productivity tips for translators

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!

Why Batch Days Will Make You a More Productive Freelance Translator

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Batching your work, i.e., working on a set of similar tasks in the same block of time, can be a real time saver and lead to more productivity. It takes a little bit of planning ahead, but by batching your tasks, you can avoid distractions and get more done during the work day.

There are many reasons to batch your tasks. First, there is a wide amount of research proving how much time is wasted when we switch back and forth from one task to another, or even between tabs in our web browser. It’s no wonder that we can sometimes work the day away and feel like we’ve accomplished very little. The amount of time it takes to stop and start a task, answer a random email in the middle of a task or creative project, take a client call or even pop on a social media app for a few minutes (which we all know can turn into much more than a few minutes!) takes away from valuable time we could be spending on business-related tasks that move the needle forward.

How does a batch day work?

The ideal batch day consists of putting all your related projects together in one large "batch" and working on them back to back, taking breaks as needed, and not allowing anyone to interrupt that planned work time. Yes, boundaries are key!

Remember that with batching tasks and your work days, you set the parameters. Let those around you know what you’re working on, and ask them to respect your work time. You can even do this with your clients. Set up an auto-responder on your email to tell recipients that you’re working on a time-sensitive project and you’ll reply to them the next time you check your email, or within 24 hours. If you work from home, ask your family members not to interrupt you during your work hours unless they truly need you for something that cannot wait.

Next, you’ll want to decide what days will work best for you to handle specific tasks. Do you prefer to handle client calls on a specific day of the week? I try to hold calls only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Do you need to set aside time to work on balancing your books or invoicing your clients? I certainly do. I like to handle my accounting-related tasks on what I’ve dubbed “Finance Fridays.”

What kinds of tasks should you batch?

Once you feel comfortable that the right people are notified about your unavailable times, decide what tasks are most essential in helping you grow your business. These tasks can be related to client projects, content creation like writing blog or social media posts, updating your website or directory listings with new information, writing warm emails to clients as part of your marketing efforts, etc.

If you have a set of tasks that you find tedious to handle (think of those that you would rather put off by scrolling social media or checking your inbox every few minutes, even when you’re not waiting on a specific message from anyone!), batch them together and commit to finishing them before you move on to something else. For example, if you dread working on marketing, you can take all of those pesky tasks and handle them on Mondays. "Marketing Mondays," anyone?

Personally, I find batching tasks that are similar in nature to be the best way to make sure I get all of them done. This puts my mind at ease and helps me to do the rest of my work better, too. By taking care of tasks in batches or blocks of time, it ensures that I can stay on top of all the projects I have going on simultaneously.

How do you batch your tasks to maximize your work productivity and time?

You can do it any way you like, but if you're to make the most of your time, it's a good idea to first take a look at all the tasks you do on a regular basis (even those you would rather put off). Once you have things laid out in front of you, it's easier to see which ones are related. You can list them in categories so that you have a clear visual to work with, if you like.

For example, you could put all of your marketing tasks in one batch or break them into two batches if you find that you have several tasks to handle and little time. You could even schedule these tasks on Monday so that you are sure to get them out of the way for the week. It could look something like this.

Marketing Monday

  • Write to 5 new potential clients.

  • Touch base with 3 current clients to say “hello” and send them an article they might appreciate (this keeps you top of mind!).

  • Write a blog post.

  • Send a handwritten note to one of your favorite clients.

  • Prepare your social media posts for the week.

  • Outline your next client newsletter.

Even if you can’t work on all of the items under your marketing category list at once, you can choose two or three to do every Monday. This means that you are consistently marketing your business, something we all need to be doing regardless of how busy we are! This type of progress will continue to compound over time, and you’ll find that the couple of hours you put in every Monday are well worth it.

By blocking time to knock out several tasks of the same kind at once, you also give yourself more freedom to work on other items throughout the day. And you know that you've already handled these items and won't put them off for another week!

Here’s another example.

Finance Friday

  • Pay your business credit card and other business-related bills.

  • Balance your books.

  • Send any invoices or receipts to your bookkeeper or accountant.

  • Invoice clients.

  • Pay estimated taxes.

  • Pay yourself!

If you already know that you handle finance-related tasks every Friday, you won't have to stop during the rest of your work week to handle them. Again, by setting aside this time, you are being proactive instead of reactive!

As I mentioned above, another way that I handle batching is with phone calls and meetings. I try my best to hold calls and meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This way, I'm not spending an hour or two in meetings five days a week. This allows me to schedule specific and dedicated time to my client work, volunteer commitments, colleagues, etc. If this is something you’d like to try, check out Calendly for scheduling calls and Zoom for holding virtual meetings and calls.

Some freelancers I know even batch their client works on certain days of the week or at certain times of the day when they know they're most productive. Whether you do your best work early in the morning or long into the evening, choose the time of day when your brain tends to fire on all cylinders, and use that time for client and creative work. Leave the administrative work for the times when you don’t need as much creativity. This way, you won't be using precious work hours on the behind-the-scenes tasks that don't actually pay the bills.

