How to find time for non-billable work

How long should you spend on tasks you can’t charge for?

Every day is created equal when you work in-house. Over the course of a month, if you have a few off days, or if you don’t always manage to tick everything off your to-do list, it doesn’t matter – the same amount of money will still appear in your bank account.

When you’re freelance, each day is another opportunity to make (or not make) money. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, so doing non-billable work can start to feel like a waste of time. Keeping your website up-to-date; making sure your invoices are sent on time and that you’ve logged your expenses, even sending cold pitches – you don’t get paid for any of this stuff.

So how do you figure out how long to spend on the tasks you can’t bill for?

You should be billing for your admin 

When I first went freelance, I wanted to make the same amount of money as I did in my staff job. So I just divided my previous salary by the number of working days in the year and I aimed to make that amount each day that I worked. 

In doing so, I was making a big mistake. I wasn’t including a markup that accounted for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do billable work on every day that I worked. I wasn’t factoring in that a good chunk of time would be taken up with either finding new work or trying to get paid for work I’d already done. Not to mention, sick days and time off for holidays. 

Now, my formula for working out how much to earn each working day looks like this: 

(Desired salary + 30%) ÷ 220 days  

By adding 30% on top of what you want to earn, you take into account that you won’t be working every day of the year and that also even on days you are working, you can’t always bill for them. There are ~252 working days in the year (after bank holidays) in the UK, so 220 days takes into account a generous amount for holidays and sickness.

Putting this all together, say for example you want to earn £30,000 in a year. That would be: (£30,000 + £9,000 = £39,000) / 220 = £175.  

This means that to earn the equivalent of a £30,000 salary and also provide yourself with sick and holiday pay, as well as a buffer for doing your admin, you need to be earning £175 on the days that you are working.  

It’s not admin, it’s ops 

I’ve got the nerdiest confession to make, but I don’t find admin boring. In fact, I kind of enjoy it. To be clear, I don’t enjoy unnecessary admin. I sure as hell don’t like chasing late payments or filling out endless supplier forms because there’s no uniform system for paying freelancers. But I do like tracking my cash flow, forecasting my revenue and making at pie charts to see what percentage of income I make from different streams. 

The term “admin” has such bad connotations. The implication is that it’s boring and unnecessary, something to keep putting off. I actually find it helpful to not think of it as admin at all, but instead as “operations”. Every business has an operations department, responsible for keeping the company running effectively. Ops are the behind-the-scenes part of a business that keeps the whole thing going. Staying on top of your finances, workflow and time management is your ops. It’s the engine of your freelancing – without it, you’ll stall. 

Keep it structured 

My calendar is my air-traffic control system. Everything that needs actioning in my life – from writing this newsletter and filing copy to going to the gym and giving Dolly her flea medicine – goes on my calendar. So, naturally, does my admin. 

On Monday afternoons, I have an hour slot for sending invoices and chasing late ones. On the last Friday of the month, I do a financial check-in to make sure I’ve logged all my expenses and that everything is all on track. I also allocate an afternoon a week to pitch development, time to research ideas I’ve been jotting down that need fleshing out.   

I find that scheduling my non-billable work like this makes me actually get it done. When something is an appointment in my calendar, it makes it official. I’ve also found that by creating time slots for these tasks, it reigns them in somewhat. When I used to do my admin piece-meal and fire off pitches randomly, I couldn’t keep track of how much time I was actually spending on this work. 

Time is money, until it isn’t

You would think that after all the points I’ve just made, that my conclusion will be that time is money and that you need to treat it as such. I actually don’t believe that. In fact, I believe that’s where the misguided idea that there’s no time for non-billable work comes from. 

Non-billable work isn’t always admin. You might want to start a side project which you haven’t figured out how (or if) to monetise. You might want to start volunteering in the middle of the day. You might just want to take a day off! Slipping into thinking that every hour is billable is what leads to burnout – you’ll stop taking holidays and start working weekends. 

Salaried jobs reward time, not output. Where do you think presenteeism comes from? As freelancers, we might price our work by the hour, the day or the project but we’re actually being rewarded for results. We get paid for completing projects. When you think about it, this is a much smarter way to work and there’s nothing to be feeling guilty about when you price your rate accordingly.

So divorce the idea that your time is connected to your worth and charge more for admin.