There are so many articles out there on time management and productivity, even a great number for freelance translators! And although this article will highly likely overlap with those, it’s a combination of my studies and experience from when I freelanced. It also focuses specifically on time management tips for freelancers who work in the Japanese to English entertainment industry.
This guide is designed to help you re-plan your work schedule so you have a healthier work-life clarity.
Define Your Workday
Before you do anything project-related it really helps to define your workday. Block out the times of the day you want to work and block out times when you want to not work. (Scheduling non-work time is just as important!)
This will require you to know yourself. If you struggle with this then ask yourself:
- What times of the day do I focus best? Am I a morning or evening person?
- What times of the day do I find myself most distracted?
- What other time constraints do I have?
What times do I focus best?
Do you work better from 7am to 3pm or from 5pm to 1am? Or perhaps you can focus for 4 hours in the morning, have a 4-hour break, then 4 hours in the evening?
Everyone is different and the magic of freelance is you don’t have to work a 9 to 5! I think a healthy workday is still about 8 hours (plus 1 hour for lunch/breaks), which for 5 days a week comes to a 40-hour work week. (Which is what you’d expect working for a company.)
This can, of course, vary by a few hours depending on the day, but you still don’t want to be working 10-12 hour days every day, 6 days a week. That can lead to burnout.
When do I find myself most distracted?
Do you spend every day from 4pm on Twitter? Or do you get distracted by social media every hour or so?
I find it helps to be aware of when your mind starts wandering because it helps you work out when you need to take breaks. Some people might need to have shorter focused sessions with breaks in-between. Others might need to focus for a few hours before taking a long break. (This might even change depending on the day!)
When you do take a break avoid social media. Social media is a time sink that doesn’t recharge your mental energy.
Ideally you should walk away from your desk. Walk around the house, get a drink and/or a snack, play around on an instrument. Even just a few minutes will help you feel a little more refreshed and relaxed before jumping back into work.
What other time constraints do I have?
Do you have to pick the kids up from school? Do you have a spouse that comes home at a certain time?
Be aware of how other obligations mightier interrupt your day. Work out a system so they don’t interrupt your flow, or if they’re a priority, restructure your workday around them so you can focus on these other obligations.
If you’re a visual person then I suggest drawing or writing your obligations and best focus times out onto paper. This will help you get an idea of when you want your workday to be.
Your workday might change depending on day-to-day happenings (yay the wonders of freelance!) But you do not want to be working 10-12+ hour days where you get distracted for 4 hours.
You also want to be strict about not working during your free time and only working during your work time. Start to blur the two and it all falls apart again.
Define Your Workspace
Having a physically defined workspace is also key to helping you distinguish between work time and not-work time.
Your “office” might be an office in your house or a desk in the corner of the room. Either way, only work should happen in your office space.
If you want to look at social media or message a friend, get in the habit of stepping away from your office space and using your phone to do it. (I mention this later, but keep your phone away from your work desk, and/or in a Tupperware tub if it’s a constant source of distraction.)
This will help build a healthy habit of reducing distractions and making the distinction between work and non-work activities.
Calculate Your Workload
What’s your workload?
If you’ve been translating for a while but don’t know your workload, then it’s time to calculate it!
- How many hours a day can you spend translating?
- Roughly how many moji/pages/lines can you translate an hour?
(These questions can also be used to calculate your base rate.)
Having a rough idea of your workload really helps when negotiating projects!
When someone asks what your workload or availability for a project is, it helps to be clear and firm about your rate and availability.
If someone tries to haggle you down for a cheaper price or tighter deadline, you need to put your foot down. You know how much you’re worth and your availability.
What’s the workload of the project?
Don’t reply to a job offer right away! Before you accept or reject a project take a few minutes to check if the workload in a job is feasible and will work for your schedule. (Don’t forget your schedule includes unpaid work and time off!)
If you feel you need to adjust the deadline because of another commitments/the deadline is too tight, then convey this to the PM before you agree. They will probably be fine with adjusting the deadline most of the time.
If you did not calculate the workload before accepting and find out later it won’t work, then make sure you communicate with your PM ASAP that it won’t fit into your schedule and you need to extend the deadline. As a PM I can tell you, they won’t hold it against you and would rather know sooner rather than later!
How do you calculate the workload of a project?
First, take a look at the total amount of work you have to do and divide that by how much you think you can do in one day based on your current schedule and your translation rate.
It really helps to take a look at the source text to get a better idea of difficulty if you can!
You want to include time for editing/polish and a small buffer (10%~20%) just in case something comes up. Also be aware of balancing it with other projects and non-translation related tasks.
