Freelancing presents you with a unique opportunity to chart your own career path. You can set your own hours, only work on projects that interest you, and mostly work independently. Indeed, freelancing offers you a lot of autonomy, but maintaining that autonomy—while growing your business and delivering above your clients’ expectations—requires structure and self-discipline.
For many people, the level of self-discipline needed to thrive as a freelancer can seem daunting. Being your own boss doesn’t just mean working independently of a direct supervisor. It also means setting clear expectations and holding yourself accountable for those expectations. There are several key areas in which it is important to maintain balance as a freelancer.
1. Holding Your Schedule Sacred
Most freelancers consider one of the biggest perks to be the flexibility to set their own hours. The onus certainly falls on you to manage your time and, barring scheduled client meetings, you can generally set your hours as you see fit. If you’re not a morning person, you can start work at, say, 11 a.m. when you’re most productive, as opposed to the prerequisite 9 a.m. start time that many corporate offices have. In this regard, flexibility is a positive aspect of freelancing. But if Netflix drops a new season of your favorite show, and once you’ve finished binging all eight episodes you can’t help but peek at its “You Might Also Like…” recommendation, you’ve lost a whole day of work, and fallen victim to one of the freelancing’s common pitfalls.
Once you’ve found a routine that works for you, it’s best to stick to that routine as consistently as possible. Set the days you’re going to work, and hold those days sacred. You’re a freelancer, so it’s okay to work only Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as long as these days are conducive to your deadlines. But once you’ve chosen those days, try keeping them the same. Try starting at approximately the same time on your working days to get yourself used to this schedule, and try avoiding distractions like: working with the television on, socializing with your roommates/partner if they’re home while you’re working, playing with your pets, and getting preoccupied with busy work around the house (that crooked picture on the wall can wait until later).
Work hours are work hours, and they should be treated as such. A good rule of thumb when you’re working from home: don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in the office. There’s flexibility here—a long lunch with friends, on occasion, or a nice jog in the afternoon—but you’ll be more productive and feel more in control if you hold yourself to a schedule.
On the flip side of this is the tendency for many freelancers to work incredibly long hours. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re working from home, and when you work in the space where you live, the lines often start to blur together. When I was freelancing, it wasn’t uncommon for me to pause in the evening for dinner and then go right back to work. For night owls, freelancers with many clients or demanding projects, or those who just love their job, working hours can bleed into your personal life. If it feels like you’re always working and not taking time in the evenings to rest and take care of yourself, this can negatively impact your quality of life.
2. Manage Time and Expectations
Managing your time and maintaining a schedule go hand in hand: think of maintaining a schedule as the hours you work and managing your time as to how you spend those hours. Freelancing is the ultimate test of time management skills. When your time is your own, it’s easy to procrastinate, but it’s also easy to take certain steps to stop procrastinating. It’s also not uncommon for freelancers to feel overwhelmed and disorganized when working on projects for multiple clients. Does each client get their own day, or do you work a little on each? Who do you start with? Which project demands the most attention?
Here are a few tips for managing the time that might help you stay organized: keep a current calendar that you update frequently (it could be on paper or online), create lists (which help you prioritize tasks and keep everything you need to complete tasks in one place), assess each project before you begin (get a sense of how long it will take, how complex it is, and when it’s due), consider getting an app for time management (designed to help you stay on top of things).
Equally important is the need to manage client expectations. This is especially important for freelancers with more than one client. Every client has a business to run, and their success depends—at least in part—on the services you provide. There can be an enormous amount of pressure that comes with meeting client demands, and new freelancers especially are at risk for saying “yes” to everything.
We get it: you want to deliver an amazing client experience. You’re trying to grow your business, and garner positive reviews, and you want to retain the clients you have. But overpromising is a slippery slope. Your clients have expectations, and their expectations aren’t going to change based on your workload as it pertains to other clients.
Managing their expectations is essential to maintaining a positive working relationship and delivering quality work—for all your clients. Juggling multiple clients is totally possible, once you get the hang of it, but successfully doing so requires structure and respect for boundaries.
Here are some tips for managing client expectations: be upfront with your hours (being honest about how much time you’ll devote to your client helps them know what to expect), be honest about other commitments (letting your client know when you’ll be unavailable will prevent persistent emails), don’t answer calls or emails after hours (this creates a bad precedent because your client may then expect you to be available at all hours), and give adequate notice when things come up (as long as you’re communicative and check in regularly, most clients will adjust their expectations to meet their needs).
3. Designate a Workspace
When you’re a freelancer, wherever you do your work becomes your office. For most people, that means their home. Others work from a favorite café or library—or in the park when the weather’s nice. Three are even working shares: common spaces where (usually for a membership fee) you can go to work. People who work remotely from any number of industries congregate at these places for a quiet, comfortable place to work.
You don’t necessarily have to choose one place to work over the others—it’s okay to switch things up, as long as when you’re there you hold yourself to your own schedule and can clearly focus on your work.
For people who work from home, it can be difficult to separate their personal space from their workspace. A range of distractions and comforts can detract from your focus. When this happens, it’s important to have a way to differentiate where you work from where you live.
Tempting though it may be, don’t work from bed. Keep the TV. off, and make sure the place you’re working is free from clutter. If you’re fortunate enough to have a home office, that’s wonderful and makes everything easier. If you work from the couch or dining table, make sure these areas are clean, quiet, and comfortable.
4. Keep it Professional
This is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule—and also this writer’s personal preference. When I was freelancing, I found that it helped to follow my morning routine—breakfast, shower, coffee—before I started working. I kept this time separate from the rest of my day, and I also got dressed as if I was going into an office. I didn’t dress formally, but I also didn’t work in my pajamas.
Dressing even when you work from home has its practical purposes. If you have clients that you meet with via Skype or another video conferencing service, this lets you maintain a sense of professionalism. But also, it’s incredibly helpful in keeping you in the right mindset. You’ll feel like it’s time for work if you get dressed as if you’re going to work, and this can help keep you alert, focused, and productive. It also helps to keep work and your home life from blending together—to set your hours and stop working in the evening—if you have to change back into your leisure clothes.
Contrary to popular belief, Spider Man’s uncle was not the first to say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Whoever said it, the phrase is widely applicable. Freelancing gives you more freedom over your time and work/life balance than almost any other position, but striking the right chord between the two requires more self-driven structuring than you may have had before. We hope these tips guide you towards finding a structure that’s right for you.