My one year anniversary as a remote freelance writer has long come and gone, leaving behind a mountain of published words, enough coffee stains that my plastic-topped desk occasionally attains a convincing oak hue, and a handful of rather important lessons.
In the interest of
noting these down for those days where nothing seems to work helping others who are thinking of making the leap, here are the top five lessons I’ve lived and learned since starting out as a freelancer.
The importance of Deadlines
I’m not talking about any palm sweat-inducing, ticking clocks imposed by your clients; although these can be very effective in producing efficient work, and truly demand respect if you have any hope of making it as a freelancer.
No, I’m talking about deadlines for meeting a friend in a bar for wine, or to go climbing.
If that sounds funny, just think about this truism: a task can expand to fill any time you give it.
As a remote freelancer who has no set work hours, and no-one to tell you to go home, you can so easily end up ‘working’ into the night. By which I mean browsing social media, stopping by the fridge to see if any new food has magically appeared and occasionally doing the tasks you were meaning to. Been there, done that.
But if you regularly make plans for the non-work stuff you really want to do, this automatically sets deadlines and you are more conscious of what you have to achieve in the time available, which makes it much easier to concentrate on the doing. And that definitely doesn’t involve refreshing Twitter.
The importance of Distractions
I sense your confusion.
Once you’re used to setting and hitting deadlines that would make a newspaper editor quiver, you want to maintain that flow, right? Yes and no.
While the ability to concentrate on the task at hand is important, it’s also healthy to be able to break out of this and remember that, while your boss appears to live in your inbox, there is still a world outside. The co-working space where I have two and a half days of access per week is fantastic for this.
Depending on the day, I don’t always go there solely to work, although it has a concentration area if need to focus.
The distractions are a huge part of the attraction: the social interaction you often miss while working online (often with like-minded freelancers), learning about inspiring projects and events in the impact scene, the delicious community lunches and occasionally even making new work contacts.
The importance of Charging Enough
Charging what your time is worth is something that takes confidence, and at the risk of sounding like a self-entitled Millenial, I started out charging nowhere near enough.
Some people suggest to start with charging twice as much as you would get in an equivalent, full-time position.
This makes sense even when only considering the down-time you may have between projects, equipment and office costs that you now pay for, no paid holiday or sick leave and, here in Germany, the loss of employer contributions to your expensive, compulsory health insurance.
Add to this the freelance writer’s uncertainty of whether time spent on pitches will result in work, and the universal importance of having enough time to make sure a job is not rushed, but done to the best of your ability.
For these reasons, slogging away at low rates is in no way sustainable.
If a passion project comes along that pays little or nothing, then by all means do it, but you will have so much more time and energy for these if you’re being properly remunerated in your other work.
The importance of Letting Go
No matter how much you are absorbed in a project, attaching any feelings of worth to its success — or lack of — can be a quick way to become discouraged as a freelancer. A number of projects I’ve freelanced on came with tags like ‘startup’ and ‘innovation’, and therefore, a few of these no longer exist.
Even when this failure is in no way linked to your input, it can nevertheless be a blow to your confidence.
This is a concept discussed with irreverent humour here by a guy called Paul Jarvis, who is somewhat of a guru for creative freelancers. (Anyone who has read this far should probably sign up to his newsletter — I sometimes feel like he is reading my mind.)
It comes down to the idea of enjoying what you do and doing it as well as possible.
Anything beyond this is out of your control.
The importance of Routine — and breaking it.
Setting routines is a beloved tool of ‘lifehackers’: It supposedly removes the necessity to make decisions about the smaller details in life, freeing up brain power you can instead invest in more important pursuits.
I’ve tried it out. Of late, I start my day with getting breakfast going, get stuck into some wake-up exercises, eat with my housemates and then play with German learning apps while having a coffee. Then I loosely plan my day out, read a little, iron out some problems with my German grammar, then meditate for a bit.
The cool thing is that I don’t have to think about any of these steps any more, they just flow, and by the time I’m done meditating, I’m awake, focussed and ready for the first and most important task of the day.
For a freelancer, getting on-task and staying there can be one of the biggest challenges, but it’s one made a lot easier if you have a routine to get you there.
However, no matter how good it is, it’s not sacred. There’s nothing wrong with breaking routine, it will happen whether you like it or not, and the ability to act spontaneously is probably just as important.
Otherwise, what’s the point of becoming a freelancer in the first place?
On that note, I’m heading off to Portugal next week.
I’m slowly travelling down by bus and train, to work from Lisbon for a month.
If any other freelancers, or those thinking about taking the leap have tips they feel like sharing, or suggestions on what to do in Portugal, I would love to hear them!