Lessons on being the worst freelancer
When embarking on a freelance writing career for the first time six months ago, I had grand delusions of how I would structure my working day. With the freedom of not having to rush in the morning, I’d rise early, exercise, meditate, eat a healthy breakfast, stroll to a café to collect my morning coffee, then sit at my tidy desk and tap away on my laptop for the next eight hours, pumping out pitches, polishing articles and conducting interviews for Extraordinary Routines.
Instead, I found myself binging on Netflix well into the night and next morning; scheduling unnecessary "meetings" throughout the week; snoozing well into the mid-morning; sitting on Facebook for hours; moving between cafes, libraries, coworking studios and my home office to find the ‘perfect’ working environment (and never finding anything "just right".)
The few deadlines I had were met, but this meant that a typical week would consist of at most fifteen hours of actual work. Luckily, due to having no mortgage, dependants or financial strains, it was enough to just get by and pay rent, but deadline-less self-initiated work – the very reason I quit my full-time job in the first place – fell to the wayside.
I felt like the very worst freelancer.
That is, until I started talking and listening to other freelancers in a range of industries and income brackets. One source of comfort was hearing Paul Jarvis talk about how work and life is a pendulum for any freelancer:
"Sometimes I work eighty-hours a week, and the next I might work eight … the pendulum swings and I don't think it’s a matter of balance, it’s a matter of attention. I like that I can put in a double work week, but I also like that if things don’t need to be done, I don’t have to work even if it’s a Wednesday or a Friday."
It struck me that I was in the trap of applying the flawed 9-5 measures of productivity to freelancing. We all have natural ebbs and flows to our energy, it's just that working for an organisation with set hours and salary means we are somewhat protected from their whims.
In the knowledge working world, a typical day in the office is buffered with unnecessary meetings, coffee breaks, plenty of "busy work" and faffing is validated by being around colleagues who are also faffing. Speaking to friends in full-time jobs in publishing, public relations, agencies, and similar work environments, many if not all reported they only spend 1-3 hours actually working. If this is commonly the case, why are freelancers so hard on themselves for not filling each hour of the day with productivity?
When you work for yourself, there are no benchmarks for how much work you should be doing – you don’t get paid at the end of each week like you do as an employee. When each hour is billable, procrastinating on Facebook suddenly has more weight.
It’s all too easy to experience an immense sense of guilt or feel like you are not doing enough – not taking on enough work, not making enough money, not working hard enough. But maybe it's time to debunk the myth of the 9-5 "working" day and instead strive to work in a way that suits our energy and attention.
Benjamin P Hardy recently explained that working 3-6 hours a day is optimal:
"The best work happens in short intensive spurts. By short, I’m talking 1–3 hours. But this must be 'Deep Work' with no distractions, just like an intensive workout is non-stop. Interestingly, your best work – which for most people is thinking – will actually happen while you’re away from your work, recovering."
It turns out, most freelancers feel like they are the worst freelancer. Comparing ourselves to other people's perceived output without really knowing what's going on behind the scenes is a recipe for guilt and shame about our own. To banish the smoke and mirrors, I reached out to a handful of experienced writers, publicists and illustrators to uncover the common challenges that are often kept hush-hush, and reveal the lessons that come from the struggle of learning how to best work for yourself.
15 lessons on being the worst freelancer
1. Take time to adjust
As freelancers we can be so hard on ourselves, points out illustrator Gorkie, but really we need to be comfortable with floundering for a long time.
"In any other job, we give ourselves a set time to adjust – reminding ourselves it's ok as I’m only in my first six months, or I'm just a graduate. But with freelancing we expect to hit the ground running and never trip up."
"But the first year or two is floundering. And necessarily so. You've got to give yourself permission to hit dead ends and waste money and be inefficient. You only earn hindsight afterwards. I think in freelancing we want our hindsight first."
Designer, illustrator and founder of Make Nice Ngaio Parr agrees that it takes a while to adjust.
"I was a terrible freelancer when I first started. It definitely isn't something they really teach in school, and without a network of other freelancers you're really just swimming around in circles. I started with no willpower, which isn't helpful, and probably why I needed to go through my entire Netflix wish-list before I got any actual work done."
"I didn't put any thought into how I worked best, and it took a lot of failed attempts before I focussed on the way I could work at home with high productivity and enjoyment," says Parr.
