Get a Handle on Your Schedule for the New Year

Plan your year ahead for vacation, holidays, free-time and more while still being wildly productive and earning the dough

As freelancers or gig workers, our availability isn’t the same as that of salaried employees who often have set schedules. Instead, we set our own hours. Yay for that! But what are those hours? And how many do we actually have? It’s not an infinite number. And that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, all of the fancy day-planners, scheduling apps, and project-planning platforms in the world won’t necessarily help you get a handle on your actual available work time unless you get real about what and when that is. So, whether you work scheduled gigs, use gig apps during certain hours, or do project-based work, we’ve devised a method to help you figure it out.

Ready, set, plan!
In our blog post about setting your rates, we talked about how a year has roughly 52 weeks. But if you enter into a year thinking you’ll be working all of those weeks, you won’t have time to do much else. That doesn’t sound like the independence that the independent contractor life is supposed to be. So take charge of your time.

As free agents, we have to consider holidays and vacations—because no one is “giving” us the time off. We also have to consider the occasional week where we come down with the “plague” or need to deal with an emergency. We can’t necessarily predict when we’re going to get sick or when that whole “life happens” thing will actually happen. But we can consider our planned time off—a gift we should give ourselves. And we can get better about building space into our schedules.

That built-in space is moveable
As you go through this exercise of setting aside weeks or days where you’re not working, keep in mind that none of your “marked off” time—whether for taking a vacation or a personal day or for completing “business housekeeping” tasks—have to be etched in stone. If a great gig comes your way that just happens to be on a day you weren’t planning to work, obviously you can take it to make extra cash. Part of being an independent contractor is being flexible. And the reality is that sometimes we have to do a little work on our off days to keep afloat. Just be sure to take care of yourself in the process and try to find balance between work-time and free-time.

Getting started
Start the process by accessing a calendar that allows you to see all the days of the year. Many day-planners or online apps have a calendar overview. Find one that works for you or make your own with a spreadsheet platform.

Holidays and planned vacation
Next, block off weeks (or just extra days) surrounding holidays. You may not actually need all the time you mark off when the holiday rolls around, but it’s nice to know you have a cushion. On the other hand, maybe you have the goal to work longer hours and double shifts during certain holidays or extended weekends because of a higher earning potential. If so, figure out other days you want to keep free. Mull over any vacations or staycations you might take, like spring-break adventures with the kiddos or an annual camping trip with pals. Block the time off now if you can.

How much vacation should you be taking? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans with five years of experience at their jobs typically get about 15 days of paid vacation. As an independent contractor, you have to decide what works for you and your budget. Just be fair to yourself, and remember that free-time can make you more productive when you’re back on the work clock.

Sick days and personal days
Everyone’s need for sick and personal days will be a little different. If you have a chronic health condition, you may need to factor in more flex days. Everyone should plan for at least one working day off a month, even if you don’t use it. (If you don’t fall sick or need a root canal, all the better.) Although the timing need won’t be predictable, you can still block out a day and change it later. The idea is to build in space. Mark these days in a different color, so that you’re aware they are moveable, flexible, and potentially workable—if you’re looking to earn more cash.

Non-working workdays
All the tasks you do that you don’t get paid for—like buying supplies, running work errands, servicing your work vehicle, filing paperwork, etc.—still need to get done. These are often called “housekeeping” to-dos. That’s why you need “non-working workdays.” Technically you’re still working, but you’re not available to do projects, take on a gig/shift, or do rideshare. The amount of time you need for housekeeping tasks will vary by industry and individual. Some independent contractors will require one day a week (perhaps every Friday), while others will only need one day a month (the last Friday), or even just a few hours. Figure out what’s right for you. Mark them in yet another color.

Catch-up days
Not everyone will need “catch-up” days, but if you do project work that occasionally takes longer than you estimated or sometimes involves a change in scope, you will be grateful to have one or two of these days on the horizon. Some people will need two catch-up days a month, while others may not need any. Factor these into your calendar with yet another color.

Determine your hours
Once you’ve got a handle on the general days you’re not available, it’s time to consider your hourly availability. You don’t have to map out the whole year with an hourly schedule, just get a big picture of what a typical workday looks like. You can get more granular with each month, week, and day, as they approach by using the more detailed pages of a planner, digital scheduling app, or workflow platform.

Fill in your projects, gigs, and client obligations
The next task is to fill in your calendar with what you’ll be doing. In your early planning stages, this should still just be an overview. For example, if you know you’ll be working a catering event the first week of February, mark that down so that you know you’re not available to take on a restaurant shift. Or if you’re an accountant preparing several tax returns for clients, mark down who you’ll be working for during which days, so you have a general idea of what’s coming up.

With an overview of the time you actually have available to work, and a projection of the time you’d like or might need free, you’ll be less likely to overbook yourself and feel frazzled. Planning ahead like this can also help you anticipate cash flow gaps. Check out our piece on getting an income boost.