burnout as a translator

Freelance Translator Life: Putting the Freedom Back into Freelance

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I've had many conversations over the past few months with other freelance translators who have designed their work schedules to accommodate their non-work life. In this post, I'll share how two translators put the freedom back into freelance based on their unique life circumstances.

How many days per week do freelance translators work?

First, I was interested in seeing how many days per week other freelance translators work. I knew that answers would vary, but rather than make any assumptions, I decided to share a poll on Twitter for three days to get some feedback. Here are the results from the 60 people who responded to the poll.

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While I know this is a relatively small sample of freelance translators, it helped me to see that I’m not alone when it comes to working five days a week, and sometimes more when things are busy! This is something I expected, of course. But I was not expecting to learn that a fifth of those who voted work six days a week.

Perhaps this surprises me because I don’t know too many other professionals whose bosses make them work more than five days a week. So, why do freelancers, who are essentially their own bosses? The fact that 10% reported that they work seven days a week was also unexpected. I don’t know about you, but I cannot produce my best work if I’m pounding away at the keyboard every day of the week.

Yes, of course there are going to be weeks when a certain project takes longer to complete. And most certainly, there will be times when life happens and we have to readjust our schedules to take care of family-related matters during the week. We may, at times, have to work later and longer days. But if you’re anything like me, you know that once your mind has reached the threshold of more than six to eight hours on an intense project, the quality of what we produce can start to decline.

So, how do freelance translators schedule their work hours?

I recently chatted with Matt Baird about work-life balance and burnout. It’s probably safe to say, we all struggle with these two issues from time to time, right? I was intrigued by an idea Matt shared with me: a four-day workweek! Matt told me that he tries to take every Friday off from his freelance work.

Matt is a German to English translator and father of two living in Germany. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for this post about how he makes his schedule work to fit his lifestyle and avoid burnout.

Have you been able to take Fridays off from work consistently?

Yes, pretty much. I was very strict about it in the beginning, but have worked on a couple of Fridays more recently. But never for more than a few hours. I knew that going in. You have to be flexible. That’s just the reality of a freelance life, especially when you work primarily with direct clients.

What positives and negatives have you experienced as a result of shifting to a four-day workweek?

Having a day – even just a few hours of one day – each week for me has made a huge difference. I feel much more balanced. I use the time to hop on my road bike, take a longer run, play golf (what a concept!) or get things done around the house and don’t feel like I’m neglecting my family. With two small kids and a wife who also works, it’s sometimes hard to find time to yourself to clear the mind and recharge your batteries. But that time is so important. Having a day off during the week and while the kids are in daycare means I reserve time for me each week – it’s amazing what a positive impact that can have.

It’s also meant more time with my wife, who has Fridays off, too. We’ve biked several times together or used the time to simply get things done that have been on our to-do list for weeks.

Another positive has been more time with my kids. My wife works part-time and normally picks up the kids from daycare in the afternoon. Now I pick them up on Fridays and get them to myself for a couple of hours. It’s special time that I didn’t have before.

One challenging aspect is that accepting work becomes a bit trickier. I’m obviously accepting less work, but I also have to be extra diligent about getting my work done in four days. So I feel more pressure Monday through Thursday, but my reward is freedom on Friday and the weekend with my family.

Wow, it sounds like the positives definitely outweigh any negatives. Do you have any tips for other freelance translators who might want to switch to a four-day workweek? 

I made the switch right after a major project came to an end, which meant my workload was lower than usual. That made the transition easier. I also let all my clients know about my new schedule. I’m fortunate to live in a country (Germany) where free time is not frowned upon and to have great relationships with my clients. Everyone was super supportive and understanding.

I suggest being both transparent and flexible. My clients know that they can still reach me by phone on Fridays if it’s urgent. And my out-of-office response reminds them of this, letting them know that I’ll respond on Monday if it’s not.

I would say just try it. Tell your best clients you’ll be out of the office this coming Friday, then turn on your autoresponder. Then do it again the next week.

Thanks to Matt for sharing how he's putting the freedom back into his own freelance work and life!

Now I want to shift gears a bit and give a slightly different perspective… that of the freelance translator mom.

How do freelance translator moms find time to work?