2. Work smarter, not harder
The trickiest part about being a freelancer is defining your own work hours. As freelance writer and editor of Vault magazine Neha Kale explains:
"The best thing about freelancing full-time – which is the ability to be completely in charge of your working life as well as your creative output – can also be the worst thing. There’s no boss to tell you to take time off to rest, there’s no project manager to anticipate clashes in your schedule and there’s no accounts department chasing invoices so that you can make rent."
But it’s possible to work smarter, not harder. In his book The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey explores what happens to his energy and attention when he works short hours. Turns out your ‘guilt’ is all in your head.
"In the middle of my twenty-hour weeks, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I wasn’t as busy as I thought I should be. Because I was working a shorted amount of time, I perceived myself as less productive, and I became unnecessarily hard on myself because of it – even though I was spending a ton of energy and focus on what I had to get done, and I was accomplishing about the same amount of work."
The lesson? Do your work when you have the most focus and attention. "Learn to invest more energy and attention into your work, so you can get the same amount done in a fraction of the time," writes Bailey.
3. Build a ‘warm up’ into your week
After a few months of freelancing, Frances Haysey of Small Talk PR noticed that she still had a distaste for Mondays – foggy mind, slow to start, the usual symptoms of Mondayitis.
She decided to embrace this slow start, and has built a ‘warm up’ into her week. Mondays are now dedicated to life admin, simple tasks, and planning.
4. Have an off-day plan
At a salaried job with annual and sick leave, you’ll get paid regardless of whether you took the day off. Freelancing, however, is far more entangled with your level of energy.
Fiona Killackey knows too well how this can fluctuate. "I have days when everything feels like I'm pushing peanut butter through a sieve and then other days when work is like water and I'm ticking off every item on the to-do list – and loving it. I'm slowly learning to, where possible, go with my energy."
On the days her energy is not there, Killackey has a plan: "I figure out three things that must get done, do them and set an alarm so it's all within the first hours of the day. Then I might take the dog for a walk, go to the gym, do some life admin, or invest in ‘learning’ which is usually an online course, podcast binge or reading a book in my industry."
5. Experiment with your waking time
The beauty of being a freelancer is you can determine your own waking time and become more in tune with your own natural biorhythms.
'Then there was a time when I woke up before six to hit the gym with a bunch of friends. But now those friends don’t go anymore, so I don’t have anyone to hold me accountable. Currently, I set my alarm between eight and nine, depending on what I get up to the night before."
Neha Kale relishes the slow morning. "I used to really love writing in the early mornings but these days, that time is for sitting on my balcony with a coffee and a stack of magazines and then walking the 40-minute walk to my studio and taking in the scenery. Taking pleasure in this time, before deadlines and emails kick in, has helped me feel a lot saner."
Another approach is to dive straight into the most important task as soon as you wake up – before you shower, exercise, answer emails or run any errands.
7. Give yourself more time than you need
It’s tempting to set KPIs for yourself as if you were still in the workplace, but didn’t you become a freelancer to escape all of that? Learn to respect your own working pace and the amount of time you need for a task.
"I’ve learnt to accept the fact that my writing work just takes me a lot of time," says Kale.
"Although I’m still working on this one – not always easy when you’re juggling writing deadlines, editing responsibilities and client stuff – I’ve really been trying to not to overpack my schedule and give myself a buffer so I can really establish the direction of a piece. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re on a hamster wheel, rushing from deadline to deadline — although sometimes that’s unavoidable," she adds.
8. Beware of time vacuums
Freelancers must be weary of a variety of time vacuums, and one such hazard is the internet and social media. Consider switching your phone to aeroplane mode and turn off social media alerts when you need to focus.
Another time vacuum can be meetings – especially if you have a large commute or find they can be draining on your mental energy.
Fiona Killackey suggests setting Skype meetings. "I used to go meet potential clients or collaborators for coffees all the time and it just chews up your day. I now restrict how many of those I'll do in person and usually ask people to chat over Skype instead. Saves me the transport and parking time and it's easier to conclude at exactly thirty minutes."
9. Give yourself permission not to work
Working project to project, or even juggling multiple briefs means that it’s especially important to conserve your energy as a freelancer, explains writer Emily Weekes.
"Especially after a long project, it can be hard to muster the same flow of energy. Admitting that you're feeling drained is much healthier and more productive than sitting exhausted at the computer. But then, you have to be able to give yourself permission not to work, which is tricky. I'm still figuring this out."
Neha Kale agrees. "In the last year or so, I’ve really made an effort to avoid weekend work and allow myself the luxury of being unproductive. It doesn’t come easy to me and it’s probably made worse by this weird obsession our culture has with being crazy-busy and prolific, especially if you’re a creative person."
