Working 16-hour Days as a Freelance Designer

“Freelancers are suppose to be overworked.”

“Sleep deprivation is a badge we wear with pride—creative thinking on 4 hours sleep, no problem!”

“Your just not cut out to be a freelance artist if you can’t handle the late nights.”

I’ve heard and thought them all at one time or another, but the truth of the matter is that no one should have to stay up for hours on-end and risk health and family to earn a few extra dollars. Sure, starting your own business is hard work, and will require the occasional late night but when you find yourself working late more nights than not—it’s time for a change.

I started Carter Photography & Design as a full-time job at the end of 2009. During the course of the last year-or-so I’ve learned a thing or two about sleep deprivation, and the effects it can have on a guy in his early thirties. Sure, when I was in college I’d work all day, study all night and still find time to date and party—never once thinking that 2-4 hours of sleep nightly would ever catch up with me… let me just tell you that things change. Even a guy like me who doesn’t need a lot of sleep must occasionally catch the full 8 hours.

“If I could only work another night, I’d finally be caught up.”

“Time is money, and I’m not going to make my deadlines if I don’t work through the night.”

“It costs more money and time to hire someone to help, I’m better off doing it myself.”

“It’s no big deal, I’ll just pop a few more 5-hour energy shots and ‘presto-digitorium’.”

Isn’t it funny how we have the tendency to con ourselves into believing that if we only had one more hour, when the truth of the matter isn’t that you need to work harder or longer—but smarter.

In 2011, I’m trying to work smarter by setting more realistic deadlines for myself. Thinking longer on planning in hopes of a more stress free development schedule. So far, I must admit that it hasn’t taken full effect and I still find that some of my projects are being rushed. Late night cramming sessions and forced-caffeine-born designs that result in blood pressure readings of concern.

So why are late nights still the case if I’ve made a conscious decision to plan harder and work smarter?

It’s simple really. Because I’ve trained my clients to expect me to produce at last minute. To deliver the goods regardless how ridiculous the deadline. The hardest part of adopting a new strategy isn’t implementing that strategy yourself, but getting everyone else to join in and play along. Not to mention that it takes time to make time in an already busy schedule.

Take Control

Taking control of the situation is the only way you’re ever going to make a difference in your work schedule. One area that I’ve come to find effective for me is to simple become unavailable.

That’s right, tell everyone that Thursday afternoon isn’t good, and you’ll have to schedule for another day. Then take Thursday and chip away at that to do list that’s been looming over your head. It might be hard at first to tell your clients you can’t be reached on a particular day, but working a solid day sure beats pulling another all-nighter on Saturday night to meet your Monday morning deadline.

What I’m saying is, block off time for specific things. Give yourself time to work on organization, finances and administrative work that ordinarily might fall through the cracks. Think of your available “work” week as 25-30 hours and not 50-60. It will help make room for organization, and give you padding for when a job becomes larger than originally estimated.


Something I’ve been doing is hiring part time contractors to come in when I’m at my busiest. I’ll have a designer step in either for specific projects or just to help clean up the odds and ends long enough to allow me to catch up on the big stuff. Either way you work it, there are plenty of unemployed designers out there these days who would love to have the opportunity to fatten-up their portfolio while making a few bucks doing it.

Just remember to pay them accordingly. You don’t want to overpay and lose out on making a profit, and you don’t want to get a reputation as a cheap b@s3rd either. Know the contractor and how he/she works. Pay them hourly or by the job, and remember that at the end of the day, it’s about quality work and paying the bills.

Kickin’ It Old School

Something I had to realize early on was if your serious about business you gotta lose the digital apps, the synced calendar programs and the alarm clock reminders. Go pick up an old fashion daily planner and plan your schedule. I know, this is ridiculous right? I mean, I’m a true geek to my very core, but you’d be surprised how unplugging can be the best method to get back on your game. It forces you to think more clearly about your time.

Do you remember when you were in Jr. High and your teacher would always talk about the three steps of learning and that the more you stimulated all of your senses during that learning process, the more likely you were to remember it? Well it’s true. Go back to the pen and paper and you’ll remember your deadlines without the need for some fancy $15.99 alarms app from the App Store.

Once you’ve learned to keep a schedule and built up a routine—buy whatever app you want!

Your daily routine is the key here. Try and develop a pattern to your workflow. Keep your morning rituals and keep disturbances to a minimum. I know that’s difficult—I have a wife and 3-year-old daughter, but it’s important for everyone that you deal with a schedule and provide consistence to your work week. It will help with your personal life as well.

The Ugly Truth

The ugly truth of the matter is that as I am writing this, I’ve just had one of the hardest couple of weeks in business that I’ve had since I started. In the last 6 days I’ve managed to sleep less than 20 hours. I’ve been working on promotional pieces, websites, logos, editorial layouts, display ads and invitations. My blood pressure is sky high and my deadlines are tight. The good news is, I’ve been planning ahead for 2011 and as soon as I get past the mistakes of 2010, you better believe there will be some down time.

Remember, if you don’t take care of yourself there’s no reason to fight another day. Take control, get some help, remember the basics and in the end—you and your clients will be better off for it. There will be hard times, but keeping them well spaced apart is the key. Good night, I’m going to get some well deserved rest.


Some Resources:

11 thoughts on “Working 16-hour Days as a Freelance Designer

  1. Brenda Posie

    You should write an update to this post like six months from now and let everyone know how it went. I know I’ve tried to “take control” so many times, but I just can’t say no. Saying no is the key I think.

  2. Issac Maez

    This site is such a great resource that you are providing. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of quality content and providing a prime resources for like-minded people. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  3. bcarter

    @Brenda—I will, and your right about saying “no”. It’s very hard for some people, it was for me and sometimes still can be. Often times I find myself with more passion and interest in a project than time to complete it. It’s something I have had to learn, especially when family and friends are evolved. Just remember, if you are always saying yes than your work will suffer and you will never have the time to do quality job.

    @Wilson—Thanks man, I do my best. I’m not a formal writer by far.

    @Issac—Are you spamming me, I can’t tell. LOL

  4. Garry Cautame

    I read over your post and I believe you have a some points, but I must disagree with the old school technique. If I didn’t lean on my email client and time management applications I’d never complete any project. Technology gets a bad wrap sometimes.

  5. JKubo

    I used to be very organized and disciplined. The longer I’m in this business the worse off I am. Sometimes I just think it’s all part of the gig and it’s just something we have to live with. There are many benefits to working from home or being self-employed, but at times I miss the simplicity of just earning a paycheck. I enjoyed your post, you should write more often. Brenda has an idea, run with it. Peace!

  6. PixelDog

    This would be why I don’t have a blog. How the fuck do you have time for all this? You sound like a busy guy and yet you write like a beast. Something doesn’t add up or I’m not drinking the right energy drinks. Great fucking post!

  7. bcarter

    @PixelDog – Thank you for your comment, but please note that cursing is not something I permit or enjoy. Please refrain from using such language in future comments. Regarding the article, I’ve been writing it for the last two weeks. Thought I’d never finish.

  8. Matt

    My senior year in college was a blur from the lack of sleep I endured. I survived off red bull and no doze.

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