Freelancing Across Time Zones: How I Make It Work | Sarah Aboulhosn

Freelancing Across Time Zones: How I Make It Work

I’m living in the future. I’m 12-hours ahead of all of my clients, and it works.

As I’m writing this, it’s my Monday morning. But for most of my clients, it’s still Sunday night. In theory, that buys me 12 hours of time to meet deadlines with a nice little buffer in case something goes wrong.
That theory pans out nicely…most of the time. But it also took a lot of figuring out how to develop a working relationship that made my clients, and myself, happy.

Here’s how I learned how to be fully transparent, take extreme ownership of my time, practice discipline and set boundaries in order to live my dream of being completely location independent.

Late nights and early mornings

I’d be lying if I said it was a walk-in part working with clients in the complete opposite time zones. It takes a lot of discipline and commitment. My goal is to be completely location independent. I also always make a promise to my clients that working remotely or being in another time zone won’t have any impact on the project or our working relationship. But that promise comes with a lot of compromises. And one of those compromises is being flexible with the times I’m available to chat.

I had to recognize that since I am the one who chose this lifestyle, It’s my responsibility to make myself available around reasonable working hours for my clients who run US-based businesses. They operate during standard business hours, and I’ve made the choice to operate pretty much whenever I want. That means a lot of late nights and early mornings taking calls and coordinating on projects.

I complained at first. I wanted everything to be exactly the way that I wanted it to be. I wanted to wake up at noon and only take calls when it was convenient. But at some point, I obviously had to reevaluate my priorities if I ever wanted to keep my clients.

Did I want to live in one place forever just so I could schedule meetings in the middle of the day, or did I want the flexibility to go whenever I want and get the job done? I chose flexibility, which means compromising my schedule to mee the client’s needs.

To my advantage, those late nights and early mornings also come with uninterrupted days. Since most of my clients are asleep while I’m actively online, it gives me a solid day of work without interruptions, which is huge for productivity.

Extreme ownership and personal responsibility

Working with clients who are 12 hours behind me creates very little space to be micro-managed, which is a good thing. But it also means taking extreme personal responsibility over your time and priorities.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “well I have an extra 12 hours to get something done because when it’s due Monday morning, I technically don’t have to get it in until Monday night.” This is a game I played at first and thought it worked to my advantage all the way up until I realized I was basically operating on a US time zone schedule. This completely defeated the purpose of being location independent.

I had to practice extreme discipline in meeting deadlines ahead of time. And since communication is limited to only a few hours per day, I need to be extremely proactive in asking questions and getting feedback or clarity on a project. I can’t ask a question a day before a deadline because more often than not, it will take a full day for the client to see that question and send me a response. By then it’s too late, I’ve missed the deadline and probably lost the client.

I use a flurry of different tools to manage my days and have recently taken to managing my entire life and career in Asana. I assign myself strict deadlines that always create a reliable buffer between the client’s timeline and the deadline I set for myself. It works out perfectly when something undoubtedly goes wrong before I deliver. I always plan to need an extra day or two to clarify something and work that into my plan accordingly to still meet the deadline.

Practicing full transparency

When I first relocated and started freelancing, I was applying to a lot of US-based jobs. In the job description, they would explicitly state that they were only looking for candidates that could work in the Eastern Time Zone. I interpreted that statement the way that I wanted to and told myself that it didn’t matter what timezone I was in. They would probably be happy as long as I could be online when they needed me to me.

It was a desperate time in my life. I had pretty much no clients and was struggling to find work so that I could maintain the lifestyle I wanted. So when it asked where I was located, I would casually say the USA. I would make up a narrative in my head about how the interview could go in a way where I wasn’t lying, but so they would still want to hire me. This was before I was confident enough to meet their objections with concrete strategies about being able to deliver regardless of the time zone.

These days I practice extreme transparency with my clients. They all know where I am and what time zone I’m in. I send them regular updates so they know I haven’t disappeared. I let them know what hours I’m online and when they can expect to hear from me.

This kind of honesty is the only way to make it work. When communication is limited, maximum transparency helps build and maintain trust in the relationship.

Establish (and maintaining) boundaries

I just talked about transparency and how important it is to be honest about your work situation with your client. But it’s also just as important to set boundaries about when you are and aren’t available to them.
Compromise is important in building a good working relationship, maintaining healthy boundaries helps keep me grounded maintain my mental and physical wellbeing.

Some of the boundaries I set are which hours I am willing to be online, available to chat, every day. I make myself available on mornings and evenings which caters to at least 3–4 hours of US time zone overlap.

I make myself fas flexible with my clients as possible, but I refuse to take a call at 3 am. That’s a hard boundary.
This is also why transparency is such an important part of the process. I need clients to know where I am so that they know the reason I’m not available at certain times. These boundaries are important at maintaining my own schedule and not setting unrealistic expectations for clients moving forward.

I try to maintain the mindset that, as a freelancer and independent contractor, I have a right to design my career the way I want it to look. A lot of times, that means that I turn down work because a client’s expectations are deal-breakers when it comes to my boundaries.

I love being location-independent. It was single-handedly one of the best decisions I’ve made and I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to keep it going as long as I can. It’s not always easy. It gets tiring. People question it and push back, and ask for too much and it’s up to me to look at the big picture and know that it can work.

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July 16, 2019