The Case For The 3 Hour Freelancing Workday

Research indicates that most people are unable to engage in highly focused deep work for more than 4–5 hours per day. Office workers are typically only really productive for 3. Why, then, do we talk about 8 hour freelancing days as being evidence of working insufficiently hard? Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

If you were to take a guess at how many hours a day your average office spent actually … you know … working … what would you peg it at?

Most developed countries work something like a 9 to 5 (incidentally, the standard workweek where I live, in Israel, is more like 9 to 6).

Taking a conservative starting point of eight hours and then excluding an hour for lunch, which is standard in most salaried jobs, we’re left with seven hours to work with.

But does your office worker really work for those seven hours? Answer, no, no, and no again. So we have to take away from that to reach their realistic figure.

What about:

  • The time you spend browsing social media
  • Those solitaire competitions with your boss
  • Time spent chit-chatting around the water cooler
  • (This was me in an open office) the time spent fiddling with the sound meter on SimplyNoise.com

Alright, enough with the tantalizing hints.

According to research, your average office worker is only productive for three hours per day.

The explanations for that:

  • All the aforementioned distractions
  • The fact that getting interrupted, and then back on track, is actually a pretty time-consuming endeavor

The corollary of that piece of information: your average office worker is unproductive more time than they are actually working.

Which, when you think about it, is actually kinda astonishing. Particularly when you consider that that’s in addition to the two hours per day they spend commuting.

Cobbling those two facts together, we find that your average salaried worker probably spends about four hours per day on the company’s dime not really working or only marginally engaged in work tasks. And a couple more on their own dime commuting to and from the physical location where they put in only slightly more time per day on deep work than they do commuting. Maybe remote work makes sense after all?

And that’s why I’m especially unashamed to reveal that:

Typically, I Work On Client Work For 3–4 Hours Per Day (At Absolute Maximum)

I’ve explained before that there is an awful lot of activity that goes into making a self-employed business work. It’s so much more than writing/coding/whatever else you do. If you’ve never done it, but plan to, just wait for what’s in store.

In addition to the time I spend actually creating work that I can itemize on invoices and bill clients (AKA the roof-over-head-keeper-uppers) I:

  • Hold prospecting calls with prospects that I think stand a good chance of converting into paying customers
  • Keep on top of all the admin and tax work, including filing bimonthly reports that keep my compliant with the tax authorities
  • Work on my own inbound marketing process that, hopefully, brings clients to me and not vice versa (because, let’s face it, who actually enjoys cold prospecting?)

The above is a very partial list of routine non-deliverable-centric engagements. I don’t subsume it into the above three hour cache. But if you really wanted to know how many hours per day I spend actually working on real client deliverables for, then that would be about accurate.

The Human Brain Simply Wasn’t Engineered For 40 Hours Of Knowledge Work Per Week

Here’s my contention.

Now a disclaimer.

No empirical evidence (whatsoever) stands behind this claim so pick the salt shaker up off your table and sprinkle it liberally over the rest of this post.

I thoroughly believe that humans were never designed to sit and engage in intensive knowledge work for 40 hours a week. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible. We just all seem to have some kind of natural reserve of laser-focused attention. And we can only give so much of it on any given workday.

Here’s another fact that I think argues in favor of the self-employed allowing themselves to feel perfectly okay if they’re not exactly hammering out deliverables from the time they begin work until they wrap it up.

Office workers–by contrast to freelancers — engage in a lot of work that doesn’t necessarily involve them putting their noses to the grindstone, to draw upon the saying.

  • For example, they might passively participate in meetings which mostly consist of them listening to others speaking.
  • They might engage in some mindless “keeping busy” work that sees them adding value but not directly creating something on behalf of the company.

There is more evidence that suggests that meaningful concentration — so-called deep work — is only really accessible to human brains for up to about 5 hours per day.

Here’s my all-time favorite methodology for getting and staying in periods of deep work. It won’t buy you more time engaging in deep work than you can get out of your brain. But it may allow you to make maximal use of it.

How I Structure A Typical 8 Hour Day Of Self-Employed Labor

My average freelancing workday consists of a few core activities:

  • The deliverables I’m working on for clients. This is the raw production that creates outputs which clients pay me to produce.
  • Engagement associated with those deliverables. This could range from in-person meetings to Zoom calls delivering status updates. Sometimes, it includes in-person meetings.

Then there’s also:

  • Lead nurturing. Looking at who’s in my pipeline, if anybody (yup, there are dry patches), evaluating whether they might be a fit, and trying to move the lead forwards if there is potential there.
  • Inbound marketing. I define this quite broadly as any activity I engage in that could attract clients to me. Inbound marketing also comprises a substantial amount of the work I do on a day to day basis with clients. So in a sense it’s just inverting that process and deploying it on myself.

I also:

  • Write articles on Medium whenever I feel like writing articles on Medium. Typically, I try to defer these until I’m through with work for the day. But sometimes inspiration strikes while I’m in the middle of it and I throw caution to the wind and jump right in and draft. Occasionally, I post more than once here per day.

Why You Don’t Need To Beat Yourself Up For Not Writing For 8 Hours A Day

I reckon that the only way I could write for 8 hours per day is if I picked up a serious cocaine habit. No, really.

Seeing as I have no intention of doing that, my creative output is capped, like most people’s, at somewhere between 3 and 4 hours per day. I can work for longer than that, sure. But it’s not going to be on the kind of deep and focused work that I directly bill clients for.

And that’s on a good day. We all have those occasional off days when we’re hungover/depressed/generally grumpy and unproductive. Me no less so than others. Peg my real nuts-and-bolts output on those occasions at something more like one.

But three to four hours of quality working time per day is my maximum mental bandwidth. So I try to work around that.

If you structure your day like me, then I’d like to suggest that there’s really nothing abnormal about your workday. Or rather about ours.

In fact, by not pumping out client deliverables for eight hours per day, we’re really just mimicking the way most knowledge workers operate, albeit in a different employment context.

Any freelancer or freelance coach who advocates some kind of productivity hack that they claim will unlock your ability to work for a full 8 hour day is, in my opinion, delusional. And any path to freelance riches that’s predicated on you really working for that amount of time is similarly unrealistic (and I’ve seen plenty of those).

I’m not talking about being unable to work 100 hour work-weeks. I’m saying that even 8 hours per day is probably more than the vast majority of us are able to really concentrate on deep work for.

There’s more to freelancing than just cranking out deliverables. And that’s perfectly okay. Because almost none of us can probably do that full time.

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Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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