15 Minute Freelancer

64. A day in the life of a freelance copywriter

June 24, 2022 Louise Shanahan Episode 64
15 Minute Freelancer
64. A day in the life of a freelance copywriter
Show Notes Transcript

Follow me for a day! In this episode, I take you behind the scenes of a typical day as a freelance copywriter, including:

  • Revisiting theme days as a way to structure your week
  • Do I really work just five hours a day?
  • Reducing decision fatigue and making the most of "shark mode"
  • How I split my day between deep work and shallow work
  • Figuring out your anchor actions to get the important bits done.

"One of the things that I love most about working for myself is the flexibility. I couldn't spend my days like this if I didn't work for myself. But that flexibility and freedom does require a bit of planning and discipline to achieve."

Mentioned in this episode:

Being Freelance Episode 268 – with Louise
Episode 6 - Spend less time on client work with theme days
Episode 63 - How to take a break as a busy freelancer
Copy Hackers
Cal Newport - Deep Work
Brain FM
Jill Coleman 

Say hi to Louise:

Louise Shanahan is a freelance health and medical copywriter and a big fan of finding your freelance niche. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.

LinkedIn: Louise Shanahan
Twitter: @LouiseShanahan_
Website: thecopyprescription.com
Leave me a voice note on memo.fm/15

Support the podcast! If you find this episode helpful and you'd like to show your appreciation, consider leaving a tip over at ko-fi.com/15minutefreelancer. Donations help cover the cost of running the podcast and are very much appreciated.


Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind-the-scenes stories, and nuggets of wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help you navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe.

Hello, freelance friends, Louise here, I thought I would do something a little bit different today. Let's go behind the scenes in a typical day as a freelance health copywriter, or at least a typical day for this freelancer. I mean, really, there is no typical day is there. I don't know about you, though, but I'm always nosy about how other people plan their week and spend the days. Do you spend your day in the same way as I do? Is it normal to take an hour or even two off for lunch? Do I really just work five hours a day? Well stay tuned and find out.

On that last point, I was actually speaking to the amazing Steve Holland on the Being Freelance podcast a while back and I talked about only working five or six hours a day. Then when we got off the call, I did that thing where I immediately wanted to justify it and add context. Some days it's more than five hours, sometimes I work weekends too, I'm not lazy, I promise. I thought well, I actually have my own podcast so I can just go and explain there. 

But really how I spend my day is up to me, isn't it? I don't need to justify it. I'm my own boss. So as long as I'm delivering work to the quality that I promised clients, who cares how long it takes? Why do I feel the need to justify it, no one even asked. Okay, so obviously, there's some deep-rooted internal narratives that I should probably unpack with a therapist there. But anyway, I thought it might be fun to spend the next 15 minutes sharing what a more or less typical day looks like for me, and maybe that will give you some food for thought about how you plan your time. 

I've talked before about how I use theme days to structure my week. If you're curious about that, go back to episode 6, because I explain it all there. But just in brief, theme days are an idea that I borrowed from Copy Hackers and tweaked for myself. Basically, the idea is that in order to run a successful freelance business, there are many, many tasks that need to be done beyond the actual client work. And a lot of freelancers fall into the trap of putting that work off until the client work is done, I have definitely fallen foul of that in the past. You probably know what happens next, you never get around to it, or you're just squeezing it in around the edges of your day. With theme days you allocate a particular theme to each day of the week, or each day that you're working. This helps you ensure that you do make time for all those essential non-client tasks, but you also avoid context switching. For me, an ideal week might be client work on Mondays and Tuesdays. Calls and proposals and outreach type stuff on Wednesdays, so that's quite an outward-facing day. Marketing and content creation on Thursdays. Then Fridays might be a mop-up day for any outstanding client work, working on this podcast, catching up on learning and development doing all those courses that I've got piling up in my inbox, or maybe some finance stuff. I talk about that more in episode 6. 

