Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A Darker Shade Of Freelancing

As some of you know, I've been chosen as a finalist in the 15 for 15 awards celebrating "the UK's top freelancers".  It's a great honour, and I'm so glad that the industry is recognising self-employed people as, unfortunately, we're so often overlooked.

The awards evening is this Wednesday, tying in with National Freelancers Day. So I thought it would be a great opportunity to share one of my freelance advice articles I've written for IPSE's blog with my readers here.  This article touches on one of those things that I know a lot of us face when we're self-employed, but not that many people speak candidly about - the stress, isolation and tendency to overwork that starting up and running your own business brings.  From my experience, here's some of the things I've been working on to keep that all at bay, and to stay a happy freelancer -

There's something so bold about taking the leap into freelancing. It's a brave career choice whatever business you're in, but there's something we all have in common – that passion to do what we love for a living.

I'm a freelance illustrator, working and living in the North West. I'm thankful to have been very successful in my industry, but I still often struggle with the challenges that freelancing can, and will, throw at you.

Whether you're just starting out, or you're a seasoned lone-wolf business master there will always be certain aspects of freelancing which can slow your productivity and motivation. There are the obvious solutions - just push through, keep working, hang in there - but here are my personal insights into staying happy, stress free and productive in your freelance work.

So, the first hurdle you'll face is that aforementioned leap into freelancing. It's a big move and if you've already made that decision, you've obviously got the drive and spirit for the long haul challenges.  Starting out is tricky. You have a lot of organising on your plate, but the key things to focus on are knowing what you're selling (your service, product, business strategy), how to market yourself (and who to), and your business goals.  They're all obvious things, but physically writing down those headers and making notes will be a great anchor to refer back to as your career develops. For me, as an illustrator, I've spent a long time developing my portfolio and building my presence online.  In this modern tech-frenzy world, that's one of the essentials - making connections through social media and speaking with potential clients, to enable the promotion of your business as a by-product of those connections and friendships.

Social media has been so important to my career, and I've actually had a lot of work through promotion on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. In fact, for my latest book The Lavender Blue Dress, the author and publishers first saw my work on Twitter and commissioned me! I wholeheartedly recommend throwing yourself into building a strong online presence, but always head at it with the knowledge that everyone (no matter how big a company they're head of) is just a person, and focus on the aspect of human connection.  Friendship can lead to contacts, and contacts can lead to projects.

Now, all this talk of social media might have you thinking, “but I like to talk to people in real life!” Don't worry, that's such an important part of freelancing too.  If you work from home (like I do), you'll often hit the challenge of isolation.  Impatient deadlines and heavy inboxes might make you feel like you have to be a hermit. But always remember to grab the chance for engaging in some real networking, workshop hosting, freelancer gatherings and client meets, not only for the contacts, but for the social experience.  If it's available in your area, I'd also recommend looking into hot-desking or renting a co-working space. It might cost you a few more pennies, but being in a work environment and having the ability to bounce ideas around can be invaluable.

If you don't have access to an office or studio, make sure you have a dedicated work space (preferably with a door you can close), no matter how small.  One of the hardest pit-falls I've felt with freelancing is the ability to switch off from work.  That feeling of needing to check your emails on holiday or having to work those late, late nights to make the deadline. They're the weights that make 9-5ing seem like paradise.  I know first-hand how tricky it can be to schedule normal working hours, it just doesn't happen when you have clients all over the world and an armful of deadlines.  But - and this is something I'm working on too - try your best to allow yourself time off.  You're allowed time off.  Having financial responsibility for yourself can make it feel like you have to work all the time to make up for the quiet months, but you'll most likely suffer emotionally for it.  It's a fine balance: we have to work hard to keep our business going, but we need that time to not think about work and to recharge or we won't be productive in the long term.

So, go out now and reward your hard work with a half-hour walk. Think about how far you've come, acknowledge your achievements and set yourself some attainable goals for the coming months.  To be a happy freelancer, you have to always remember the reason you chose to go it alone – you're doing what you love and you know you can succeed.

It's been a few weeks since I wrote this, and I will admit at times I do struggle to follow my own advice; it can be so hard to give yourself the headspace to not think about that project you're working on, that email you might have waiting or that post-it note to-do list stuck to your computer.  I've been working with some seriously hefty deadlines recently and it's taken it's toll, so for the last couple of weeks I've been consciously training myself to relax.  Just spending ten minutes a day winding down, having set working/notworking times and telling myself that yes, I am allowed that time off.  I have been making sure I get out everyday, absorb some sunlight and even had a fleeting adventure to the Lake District for a day off (I really needed it and it was gorgeous!).  

This really is one shade of the dark underbelly of freelancing, it's not glamorous or healthy to overwork yourself, and it can be hard to avoid feeling guilty for the time you do take off; but as I said in the article: You are allowed time off. You will work better for it. You will feel better for it.  You're not just pure creativity output, you need something other than work-thoughts to feed the input.  Work hard in your work time, whatever hours they are (yeah, probably ban yourself from Twitter, Facebook and Reddit huh?) and seize those after-work hours.  

If anyone wants to rally together in some sort of over-work detox grab me (or leave a comment or message, y'know).  There's far too many over worked lone-wolves out there, let's band together under the metaphorical crescent moon of freelancing, and howl "WE ARE ALLOWED TONIGHT OFF".

(p.s. I was feeling a bit inspired by the animation project I'm working on with Chog Zoo, so I whipped up my second ever gif to illustrate this piece, hurray!).