For example, you have a 300-page light novel that is due in 6 weeks. 1 week is spent reading the book/listening to the audiobook to familiarize and make notes of terminology for your glossary. That leaves you with 4 weeks to translate and edit, and 1 week to finish editing and polishing. (These tasks can overlap.)
So, for the 4 weeks of translation and editing you want to translate 75 pages a week, which means at least 15 pages a day. If your translation rate is about 3 pages an hour then you will have to translate for 5 hours out of your 8 hour day. This is doable and includes time for breaks and other admin tasks such as checking e-mails. If your translation rate is faster then you might even have time to work on another project like manga.
Be aware of your capabilities and adjust accordingly.
Be aware of how much you’re able to translate in a time and adjust this plan depending on the difficulty of the translation.
So, let’s say after your start translating you find yourself spending a lot of time researching and are only able to translate 2 pages an hour instead of 3. Make sure you adjust your schedule accordingly* and if you think you need extra time, message your PM. (*This is why buffers are useful.)
Go with your gut instinct based on what you feel most comfortable with. But also, try not to overestimate how much work you can do in a day. Be realistic. If you can’t translate 20 pages a day without working overtime, then don’t schedule yourself to translate 20 pages. Otherwise you’ll find yourself slipping into longer and longer (and more stressful) workdays.
I also want to re-iterate that there is nothing wrong with negotiating your schedule with your PM. Explain your reasoning and they should be reasonable.
If they’re not and the deadline really is that tight or the project is too draining, then, for the greater good of your mental and physical health, you might need to drop that project.
Schedule Non-Translation Tasks
Don’t forget to schedule your non-translation related tasks!
These might be replying to emails, sending invoices, keeping track of your finances (income and expenditures), doing translation tests/competitions, writing articles etc.
Organize these into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. (So, a daily task would be checking e-mails, while a weekly or bi-weekly task might be writing articles, and a monthly task would be updating finance tracking and sending invoices.) Set aside time in your schedule for these.
Prioritize these tasks too. If you find yourself going over schedule with translation, then pick a non-essential task (e.g writing articles) to put on the back burner.
Note: PMs love people who reply promptly, but this doesn’t mean you need to check your e-mails every second of the day! One thing you could do is set aside 30 minutes at the start and end of your work day so you can reply to e-mails within 12 hours, but aren’t constantly checking your inbox.
Schedule lunches/dinner too! Give yourself at least 30 minutes to move away from your computer, get food, go for a walk. An episode of anime or a drama, a few pages of a novel, etc., can be a great way to re-charge your brain for the second half of the workday.
Finance is a low-frequency, high priority task.
Keep track of your incoming and outgoing businesses finances (Excel is great for this!) This task takes less take 30-60 minutes once a week or month (depending on how many projects you have.) This will help you save time when setting aside money for taxes and makes filing taxes a lot easier.
One other tip I highly recommend is to book yourself a whole day every three months to focus on taxes and projecting your finances.
In the US it’s cheaper and easier for freelancers to file taxes quarterly, so this is a great time to get your ducks in a row and get that out of the way. Even if you’re not based in the US it’s still a good habit to get into!
This episode of Smart Habits for Translators has some great finance managing tips!
Having fun and relaxing is important to good work!
It’s scientifically proven that taking time for yourself to relax will improve your work in the long run! Especially as creative translators. We need to be able to play games, watch movies, and enjoy our free time.
So don’t forget to give yourself the time and freedom to do the things you love after work. You need guilt-free free time!
Take Advantage of Project Management Tools
There are so many tools available online that can help with productivity and time management. You need to find the right ones that will work best for how you work (or want to work.) Here are a few ideas though.
Use check lists to break down tasks into manageable deadlines.
I like to use Todoist, which is free and allows you to break up tasks by project. But there are other similar tools such nTask or Microsoft To-Do, or good-old pen and paper!
Time trackers are also amazing. If you struggle with sticking to schedules or just want to know how much time you’re spending on certain projects then start tracking your time!
I use Toggl to track how much time I’m spending on a particular task/project. It’s free and can be accessible via the internet or downloaded to the desktop.
I also like Toggl because you can make your “Project” a “Client”. That way you can see which companies you’re investing most of your time with. If you find yourself spending a lot of time with one client who’s pay is crap, then it might be work dropping them or at least reducing time spent on them so you can focus on better clients.
You can also track the time you spend on other tasks such as edits, e-mails, finances, and translation tests.
When I started freelancing I also used Toggl to track times I was getting distracted by things like social media. This helped me see just how much time I was wasting during my work hours. For me I found it really helpful to discourage me from these distractions.
You have or may not have heard of the Pomodoro technique for time management.
