A lttle over four months ago, Mr. Vega and I packed up a moving truck and left California for Texas, in pursuit of the American Dream. Real estate is cheaper here, we had read. Texas has no state income tax, and unemployment is lower, especially in Austin, our city of choice. What we didn’t quite plan for, however, is that while still much lower than in Southern California, the cost of living in Austin has increased dramatically over the past few years, and most incomes, including those in our fields of sales and service provision, haven’t kept pace. Our natural response was to kick into high gear at work, but we are coming to understand that working more doesn’t automatically mean earning more. Here are some things we’ve had to consider in our search for the sweet spot in our schedules:
In all freelance work, as in sales, it’s important to consider that opportunity cost is inherent in commitment. For every gig I accept, or every meeting Mr. Vega schedules, there will be others that we will miss. And while it’s unwise to try to keep one’s options so long that all the chances dry up, it’s generally a good idea to leave a little space in our schedules to take advantage of previously unforeseen opportunities. As a side benefit, rush jobs or last-minute gigs often come at a premium. In Los Angeles, same-day requests for service in my line of work are billed at a higher “emergency rate,” but that isn’t standard practice in Austin. What I’ve discovered as a freelancer is that, even though it’s out of the norm here, some clients are indeed willing to pay a 20% premium to have same-day service requests covered, and so I’ve gone against the grain and set my rates accordingly. In Mr. Vega’s line, the more urgently his customers need service, the more they’re willing to pay for it. If he were to schedule all his meetings three weeks out, he would run the risk of not being able to provide service to clients who need contracts signed today, so they can be up and running next week.
Profits aside, helping people handle their professional emergencies builds goodwill. There are many reasons besides procrastination that people need service at the eleventh hour: deals fall through, providers fall ill, and bad luck can befall anyone. Whatever we charge (and it’s not always more) for last-minute work, our clients and customers will hopefully remember that we came through when they were in a tight spot, and express their gratitude through referrals and repeat business.
Another good reason to avoid the temptation to over-book is that diversifying work environments grows word-of-mouth. We could keep the bulk of our efforts focused on a few select clients, but that increases the risk of decimating our income if we were to lose just one or two. Instead, we believe that the more people we can get our faces in front of, the more our phones are likely to ring. We need to leave a little margin in our days if we want to widen our sphere of influence in order to keep our income more stable.
Once the opportunities have been claimed, it’s important to bear in mind that working less can yield a higher-quality work product. There’s a joke sign I’ve seen hanging over the cash register in auto mechanics’ shops: “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.” In order to earn more, we have to be willing to deliver a quality work product on-time, every time. The more over-booked we get, the more likely we are to cut corners or miss deadlines. And the more we do that, the more we have to lower our rates. So, declining work every once in a while allows us to do better in the work we do accept.
So, we’ve left some options open, and we’ve given ourselves time to do good work, but we also need to leave some room in our lives for self-care. Because in reputation-based careers such as ours, image is everything. I work closely with my clients, often when they are meeting new people, and am frequently viewed as an extension of them. If I am late, disheveled, or too exhausted to perform my duties well, that will reflect on the people I am assisting. One bad experience can result not only in losing that person or entity’s business, but also to developing a reputation as a service provider to avoid. And in sales, people are more likely to buy what you’re selling if they want what you have. The “used-car salesman” stereotype exists for a reason: too many salespeople have bought into the “work more, earn more” paradigm, and they come off creepy and desperate. But if a salesperson who appears fit, rested, and organized recommends a product or service, then unconsciously, folks are more likely to think that making the purchase just might make them a little more fit, rested, and organized. And because we allow ourselves a bit of time to attend to our lives outside of work, we’re not the people asking you to wait while we make personal phone calls or respond to texts. When we’re at work, we’re… well… working! Doesn’t that sound like someone you want working for you?
The concept of working more to earn more also reaches its limits when we find ourselves spending more money to maintain a busy work schedule. In our household, healthy eating is one of the first things to suffer when we get overbooked. We get so busy that cooking gives way to restaurant takeout, and eventually gets downgraded to fast food. “Just this once” becomes nearly every night, and then starts to include lunches, too. In addition to the expense of the food itself, the lack of quality nutrition contributes to lower energy levels and weakened immunity. The more poorly we’re eating, the less resilient we become, and eventually, our go-go work schedule leaves us sick and unable to work. Not to mention the weight gain, which can lead to having to buy new clothes that actually fit (Also, am I the only person who has ever bought clothes because I hadn’t found time to do laundry?) Minor clothing repairs can escalate into major wardrobe malfunctions when left undone due to busy-ness. Hectic schedules also deprive us of time to care for our homes and our cars… neglecting maintenance and repairs can be costly in the long-run, and few things are more embarrassing than exiting a cluttered, filthy car and finding yourself face-to-face with your client.
Keeping a too-busy life also harms personal relationships, which are a requirement for mental health and long-term happiness. After all, if we’re doing all this work to be able share the rewards with our loved ones, we’d better make sure there are some loved ones still around when we finally reach our financial goals!
To that end, I think it’s worth looking at why we’re so driven to earn. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American businessman who takes a vacation to Mexico, where he meets a young father who spends his mornings on the beach, fishing only enough to feed his family, and then spending the rest of the day with his wife and kids. The businessman tells the fisherman that he should fish all day in order to sell some of the fish and earn money, so that he can buy a boat and employ a crew to earn even more money. The Mexican fisherman asks the American what the result of all that work would be, to which the businessman replies “Well, after many years, if you work very hard, you can retire, and spend your days fishing on the beach with your wife and grandchildren.”
Certainly working and earning to better our lot in life is a noble goal… That’s exactly what we’re doing, and why we made our big cross-country move. But there comes a point at which simply doing more work starts to take us farther from what we’re trying to achieve, rather than moving us closer to our goals. As Mike Rowe says, “Work smart and hard,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.