That's just a bit of context for why there's no typical day, each day is a bit different depending on the work that I'm doing, but the general structure of my days is pretty similar. This is what it looks like. Usually I'll get up about 7am, have breakfast, do Wordle of course, and then leave for the gym about eight o'clock. It's about a half-hour walk there and back, so that's when I get a lot of my podcast listening done and get lots of ideas for what I'm going to work on that day, which I jot down in Evernote on my phone. Health is also a big personal value of mine, so making sure that I make time to exercise and get outside is really important and if I don't do it first thing then I'm likely to end up not doing it at all. So I'll walk to the gym, spend about an hour training, and then I like to work in the gym cafe for a couple of hours. Like many of you, I find it kind of tough working on my own at home all the time, so this is a nice way to get a change of scenery. This is actually fairly focused working time when I'm there. If it's a client work day, then I'll spend this time doing outlines and research and things like that. Usually, I'll head home for lunch about 12ish, have a long lunch break and then start my afternoon session about 1:30 or 2pm. The next three hours or so are what I think of as a deep work session. If you've read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which I might have mentioned on this podcast before this will be familiar to you. The phone’s off, the email tab is closed, Brain FM is on, and it's super focused time. I've done all the prep so I know that I can just sit down, avoid getting distracted, no faffing, no procrastinating on social media, I know what the plan is and I know I'm only doing this for a few hours, so I can crack on and get through quite a bit of work. Once that time is up, I'll usually head out for another walk to clear my head and get my steps in. If you're keeping track, this is my third walk of the day. Then I'll come back to my desk and spend another hour or so just answering any emails, doing admin, planning my next day, and that kind of thing. Then that's kind of it, it's time to make dinner and chill out for the evening. That's pretty much how my days look, whether it's a client work day, or a marketing day or whatever, I go to the gym, first work session of the day in the gym cafe, long lunch, deep work session at home in the afternoon, walk, admin, done.

A few reflections on this, and just some thoughts on how I manage to get everything done in just five or six hours of work in a day. The first thing is that I'm always trying to minimise the number of decisions that need to be made. I go to the gym most days, not because I'm particularly obsessive about it, I do enjoy it, but mostly I know that I'll feel better and I work better if I do it, and most importantly, it saves making a decision. When you work for yourself, as you know, you have gazillions of decisions to make and they all have to be made by you. And decision fatigue is a real thing. Reducing the number of times that you have to choose between this and that helps a lot, I find. Rather than thinking, should I go to the gym today, or should I maybe work in a café, or find a co-working place, or maybe I'll just stay at home, what should I do? No, I just know that I'm going to the gym because that's my routine, I always do that. The decision is made and I can get on with my day. Maybe once a week, I'll work at home if I've got lots of calls or Zoom meetings in the morning. But usually on those days, I'll go for a long walk first thing anyway, so the rest of the routine is pretty similar. 

Another way to minimise decision-making is by planning. You might notice that I spend quite a bit of time in planning mode. One of the things that I love most about working for myself is the flexibility. I couldn't spend my days like this if I didn't work for myself. But that flexibility and freedom does require a bit of planning and discipline to achieve. You can spend your day however you like, but at some point the work needs to be done. I do spend a lot of time planning and it means that when I get into that deep work session, it's much more efficient and productive. I've got a paper journal where I write out my monthly and weekly plans, and then at the end of each day, I'll write out my plan for the next day. Again, I use the idea of time blocking from Cal Newport’s book, so I'll write out a timeline for my next day; 9-10 is working out, 10-12 is working in the gym, 12-1:30 is lunch, 1:30 to 4:30 is deep work time, and so on. And I'll note down what task I intend to do in each slot. I don't always stick to it 100%, I'm not super regimented about this, although it sounds like it. But it just means that I know in theory, there's enough time in the day to get everything done that I want to do. I'll pick three priorities for the day. Otherwise, I just end up scrambling and jumping from one task to the next and ending up working on whatever is in my inbox. That's letting other people set the agenda, which we don't want to do. I pick three things for each day, and I only need to think about those ones and the goal is to tick them off. Those are the essential tasks, anything else that I get done is a bonus and the day feels like a win.

I also consciously decide what time is deep work and what time is shallow work. The shallow work might be follow-up emails, writing proposals, sending invoices, you know, the stuff that’s not real thinky work. When I know that I'm in shallow work mode, I know that I'm not going to have to think too hard, but I know that I want to get through as much as possible so I get to tick those things off my list. I like to think of these tasks like shark bites, chomp and go, decide and go, just do it. Just bite off the task, chomp, chomp, and onto the next one. I don't know, this analogy makes sense in my head. I think that's quite important to think about, what kind of mode do you need to be in for the work that you're doing. Get your mind right before you start, thinking is this shallow work, am I in shark bite mode, chomp, chomp, chomp, get through all these tasks. Or is it a bit more of a regulating downwards a little bit, settling in and getting ready for the deep work, I'm going to be concentrating and focusing, it's kind of a different vibe, isn't it? I find it quite helpful to think about that.