If not, it’s a method of time management where you spent a designated time focusing on one particular task, then take a short break. (Read more about Pomodoro here!)
Traditionally the Pomodoro technique is 25 minutes of task doing then a 5 minute break, but you can adjust it to how you like to work. I preferred 40-minute slots, while my spouse works in 1 to 2-hour slots. Find a time that works best for you!
There are a few Pomodoro-specific time tracking tools such as Tomato Timer, Pomodoro Tracker, and Pomofocus.
Pomotodo was recommended to me by Meru because it combines the Pomodoro technique with a to-do list.
If you struggle with focusing because of certain websites constantly distracting you, then I suggest applications to block those sites during work hours.
The Chrome/Brave extension StayFocusd is great for this. But there are other applications such as LeechBlock for Firefox, and Self-Control for Mac users.
Also, put your phone elsewhere to avoid the temptation of accessing them via your phone. If you need your phone nearby in case someone calls, then consider putting it in a Tupperware pot while you work. That way it’s still close by but isn’t as easy to pick up.
If you want to save time writing e-mails, then take advantage of e-mail templates!
Every mailing service comes with a feature that lets you create templates. These are incredibly useful for creating responses to frequent e-mails, such as questions about rates and availability.
Common templates for media translators include, responding to job availability and/or rates, translation/invoice delivery.
Make sure you edit the emails slightly so they’re catered to response to each individual request but working from a template can save a lot of time.
If you don’t want to have a variety of templates then at least a signature to end all your emails with (your contact information, website, etc.) will save some time.
Take Advantage of Your Calendar!
Whether you prefer paper of digital calendars, they can be so useful for keeping track of your projects and schedule!
Sadly, plans don’t always go as planned (especially if you work with video games!), so a digital calendar might be best as you can easily adjust dates/times without the calendar getting too messy.
You might be the type of person who gets easily distracted. Despite using to-do lists, time trackers, and website blockers, you still find yourself getting up every ten minutes or being distracted by some other website.
Some focus assisting tactics myself and fellow translators suggest:
- Chew gum / crunch carrots.
- Hold a fidget spinner / stress ball / pen / clicker.
- Take a short walk around the house/apartment and/or do some quick exercises.
Don’t be afraid to change time management tactics when old ones stop working. Try to give yourself easy to achieve time/task goals (e.g. I will do a minimum of 1 hour of work today.)
If you find yourself being distracted visually (e.g. looking out the window for a long time), then keep your to-do list easily visible and color coordinate the priority of your tasks.
If you find this is heavily impacting your work to a point where you struggle to get anything done, then consider consulting a doctor to see if you might be neurodivergent and if there’s anything they can do to help.
What if the Schedule’s Not Manageable?
That’s how you get burnout.
If you find your schedule getting away from you then re-calculate your workloads and look at what to prioritize.
E.g. If you have two projects on the go and they’re both getting out of hand, don’t be afraid to contact the PM of the one that pays less to re-negotiate a deadline. (Always prioritize clients who pay better.)
Sadly, you might have clients who expect quick turn arounds and tight deadlines. If the deadline is too tight then negotiate an extension. If they won’t extend then inform them of how much work you can provide them in that time instead. (As I mentioned before, no job is worth your mental or physical health.)
You might have instances where the client changes the scope after you’ve already agreed to a project. In these cases there is nothing wrong with re-negotiating deadlines and/or compensation to reflect the new scope.
Some might even try to pay you less saying, “other people on the project are only paid X amount.” If you had already agreed to the project based on a certain rate then they should honor that agreement, or you can walk away.
Basically, don’t be afraid of putting your foot down. You know your standards (costs, schedule, time, etc.) for the best possible work. Give a PM an inch and they might take a mile.
A good PM will weigh your arguments and either allow you to extend the deadline or work out another solution so everyone’s happy.
You should know that not all companies have their freelancer’s best interests at heart, and some might take advantage of you. If you’re worried you can consult with fellow translators about working conditions and ask for advice.
You Know You Best
At the end of the day, you know you best. You know if you can handle a project or if it’s right for you. You know how you work best. No one else should tell you “you need to do it this way” because what works for them might not work for you.
But I hope this article has at least helped give you some ideas on how to improve your time management so you can have a healthy and happy freelance career.
Additional Useful Articles
Smart Habits for Translators Podcast
- Work-life Clarity
- Conquering Your To-do List
- Dealing with Burnout
- Setting Priorities and Getting Things Done
Get More Done as a Freelance Translator – How to Plan Your Work and Become More Productive
Setting Attainable Goals to Achieve Work-Life Balance
Impressive Time Management: The Time Diet