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Realities of Freelancing: You Set Your Own Hours

It’s funny, I started my freelancing just a year ago and now I’m headed back to a formal, 40-hour a week schedule. The whole thing is a great opportunity to reflect on the freelance experience, for better and worse. I’ve already written about the continual application and pitching aspect.

Another aspect of freelancing with which I had a love-hate relationship was the schedule. The freedom I had was amazing. I didn’t have to miss gorgeous afternoons, I could just take a break and go for a walk. I could sit down and read a novel and then get back to work. That’s the love part.

But sometimes we need boundaries to make our lives simpler. I was homeschooled from 4th – 12th grade and developed a tremendous amount of academic discipline. I got everything done that needed to be done and I did it right. And then I really enjoyed my free time.

I did the same in college (and no one can blame my summa cum laude on my parents’ leniency).

So I figured “Yeah, sure, I can do this. I’ve been doing it all along, right?”

What I hadn’t counted on was that education and employment are quite different. Even in education, there are boundaries drawn up by the syllabus and the scope of the class. I’d already seen hints of this in college, working on large projects with seemingly unlimited scope.

Even if I knew I’d done enough, I would feel guilty that I didn’t do more. And the whole thing “worked” for me, because I never got anything lower than an A-. And yes, I had friends, participated in extra-curriculars and service groups and student organizations, and held jobs.

Well, freelancing is like college on an infinite scale. You control your own schedule and you have a certain amount of work you accomplish. But when that’s done, there’s always something else you can do. There’s always another post you can write, another client you can dig up, another skill you can learn.

From last January through July, I let it get to me. I was feeling new and unsuccessful, even though we were doing great financially. If I wasn’t working, I guilted myself about it. But working didn’t always make me happy either. I got rushes from learning an awesome new skill or doing a fantastic job. But I also spent a lot of time asking “What the hell am I doing?”

In early August, we went to visit Micah’s grandparents in Michigan. We spent a week with them and some of his siblings in a little cottage at the top of a 200 foot bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. We’d climb down the stairs and play in the lake. Or go on hikes. Or sit around and talk. And I managed to pull myself away from it all for a week, only checking in twice. It was fantastic. When I checked in, I found some angry comments on one of my posts and while I was sad for a few minutes I didn’t let them ruin my day or week.

I came back from that realizing that I needed to make more time for myself to enjoy life instead of feeling guilty. I also realized that I wanted to go into library science and decided that a full-time job in the right library would be an important step towards making that happen. But I had to start even before I got the job.

It took me months of applying to get a job that I’m tremendously excited about. During those months, I began making more time to read novels. I dug out crafts. I took more walks, the ones I’d promised myself. I made it more of a priority to hang out with friends and to strengthen new or fading friendships. I joined the church’s fall choir.

Sometimes I felt guilty. But I kept working, I kept producing about the same amount of work…or more because my brain wasn’t dead. Our income didn’t dip and I think my blog posts improved. I was definitely still working 40 hours a week, minimum.

That was a story, not a how-to. The lessons I draw from that story, from my experience, are:

1) Hold onto the things that make life fun for you. Don’t let yourself get so immersed in your work that you give up your hobbies. Force them into your schedule. If you’re just staring at a computer getting nothing done, get up and do something completely unproductive that you love!

2) Make time for relationships. I’m really blessed that I actually like my in-laws, so spending a week with them was great. It helped me ask what was missing from my life. If you’re spending whole days on your own or just with your partner/family, you need to get out. Try to do something with people other than the ones you live with at least once a week.

3) Talk yourself through the guilt you’re feeling. I found cognitive behavioral therapy a real life-saver when I was depressed. I still use some of the concepts, like writing down why I feel guilty. I was able to see that I felt guilty because I worried that if I didn’t work all the time we wouldn’t have any money and I would never be successful. Came up with a whole list of fears. So then I’d write lists of facts, like that our income was greater than our expenses. And that I wrote better posts when I’d spent time away from the computer. And that since I didn’t have a billion clients, I didn’t have 24/7 work available anyway.

4) Leave things alone. I learned that my blog doesn’t stop getting visitors even if I don’t have a new post every day. I don’t even have to login and neurotically make sure the plugins are all up-to-date, etc. I don’t have to leave comments if I don’t have the time and energy. Don’t leave them alone forever, of course, but be aware that the world doesn’t stop running when you step away from the computer…which is good.

Putting in more than 40 hours of work a week is just fine as long as you’re happy and your family is happy (if you have one). But don’t let the possibilities of working anytime trick you into working everytime. It wears you down and diminishes the quality of your work. Life takes on a blur, especially if you’re working with computers.

Being a freelancer allows you to create a wonderful schedule. So do.

(This post is in part for Morris, if he runs across it. This is what I was trying to explain yesterday.)

{ 3 trackbacks }

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Vered - MomGrind December 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Te topic of self employment vs. regular employment fascinates me. What a wonderful, eloquent article.

My favorite piece of advice from this article: “be aware that the world doesn’t stop running when you step away from the computer.”

Laura @ no more spending December 6, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Great post MM 🙂

Funny about Money December 6, 2008 at 8:40 pm

What an excellent article! It gives the impression (accurate, no doubt) that you must be a lovely young woman.

🙂 One of my favorite editors once remarked that freelancing allows you to set your own hours: any 18 hours of the day you like. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not working 40 hours (or more!) each week. Where, really, does it say you have to?

Hope you enjoy your new job. One of the things I learned over years of moving back and forth between employee-hood and freelancing is that periods of employment enhance your credentials and make you more salable as a freelance.

Keep on blogging. It’s always a pleasure to “hear” your voice online.

Andy @ Retire at 40 December 7, 2008 at 5:40 am

Interesting article. I figured I’d love it if I ever went freelance but I also hated my years at college as time went on since there was always something to do.

I think my mindset has changed somewhat in the years between then and now though and I look forward to working from home one day.

Liz December 7, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Great post. As someone who’s considering working for myself in the near-term, I found this very useful.

Best of luck at your new job tomorrow!

Joshua @ Accountable Living December 8, 2008 at 1:33 am

I just wanted to tell you “thanks” for posting this blog. I learned a lot from your experience.

TStrump December 15, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I’m actually going through the same thing.
I’ve been an contract accountant for 5 years but I’m going back to a full-time job.
The irony is the freedom I had came at a price – I just wasn’t making enough money so couldn’t go away or have as much fun like I did when I had the job.
Even calling in sick was a big deal as I wouldn’t get paid.
The trick is to make sure your contract rate is high enough to warrant not having benefits, vacation, etc.

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