This is a guest post by Dorothee Racette, a past president of the American Translators Association. Based on over 20 years of experience as a successful freelance writer and translator, Dorothee now trains and coaches small business owners in time management and productivity. She shares her insights in her blog and invites you to follow her on Twitter or Facebook for more practical time management advice.
Shifting perspective: from putting out fires to long-term business success
One of my first jobs after graduating was a part-time teaching position in a foreign language department. As I quickly learned, one didn’t simply walk into the department office to request photocopies. The secretary, who had clearly dealt with generations of instructors, kept a large sign on her bulletin board. “Want it tomorrow?”– it read– “Order it yesterday!” I have yet to find a diplomatic way of sharing the same sentiment with certain clients.
As client expectations for fast turnaround blur the distinction between rush jobs and regular translation assignments and competition at the entry level pushes down prices for accelerated work, freelancing can seem like a never-ending sequence of high-stress projects. Of course, running a business involves responsiveness and commitment to prompt service, but what happens if the resulting work pressure becomes the “new normal” of freelance life?
Drawing a distinction between urgent and important, Dwight Eisenhower once noted that “[…] important is seldom urgent, […] urgent is seldom important.” The difference between the two concepts holds the key to shifting the perspective of your freelance business.
Working in ‘urgent’ mode
In urgent mode, you tackle the first task that comes to your attention, typically an email or another type of message. After arranging the submission details of a project offer, you jump right into the translation work. In between, you’ll probably check other messages, respond to social media posts, and absentmindedly attend to personal matters. Working in this mode is not only highly stressful, but also associated with unhealthy habits, such as skipping exercise, eating at your desk, and spending too many hours hunched over a keyboard.
While there may be few alternatives in the early stages of a freelance business, it is a good idea to periodically assess whether your work mode is still serving you in your current business situation. If your business has survived the critical first few years and you essentially have a steady flow of assignments, now is the time to make the transition to a long-term perspective.
Working in ‘important’ mode
In contrast to focusing on the task of the hour, working in important mode addresses the long-term strategic objectives of your business. Building a sustainable business requires daily attention to marketing, making business connections, managing finances, keeping up with knowledge in your chosen specialty area, and staying proficient in technology. Neglecting such background work because you are “too busy,” blocks your own advancement options to specialty areas with better working conditions and pay. In addition, a deliberate long-term perspective allows for better work-life balance decisions and frees up much needed personal time.
Here are some thoughts about making the shift from urgent to important:
1. Start the day with a little planning
Don’t allow others to start the day for you. Take control of your time with a few minutes of thinking and planning before you open your inbox and answer the first message (“Urgent! 23K words needed by tomorrow…”). Consider the details of the day’s milestones, including fixed appointments as well as exercise and social activities. When can you do your best and most difficult work, and when are you likely to feel tired or get interrupted more often? It doesn’t matter whether you record your planning on sticky notes or in apps, as long as the format is effective for you.
2. Prioritize challenging tasks
We all postpone to-do items that seem difficult or problematic in favor of easier, more rewarding ones. For example, it may be much more fun to concentrate on translation work than to deal with invoicing and account figures. Marketing can seem confusing and hard, so why not accept another assignment instead, even though it’s not very interesting or pays poorly?
Tasks of the “I really should” or “I can’t believe I haven’t” variety are easier to address in the first 30-60 minutes of your workday. Updating a profile or writing about your business fall into the ‘important’ category that ensures long-term business growth. Not only is your brain more creative in the morning, but the sense of completion also boosts confidence and has been proven to enhance productivity for the remainder of the day.
3. Establish ground rules
Time planning and completing difficult tasks are constructive ways to avoid stress. To further shift away from ‘urgent’ mode, consider establishing a few specific rules that draw the line between freelance work and private time. Instead of working whenever you can, clearly state (to yourself and others) when your work hours are. Ask yourself when you will say no and which conditions have to be met to make an exception. Stating an existing rule (“I don’t work on weekends”) is much more effective than coming up with an explanation.
4. Set up a quarterly or annual review
Periodically set aside a little time to review how your business is doing. That may involve looking at clients who ordered the largest volume and those who were less enjoyable to work with. If you added new clients in the review period, how did they hear about you, and what are the implications for your marketing efforts? Perhaps you worked with new topics that may interest you as a specialty or you noticed a shortcoming in your tools or technical setup. Above all, did you have enough free time to live your life outside of the business?
Of course, not all rush orders are the result of someone’s failure to “order yesterday.” Unexpected situations, such as policy changes, lawsuits, or illnesses can create a sudden need for language translation-and that’s where translators come in. Making a difference for a client by jumping in and providing a fast translation is a special experience – provided the associated extra effort is recognized and not simply taken for granted.
If you enjoyed this post, you can find more of Dorothee’s practical time management advice on her blog, Twitter or Facebook.
Karen Tkaczyk says
Nice post! I have followed the urgent versus important principle for years for “big picture” things, so for instance, I am strong on the “ground rules” point made here and rarely feel like I’m working under very high pressure.
However, I’ve not thought about applying this concept to the “little” things like being distracted by replying to a message or reading a blog post. Food for thought, as I’m certainly guilty of knocking out a pile of little unimportant tasks for an hour or so many days instead of tackling important things that could be serving me better.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Karen! Dorothee’s posts always make me re-evaluate something about my business. You make a great point about the little things that add up!
Claire Sjaarda says
Great post, thank you Dorothee and Corinne for sharing!
Although I have set my own rules like no week-end work and prioritize difficult tasks, I still find myself slipping back into bad habits such as skipping exercise or working in the evening to get more work done (although I know I ought not to…). My recent holidays have put me back on track and your article inspires me to stay on track!
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Claire! Glad you enjoyed the article! I feel the same way: I am good about some things (I almost never work on weekends, and I take enough vacation), and not about others (skipping the gym, letting work spill over into the evening). Dorothee makes great points about making the little tweaks that help you stay on track!