"Coming to terms with my own limits and being okay with the fact that I’ll probably never have it totally figured out has been a really lovely thing," she added.
10. Understand the power of a deadline
The adage if you want something done, ask a busy person may ring true for freelancers, explains writer and journalist for The Age Annabel Ross.
"I find that the busier I am, the more productive I tend to be – I'm sure it's similar for most but there's nothing like a deadline, or multiple deadlines, to get me focused and pumping out the work."
"It can be too easy to bend the rules, whether that's sleeping in, having lunch with a friend when you really should be working through, or not putting in enough hours."
11. Remember learning is still working
When you're working in a company, even a small one, you are automatically learning from those around you – even if it's learning who you don't want to be like!
"That can slow down when you're working for yourself, especially if working from home. I put aside an amount of money each month to spend on my own learning, whether it's a book, course, seminar, documentary bought on iTunes, whatever. You need to keep challenging yourself," says Killackey.
Allow yourself time to just be in your head, adds Kale. "Whether it’s working on a piece of writing or editing a piece, so much of my creative process involves giving myself the time and space just to read and absorb things – whether it’s magazines, books, art or the world around me."
12. Embrace rituals
When you’re a freelancer and every week is different, rituals really help anchor your life, explains Kale.
"For me, things like regular runs, weekly yoga and Saturday breakfast over the newspaper with my boyfriend ground me, no matter how overwhelming my work schedule gets."
For Annabel Ross, planning out her week on a Sunday night if she can, and working for set periods using rewards works well. "I know that I feel a lot better about myself when I'm productive and tend to feel pretty terrible when I've wasted time, so I remember that and it acts as a pretty good incentive."
13. Make some financial decisions
When you’re able to scale your income depending on how many clients you take on or pitches you make, it can be difficult to determine if you are doing enough.
Set an income target can be a useful guide, explains Killackey.
"I left a pretty well paid job to go out on my own and I am fortunate to have an amazing partner who encouraged this. That said, I didn't want to put my family at risk or feel like my decision would leave us struggling financially. I have a 12-month excel sheet with a weekly projected income for myself so I know exactly how I'm tracking week to week and where I need to pick up more work."
14. Have a change of scenery
Some people are great with working from home, but it’s not for everyone as Ross explains.
"I need a change of scenery, the presence of other people working around me, having to put clothes on and go somewhere with the sole purpose of working. It's too easy at home to have a snack/do some washing instead. Plus it's isolating."
Similarly, writer Connor Tomas O’Brien says the biggest freelancing lesson he has learnt – and is endlessly re-learning – is the importance of defining distinct ‘habit fields’, which he read about in an essay by Jack Cheng. It explained that we store our memories – and behaviours – in the objects we surround ourselves with.
"For me, this means that having a studio – or, at least, some space that is entirely and exclusively devoted to ‘work’ – is really important. If you do several different kinds of work, it can also mean that it’s worth figuring out how to set up sets of different objects in different areas of that space: one desk for writing and one for design, for example. Initially, this can seem pointless, especially if it means continuously moving your laptop from one spot to another. Over time, though, you’ll create ‘grooves’ that allow you to move between habits and commitments – monotasking pretty well, instead of multitasking pretty badly."
15. Know you’re doing better than you think
Know that you’re most likely working harder than you think. "Most freelancers I know work much harder than they give themselves credit for. They're always thinking of solutions or coming up with new ideas. That's half the fun too!" says Emily Weekes.
Know that you’ll simultaneously feel like freelancing is the best and worst job in the world. "Feel like sleeping in a little after having a few too many wines the night before? No problem! But expect a big fat serving of guilt to come with that, and prepare yourself for the icky feeling of chasing your own tail when you let your routine slide," says Annabel Ross. "When you're organised, busy, and motivated – as I am occasionally– it's brilliant."
Know that you’ll need to remind yourself how to get out of a rut. Killackey has had the same quote pinned to her desk for the last five years. It reads: Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.
"It may sound a bit cheesy, but it often lifts me out of any rut and reminds me that I chose this lifestyle and I'm bloody lucky to be able to work for myself, make a decent living and meet with creative minds."
Know it's important to make friends with other freelancers who are the worst. Be good to each other, and be good to yourself.
And finally, don’t underestimate the power of a good nap.
“A nap is a perfect pleasure and it's useful, too. It splits the day into two halves, making each half more manageable and enjoyable."