Being fully in charge of your time as a freelancer is both freeing and daunting. It means you can cultivate a life that reflects your priorities, one that has tremendous flexibility and opportunity. It also means you could wind up wasting your time, falling short of your expectations, and have no one but yourself to blame.
Related: 5 Tips for Using Your Time Wisely
So how do you build the type of fulfilling life you desire while chasing the career you want? How do you make every minute count, whether you’re hustling with your startup or trying to build in a workout routine?
There is a pervasive myth that you cannot have it all. You can’t succeed at work and have a full personal life. If you want a big career, you need to give up other things. Entrepreneur Randi Zuckerberg describes the dilemma of an entrepreneurial life as thus: work, fitness, family, friends or sleep. You can only choose three.
Even for those who aren’t building a career from the ground up, finding the elusive balance between work and life seems nearly impossible. There is a finite amount of time in each day, and it is hard not to run yourself ragged trying to cram all the things you want into that 24-hour timeframe.
But working long or odd hours doesn’t mean you can’t have balance; you simply need to look at how you actually spend your time versus how you want to spend your time.
I say the inability to have all these things is a myth, but for a long time, it was one I wholeheartedly believed. In fact, I held myself back in my writing career, afraid that leaning in would ruin my family relationships and force me to lose so much sleep I wouldn’t be able to function. There was surely no way I could build a strong freelancing career, maintain a healthy lifestyle, sleep eight hours a night, and enjoy leisure time with family and friends.
Yet I saw other freelancers who seemed to be doing it all, and seemed to be doing it a lot better. They were pulling in six-figure incomes, raising families, posting photos of themselves at the gym and out with friends.
It seemed true enough as I decided to ramp up my freelancing efforts; I soon noticed I would only find time to shower twice a week, my house was a mess and my diet was atrocious. Success in one area of my life would almost always spell out failure in multiple others. Yet I saw other freelancers who seemed to be doing it all, and seemed to be doing it a lot better. They were pulling in six-figure incomes, raising families, posting photos of themselves at the gym and out with friends. These weren’t extraordinary people. They didn’t have more time or advantages than I did—they simply took control of their time in a way I hadn’t.
It felt like my life was full to the brim and overflowing with more priorities than I could reasonably handle. In an effort to find out if this was true, I decided to start tracking my time in great detail. I set up a weeklong spreadsheet that broke down my days into half-hour chunks and wrote down exactly what I was doing.
The first day was impressive. The fact that I had to write down everything I did helped bolster my productivity. I didn’t want to input cells that said I had spent an hour scrolling Instagram on the couch or that I was eating a whole bag of potato chips while overthinking a single email. I found that I worked without distraction; I used my usually aimless afternoon hours to prep a decent dinner; my morning chores took far shorter when I moved down my to-do list with determination.
But as the week went on, I found that workouts still weren’t happening. Some nights, dinner was still a mad scramble ending in takeout. Days when I went out with friends or upset my routine made me fall behind on work. See, I told myself, I really don’t have time to do it all.
But at the end of the week, as I looked over my 168 hours, I had to face the facts. I had plenty of time to do everything I wanted and needed to do. Perhaps not in the narrow frame of 24 hours, but across the week there was ample time to balance out my career and personal life. The amount of times I took out my phone to check email or social media, the hours I spent watching TV as a way to unwind, and the way I would pepper chores throughout the day to fill gaps showed me that I wasn’t using my time wisely enough. Now that I could see it laid out in front of my eyes, changing it didn’t seem like such a looming task.
Overall, I had about 25 to 30 waking hours that I could repurpose into any area of my life I wanted.
I didn’t consider myself a big TV addict, but I was averaging two hours a night—something I could easily scale back on or eliminate. I tried to dock my phone and check it less often, but I was still mindlessly on it at least 10 times a day, usually for 15 to 20 minutes each. Nights when I worked without distraction, I could get the same amount done in three hours that would normally take me five or six while impulsively distracting myself checking email or social media. Overall, I had about 25 to 30 waking hours that I could repurpose into any area of my life I wanted.
When the week was over, I started a fresh spreadsheet, ready to take control of my time. Now I find myself doing it every week. By tracking my time hour by hour, I am able to refine constantly my schedule to fit my priorities. It is easier now to cut out things that aren’t serving me in my career or personal life, because I can see them in front of me—each tile in my spreadsheet is an opportunity to make the most of my time.