Freelancer balancing act

man wearing harness going down building
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Lately I’ve been feeling shaky.

Because the type of work I do feels at times like walking on a tightrope. I haven’t joined the circus but I have moved from a permanent job to be self-employed / running my own business / a freelancer.

And living this way is a balancing act.

I find myself looking down and getting dizzy.

Steering your ship

When a mix of circumstances and choice put me on this path, I knew setting up independently was the right move. A lot of my frustrations after years in the same role were about the slow pace of change and innovation. I needed to shake things up. To be in charge for a while. To steer my own ship, as a good friend describes it.

Freedom is the biggest benefit of working for yourself. You can position your services any way you choose, work when you want and on the projects you select. More variety and less monotony.

In theory.

And there are good days. The first time you stay in bed on a Monday morning is a joy. There are times when you don’t actually need to be anywhere and it’s a revelation to determine a way of working that suits your lifestyle. If you need to go to the doctor or post office, you actually can without asking permission!

Related note: I’m finally up-to-date with dental checkups.

Beyond boring life admin, designing your schedule means you can fit in stuff you like. A swim when the pool is quiet, a walk in the park on a sunny afternoon, family and even hobbies. It feels like you’ve finally worked out how to steal time back for yourself.

And you do level-up professionally. I’ve worked in more different environments in the last year than in the preceding decade. I am learning new skills all the time. Fewer people fall asleep reading my CV.

Yet with every new found freedom, there’s a recognition of why we crave boundaries.

Work and life quickly blur. You find yourself writing application forms or pitches late at night. Sometimes it’s because you prioritised another task in the day, but sometimes you just don’t stop. Because you can’t stop until you get a positive response: a like, a commission, ultimately an offer of paid work.

Weekends don’t feel any different to weekdays.

The danger of judging your productivity and value by the whims of others is acute. You are constantly putting yourself out there only to be stuck waiting in inboxes, recruitment processes, invoicing cycles. Progress isn’t in your control.

There is pressure to network. Then network more. It’s all about contacts and you need to keep adding new ones. There are evening events to go to each week, even on days when you feel defeated, when it’s raining and it will take you ages to get there. Sometimes you skip them and feel guilty. Or go and feel exhausted.

The reality is you need breaks even if you haven’t earned money.

The reality is you are still human.

Motivational rhetoric about entrepreneurship starts to drive you insane. It suggests we should all be living to work.

What is a #girlboss anyway?

I just want to make a living and do my best.

Is it me or the business?

I’ve been given advice to separate myself from my business. It’s easier to deal with the ups and downs that way. The business does or doesn’t win work.

But this is quite a mindset shift and takes time. When I walk into an interview, the pressure is on me. My skills, my case studies, my ideas.

Aside from the core work, running a business yourself also means taking charge of the finances, marketing, strategy, negotiation and scheduling. I have new-found respect for all these disciplines.

In making my first foray into YouTube videos, I realised I was attempting the job of script writer, presenter, videographer and editor. Fun to try, though clearly very different to bringing in professionals.

Many hours are spent in service of creating reliable, predictable work. At least for a few months. There is not much longer-term because things change daily.

When the work does come, you want to take it all on. To make up for any quieter times. You need to deliver and find ways to grind harder, to squirrel away earnings. And you know you can’t get ill because there is no sick pay. Don’t forget to network either!

The fear in between jobs grows. How long is too long? How long can you survive? How long after you complete a piece of work and invoice for it, will you actually receive payment? Will it ever arrive?

This is the stuff that keeps you awake. The freelance anxiety. The shakiness.

The tightrope wobbles.

Solidarity

I don’t think it’s just me. I’m reading a book by Christina Patterson called The Art of Not Falling Apart, a memoir of rebuilding after being made redundant.

She describes her shock at the change of work as a physical sensation:

I felt like I was falling off a cliff.

And I recently went to an event called First Aid for Freelancers, aimed at journalists.

Following the latest round of job losses in the media (RIP The Pool), there was sense of shakiness in the room. People who never thought of themselves as business types working out how to ‘diversify their income’.

Yet there was also a sense of optimism because other people are making it work, holding their own space despite their internal shakes.

Someone told me the first year is the hardest. I will find my balance soon.

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