15 Minute Freelancer

74. How to work fewer hours! (with Alicja Tokarska)

September 02, 2022 Louise Shanahan / Alicja Tokarska Episode 74
15 Minute Freelancer
74. How to work fewer hours! (with Alicja Tokarska)
Show Notes Transcript

One of my goals for 2022 was to shift from working five (or sometimes seven!) days a week to a consistent four-day week. If you listened to episode 66, you'll know how that has been going... My guest this week heard that episode and offered to share her experience of reducing her hours while still delivering fantastic work for clients.

Alicja Tokarska is a freelance translator and subtitler who, after working round the clock for far too long, made the decision to transition to a new working pattern and now works Monday to Thursday.

Alicja shares her experience of moving to a four-day week along with tips on how she makes it work, including: 

  • What prompted her to make the transition to four days a week
  • Overcoming mental and practical obstacles to working fewer hours when you're used to being 'on' all the time
  • Managing client expectations around availability
  • How the move has changed her business
  • What an average week looks like now (and how others can do the same).

Get bonus clips and tips in the 15 Minute Freelancer newsletter: 15minutefreelancer.substack.com

Mentioned in this episode:
Boomerang for Gmail: www.boomeranggmail.com
Episode 66: My 6-month review: what worked and what didn't?
Episode 23: Saying no and beating burnout with Sarah Townsend

Say hi to Alicja:
LinkedIn: Alicja Tokarska
Instagram: @polkadottranslations
Website: www.polkadottranslations.com

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.

Louise: Hello, freelance friends, Louise Shanahan here. Today, I'm joined by Alicja Tokarska, who is a freelance translator and subtitler based in Scotland like me, actually, so that’s exciting. She's going to help me out with a challenge that I shared in Episode 66. If you listened to that episode which was a six-month review of how I was getting on with my goals for 2022, you may remember that I mentioned that one of my goals had been to shift from working five days a week, sometimes seven, down to four days. And spoiler, I had not done that. Anyway, after I published that episode, I got a lovely message from Alicja saying, hey, I have done that and I can share some tips, so here we are. Hi, Alicja, thank you so much for coming to my rescue.

Alicja: Thank you for having me.

L: I'm looking forward to hearing more about your experience of transitioning to a new working pattern. So maybe we could start there, why don't you share what led you to change your working pattern, what were you doing before, and what you're doing now?

A: I started offering translation services in 2017 and that was exactly when I began my part-time master's degree. Because I wasn't established yet I couldn't just afford to quit my job. I had my master's degree, I had my translation services, and I think at some point I had three other part-time jobs. 

L: Oh, wow. 

A: Yeah, that was pretty hard going. I would be working around the clock, I would be working at 9pm sometimes, or at the weekend. When I finished my master's degree I went to Luxembourg for five months, where I was completing a traineeship, and there I discovered how awful it is to just be living to work. Because I kind of felt like most of the people that I was meeting there were doing exactly that, working was basically the reason for living. That made me realise that I really appreciate all my other hobbies, I don't want to just be associated with my work, and also mental health is very important to me. I thought as soon as I come back, I'm going to do four days.

L: What obstacles did you anticipate, or did you actually face, when you made that shift from working all around the clock to just four days a week?

A: There was a lot of guilt in me. I think there's a lot of presumptions about people. I think it's changing now, but I was just thinking that people would see me as lazy or that I don't care about my career, you know, all of those things that we're growing up with. Because I'm from Poland and I feel that the work culture there is very different. I remember even talking to a friend that I was going back to uni when I was 27 and he was like, oh, aren't you too old for that? So you know, I think mostly it was internal for me. I was also a bit worried that my clients would stop giving me work, which is obviously not true, it never happened.

L: Yeah, I guess I'm thinking that maybe there's this perception that you're not going to be available somehow, rather than them just trusting you to get the work done when it needs to be done.

A: Exactly yeah, I think it's mostly internal. To be honest, like, I never think about someone who's working a specific number of days that they're lazy, that just doesn't exist. So I think it's mostly in people's minds.