I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sarah Symons Glegorio recently, and her own situation hit very close to home for me, as I imagine it will for many who read this blog. Sarah is a Spanish and Portuguese to English translator, living in Portland, Oregon. She has a two-year-old daughter, and she shared with me how she fits in work around her time with her family and mom duties. Our daughters are the same age!

What kind of flexibility did you have to incorporate into your schedule once you became a freelance working mom? What does your schedule look like?

Once I became a freelance working mom, I quickly figured out that it’s a struggle to get uninterrupted “computer time.” So I learned to reserve the most focused tasks (i.e., translating, research, billable hours) for when we have childcare. We’re lucky that we have family nearby, so my mom, dad and grandma each take 1 day/week for about 5-6 hours in the afternoon. I just go to their homes and work from a back office or spare room while they play. Then we do 1 day/week of paid daycare so it’s not crazy expensive.

I also try to do admin and emails in the morning before childcare starts in the afternoon. I used to do social media and email drafts on my phone during breastfeeding sessions (and now, during toddler playtime sessions).

How do you fit in your work around toddler duties?

One big thing I changed was my mindset on deadlines. I am a master procrastinator and would push things to the wire, delivering projects within an hour (or even 5 minutes) of being due. Now I try to have things done a day or half day early (depending on the project itself of course) because things come up (childcare flakes, an unexpected trip to urgent care, etc.). Usually there aren’t issues and I end up delivering projects early but it’s saved me on several occasions having that extra cushion of time.

Have you had to let anything go or do you find you can still fit everything in?

I have not been able to keep up with marketing, networking, blogging, volunteering and professional development (basically the non-billable hours) as much as I would like. It’s made me more picky and directed with my efforts in those areas. I’ve had to let a few career opportunities slip by. In the end, the hustle and career opportunities will always be there but your baby won’t be in that phase, or doing that same cute thing, for very long.

How many days/hours a week do you tend to work? And how do you protect your time away from work?

I used to work A LOT. Even when I was pregnant, I was working something like 55 hours a week. Now I work about 35 hours a week but actually making more money. Basically I learned (was forced!) to condense 8 hours of work into 5 and am always looking for workflow efficiencies. I spend MUCH less time on emails, think twice about what projects I’ll accept, and always try to allow for more time than I think is needed for a project.

I usually work Mondays through Fridays, though I like to have 1 day off per week with my daughter when my workload permits. If needed, I’ll do midnight shifts but I really strive to not have to. 

My daughter basically protects my time away from work for me because she gets upset when she sees me sit down at the computer. Plus I promised my family I’d quit working nights and weekends (except for rare occasions), and they have held me accountable! It’s resulted in a much better work-life balance.  

Do you have any tips for other freelance translators/interpreters on this topic that you'd like to share?

Remember self-care! In the early days of being a freelancing mom it’s nearly impossible, but whenever you can and as often as you can, GET ENOUGH REST. Even a 20-minute nap can make you feel human again.

And thanks to Sarah for sharing her own way of juggling the different roles in her life. I love that she shared how she works less now but makes more money. And both she and Matt gave us a lot to think about when it comes to shifting our mindsets to make room for more freedom in our freelance schedules.

How to be a more productive freelance translator and put the freedom back into freelancing

Here are seven tips to help you make the most of your workweek. Whether you want to work four days a week like Matt, or if you prefer to stick to the regular 9-to-5 schedule and take all evenings and weekends off, these tips will help you do more in less time.

  • Leave all errands and personal projects that are not urgent for your day off or for the weekend.

  • Consider using online services to handle some of your weekly tasks, like depositing payments through your bank's mobile app or trying a grocery delivery service.

  • Take Matt’s advice and let clients know about your plans in advance if your work hours will be different from the “norm.” This sets expectations and boundaries. And your clients will be more inclined to offer you work on the days they know you’re in the office.

  • Delegate administrative tasks to a virtual assistant or hire a bookkeeper to handle accounting so you can spend more time on billable projects.

  • Batch related tasks together to complete in specific blocks of time.

  • Take Sarah's ideas about scheduling certain tasks for certain times of the day and adapt your tasks to fit your schedule and work-life circumstances.

  • Be flexible! If you know there will be weeks when you simply have to work longer hours than usual to finish a big project, plan to hit the “reset button” and jump back into your ideal schedule again the following week.

What are your thoughts? How do you put the freedom back into freelancing in ways that others might find useful? Please share your comments and ideas below!