“Waste” is such an ugly word. But as freelancers, we are our own business – and it’s worth taking a look at how (and why) we lose opportunities and misuse our resources.

1. Wasted labor

I am a firm believer than unproductive periods are not necessarily, well… unproductive. We all need to spend time staring blankly at walls, especially when we’re thinking creatively. Sometimes your subconscious needs to work out a problem while you take a nap.

When I talk about “wasted” labor, I’m not talking about those occasional, fruitful lulls, or even downtime. Instead, I’m talking about effort wasted on tasks that frustrate, upset, or irritate you… with very little payoff.

For years – YEARS – I used an unnecessarily irritating system to do my taxes. Inputting my receipts took far longer than it should have. As a result, I tended to procrastinate – making me stressed out and more prone to making mistakes. Which irritated me, which made me more loath to start my taxes. Which took longer than they should have, which made me procrastinate, which….

… you get the picture.

Finally, after much dilly-dallying and frustration, I started paying a reasonable sum to an extremely competent accountant. No muss, no fuss, no mistakes – and a vast reduction in my wasted labor.

I gained no joy from doing my taxes. I was not even very GOOD at doing them – I had to check my math over and over again, and shed many a tear over a missing zero. But for some reason, I felt that I SHOULD do my own taxes, because… I don’t know, it seemed like it built character?

Don’t waste labor. If you HATE doing something, it takes a lot of effort, and it brings you little reward, don’t grit your teeth and muscle through it. There is no prize for being the Most Spartan Freelancer. Explore other options.

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2. Wasted time

Again, some “wasted” time is beneficial and necessary. But moderation is key.

Freelancers often fret about wasting their clients’ time. Most of us are pretty conscientious, and hate to think that we’re overcharging anybody. But in my experience, that kind of waste is very rare. Instead, we’re far more likely to waste our OWN time.

If your days are so flexible that they regularly cause you anxiety, if you find yourself procrastinating into a panic, if you feel floaty and uncentered day-to-day… yes, you probably are experiencing some wasted time. You may need a bit more structure to find relief.

Life is short. Our time here is finite. It’s one of the few things we can’t buy.

So if you’re finding that you’re spending WAY more time worrying about not getting projects done (or worrying about doing them imperfectly) than actually doing them… don’t let stress or perfectionism eat up your time. Use all of that anxiety to spur you into action, if possible. Set goals, and take steps to accomplish them – even if they’re teeny-tiny baby steps, at first.

Yes, you should not waste your clients’ time. But don’t just monitor the billable hours - use your time to accomplish your own dreams, too.

3. Wasted resources

Yes, this also applies in the greenest sense – I hope you’re recycling and not using inordinate amounts of energy while freelancing. But it also applies to your inner resources: your talents, your intelligence, and your emotional life.

Again, we have a finite time on this spinning blue ball (that’s why we should recycle and keep it nice for the kids, hm?) – make sure you’re using your skills in service of something you believe in.

Don’t work for shady or unethical clients, if you can help it. Try to do work that challenges you and propels you towards growth. We all have to stoop for a paycheck occasionally, but try to make that occasional - aim to do work that makes you fundamentally happy. And no, work isn’t everything, but it is an activity that utilizes a good deal of our time and energy. Try not to waste those precious gifts. Regularly activate your brain, heart, and spirit – use your resources in the service of a greater personal, professional, or social good.

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.


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