How to Manage Your Bandwidth to Serve Clients Efficiently

Several years ago, I began taking every Wednesday off work. I call it my “midweekend.” I do this partly for creative reasons; writing demands a ton of mental focus, and by Wednesday my brain is kind of fried and requires some recharging time.

But the main reason I starting taking Wednesdays off was to consolidate my Mom’s medical appointments. Previously, I disrupted my work schedule willy-nilly, every time she had to see this or that doctor for something. It wasn’t manageable. So I began booking every doctor appointment for a Wednesday, which did the trick. Mom’s medical care needs were met, and I maintained a predictable work routine.

Fast-forward to last week. Mom’s latest primary care provider doesn’t take appointments on Wednesdays. So, last Tuesday saw me cutting out of work early, bundling Mom’s wheelchair into the trunk of my car, and setting off for the doctor’s office.

I tried to work some on Wednesday morning to make up for this unplanned time off, but I couldn’t find the focus. Thursday arrived and, again, I found it difficult to buckle down to work – particularly because I had no looming deadline to drive me.

Managing my bandwidth still challenges me, even after nearly a decade of full-time freelancing. From a lack of intrinsic motivation to taking on so much work I run myself ragged, I continue to grapple sometimes with the issue of time management.

So today I thought I’d write about how to juggle your bandwidth for maximum effectiveness. The amount of time you have to work and how you allocate it plays a crucial role in helping you achieve success as a writer.

Macro vs Micro Bandwidth

In my mind, I visualize my availability in two distinct ways: the overall amount of time I put into my business (macro) and my weekly or daily schedule (micro).

Macro bandwidth includes all of my available hours over the course of a month on an ongoing basis. Each of us possesses only a finite number of hours to devote to our writing business. When I was first launching my business, as a side gig, I dedicated four hours per week, every Saturday morning, to building my career. As I gained clients and eventually quit my nursing job for writing, my macro bandwidth expanded considerably. Today I estimate I invest around 100 hours per month in my business. That’s my “macro” bandwidth.

But I have to carve that massive number of hours up into meaningful chunks in order to get the actual work done. These smaller blocks of time represent my “micro” bandwidth. For any given week, it’s roughly 24. For any given day, it’s six – but that can easily stretch to eight if the work demands it.

I’m going to focus on macro bandwidth in this post, because that’s the element that will help you avoid overbooking yourself or getting your client load out of balance. I think it’s also the more challenging type of bandwidth to manage. Most of us nurses can pretty easily plan out any given day by prioritizing the tasks at hand and then checking them off one by one. But allocating large, constantly shifting large blocks of time over the course of months can be much more difficult to do successfully.

Billable Hours vs Administrative Time

When looking at your macro bandwidth, don’t forget to include the time you’ll need to spend on administrative tasks like bookkeeping, marketing, and other stuff. Your macro bandwidth doesn’t include only “billable hours” (that is, the time you spend working on client projects). Your bandwidth must accommodate all of the work required to run your business successfully.

It’s exactly the same as your nursing job. If you work 36 hours a week, you don’t spend all 36 of those hours providing patient care. Some (a lot) of your time is spent charting, consulting with other clinicians, kibitzing with co-workers, etc.

In my case, I spend roughly 40 hours per month on non-billable work. When I was first starting out, I spent a whole lot more than that. Your marketing bandwidth at first may consume the majority of your available hours, but this will constantly evolve as you take on clients and become more successful.

Analyze Your Macro Bandwidth

As you know, I’m a stickler for time tracking. Personally, I use OfficeTime (not an affiliate link), but any time tracking app will do.

You can’t possibly manage your bandwidth if you have no idea how much time you’re spending on various tasks – billable and non-billable. Many writers over-estimate how much time they invest in client work and underestimate how much they put into administration (and, frankly, time-wasting activities like checking Facebook – which I’ve never been guilty of in my entire career, and certainly not when I’ve been on deadline). /sarcasm

Anyway, to seamlessly integrate new clients into your business, you should start by analyzing where you currently invest your time. When a new client comes calling, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is where you’re going to find the bandwidth to perform the work. If you never track your time, you won’t be able to know if you can provide a new client with quality service or not.

My Thought Process for Integrating a New Client

I’ll share my personal experience, as I’ve recently taken on two new clients.

I tend to worry about overbooking myself. I’ve done it in the past, and it’s extremely unpleasant. I’m not the type of person who can focus for six solid hours on one or more client projects. I’ve found I perform optimally at four to five hours per day, max, for client work.

So I’ve signed a new contract to provide the client with four consumer health articles per month. I know from past experience (and time tracking) that I will need a couple of hours apiece for these articles. Let’s call it 10 hours per month, to build in some cushion in case they take longer than I anticipate.

Next I consider my available ongoing bandwidth. Prior to signing this client, I was working with two steady clients and one client with an unpredictable workload.

On a monthly basis, my bandwidth looked something like this:

Client A = 10 hours

Client B = 10 hours

Client C = usually no more than 10 hours

Non-billable = 40-55 hours (approx.)

Total absorbed bandwidth = 70-85 hours per month

Total available bandwidth = 15-30 hours per month

This math makes it easy to say yes to the new client, doesn’t it? Clearly I have plenty of billable bandwidth available. My analysis now looks like this:

Client A = 10 hours

Client B = 10 hours

Client C = 10 hours (approx.)

Client D = 10 hours (estimated)

Nonbillable = 40 hours

Total absorbed = 80

Total available = 20

But then a second client came calling (yay!). This client contracts with me for eight longer-form blog posts per month, and I also will have to learn a CMS for direct uploading of the content. I feel I should expect these posts to take longer than my average for medium-length articles submitted via email. I’m going to estimate that I’ll need 2.5 hours per post, at least initially, for a total of 20 hours per month.

Now where will I find the bandwidth?

Based on my earlier calculations, I should have just enough bandwidth to accommodate this:

Client A = 10 hours

Client B = 10 hours

Client C = 10 hours (approx.)

Client D = 10 hours (estimated)

Client E = 20 hours (estimated)

Nonbillable = 40 hours

Total absorbed = 100 hours per month

Total available = 0

We all know what’s going to happen next, don’t we? Of course we do! It’s always at times like this when the freelance universe showers you with abundance! Surely within the next month a mega-client will come calling. This client will want to pay you big bucks for 20 hours’ worth of work per month.

What do you do?

You may have heard the advice from some freelance gurus that you should always strive to “drop your lowest-paying client” in scenarios like this. However, I urge you to exercise caution with that approach. Yes, firing your lowest-paying client will free up valuable bandwidth, but as I demonstrated with the numbers earlier this week, your financial risk might actually rise as you consolidate fewer eggs in your basket.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of this method depends on how you define “lowest-paying client.”

I recommend a more refined approach: analyze your effective hourly rate and consider dropping the client that returns the lowest rate. For example, you may have a client that pays you $5,000 per month, but it takes you 70 hours to accomplish the work – resulting in an effective hourly rate of $71 per hour. Compare that to a client that pays you $1,500 per month for work that only takes you 10 hours to accomplish, for an effective rate of $150 per hour. Which one makes more sense to drop? Getting rid of the larger client will free up both bandwidth (to the tune of 70 hours per month) and eliminate a poor rate.

And, oh yes, it’s very painful to let go of $5,000 per month. Trust me. I’ve done it.

My point with all of this is that running a smooth operation doesn’t just happen by magic. To succeed as a freelance writer, you need to learn how to analyze and calculate your bandwidth. Otherwise you might find yourself overbooked and stressed out – or under-booked and crying over your mistake in not signing that lucrative client because you didn’t think you had the bandwidth available.

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