Freelance is gr8, part 3: Hustle

This post was originally posted on Medium.

I migrated a bunch of content over and this post was probably written a lot earlier than the published date. As such it might contain out-of-date content, shit opinions, Dunning-Kruger levels of overconfidence and less creative swearwords than usual.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

After touching on boring stuff like contracts and clients and protecting yourself from constantly getting fucked over, I thought I’d write a bit on a more personal/intrinsic level.

Fuck Hustle

You’ve probably seen some (almost always white, almost always male) fuckstick tell you that the best thing you can do to get somewhere in life is work extra specially hard for a long time. Said fucksticks will, at some point, invariably call this ‘hustling’. You might have even worked for someone like this. You probably have tbh.

Firstly, let’s just quash this appropriative, bullshit definition right now because a privileged sack of shit has no idea what ‘hustle’ is, the origins of the word, and how hard life is for someone to need to resort to ‘hustling’ to get by. It’s a horrendously vogue bastardisation of a term that’s rooted in battling through immense hardships. It’s not about sleeping in your air conditioned office because you obviously work so fucking hard.

Now, forgetting about semantics, the basic idea behind privileged tech ‘hustling’ can be summed up as:

The suggestion is simple: if you keep doing stuff for a very long time you will get better and you will get more done and someone will somehow help you become a millionaire maybe okay probably not but at least you hustled!

In reality, this is fucking stupid, and the vast majority of people will 1. not be in a position where they can devote all their waking hours to their work and 2. not be as lucky, privileged and well-connected as the people who espouse this bullshit.

Life experience matters

Picture yourself, fresh out of education, ready to make the big leagues, and jumping straight into ‘inspirational’ articles about all these rich as heck (usually white, usually male) fuckshits and how all you need to do is work hard, for years.

Think then, what you would do if that was the most commonly espoused advice. For me, I decided to go freelance fresh out of totally fucking destroying any prospect I had of passing my University course. I read about how you just need to work very hard for a very long time and I did this for a couple of years.

Now, maybe I just lack the mental fortitude of my (usually white, usually male) pseudo-mentors, but this was an absolute waste of time. No one told me that deliberate practice mattered, no one told me that life experience mattered, all I saw was that hard work and lots of it pays off in the end. It didn’t. It really fucking didn’t.

Now, I learned a lot, as a developer-turned-designer who was very shit at both things, I slowly got better. Too slowly. I missed out on a chunk of my early twenties because I was working 18hr days and grinding through projects (half of which I didn’t get paid for because lmao contracts). I carried this on because I was certain that working all these long hours and churning out mediocre project after mediocre project would pay off, I’d one day have a sick portfolio, clients would be falling over my awesomeness trying to hire me.

The reality here is, without actually going out and seeing the world, experiencing different cultures, meeting other designers & developers and not talking about work, and giving myself mental space to reflect I missed out on a shit load of tacit skills and experience that I now know contribute massively to my mentality, outlook and ability to do good work.

I fully believe that you cannot effectively solve a problem you haven’t experienced. By working constantly and barely experiencing life outside of a bedroom and a MacBook, what actual problems could I apply my fledgling skillset to? Almost fucking zero, it turns out.

Life experience matters, it gives us empathy towards the people we try and help with our work, it exposes us to parts of the world that are broken, in disarray, beautiful, inspiring. Probably my biggest regret is missing out on these potentialities for way longer than I should, because I thought hard work would get me everywhere.

Get faster, charge more, work less

One of my main priorities now, having gone back to full-time freelance, is to work as little as possible while still delivering fun, profitable and forward-thinking shit.

This might sound counter-productive, this might make the (usually white, usually male) hustlefucks shiver a little at the thought, but I honestly believe that the time you put into speeding up your process massively outweighs the time you put into slowly getting better by doing lots and lots of work for ages.

Burnout is real. If you work too hard for too long you will notice it. It’s also hugely insidious, starting off as a fuzzy cloud around your brain and growing and growing until it bursts. Suddenly you’re drowning under your workload, lacking self-worth, and point-blank refusing to get out of bed. Maybe I’m pre-disposed to burnout or maybe my brain is wired to respond super negatively to the effects of it, but working for too long absolutely cripples me. Suddenly those extra 12 hours of unproductive work a week have put me out of action for triple the time.

If you’re constantly working, you never have time to find your flow. Everyone I know with a healthy work/life balance has a specific rhythm to their work days. Some get up early and do a few hours before taking a long break. Some sleep in til the afternoon and work for the evening. If your work day looks something like…

…then you have no rhythm, you’re just bulldozing your way through your days and this shit will catch up to you.

If you’re going to spend time on anything relating to work in your ‘spare’ time, please, please spend it on experimenting with improving your productivity.

Productivity does not directly translate to how much work you can churn out before your eyelids bleed. Try this definition of productive that I literally just made up:

Spending the shortest amount of time on an endeavour without sacrificing its quality or value

For me, productivity becomes evident when I’m producing a good deal of good work in a short amount of time, whilst remaining mentally stable, enriched and inspired. The moment I find my work faltering, I’m, by my own shitty definition, becoming unproductive.

