How to Handle Being a Full-Time Freelancer (Without Going Nuts)

How to Handle Being a Full-Time Freelancer (Without Going Nuts)

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.

Be picky about your projects

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)?

Filed Under: Craft, Freelancing


  • Darcy Ferris says:

    Nice post and the points you have described are very much helpful foe any person to become successful in the life. because the time once gone never come back again. So its very important for a freelancer to manage time properly. and also have o divide his task to release work load. I am also working as freelancer with safe freelancer from last three years and you saw my work here Every freelancer faces difficulties in start up. SO if he understand about proper management of his work then only he can work properly.

  • Christian says:

    I recently made the transition from a 3 year break back to full-time. Now, in a foreign country, after a massive loss of much of my previous work; which would take too long to explain, it’s like I’m starting 100% from scratch.

    Having recently arrived in Costa Rica, originally to help my aging parents from time to time, but I now need the steady income to support myself. Thus, I’ve returned back to my writing which I’ve wanted to do for many years, permanently, regardless. Admitedly, I have much to learn and relearn. I’ll take any advice I can get.

  • Ansie says:

    I read somewhere (think it was Carol Tice who said it) it is easy to be your own boss but not so easy to be your own employee. It is so true. It is easy to make plans and draw up schedules but sticking to it is the difficult part. I am slowly learning to be a good employee. Bum on the seat, no FB, no ?th cup of tea, no laundry or chores. Just do the work until it is finished.
    Another tip I also found helpful is to end each working day with a list of accomplishments. Not a to-do list, but a done-list. It keeps you focused on what needs to be done and it makes you appreciate the small victories. The dreaded phone call you made, the deadline you reached, the pitch you send, etc.

    • Cordelia says:

      That’s a great way to look at it! I’m going to have to use that boss/employee perspective shift when I find myself dodging work. I’ve heard of the to-done list idea but haven’t implemented it yet myself. Another great way to stay motivated!

  • As a freelance writer and a VA I have a hard time with the details. Taking on client projects as an admin means less time for my own writing, so I’m having to reevaluate what I do.

    Of course, with this dual role I am all over this post haha! Taking on projects so others can expand obviously helps me.

    • Cordelia says:

      I can so understand your dilemma. I find my own writing (my blog, the ebook I want to write, etc.) falling by the wayside in favor of client work all the time. It’s not easy bringing in a freelance income, and I feel guilty working on “non-billable” things when I could be working on billable things.

      Perhaps fodder for another post down the line…

      • Jay Kelly says:

        Oh thank God. This is the first time I’ve read these comments, and it just so happens that about a week ago I was blogging about this very issue.

        It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one who feels guilty about working on writing and other projects, when I could be working on something that brings in more immediate income.

        It’s frustrating that it’s so easy to convince yourself that the ‘non-billable’ projects should be less important, even though it would be impossible to reach your long-term goals without them.

  • BetsyM says:

    Great post Kelly! I will save in my archive and revisit to remind myself of these very important tips when I start slipping. 😉

  • Great post – and love this “make it clear” – that should be poster sized in every freelancer’s workspace. The bleeding lines between home/work/office/life are a bit crazy at times but so worth it.

    My best piece of advice is to don’t get so focused on the pile of work you have today that you forget about the future. When you are in the weeds you can easily lose sight of the fact that things change, contracts end and if you neglect everything else you’ll be hustling hard before long.

    • Cordelia says:

      So true! Long-term goals and planning are easy to overlook when you’re slogging through projects, but they’re so important for the success of your biz.

  • Leigh says:

    Ooh, outsourcing is one I’ve been struggling with for a while. Mainly, because I like things done a certain way, and it’s not so easy to find a VA.

    A friend of mine recommended Fancy Hands to me. It works for her. I haven’t tried them yet, because the things I most need them to do (WP, newsletters and some marketing stuff) they don’t really do.

    • Cordelia says:

      A good VA or team member is definitely hard to find. Just ask this site’s runner, Alexis–she’s put together a phenomenal team and I totally envy her business model.

      I have the same qualms when it comes to outsourcing. I’m not at the point yet where I can consider it financially, but when I am (and I plan to be!), I know I’ll be tough to work for because I pride myself on doing things “just so” (editor’s OCD). Giving up that control will be a learning process–although, if you find the right people, you can learn to let go and trust they’ll do it right.

      Have you considered asking around writer’s groups on FB, your LinkedIn connections, etc.? Many of the connections I’ve made when looking for help with tasks come from word of mouth recommendations within my circles.

      • Leigh says:

        I haven’t moved very far in the process of finding a VA. Not even far enough to think about where to begin looking, so I will most definitely be taking your advice and asking on social media.

        I can’t say I’mat the stage when I really feel comfortable make the financial commitment to hiring a VA, but I am realizing that my time is better spent writing and pitching instead of editing newsletters and WP pages.

        Did you hear the webinar Alexis held with Joanna Penn last week? She talked about that. At a certain point, you hit a plateau and can’t move forward unless you change things. In Joanna’s case, she was talking about leaving her full time job to go freelance. In mine, I just don’t have enough hours in the day, and I really resent the time I spend tweaking files when I could be writing, spending time with my daughter, doing yoga or really, even just staring into space and relaxing.

        Slowly, I nudge along and I’ll let go of my “editor’s OCD” too. (Love that phrase, btw. Too perfect.)

  • Elke Feuer says:

    Great post, Kelly!

    I’m not a freelance writer, but these guidelines can be applies to novelists, too. It’s especially important to set writing hours and personal time when you have a full-time job and ensure friends, family, and you respect those times.

  • MaryBeth Mazek says:

    Love this! Really working on giving myself regular office hours…..

    • Cordelia says:

      I’m still working on it! It’s so easy to work late into the night when you’re the only one keeping tabs on yourself. Freelancers tend to have a hustler’s attitude, so they naturally suffer from workaholism. It’s worth it, though, for your work AND for your own happiness, to impose some realistic limits. (I tell myself this on a daily basis.) 🙂

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