Another reflection is about work-life balance versus work-life integration. As you see from the way that I structure my day, I've got large chunks where I'm not working, I'm doing things that I enjoy like deadlifting, or reading during a long lunch, or walking. Then I'm really focused on work. That works for me having the integration of the two throughout the day. Part of this is about managing energy as much as time, which I've talked about before. I know there's a lot more than I'd like to do in my business. Looking at my day, you could easily say, well, it's not like you don't have time, take a shorter lunch break and create that webinar that you're always banging on about or whatever, do it then. Yeah, I could do that, and sometimes I do if I've got deadlines looming, or there's something that I really want to get done. But I know that if I do that, I probably won't have the energy for the deep work that I need to do. If I've tried to spread myself too thin and squeeze too much in, my brain just runs out of juice, and that's not what clients are paying for. And working in that stressed out mode is not why I started a business. I would love to be able to work more hours to be honest, but I just find it really hard to do much more than this. So rather than being in work mode for five long days, and being completely off at the weekend, I kind of spread it all out and integrate work and non-work time. So I do some work at the weekends too. Of course, it's important to take breaks and switch off and have a life outside work. But I love my work and I'm perfectly happy spending a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning working on my business so I can structure my days like this during the week. 

I do find it really hard to switch off and take longer chunks of time off. I'm working on getting better at that, as I discussed in last week's episode. What else, you might notice that I do a lot of walking, I probably do about 12 or 14,000 steps a day. This is how I think, it clears my brain, I get ideas, I'm always jotting notes down in Evernote while I'm walking, so it's kind of work time. As a copywriter a lot of creative inspiration happens when you're walking, you could be at your desk for hours, and you can’t come up with the perfect line, as soon as you go outside, it hits you. It also just helps avoid sitting all day. It's one of my anchor actions, which is another idea that I've borrowed from someone else, this time from Jill Coleman, who is a business coach who works with fitness entrepreneurs. She talks about how you can't do everything perfectly, so you just pick the non-negotiable things that you need to do each day to feel good, and just check the box. It's the minimum effective dose for whatever your goal is. She specifically talks about this in relation to health, fitness, and nutrition. But I apply it to just generally creating my most productive, enjoyable, flexible day. For me, my anchor actions are going for a walk and/or exercising every day, taking at least an hour for lunch so I can decompress fully, and identifying my three priorities for each day so I know that I'm going to get everything done. If I do those anchor actions, I know that my day will be pretty much on track. I'm also using a lot of automations and outsourcing to other freelancers where possible. This also helps free up time and work more efficiently so that you can focus on what you're best at and what you enjoy doing. If you would like to hear more about that, because I want to go on too long today, let me know and I will do a separate episode on that.

Maybe this sounds really over-engineered, or completely anal, and maybe it is, but what can I say, I'm a planner. By planning like this, I have the freedom to work fewer hours and enjoy my work and how I spend my days. Remember, you are the boss, you get to decide this stuff. If what I've described sounds like your worst nightmare, then that's absolutely fine. I'm not recommending this as a way to plan your day. The point is you design your day for what works for you. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge certain privileges and life choices that I've made here that make this possible. I don't have caring responsibilities, I'm not having to factor in other family members or kids timetables into my day. And of course, my business is developed enough at this point with long-standing clients, so I'm confident that my processes get clients results, and in turn, I'm able to charge more and set deadlines with plenty of breathing room, which does give me a little bit more flexibility around what I'm doing on a day to day basis. If you're promising to turn round client work in two days, then this kind of flexibility might not be possible. Believe me, I have been there, it has taken me quite a few years to get to this point. 

There you have it. I think I've covered a lot there; my typical day, my ideal day, theme days, work-life balance versus work-life integration, how I think about planning and flexibility, the deep work approach, anchor actions to manage energy and keep days on track. I would love to know if this has been helpful for you, this little inside look into what a typical day is. What does a typical day look like for you? Is it similar to mine completely different? If you have any questions about this, or you just want to nerd out with a fellow planner, come and say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn or leave me a voice note on memo.fm/15/. If you would like to support the podcast please do consider leaving a review or making a wee donation on ko-fi.com/15minutefreelancer and all your very generous donations go towards the cost of hosting and producing this podcast. That's all for today, thank you so much for listening. Until next time, happy freelancing.


You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me Louise Shanahan, freelance health copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want to be answered on the podcast, find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing.