How to minimise non-billable time as a freelancer

“Time is money” isn’t just an adage when running a small business, it’s a way of life. When your business model is to sell your time and expertise, it’s important to monetise every moment of every working day.

There are plenty of hacks to help freelancers and contractors get more and more efficient with reducing the cost of non-billable time. These tend to focus on outsourcing your unproductive time and automating repetitive tasks, but you also need to pay special attention to the time and effort you spend on winning new business.

Outsourcing unproductive time

The concept is simple. You should eliminate as much unproductive non-billable time as possible. For example, reserving a table for a client lunch meeting, doing your tax return, finding a venue for your staff training event, all these simple admin tasks accumulate and can take hours of time out of your week.

If you can pay someone to manage these tasks for you at a price lower than what you sell your time for, it’s a no-brainer.

The concept of outsourcing unproductive time is not new. Ten years ago, Tim Ferriss’ “4 hour working week” promoted the benefits of outsourcing the management of your daily life to allow you to maximise your billable time.

Ten years ago, outsourcing unproductive time was easier said than done, and the single biggest challenge was finding someone you trusted. Handing over the inner workings of your business was a big risk, especially if they needed to make payments on your behalf.

However, the growing gig economy and the rise of the freelance marketplace has made finding a trusted, local virtual assistant a great deal easier.

And financial technology including virtual, prepaid credit cards enable you to reduce the risk of outsourcing things that involve giving your assistant a budget.

Automating repetitive tasks

Technology is making it easier and easier to take care of time-consuming repetitive tasks. There are hundreds of business applications that reduce the time you spend on repeating a task.

Reports can run themselves, invoices can be created, received and processed automatically, you can even automate the kettle so it turns on when you walk into the office!

Through outsourcing and automation, you should be on the way to removing most of your non-billable time. There is, however, a type of non-billable task that needs special consideration though – developing new business.

New business needs special consideration

New business activity is non-billable time that’s almost impossible to eliminate. New business development, pitching, speculative work all takes valuable time and it is nearly impossible to outsource or automate completely.

Even if you outsource lead-generation or automate lead nurturing with something like Marketo, there comes a point in the sales process where you need to invest your time without being able to charge for it.

Of course, it can be tempting to absorb the cost of developing new business in your day/charge rate. But in a competitive market, this can make your pricing uncompetitive.

In reality, most small businesses write the time pitching and doing speculative work off as a cost of doing business, especially in price-sensitive markets.

The new business cost needs control, just like any other overhead

Just as every other business cost needs managing, the non-billable time overhead of generating new business needs managing and controlling too. There are some simple rules to follow to minimise how much non-billable time you spend developing new business:

Play to your strengths

There are opportunities everywhere. If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find interesting opportunities, potential clients and ways to make money.

But with a finite budget of time and resource to invest in converting opportunities to revenue, it’s important to play to your strengths. Concentrate on the new business potential of existing clients, and opportunities where you have a proven pedigree, over investing hundreds of hours in 10-way tenders for projects where you’re an outside bet.

In other words, focus on your opportunity conversion rate – the fewer pitches you take on, the less time you’re committing to spend on non-billable hours.

Say no (politely)

Playing to your strengths will mean saying ‘no’ a lot. It may feel uncomfortable in the short term, but it nearly always works out for the best in the long term.

For example, as a marketing agency who specialises in web design, it’s common for web development opportunities to come your way. It’s extremely tempting to say yes and try to win the additional revenue.

However, nine times out of ten, you’ll be pitching against experienced, specialist development agencies who are far more likely to be the right choice. It’s more efficient and will cost you fewer non-billable hours to politely decline an opportunity where you’ve only an outside chance of winning.

The same principle applies regardless of your industry: construction, recruitment, manufacturing. Saying no to the opportunities you don’t have a genuine chance of converting allows you to focus on those you do.

If you genuinely struggle with having too many opportunities, you may benefit from learning more about lead scoring. A good place to start learning is Oracle’s lead scoring framework, which grades an opportunity by fit and level of engagement.

Fit, rated A (high) to D (low)

Fit is how likely you are to win the business. For example, is the opportunity in something you have a good experience of? Are you talking to the decision maker? Do they have a budget?

Engagement, rated 1 (high) to 4 (low)

Engagement is a measure of how active the lead is. For example, Is there an urgency? Is the lead pushing you for answers or showing buying intent?

With a lead-scoring framework, you grade each opportunity and focus primarily on the A1’s. You can read more about lead scoring here.

Be prepared

Playing to your strengths and focusing on opportunities that have a good fit and level of engagement has another benefit: You can prepare one set of pitch/proposal assets and save hours by re-use them frequently.

If you find you’re still creating a new presentation or set of documents even if you’re carefully selecting your opportunities, you should consider hiring an expert to create a flexible set of templates you can repurpose and reuse.

With the right template and a very narrow selection criteria for the opportunities you take on, you should find you greatly reduce the number of non-billable hours you spend on responding to new business opportunities.

In summary: How to reduce your non-billable hours

  1. Outsource your administrative tasks to a trusted virtual assistant, allowing you to focus on productive tasks
  2. Automate repetitive tasks
  3. Control your new business non-billable time by carefully selecting the opportunities you pursue

This guide was written exclusively for ByteStart by Gary Elliott Marketing Director of, the UK’s freelance marketplace, where we believe high-quality work deserves a fair price.

Last updated: 19th June, 2022

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