Living the Freelance Life

A photo of my laptop on the dining room table

Are you thinking of being a freelancer?

It always begins so innocently.

Living the freelance life sounds romantic, but it is still, of course, work.  Sure, you can curl up on the couch with a cup of tea when it’s cold and raining out, just like you always dreamed when you were in Cubicleland, but there’s no one except yourself (and maybe the cat) to blame when things go wrong.

When I started freelancing in 2004, I certainly had my own rose-colored glasses.  Here are a few things I’ve learned about the freelance life.

Setting Your Hours

Hopefully this is obvious: you must be self-directed in your work as a freelancer.  No one is watching the clock, waiting for you to show up and start working.  No one is peering over your shoulder, keeping track of how much time you spend on Facebook.  One of the first challenges you will face is setting yourself work hours.  Do you work during the day when everyone else in the house is gone?  Or do you work at night when the world is quiet and sleeping?

TIP: Pick a few set times during the day during which you will check email and read news.  Also decide for how long you’ll check in with the world.  Don’t be available to your inbox all the time or your untouched To Do list will quickly outpace the lengthening shadows of the day growing old.

Go With the Flow

As a freelancer, you must be flexible.  The work always comes in waves.  Always.  It’s feast and famine.  Sometimes feast means plum projects or sometimes it means four projects with overlapping schedules that you must juggle or choose.  Sometimes famine means no work and sometimes it means less-than-desirable projects to stay engaged with a client or to pay a bill.  If you work hard, the flow will be more steady and you will be in a place where you can choose your clients and projects.

Money, Money, Money

You must have a healthy relationship with money as a freelancer.  Have you heard of the Marshmallow Experiment?  It’s all about delayed gratification, my friend.  You will not know in January how much money you will have in July for your vacation.  Far be it from me to tell you what to do with your dough, but in my experience you want to have a few months of living expenses saved up and do everything you can to avoid taking on unnecessary debt (yeah, don’t live off a credit card, you lazy git).

Having a partner who works a steady 9-5 is an awesome buffer for freelance income, but you won’t be able to pretend for long that your earnings are the household gravy.  Your family will quickly come to rely on your income, so sloughing off is not an option!

Value Your Work

Probably the most important qualities you need as a freelancer are a tough skin and cold blood.  Tough skin: you cannot take it personally when things don’t work out in business.  It’s just business, not your birthday party.  Cold blood: sure your client is really nice, you share some hobbies, and you’re thinking about getting your families together for the Fourth of July.  But you still have bills to pay, so know what your bottom line is when negotiating, and stick to it.  Are you willing to trade time with your friends and family (or money in your retirement fund) to appease a client who doesn’t value your skills?

TIP: Clients who worry excessively about your rates are also more likely to be high maintenance during the project, and distrust your work.  Double the reason to walk away.

What Kind of Boss Will You Be to Yourself?

The freelance life can be a great one, but it is no easier (and possibly harder) than holding down a similar job in an office.  You are your own boss, but what kind of boss are you?  It can be easy when you’re busy to string together project after project, head down, working hard, feeling successful.  It is also easy to burn out, get sick, and make the people you live with resentful of your exhausted, vacant stare.  Don’t forget to take sick days (even to rest your brain), have lunch out with friends, get regular exercise, take vacation time, and work on professional development.

You have one life to live.  How will you do it?