The Way We Work
July 19, 2012 by Julia Camenisch

You sit down at your desk to start another day of working online. And then it hits. The barrage of  e-mails, deadlines, meeting requests and instant messages from your mother. Which item on your to-do list do you tackle first? Without a plan of attack, you will be subject to the tyranny of the urgent—and the important will never get done.

As Amy noted on the blog several months ago, contractors often find that without the strictures of a 9-to-5 office job, their work days have no framework. But as the most successful online workers can tell you, a schedule is a necessity for squeezing every last bit of productivity out of your day. It’s also an important factor in making sure your work doesn’t become your life. We recently talked to three successful oDesk contractors, Bernard Vukas, Cairyn Orido and Abdul Hayi Mansoor, about how they’ve taken control of their time.

Scheduling Work

A schedule requires pre-planning in order to work. For Vukas, a Microsoft Office developer, and Mansoor, an SEO specialist, their schedules are decided upon at the beginning of each week. But they both have slightly different approaches. Mansoor breaks his work into task chunks, and then schedules the time needed to accomplish those projects. This style of work requires a flexible day. “The amount of work done a day varies depending upon the requirement, sometimes stretching it a bit longer to finish the tasks…It is not like a 9-to-5 job,” he commented.

Vukas plans his week by client. “I usually allocate a certain number of clients that I’m comfortable with. Next, I make sure to distribute the workload over the week among the active contracts. This helps me get things done and keeps everyone happy.”

Take Away: As American author Annie Dillard notes, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.” Protect your week by setting a plan in place. At the beginning of each work week, schedule out which jobs you are going to accomplish and when, including margin time for unexpected emergencies.

Scheduling Across Time Zones

As a solo professional, there are no border constraints. Many contractors work with clients located around the world, and these time zone differences can pose difficulties when real-time collaboration or phone meetings are needed.

As a virtual assistant, Orido deals with international time zones on a regular basis and has adjusted her schedule in order to cater to her clients—often working late into the night. “I have my own work hours that allow me to meet with clients during their business hours so I’ll be able to communicate with them,” she said. She also shares her Tungle.me calendar with her clients to make finding convenient meeting times for both parties as painless as possible.

Take Away: If your job requires regular contact with clients in other time zones, set consistent work hours and stick to them. From his experience as a contractor based out of Pakistan, Mansoor stresses the importance of this. “Remain as consistent as possible so that your clients know your routine. If you cannot adjust your routine to multiple time zones, have clients from one time zone only,” he said. (To keep you from getting confused by time differences, use an app, such as Clocky, to help you keep track of the time in your client’s locale.)

Scheduling Work/Life Balance

The freedom to work anywhere at any time can morph into the freedom to overwork. A few years ago, Vukas found himself struggling with this problem. “I was working 45 hours per week for some two months and it was too much. I enjoyed the financial reward, but mentally I was beginning to feel broken.”

As he confronted the problem, Vukas realized he needed to figure out a different plan. One important step he took was to raise his rates. He commented, “I’ve bumped up my fees considerably since then, and if a client is asking you to do crazy hours, it may be a sign that you’re too cheap.”

Orido too faced the overwork problem and used her schedule as a tool to get things back in line. “It’s important for me to schedule some quality time with my family. Once a week, I plan a few activities or events to spend with them and put those into my calendar to make sure that work-related things will not get scheduled on these days.”

Take Away: Keep the big picture in mind when it comes to work scheduling. Mansoor concedes that it’s always tempting to take on just one more job, but advises looking at more than profit. “I view not taking [those extra jobs] as an investment,” he said. “By turning them down, I can improve quality and ultimately get higher ratings which are important to getting future work.” Keeping a healthy work/life balance will make you a more profitable contractor in the long run.

Scheduling a productive online work day can be a trial-and-error process, especially for contractors who are just starting out. Do you have helpful advice to share? Contribute to the discussion in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.