Surviving, and Thriving, While Freelancing

Some people dream of being “their own boss.” I suffer the proverbial fear of the blank page, and I wish just one person would give me a place to work and a time to do it. The more you freelance, the more self-discipline and organization you need.

Most freelancers report back to someone, but freelance gigs leave you with a much more open schedule than a 9-to-5. While that freedom can afford you luxuries like flexible vacation time, midday yoga classes and spontaneous brunch dates with other alternatively-employed friends, you have to be careful you’re getting the right amount of work done without missing deadlines or burning out. I’ve been working remotely and dropping in offices as a consultant for at least a year now, and I’m writing this advice partially to share what I’ve learned, and partially to remind myself to stick to it.

I didn’t figure all this out through trial and error. I read a lot. I read about productivity, and creativity and Zen Buddhism. They’re all the same thing: having a more productive day, having a more productive mind and having a more productive life. The best advice I can give you is to follow more people’s advice.

Find a place to work.

Separating yourself from your surroundings is hard, and it takes a lot of energy that could be going into doing your work. Working from home is hard when your common space is a high-traffic area and your non-monetized responsibilities are hanging out in the corner of your eye. I don’t even find it comfortable to be in the same building all day, so when I can get to the library, or even better, when I can hang out at the office, I try to take that opportunity. It’s worth the drive time. Plus, the harder I worked to get somewhere, the longer I’ll stay and keep finding more things to work on. It’s too easy to walk away from my kitchen table when I finish one task.

Give yourself a weekend.

It doesn’t have to be on Saturday and Sunday. But there’s a reason two consecutive days off are the prevailing structure of the mainstream work week. I find that one day as a fun day, and one day as a personal work day is enough to keep me from feeling overwhelmed trying to spread those activities throughout the week. It doesn’t mean I only get one day for fun and I only get one day for chores, but I do try to schedule around that. And it helps me if those days are consecutive, because they tend to spill over into each other, and I would prefer to switch work and personal modes as infrequently as possible.

Make realistic goals every day.

Of the time I’ve wasted in the past two months, the huge majority of it was spent trying to decide what the most productive thing to do next would be. When I start my day without a plan, it’s rarely a productive day. Now I try to set very small, specific goals at night for the next day. If I plan right, I don’t have to weigh my options as they’re unfolding, and I won’t fall unexpectedly behind. If anything, finishing little milestones motivates me to get started on things I would have otherwise procrastinated against. Even if I stop when I accomplish my small goals, any time I don’t spend working is not time wasted, because I know it’s truly free time. Planning small goals is most important for me in combating the feeling that I have to work all the time.

Use organizational tools.

I put my daily goals in Trello, almost like an interactive calendar. I also use a different Trello board for each gig I have, and one for my personal to-dos. I love Trello because it has very little structure, and the moveable cards make me feel like I have a wall of moveable sticky notes. And if you’re more into that, buy some actual sticky notes! Those things are severely underrated.

Take time to think.

I had a wonderful boss who used to assign me things to think about. No writing or researching, just sitting and thinking. I would stare off the balcony and think. Giving myself that space makes it possible to switch modes on days that I have four projects to address at once. Writers and artists, especially, talk about how they work just by existing, because they are always attuned to their pursuits. I’m grateful for the thoughts that appear when I’m not working, and they’re only useful to me if I set aside time when I am working to fully realize them. I can’t expect a half-baked idea to inspire efficient work.

Take walks.

There are little mechanical tasks that Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls artist-brain activities. They keep you just busy enough to set aside a chunk of time to finish them, and during that time your mind is either free or barely working. This is when you have great, unexpected ideas. If you tried to have thinking time and failed, try taking a walk, painting your nails, repotting plants or grocery shopping. Even if you don’t have any ideas, you gave yourself a break and you accomplished something else!

Work on big projects for fifteen minutes a day.

Starting a huge, daunting project can set you back days. There will always be a smaller task to tackle. Not if you start with fifteen minutes. Even if it’s fifteen minutes of thinking, you’ll take down the first fifteen minutes of a thirty-hour project (now twenty-nine and three-quarters). You can quit there, and do fifteen more the next day (now twenty-nine and a half). As you work, paths through will emerge, and they’ll make stretches of eight hours seem manageable, and hopefully even exciting. I get hooked on that. I only meant to write the intro to this blog post, but I haven’t wanted to stop yet!

The most important thing a freelancer can do is value their own time, and their mental health. The discipline I develop and practice in keeping my projects straight, and on time, and inspired and ahead of time has bled into my life and made everything easier. I’m proud of practicing yoga most days and being a crazy reliable friend. And hopefully sooner rather than later I’ll have one job to go to every day, but until then I’m enjoying taking every opportunity that comes to me.

If you freelance, and you’ve found tips that help with your work-life balance, please share in the comments!

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