Mid-Career Freelance Advice: The Slot System

Here comes some more MID-CAREER FREELANCE ADVICE, as requested!

Today we’re going to look at the Slot System.

Okay.

So… when you’re an early-career freelancer, your “workflow management system” should be something along the lines of “send out as many pitches as you can and complete everything that gets accepted.”

At this point, you probably don’t know how much time it will take you to complete any of these assignments—first because you don’t know your own research-and-writing speed yet, second because you haven’t optimized your research-and-writing speed yet, and third because you don’t yet know which clients are likely to request a revision pass (or how to write the type of work that doesn’t require a revision pass).

You also don’t yet know how to time your workflow effectively. Some types of pieces go faster if you break them up into smaller chunks (today, I’ll write the summaries of each credit card on my list; tomorrow, I’ll write the section comparing the credit cards; Friday, I’ll write my introduction and conclusion). Other types of pieces go faster if you can write them all at once without any interruption.

Essentially, you start your freelancing career not knowing how long it takes to get stuff done.

And then, after a couple years of work, you do.

Which means you can start employing the Slot System.

I’ve referenced this particular organization tool in nearly all of my freelancing classes as well as in previous articles I’ve written for The Write Life and Lifehacker, but I haven’t framed it in exactly this way yet, so… here we go.

Every freelance workday has a certain number of Work Slots.

You can simplify this whole thing by having 1 Work Slot=1 hour, but as you’ll quickly learn, some hours generate more work than others. I can toggle very quickly between projects in the morning, for example, but tend to only be able to focus on a single project in the afternoon—and if I have an hour left over after I complete my work on that project, I don’t have the energy to start a new one.

In my case, mornings include four Work Slots (three project-based, one admin) and afternoons include two Work Slots (one project-based, one admin). The afternoon Work Slot is the longest of the six.

Each slot can include one unique type of work:

  • Drafting a piece
  • Revising a piece
  • Researching a piece
  • Conducting interviews for a piece
  • Email management
  • Invoice management
  • Etc.

My goal as a freelancer is to fill every available Work Slot without going over. This includes setting aside one afternoon Work Slot every week for slack/overflow work—the project that takes longer than expected, the interview that needs to be rescheduled, etc.

If I know in advance that a certain type of piece will take multiple Work Slots to complete, I need to assign it multiple Work Slots. This is why this system is more of a mid-career freelance thing than an early-career freelance thing; knowing how long it takes to get your work done is an extremely useful skillset to develop. That said, you can start using this system at any time. (Today, for example! It’ll probably take one Work Slot to set the whole thing up.)

If I have a bunch of unassigned Work Slots, it’s time to hustle up some more work. If most of my Work Slots are full, it’s time to start saying no to projects—or telling clients that I’d be happy to complete the project if I can turn in the draft on [DATE ASSOCIATED WITH MY NEXT CHUNK OF OPEN WORK SLOTS].

Right now, my September freelance schedule includes one unassigned Work Slot. (Yesterday, there were four unassigned Work Slots; then I got a request to complete a piece that I knew would take up three of those slots.)

This means that I can take on one additional project—if it can be completed in a single Work Slot—next month.

Let’s see if I end up sticking to that plan, or if I tell myself that I can totally take on a little more work, I’ll just squeeze everything into the overflow Work Slots, that’s why they’re there!

But that’s how you end up working an unsustainable freelance schedule—and as a mid-career freelancer, I should know better.

So… that’s the Slot System! Let me know if you have any questions, or if you use similar systems to organize your own freelance work. ❤️

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