When this happens, I stop, I go do something fun, go for a walk, get high and book flights to Belize because why not? Anything that isn’t work.

My main ‘metric’ for my productivity is how much non-work stuff I do in a day, while still delivering a day’s worth of work.

Which leads me to another little soapbox point…

Day rates are bullshit

So, I have a day rate. If you’re freelance, you probably do too. Charging ‘by the day’ is a pretty long-standing, simple solution to providing services.

Think though, to the last project you had where every day you worked 6 solid hours and produced the same quality and amount of work each day.

If you’ve ever had a project like this, you’re probably fucking fantastic and I wanna cuddle you. If, like a lot of people (and me), this has never happened for you, then maybe consider that a day’s worth of time barely ever results in a day’s worth of work.

Also, a fun thing for a lot of us: go back and look at the days where you’ve charged a full day rate and count your tweets. Seriously. It’s absolutely astonishing at times how much I see people (and myself), supposedly ‘on the clock’, tweeting every five minutes for a full working day. Think of how much work you’re actually doing with that kind of dismal distraction.

So, try this, meditate on the idea of what a day’s worth of work is. Think, for any projects you have right now, what you’d be happy to get done tomorrow. Write it down somewhere, and shoot for that tomorrow. Once you’ve accomplished those tasks don’t do anything else. Just leave it. If it takes you two hours, great, you’ve just done a day’s worth of work in a third of the time. If it takes twelve hours, you’re either having a shitty day (maybe you’re burned out woahhhh) or you over-estimated how productive you actually are.

It might feel a bit disingenuous, charging your day rate while only doing two hours of actual work, but I guarantee you, good clients won’t give a shit. In my experience many of them have supported the idea.

This is pretty closely-linked to the idea of ‘value based billing’ without being a minefield of shit and super difficult to explain.

Once I find I’m able to consistently do a day’s worth of work in half the time, it leads me to believe that my actual full days of work are worth more than I’m charging. And I have a few options:

  1. Work fewer hours and do what the fuck I want
  2. Take on multiple projects
  3. Up my day rate and work the same hours

This might seem a little ego-centric/a prime example of money-grabbing, but look at it this way: if you’ve been freelancing for a year, and your day rate has stayed the same while your productivity has massively increased, aren’t you worth more money? Isn’t the time you spend doing things super fast for your clients more valuable than it was 12 months ago? Of course it bloody is you lovely soul.

Productivity is absolutely a valuable skill. If you get ‘better’ at design, you charge more; if you’re a more accomplished developer, you charge more; if you’re a more productive freelancer, you fucking charge more.

Here’s the thing, clients don’t pay for your time. Not really. Laid out on an invoice etc. then yes, you charge them for a day, or a week, or whatever, but, really, they pay for your output and/or consultancy and advice. It’s becoming increasingly less common (to me) to encounter clients who want to make sure you’re working specific hours on specific days. Most just give a shit about how closer you’re getting them to a great product.

The anti-hustle

I‘ve basically (hopefully) described the opposite of hustling. Working when you’re most productive, avoiding burnout so you can consistently deliver dope shit, taking care of your mental health, staying enriched, and working less.

You will have to work hard if you want to increase your productivity, however, if you’re currently doing super-unproductive, overworked days, you’d be surprised just how much you can cut your days down if you just look inside yourself, Simba.

Since shifting to remote work and, now, full-time freelance, I’ve done a lot of self-discovery and experimenting on when I’m most productive. My advice is to slowly introduce any of the following into your days and see if any of them help you do the same great work in less time:

Personally, I start work pretty soon after waking up, take a long break, then have a number of shorter, spurts towards the end of the day.

Simply by running this kind of experiment I found myself delivering the same amount of value as I was when I worked set hours, in around two-thirds of the time. Through a simple restructuring of my day.

Since this kind of restructuring, I’ve become a lot more aware of how finite my productivity can be and a lot more proactive in structuring my days. It’s been super worth it.

Your productivity will probably have limits. Consider how you feel when you’re at maximum productivity and decide on a threshold for when you become ‘unproductive’. This might be an habitual, procrastination-y thing (e.g. checking social media every 2 seconds instead of working, making 10 cups of tea), a mental thing (brain fog, lots of typos in your code, creative block) or physical symptoms (overly tired, sore neck and shoulders, dry eyes). Once you hit that threshold, consider yourself ‘unproductive’ — this doesn’t mean you stop working (although, you should) — it just means you can potentially discover what events/circumstances lead you to becoming unproductive.

Knowing this, you can restructure your process or schedule to capitalise on the times/events that encourage productivity and do something else when you hit your unproductive threshold. An hour of productive work is worth 2–4 hours of unproductive attempts. That’s science. Real actual science. That I just made up.

Like any kind of habitual tracking, this shit will be inaccurate and time-consuming at first, it was for me, but in the end it was absolutely worth it. Instead of spending time doing more work, I spent it experimenting and tracking, which is a lot less strenuous and, for me, a lot more beneficial, than constantly working inefficiently.

Wrapping things up

I wrote way more than I expected I would yet again so, if there’s anything you want clarification on I’d be happy to answer any comments/questions and delve deeper into any of these points.

Basically:

Hugs xoxo

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