Hello and Happy New Year! With the start of 2018, I thought it was as good a chance as any to reflect back on my first six months of going freelance and share what I’ve learnt along the way. How it’s flown by – from those first hesitant days when I thought ‘what on earth am I doing?’, to today, when I have the confidence to know, and appreciate, that I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.
Working freelance as a creative, to me, means freedom and flexibility, open possibilities and lots of opportunities. But in the everyday, it’s a complete learning curve of ups and downs. One day you might think ‘yes, I’ve got this’, the next, questioning ‘why is it that I’m doing this?’ Slowly you realise that everyone is just winging it really and no-one truly has their s**t together – so I’ve learnt to let go a little and not take it all too seriously, to have a go and give it my best shot, to just enjoy it, because how many people get to try out their dream for real…
Here’s 10 things that have helped me navigate from 9 to 5 – from finding my confidence and helping stay motivated, to learning to switch off and enjoy some downtime. I hope it may help you if you’re thinking of making the same move or even if you’re in need of a little motivational boost as the new year gets underway.
1. You learn on the job
Sometimes there’s only so much preparation you can do, sometimes you’ve just got to take the leap and go for it, see what will happen. I had been thinking about going freelance for a good year or so, but it was just an idea in my head to begin with, I hadn’t really taken any action to make it a reality. Until one day I just thought, I’ve got to do it now or I’ll never do it.
I took the plunge without much preparation or pre-planning – I had a couple of jobs lined up and I still had my architectural writing to fall back on for the magazine I previously worked at – but I hadn’t written a business plan or even set out what I would do over the first few months. Some people might think that foolish, but it gave me the push I needed to make it work. In a way it meant that I didn’t have time to go through all the ways it could go wrong, I just had to jump right in and get on with it.
I don’t think you can expect at the beginning, once you quit your job, that you will know everything. Plans often change, projects evolve, new opportunities come up. For me, it has only been with time and experience that I have found confidence – you get a boost from one thing going well and you feel like you can move onto the next thing. You learn what works for you and what doesn’t.
2. Forget about 9 to 5
When I first went freelance it took me a long time to find my own routine. I had to learn to allow my self to break down the heavily regimented day that had been drilled into me for years, of getting to the desk at 9, breaking for an hour at lunchtime, finishing at 5 or 6 and doing the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next. To begin with I was quite hard on myself, not allowing myself to pause long for lunch because it was time when I could be working, or working late into the evening because it’s often harder to find a cut-off point when you work from home.
Once I understood that I was my own boss and didn’t have to answer to anyone except myself, I freed up a bit. If I start first thing in the morning, I can finish early in the afternoon, I can work in the evening one day then have a lie-in and not start until lunchtime the next. I mostly work normal hours, but it’s having the freedom to know that each day doesn’t have to be the same. Now I take longer lunch breaks, work when I feel productive and give myself some slack – you don’t have to work all the time to be successful.
3. Stop the guilt, learn to switch off
Which brings me onto my next point, letting go of the guilt that comes when we take time away from the screen. Time off can be restorative for creativity and aid productivity, it can help your business not hinder it. Not to mention our personal wellbeing, what good are we if we’re tired, stressed and working on a low battery? If we don’t give ourselves breaks and moments of rest, whether it’s an hour in the afternoon to walk the dog or a two week-long holiday abroad, we get so consumed with the everyday routine, that we never take a step back to reflect on where we’re going and refresh our minds. We can tire ourselves out and lose the momentum. But if we’re fulfilled in our lives, have time for ourselves and enjoy moments of relaxation, it might better reflect in the business side of our lives too. It’s about finding the right work/life balance, so we’re clearer headed and more mindful of the bigger picture, of where our business is going and what we want from life. You choose to be freelance, so you should choose how it works for you.
4. It’s not all about the money
Unpaid work or tasks that aid your personal development are as important as the jobs paying the bills. Whether it’s taking an hour or two to experiment and play around with photography, going on a short course to learn a new skill, spending an afternoon seeing a new exhibition, sitting down and listening to a podcast or simply setting a day aside for the mundane tasks like invoicing and accounts, they all help push you further.
There’s a lot of admin as a freelancer, I’m simultaneously a writer, photographer, stylist, editor, my own PR manager, social media manager accountant and PA. When I first went freelance I thought everyday would be dedicated to paid client work, I thought I’d be churning out the blog posts, but what you don’t realise is how much time is spent on everything behind the scenes. I could spend all day just answering emails.
Now I’ve learnt to balance the paid jobs across the month, and time manage them, so I can have a couple of free ‘me’ days, perhaps one or two a week, for ‘unpaid’ work. Planning each week ahead and mapping out one key task for each day – photographing and editing shots for a sponsored blog post one day, interior design services for a client another day, brainstorming blog ideas and planning ahead on another – stops me from feeling too overwhelmed by an endless to-do list and helps me feel less guilty about unscheduled tasks. Once I tick off those things that really need to be done, the rest of the time is mine.
5. You’ll say you’ll work remotely in cafes and abroad, but you most likely won’t
Often it’s more hassle than it’s worth – a cafe’s WiFi might be terrible, there might be a screaming kid on the next table, you have to make that one flat white last all afternoon, sipping the cold dregs. One of my favourite things about being freelance is that there’s no commute, I can get up and at it. Once you find where you work best – for me it’s at my dining table – you’ll most likely stick to it.