Now, you tell me. Have you ever tried batching your work or tasks? Do you have certain days of the week when you handle marketing, financial tasks, etc.?

Five Productivity Hacks for Freelance Translators and Interpreters

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At this time of year, it seems that everyone is looking to better themselves in some way. Some people make resolutions, and some make a list of goals they want to achieve over the course of the year. I tend to fall into the latter category, but either way, I know that there is no way I can come close to achieving my goals if I don't take into account how I spend my days, i.e. my time.

Here is a short list of productivity hacks I have found useful in my freelance business. I hope that you, too, will find them helpful, and I'd love to hear about your own productivity hacks in the comments at the end of this post.

1. Check your email only two or three times a day maximum (!).

This is still something I am working on myself. But I have found that I am so much more productive when I set limits on how often I check my email. Not only is it better to spend more time on the tasks that actually make money in your business, but sometimes just checking our email can lead us down one rabbit hole after another that suck our time and keep us from giving more attention to the tasks that actually move the needle forward in our businesses.

My own plan for 2019 is to check my email three times each day: once first thing in the morning, since I have clients in Europe, once right before lunch and once at the end of the day before calling it quits. With so many commitments, I have found that I can spend endless amounts of time just responding to requests and producing information for others instead of tackling my own tasks. I'm not complaining by any means, but it is a reality I've become more aware of over the past year.

2. Batch similar tasks/projects/commitments.

If you have read articles or books about productivity, you've probably heard this one (and maybe some others on the list) before. There are a lot of studies that show the amount of time wasted when having to switch tasks is much higher than most of us even realize. Whether we are interrupted by notifications, emails, daily household occurrences, or even when shifting from one task to another, our minds do not immediately jump into the new task right away. These transition periods between tasks can truly add up if we are not cognizant of them. By batching similar tasks or projects on a given day or morning/afternoon, we allow ourselves to focus on one thing at a time, thereby making sure we finish it well before moving on to the next task or project.

For example, I try my best to schedule all calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes it doesn't work out due to scheduling conflicts, but it's something I strive to do as often as possible. I also work on blog posts and content creation the same day each week. This way, I know that when Wednesday comes, I have to write a blog post for the following month or an email to subscribers for the following Friday. Speaking of Fridays… this is the day I do all financial tasks: paying bills and those who work for me, invoicing clients, balancing the books and submitting payroll. If it helps, name the days of the week when you are going to batch certain tasks. I personally love "Finance Fridays" for the hour or so I spend on knocking out those money-related tasks.

3. Turn off all notifications during your scheduled work time.

I'll admit that this is another hard one for me. I really like to make myself available to others as much as possible. This can be both a good and a bad thing at times. I'm typically a very responsive person, but I realize that other people don't necessarily need (or expect!) to hear from me right away. If something is not urgent, then I can probably respond later in the day when I am answering my emails. I love to clean out my emails every single day, and admittedly, having pending emails gives me a bit of stress. The same goes for text messages or other requests. But slowly, I'm finding ways to set more boundaries, and turning off notifications has been a game changer.

I silence my cell phone all day, every day. There are only a few people who can reach me during the day, if absolutely necessary, when I'm working on an important task. If you want to give this a try, go ahead and set your phone to "do not disturb" mode each day during your working hours. Let others know that you'll be more than happy to respond to them once you're finished working for the day, just as you might do if you worked in a traditional office setting and answered to a boss or supervisor.

4. Set a timer for yourself for every type of task, and commit to getting that task done in that amount of time.

Again, this is not a new idea. You'll hear it again and again if you read about productivity and time management. But it is definitely another game changer in my mind, especially for those of us who are perfectionists. Make sure you turn off all distractions when you press "start" on the timer, and do your best to try to beat the clock. Some people like to reward themselves if they can finish a task before the timer goes off. Whatever works for you, do that.

5. Change your scenery from time to time (at least once a week), and especially for those "eat the frog" tasks!

I'm someone who doesn't mind a little bit of background noise while I work. In fact, I often welcome a bit of music or soft noise. It helps me to focus, but I realize this may not work for everyone. Whether you need to hear some noise or you prefer complete silence, changing your workspace or scenery at least once a week can be a really welcome change. You might even notice that you are more productive on the days when you choose to work at a local library or neighborhood coffee shop for a few hours.

Again, try to set a timer for tasks, batch similar items on that day and turn off notifications. All of these things, plus the change of environment could really help you to knock out a few items you've been putting off. If you have one of those "eat the frog" tasks (something tedious or just really unappealing) to do, it might be good to save it for your date with new surroundings so you can tackle it.

Whatever you choose to do to boost your productivity this year, make a mental note of what works best for you and try to be consistent with it. It isn't helpful to try something for a day before you write it off. Try to give a few of these tips a go, and seek out a few more if you are someone who has trouble focusing or avoiding distractions. And don't forget to share your own favorite productivity hacks with me below in the comments!