If there’s one thing that has surprised me most about working freelance, it’s the sense of community amongst those who work for themselves.
Everyone, no matter how experienced, seems interested to hear the stories of others: what inspired them to set out on their own, how they dealt with any hesitations before taking the leap, and how they controlled their nerves once they began.
There’s a lot to be gained from this, besides the realisation that your struggles are common to all. Speaking to a handful of people in my first month, I received useful practical advice on small things, like creating invoices, as well as the larger perennial issues, like finding clients.
Note: this is a post by London-based writer Nik Speller, who occasionally contributes to Red Lemon Club.
In this article, I’ll share some of my own advice by setting out two of the most useful things I’ve learnt so far.
1. Engaging with clients leads to a good working life. Failing to do so will see you struggle
Everyone has their own inspiration for working for themselves. For some, it’s a hobby that’s evolved into a business. For most, it’s a desire to take control of their working lives, concentrate on those things they enjoy, and take full reward and recognition for the work they do.
This ideal of freedom in your work is a powerful one, but also one that is harder to attain than many people realise.
It’s true that as a freelancer you are a master of your own work – you can pick and choose the clients you work for and the projects you undertake. However, you are still at the mercy of others: your clients.
The common belief is that clients want work delivered to their timetable, whether it works for you or not.
When you’re employed, you’re often at an arms length from the client, with the timetable dictated through you via a third party (your boss).
You simply don’t get the opportunity to discuss the deadline with the client and have to work long and late hours to deliver a project within a timescale agreed by someone else. This is exactly what you tried to get away from – stressful working conditions and dictation from ‘on high’.
As a freelancer though, you work directly with your clients and can develop a strong relationship and understanding that allows you the control to alter, adjust, and even dictate deadlines to suit you.
Often, just by raising the issue you’ll find that the original timescale had contingency or leeway that just wasn’t communicated, or that by explaining the effect a deadline will have on the quality of your work, the client will willingly agree to an extension.
That’s been one of my greatest learnings so far this year: successful freelancing requires a close relationship with your clients.
Without this relationship, there’s confusion and misunderstanding over what can be delivered and when; with this relationship in place, work can be scheduled to a timescale that is realistic and suits you.
2. Master your time or lose your time
Time management has been one of my biggest struggles. I’ve found two sides to this coin: 1) ensuring effective use of my working time; 2) making sure my work doesn’t encroach on my free-time.
It’s important to be disciplined and strong willed as a freelancer, otherwise you can spend your days ‘working’ without getting any real work done.
It isn’t easy, but there are simple and effective tactics (many presented here on Red Lemon Club) to help your time planning.
I find planning my day with a list of tasks and removing certain distractions are most important, as is recognising the difference between work and play.
As a freelancer, I’m master of my working day, but any time I take out of that day for things which aren’t work (e.g. long lunches, the gym, coffee with friends, etc) needs to be made up elsewhere – even if that means working into the evening and turning down a last minute dinner invite.
That said, it’s equally important to draw a line under the working day, take a break from the computer, the phone, and the neverending emails. Knowing when to stop isn’t just desirable, it’s essential.
Working for myself, the barrier between work and play becomes indistinguishable. Sometimes I’ll find myself trying to squeeze hours in where I can, reducing the time I have to sleep by working late into the evening and again in the early morning.
Not only is this lifestyle unhealthy, but there’s a definite reduction in the quality of my work as the tiredness sets in. Besides, these long working hours go against the very reasons I chose to go freelance in the first place.
When I remember that these reasons should be my priority – my working goal – it’s far easier to turn off the computer, leave my desk, and ignore the phone. After all, I’m the boss, so no-one is going to shout at me for getting my eight hours sleep.
When I started out, it was difficult to get out of the mentality of an employee, waiting for direction or dictation from my boss and not daring to be frank and honest with my clients when they asked for the impossible.
It took a couple of frantic late nights to delivery a certain project before I realised that better communication with my client would have prevented this from happening. It also took a couple of weeks of late nights and early mornings before the need to be disciplined with my time really became apparent.
There are many more lessons coming my way, I have no doubt; but for me, the past six months have been about embracing the uncertainty, taking positive lessons away from every situation, and changing my working behaviour for the better.