L: Yeah, that's interesting and I think that the idea of a four-day workweek is getting a lot of attention at the moment. Here in Scotland, there are rumblings that a four-day week will be trialled, I'm not quite sure of the details or how that will work in practice, and I know in some other countries it is pretty common. Of course, many people already work part-time, don't they? Interestingly, when I've talked about shifting from five days to four days, I've never really thought of this as going from full-time to part-time. I think that's because it feels like the language of employment and as a self-employed person, there aren't the same hard and fast rules about when and where you work. That can be a good thing or a bad thing because then it's on you to set those boundaries and not just work all the time. And I kind of think of my business in terms of output and value generated for clients and for myself rather than the time spent working. And the idea of working 40 hours a week or whatever it is, is so arbitrary anyway. But like you say, the people you work with may have other ideas. I wonder if you could say a bit more about how you've managed client expectations around your availability?

A: As soon as I came back from Luxembourg, I emailed all my existing clients, just saying, I'm back and ready to take more work. And that's exactly when I said, this is my new availability. I also, I think it was Sarah Townsend, who mentioned the idea of having an out-of-office message always on, just to kind of tell clients that you're not checking your email all the time that you're working, to send this message that when you're working you're actually focused. So I have that message, you probably saw it when you emailed me. 

L: Yes, I did. 

A: I also have my standard working days and hours there. And I always, whenever I quote for work, whenever someone messages me, I always just include that just so they know, straight away. I think that helped, because at first clients would email me on Fridays and now I've noticed that when I log on Monday, I have less and less emails from them, so they know.

L: Yeah, it's all about setting expectations isn't it, and being clear about how you like to work and how you can produce the best results for the clients as well. It's kind of a benefit to them, too. I think it's really helpful, just to be clear about what your processes are. That could be the times that you're available, how quickly you'll get back to people if they send an email, and just your kind of process and the way that you like to communicate generally.

A: Exactly. You know how you said that everyone's got their own processes and everything, I do sometimes have to maybe leave my office for a few hours during the day. Then you know, if I just stick to 4pm, that's when I finish, then it would mean that I'm losing a few hours. So sometimes I'll come back and I will, for example, try to catch up with emails after my usual working times. But I don't want my clients to know that I want them to think that I will only reply to them at specific times. So I actually use this tool called Boomerang for Gmail, there's a free and a paid version, I use the paid version now. But basically, you can just write your emails and schedule them to be sent at a specific time and specific day. For example, if I have to work on Thursday at 6pm, I just schedule it to be sent on a Monday at 9am, which is really good. So that also sets this expectation that you're only available when you said you're available.

L: Because I think it could be confusing for people. If you say I don't work on Fridays, and then actually you are in their inbox on Fridays.

A: Exactly. I did have to do that recently, basically I had a pretty bad accident recently and I was off work for six weeks. A client messaged me on the Thursday and I said, you know what, I'm going on holiday soon but I’m going to make myself available for Friday, I'll do this for you. But you know, as soon as you explain why this is happening, I feel that makes it sound more like this is not a standard thing you’re not just setting all these rules and then don't really follow them. You know, just be honest, if you have to work that Friday, for example, like me, just tell them why.

L: I wonder what other benefits you've seen, how's your business changed since you've shifted to working in this way?

A: I definitely see myself more as a boss. Because when I started, I used to just say, oh, I'm just a freelancer, I feel that a lot of people do that at the beginning. Now that kind of made me feel that I have the power to think about how I work and to basically run my business the way I want it to be run. Then I also see that even though I have less time, I actually feel more refreshed and I love Mondays when I come back to work. I feel it's given me more space to think about my work and to think about my business. And actually I sometimes get prospects who email me on a Friday and get that reply that I'm not there, they actually praise me for it. I had some people being like, oh, that's great that you're doing this, this is amazing. So it’s been very beneficial and I’ve had a really good response from people. I've never lost a client because I'm not working on a Friday, and that was what I was worried about.

L: I guess you would find it a bit strange, they wouldn't be your ideal client if they were going to say, we don't want to work with you anymore unless you're available at these specific times.