There’s also a luxury to working from home, you can put on your own music and make your tea just as you like it. I love that I don’t have to bother with makeup in the morning or pick out a nice outfit – who will see me except the postman and the dog. I never work from the bed and I’m always out of my pyjamas by 9am, but there’s still a bit of novelty around being able to work from the sofa.
6. No one will really understand what you do except you
I always stumble when I’m asked to explain my job at a dinner party or wedding. Not to mention when you’re at an airport and have to fill in a landing card with one word for your occupation. What shall I say this time… that I’m a writer? a blogger? a journalist? a stylist? an interior designer? Most of us in the digital or creative industries are juggling different roles, many simultaneously, so it leaves us harder to define and put in a box. Once I got asked, ‘so how’s the Instagram thing going?’ I wanted to say through gritted teeth that it was about a whole lot more than a few squares on a social media app, but in reality I probably just said ‘it’s going fine, thank you’… You just have to accept that you know what you’re doing and the value of your business, but not everyone will.
Conversely, having a business in this new-found territory also breaks down barriers and opens people up in ways they would never ordinarily speak. I’ve often been asked, ‘so does that earn you money?’ or ‘so how much do you actually earn?’ It’s great that it broadens conversations and helps the understanding of these new roles, but I have also found myself turning the question back on to them, and that can put them on the spot…
And if you do come across someone who is not as supportive as you would like them to be, it’s probably because you doing what you really want to do is making them reflect on where they are in their lives. It’s them not you.
7. Reach out to other freelancers
It was only when it was December and I realised that for the first time in years I didn’t have a work Christmas do or drinks, that I understood why freelancers need to reach out and connect with each other more. It’s something I’m hoping to do better at this year.
Being freelance and working for yourself can be very isolating. There’s no rule book and certainly no one there to tell you how to do it. I’ve learnt a lot about pricing and valuing work, marketing and self-promotion, photography skills and editing apps by chatting with like-minded creatives online, taking meetings from the screen to a cafe, and sharing experiences.
Think of other freelancers as your colleagues, on a different path but with many of the same goals. Community not competition. You shouldn’t guard what you’ve learnt as a secret, fearing someone might copy it – each person will take their own interpretation, and by opening up and sharing we can help each other get collectively better.
8. Avoid the comparison trap
The phrase Sara Tasker (Me & Orla) coined in her podcast Hashtag Authentic – comparisonitis – is so apt. I often suffer from bouts of comparisonitis, as I’m sure we all do, we see someone online with better clothes, better skin, a better job. For instance, over the Christmas period when I gave myself some time off, if I saw someone on social media working late, I’d suddenly feel this cold sweat of guilt, shouldn’t I be working too? Was I missing out? Falling behind? Of course I wasn’t, we’re all at different stages, on different paths. No one was there, stern like a teacher, saying to me, well where’s your work?
By comparing ourselves to other people, we put an extra weight of unnecessary pressure on our shoulders. Remember social media is just the edited highlights, the best bits. We all have a pile of washing up in the sink, messy corners in our homes and lazy habits, that’s just real life.
Learn to switch social media off every now and then, turn away from seeing things which are making you feel bad about yourself, unfollow if you need to. Focus on you.
9. Ebb and flow, staying motivated
Sometimes motivation and bursts of creativity come and go. The way to stay inspired, for me, is not to force it, but embrace the ebb and flow of ideas. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you get stuck, that may just be a route you need to take to find inspiration again. If I’m having a bad day and the words aren’t coming to me or the photographs I’m taking aren’t working out as I hope they would, instead of getting more and more frustrated, I put down the camera, close the laptop and try to distract myself with something else. More often than not, the next day or the next week, something will naturally come to mind and I’ll think of a better idea (more often than not when I’m in the shower or just drifting off to sleep!). Don’t be too hard on yourself, just try again another time.
10. A word on self-doubt and confidence
My self-doubt often stems from worrying about what other people think – you’re not good enough, no one likes what you do, no one really cares. But once you realise that you can’t possibly please everyone, you learn to concentrate on doing what you’re good at well and finding your audience. Then slowly when you do find your right people, and they respond positively and support what you do, you feel a little boost and realise you can do it.
Rather than seeing self-doubt and a lack of confidence as something negative, perhaps we should see it as a push towards a better version of ourselves and our businesses. I try to turn the other way, tell that little niggling voice I’m not interested and try to prove it wrong. Instead of listing things we can’t do, we should learn to concentrate on things we can do well. It’s harder in practice but it’s worth remembering that that doubting, draining voice is just one half of the story. If you were to put it to a court and weigh up the evidence, I’m sure there would be a counter argument too. Funny how that positive voice cheering us on is so much quieter.
So there we have it, a few of the things that have helped me stay sane and level-headed in these past, whirlwind months. That’s not to say I have it all sorted and know what I’m doing, I’m still learning and growing, taking it day by day. It’s an adventure and I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store.
I would love to know if you have any tips or advice of your own, if you are freelance, how have you found the transition? Or perhaps you’re thinking about starting your own business – what has helped you start to make that dream a reality?
All images Cate St Hill