission is always to earn more than the minimum, to build up reserves and to generally flourish — I’m still working on that part. I hope you’ve found this useful, do let me know if you’ve got any questions, and of course do ‘recommend’ and ‘follow’ if you want to hear more from me.

(These Medium posts tend to need at least one picture, so here are some lovely Valley Press books I produced during my ‘deep work’— all available here if you’re looking for a good read!)

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Founder @valleypress. Have mostly written here about small press publishing, but am starting to branch out. Stay with me, people!

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