Drinking cocktails on the beach with your MacBook on your lap…
Watching the robins singing merrily outside your window as you type away in your PJs…
Composing works of brilliance from a Starbucks armchair while the suits of the “regular” world eye you enviously as they rush past…
Chances are you had one or more of these visions as you worked to become a full-time freelancer. And chances are, if you’ve made the switch, you’ve realized just how unrealistic these visions were.
Don’t get me wrong, freelancing has plenty of perks: the freedom to choose your own projects, the ability to work when and where you want, the unparalleled luxury of being able to schedule doctor’s appointments any time you need to see a doctor without having to ask someone else’s permission. And you do occasionally have those idyllic Starbucks moments when you realize “Holy crap, this is the life!”
But more than one freelancer (this one included) has also experienced the full-blown, culture-shock panic that comes from realizing that, although you’ve heard “work is still work” a million times, freelance work really is still work. And make no mistake that full-time freelancing is hard work. (Rewarding, wonderful work, but hard work nonetheless.)
So, from someone who’s been there and survived, to anyone who’s about to go there, is currently there, or got through it but is still feeling pretty close to melting down, here are some of the biggest things I’ve learned about how to keep your sanity and your business intact once you hit the full-time:
Give yourself office hours — and obey them
You’d think managing work-life balance would be easier when you work for yourself, but for many of us, it’s actually harder. That’s because there’s no 5:00 p.m. clock-punching, no leaving the office for the weekend and shutting your work brain off till Monday.
Your office door is always right down the hall (or in a corner of your kitchen, or wherever it is). And there will always be more work you could be doing, at any hour of the day you happen to have some free time. More client outreach, more pitching your articles, more tweaking your sales page. Especially when you first start out, you’ll feel like you ought to be doing something every minute to grow your business.
But all work and no life makes for a stabby freelancer. You need to set boundaries — not just for your clients and loved ones, but also for yourself — that clearly delineate when you’re open for business and when you’re off the clock.
Make it clear to your business contacts when you won’t be checking your email. Make it clear to your family when you’re not available to run errands or answer questions about where their favorite sneakers have gone. And make it clear to yourself that although there will always be more you can be doing, you need to have personal time, for so many reasons.
Schedule “personal time” into your calendar if you have to, but take some every day. Don’t let yourself get stabby. It’s no good for business or for happiness.
Learn to work with your natural rhythms
One of the great things about being able to set your own schedule is that you can work with your natural rhythms instead of against them. (Click to tweet this idea!)
If you’re not a morning person, you don’t have to start working at 9:00 a.m., bleary-eyed and praying to the coffee gods for clarity. If you are a morning person, you can knock off half your task list before lunchtime and spend the 3:00 p.m. slump recharging or doing less-demanding work like invoicing or filing.
Start paying attention to your mood and your energy level throughout the day, and you’ll learn your natural patterns. Structure your workdays in sync with them, and your productivity level will skyrocket (making projects feel less stressful as a result).
Be picky about your projects
You don’t start freelancing because you hate working in a traditional office; you do it because you want to do work that you love. So, do work that you love.
In the beginning, you may need to accept a less-than-exciting job or two to get your business off the ground and keep the cash flowing. That’s not a sin; we’ve all done it. But as you establish yourself, you need to start getting pickier and pickier about what you take on.
Every project you say “yes” to means you have less room to say “yes” to another project. So make sure everything on your plate is something you really want and can handle.
Here are the key questions to ask yourself when contemplating a new gig: Do you have time for it? Do you care about it? Does it fit with your overall brand image and business plan? Does this seem like a client you’d be happy working with? Or will you find yourself, midway through the project, cursing the fact that you ever took it on?
Remember: you’re the boss now. So call the shots the way you want to call them.
Realize when it’s time to delegate
At a certain point in your freelance career, you’ll find yourself facing a crossroads: either you can start turning down projects (and profit) more and more often, or you can find a reliable team to help with some of the less “you”-centric tasks on your agenda.
If you’re a brilliant editor who’s wasting half his time inputting posts into WordPress for clients, can you hire someone to do the formatting, tagging, and other backend work so you can focus on doing what you do best — editing?
If you’re a great brand strategist, but your billable hours are getting bogged down doing website tweaks and newsletter scheduling, can you find a virtual assistant to take care of the administrative stuff so you can focus on your big-picture magic-making?
Outsourcing may not be for everyone, but if you’re really looking to scale your business, there comes a time when bringing on a team member can make real business sense. It allows you to take on more clients and focus on higher ROI tasks, and the cost of a virtual assistant or two could pay for itself twice over in revenue.
If you’ve made the leap to full-time freelancing, what advice do you have for those just starting out (or those who may be feeling a bit overwhelmed)?