Freelancing: the ups and downs
One of the best things about freelance work is the flexibility. After years of working 40+ hour weeks and endless commuting I now get to set my own hours, and for the most part my own work environment too depending on what each client needs. I like to start my day early, picking up emails and messages first thing as I can then incorporate these into the rest of my working day.
My work/life balance has improved substantially so I can be at home when the children get back from school, fit in car services or hair appointments to suit, and no longer have to retrieve parcels from the back garden where the delivery driver has hurled them over the gate.
How great is that? Of course, with the flexibility comes a whole heap of new challenges.
Most of the tasks I complete are deadline based. I no longer need to be sitting at my desk from 9am to 5pm, but VAT returns need to be completed by a set date, payroll figures need to be calculated in time for employee payments to be made, and tenders have fixed submission deadlines. The difference is I get to choose when to work within these parameters. Over the last few weeks the weather has been glorious – some may say too hot! – so my working day has started earlier than usual while my office was still cool, a couple of hours break during the hottest part of the day, and back to work later in the evening when it started to cool again.
The important thing is to manage the various deadlines. I’m an organisational guru (check out my LinkedIn profile – it says it right there!) which is a huge help, but I wouldn’t be able to manage my time effectively without the right tools. I’m a list person, and was recently introduced to a programme called Todoist. It has all the benefits of my traditional, paper based “to do” lists but I can organise into projects and clients, and access and update all tasks on my laptop or an app on my phone. Along with my email calendars with tasks and meeting functions, and my mini whiteboard, I keep track of the various deadlines and organise my workload accordingly.
With great flexibility comes a blurring of the boundaries, and it’s important to set your boundaries with clients. I may choose to work into the evening, but that doesn’t mean there should be an expectation of availability at all hours. Similarly, clients should not expect that I will be free to respond to their emails or calls immediately even during ‘normal’ working hours, as there is a good chance I will be engaged on work for another project.
The best option is to agree mutual boundaries. I am aware that a number of clients may not review their admin tasks until after their working day finishes, so I might respond on a Saturday, or pick up a call at 7pm, depending on how urgent the enquiry is or whether I’m busy elsewhere (and yes, eating a chocolate pudding while it’s hot is classed as ‘busy’ 😁)
This can be a difficult one because different things motivate different people. As a freelancer it can be all too easy to procrastinate, and while we have the flexibility to work to our own hours we still need to ensure we leave enough working time to complete all tasks by their deadlines.
Many things can affect motivation – the weather, health, occasionally the tasks themselves – but the trick is to work through these barriers.
If I’m feeling low on motivation I find breaking down my day into smaller, more manageable chunks of time, helps enormously. My days can be long but I take regular breaks, and try to get out at least once a day for a short walk. As mentioned earlier during the hot weather I like to take time out in the afternoon, and sometimes just stepping away from my computer screen and sitting in the garden with a cool drink and a book for an hour is all I need for an added boost.
It’s also important to remember the ‘whys’; Why freelance work? Why these clients? Why these tasks? I’m lucky that I work with some wonderful clients, doing work that I enjoy, and that helps me to provide a great service, but I’ve often been slow to request feedback. I fixed that recently and asked some of my long-standing clients if they could provide reviews for me, and reading some of those comments was an eye opener. They reminded me of my ‘whys’: "Sarah has a natural ability to find solutions that others struggle to see!", "Knowledgeable and super organised she feels like one of the team", and words bandied about such as “efficient”, “thorough”, “technically very competent” – I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling reading those comments, and feel motivated all over again.
I have just been to Scotland for a few days – the weather was glorious, the scenery amazing, and I ate far too much good food – and I didn’t have to fill out a holiday form, arrange dates with other people, or ask permission to be away. I did, however, need to manage my time properly.
When you work for someone else, especially a larger company, holidays tend to be booked months in advance and allocated depending on whether other people have already chosen those days. On the plus side you can easily switch off from work, set your out-of-office and forward your calls to a colleague. As a freelancer the work doesn’t stop just because I’m not at home, so to keep everything covered I worked later during the run up to those days away, put some work on hold to be completed on my return, and even took my laptop away as I knew there was a task with a set deadline that could not be completed early or wait until we got home. After breakfast on our last day, and before we checked out, I sat in the bay window of our hotel room with my laptop, looking out at the fantastic sea view, to prepare some calculations, so although it was work it didn’t really feel like ‘work’ work.
Where there are a number of time-critical tasks that cannot be managed around time away, another option is to work with an associate – someone you can contract tasks to in your absence – but the onus is still on the freelancer to manage those tasks, and manage the client’s expectations.
This can be one of the biggest problems to face when freelancing, particularly where much of the work is carried out from your own home office. In a commercial or corporate environment there are other people to chat to – across the room, in the kitchen making coffee, in other parts of the building – and moving away from that can create a feeling of loss, or even loneliness.
There are various ways to combat this. I spend some of my time at clients’ premises, hot-desking with my laptop, so when I am sitting in my own office space I appreciate the peace and quiet. I am a member of a handful of social media groups, where we share tips and advice, and I also like to have meetings via Teams or Zoom rather than just dealing with emails and phone calls. I’m looking forward to getting back to more face-to-face meetings and recently attended my first physical networking event in forever; it was great to eat, drink, and chat to other people.
Freelancing isn’t for everyone. You need to be confident in your own abilities, super organised, and quite strict both with yourself and your clients. On the other hand the flexibility can’t be matched, and it’s great to be in control of your own workload and income, and I wouldn’t change a thing 😎