A: Exactly. That's another benefit that it made me realise which clients I actually want to work with. Once I got a message on a Friday from a client, they’re one of my favourites now. I replied on the Monday saying, oh, it's probably taken and I'm so sorry I couldn't reply, if it's still available I'll take it happily. And they just replied, oh, of course we're waiting for you to reply, it's fine, we've got the project ready for you.

L: I really like the idea that you're modelling a different way of working and when you hold to your own boundaries, they will hold to your boundaries, and probably think about their own as well and think about their own working patterns.

A: Exactly, yeah, because it's a two-way street. I respect my clients, and they respect me, and if that doesn't happen, that's not really a good relationship.

L: So what does an average day, or an average week, look like for you now?

A: I know that you have your different theme days, don't you? 

L: Yeah.

A: I kind of try to do a similar thing, but with periods of my day, so I do a bit of kind of time blocking. I’m much more productive in the morning and after lunch, not so much. I start at 8am and I have my coffee, have my breakfast, and that's when I try to do the hardest work then. By the time it comes to maybe 12/12:30 I try to kind of ease off a little bit. I still do a little bit of translation or subtitling work, but ideally by 2pm I'm doing more business stuff like marketing, social media, things like that. So I don't have specific rules for every day, but this is my ideal. If I could just, you know, plan every day how I wanted it to be, that's how it would look like, working until 2pm on client work, obviously with a break for lunch, and then just working on my business.

L: I think that's a really useful reminder that when we are running a business we have to make sure that we make time for that non-client-facing work as well. And also have a balance between our work life and the rest of our life, for mental health, wellbeing, all of that, it's so important, isn't it?

A: Exactly. I did actually realise recently because my paid work, everything's fine, but I feel like I have so many ideas for my business that sometimes I run out of time to do it all. I feel even if I worked five days, it would be the same. So I recently realised, I'd like to maybe add one Friday a month when I have that time to do everything I wanted to, but I didn't have time for. I didn't want to go back to five days a week, and I think it's maybe for some people, four days will be fine and they'll do everything they want to. But if you're like me and you just keep having new ideas sometimes I feel like four days is maybe not enough. So now I've got this one Friday a month that I just sit down, it doesn't have to be a full day, but I just work on all the projects, social media, marketing, ideas for maybe webinars, and I just sit down for a few hours and work additionally. So yeah, I've realised that for me four days, I can't do it every single week, because I have just too many ideas.

L: I guess that's the point, isn't it? It's about being flexible and finding something that works for you and the rest of your life as well. You know, a lot of people, maybe it's three days that they're talking about not four or whatever. The point is to find a way of working that works for you and it doesn't have to be the same every week does it.  Do you have any other tips for freelancers who may be thinking about changing their working patterns?

A: I would say that it is a very important thing to just remember that you are your own boss. As I said, I had to tweak my plan a little bit and I was a bit sad about it, but then I realised, come on, you are your own boss, you can do it. Also, if you are thinking of reducing your hours, I would maybe suggest, definitely email your clients to let them know, but also maybe try going slowly. You could maybe try doing a four-day week once a month, maybe you could try doing half a day on the Friday and just kind of see if it's actually feasible for you and if you're enjoying it. Because maybe you realise actually, I like my five days at work, it's fine. I would also suggest trying to analyse your processes because I had this really complicated financial process that I set for myself before. Basically, I was noting down the same information in three different places and when I realised that, yeah, it was taking a lot of time. Maybe you have a similar process for something and maybe that's eating up your time and I would say if you do want to reduce your hours, see if there's something that you're overcomplicating that could be done way quicker.

L: That's such good advice.

A: But yeah, definitely the most important one is remember that you are your own boss, and you have the right to work less if you want to.

L: Oh, it's such an empowering message to finish on. I love that. Thank you so much, Alicja, if listeners want to come and say hi, find out more about what you do, where should they find you?

A: I'm pretty active on LinkedIn, just Alicja Tokarska, it's a very weird spelling with J, I'm sure you'll have it in your episode notes so people can find me easily, and also Instagram @polkadottranslations.

L: That's lovely, we'll put that in the show notes to make sure everyone can find you. Thank you so much, and thank you to everybody for listening. If you know someone who might enjoy this episode then please do consider sharing it with them. 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.