Developers: David Colgan helps you escape 9-to-5 employment by building an effective freelance business you'll love to run.

How to spend 24 hours a day as a freelancer

Parkinson's Law, structuring a completely unstructured day, a new podcast, and Joe Armstrong is cool.

Are you familiar with Parkinson's Law? Back in 1957, one C. Northcote Parkinson declared that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." As someone who's been a freelancer for the better part of a decade, I can confirm that this is even more true when you mostly control your own schedule.

Staring into the gaping maw of an open calender

As I've become more independent and more freelancy, I've found my calendar increasingly void of required appointments. This last week I've had about 5 hours scheduled with other humans. The rest was completely up to me to decide what to do with.

So you might ask, "Well David, what do you do with all of that time?" At least theoretically I don't sit around all day doing nothing and eating bon bons and bing watching Netflix. That gets old real fast after about a week.

I'm working on freelance work, and business ideas, and cooking, and going on walks, and spending time with friends, and going to the grocery store, and doing the dishes, and yes sometimes watching stuff on Netflix.

And also wasting time. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Do I spend my time effectively? Well, it's getting there.

If I look back at how I spent my first few years of freelancing, I could make a 10 hour a week project feel like 40 hours because of all my procrastination and time wasting bad habits. I'm better at this now, but there's still definitely work to do.

For me, this is entirely the point. I want freedom to control my time and decide what to do instead of having someone else tell me what to do. But in order to do that, I have to actually decide what to do, and execute on that. When you become a freelancer, you suddenly have to become the project manager and the developer.

Life before freelance bestows a manager

What do the first 20 years of almost every western person's life have in common? Someone else telling you what to do.

My parents made literally every decision in childhood, as they should have because I was 5 years old.

In high school I never really had to become a good project manager because the teacher sat down and precisely sliced up a semester's worth of work into bite sized homework assignments.

In college there was less structure but I still got a syllabus that said to turn in work on this date to this specification.

Except of course for that one professor who just said you can turn in everything at the end of the semester, and so everyone did every assignment on the last week of the semester. What does this show? We were all bad at project management and time management. The better teachers were the ones who put more effort into spacing out the work and managing the deadlines.

But now nobody is writing me a syllabus of daily activities. I have to do that myself!

Regardless of how you do it, you have to manage your time

For a long time I operated under the assumption that clients would operate like a professor and be the one to split up the work and tell me what to do. Some do, but the best clients stay out of your way and assume you'll be doing this part because you are the expert.

I assumed for a while that being indie meant having no schedule at all and working whenever I wanted!

The problem with this though, is Parkinson's Law. Having no project management for me has meant "I'm always working I think but also not because I'm not sure what to do next."

I've lately been coming to the conclusion that getting a handle on productivity is one of the most important things you need to solve as a freelancer. Not being able to execute is the biggest predictor of failure of businesses, as you really can't fail unless you just stop trying.

Everyone is different and what works for me in managing my time may not work for you. The only specific advice I have for you today is that it's well worth it to experiment with what works for you.

  • Maybe you like getting up early.
  • Maybe you like working late into the night and sleeping in.
  • Maybe you like scheduling things on a calendar at precise times.
  • Maybe you want a more free-running schedule and track total time spent instead.
  • Maybe you take 3 days a week off and work 4 days for 8 hours.
  • Maybe you work 3 hours 7 days a week.

There are no rules! And this is the fun and also terrifying part.

Try self management before going all in on freelancing

And this is why I think it's important to try out freelancing before quitting your job. You may need to work on yourself a lot in order to have the self control to get things done. You may have to make changes to your routine, your work habits, and that may be a bit uncomfortable for a while. New habits take time to build.

I've found that clients are usually pretty understanding of mistakes I make, unless they are mistakes of "I just didn't even try to do the thing because I am bad at time management".

Plus, being better at self management also just makes life in general more better, so your time won't be wasted even if you don't end up staying a freelancer forever.

Stuff and Things and News and Updates

Hey, it's the stuff and things section. Here are some stuff and things for your consideration this week.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

My top pick for a book on how to manage yourself. The core idea of the book is that instead of setting goals, build systems of habits. Focus on the day to day things that get you closer to your goals instead of the goals themselves.

LBFreeMineBiz Podcast Interview with Benjamin Lannon on managing project planning and time estimation as a freelancer

Kelly and I had a great chat with Benjamin Lannon, a government contract developer who asked us to discuss time management in an hourly freelance context. We touch on a large number of topics and also did some nice terraforming of our Minecraft village at the same time.

Thanks to Benjamin for being on the show!

A tribute to Joe Armstrong who created Erlang

Joe Armstrong died recently. He was one of my programming heroes.

He was the creator of the Erlang programming language, and made major contributions to functional programming and distributed real time systems stuff.

I never met Joe in real life, but from reading about Joe online lately, it sounds like he has been very active even in his 60s in the Erlang and Elixir (which runs on the Erlang VM) communities. He struck me as a kind, helpful, snarky, and gentle person, all of which are qualities I try to emulate.

I was first introduced to him in college when "The Erlang Movie" was passed around the dorm. I love weird programmer culture and this is a video of Joe and his colleagues Robert and Mike demoing their cool new tech that runs telephones. From what I hear, he worked on Erlang at the Swedish telecom company Ericsson, and though this video is very dated looking, the concepts they are talking about were pretty revolutionary. Erlang did 100k+ connection servers long before NodeJS could!

I send everything I make first as a letter to my mailing list. New letters go out each week!

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