I found Michael Poh’s “20 Reasons to Say ‘No’ to Freelancing” to be interesting, but not always reflective of my own eighteen years as a freelance book indexer, copy editor and proofreader.
It ain’t easy. That’s not the point; work, even work we are passionate about, isn’t necessarily easy. But freelancing has its rewards, and I think some of Michael’s points against the freelancing life are really more about taking control over certain aspects of all of our lives. So, let’s go through the list and I’ll add my perspective. Since I’m a little more verbose than Michael, I’ll do this blog in two parts, addressing his work environment section in this one, and then his personal traits section in the next blog.
1. Benefits vs. flying without a safety net
It’s quite true that there’s no big corporate daddy to provide benefits, and at last count, I think there are some companies that actually still provide decent benefits, so if that kind of security is really important (especially if you have health issues), freelancing may cause more anxiety than its worth. I could sure use a paid vacation since I’m major breadwinner now rather than supplemental, but that’s partly my own responsibility for choosing an underpaid business area (publishing). Benefits should really be factored into the rates we charge; not always the case, but that’s not necessarily an argument for being an employee.
2. The flexibility expectation of freelancing
I see Michael’s point here in that freelancing doesn’t necessarily mean you can do whatever you want when you want (although some folks who provide supplementary income in a family unit may have quite a bit of flexibility). Your deadlines and clients are often your “bosses” in the freelance world. That said, you still have a bit more project-to-project flexibility than most employees. Quitting a project or not taking a project given to you at work may not be an option (not without quitting the one job you have), but I can decide not to work for a client anymore if I don’t like the way I’m treated (and I have). I do take care of my responsibility for the specific project I’ve contracted for, but I can definitely choose not to work for that client again and just continue with my other ones, and recruit a new one without disrupting my life or changing careers. And within the span of contract and deadline, I do have the freedom of not being actively supervised, and I can do my work from 4 to midnight if I want to.
3. and 4. Personal/work life separation (or not!)
This is actually a combo of Michael’s #3 and #4. Yes, I can refuse to take calls from clients after 5 p.m. Really, I can. I do tend to be too responsive to clients, but it’s just my extroverted personality and desire to please (which I need to curb), and is not necessarily part of the fabric of freelancing. And job-fear makes a lot of employees too responsive to bosses in their off hours, so I don’t see that big of a difference, particularly in our mobile-device-ruled world. It’s up to all of us to set the boundaries and not make every client or job-boss’s emergency my own. Forward to voice mail and don’t check your email every five minutes. That’ll do it. And no one will die.
My biggest challenge is keeping home stuff at bay so I can get work done. One way to solve this problem is to have an office outside the home, or at least take breaks from being around the laundry and vacuuming duties by spending time at the local coffee-house. I knew Starbucks was good for something besides coffee!
5. Setting aside time for vacation
Michael covered the paid-vs.-unpaid part of this up at the Benefit section, but here he wrote about finding the time for a break. I have to admit that I haven’t had much in the way of vacation in the last ten years, but it’s mainly because of the unpaid nature of vacation, not because I couldn’t make time for it. Workaholism is the worker’s responsibility. Again, it’s about setting boundaries. Demanding bosses will browbeat employees into not taking their earned time off, too, so it’s really about not being afraid to set those boundaries with other people. Bosses or clients, neither are supposed to be your totalitarian dictators. If that’s the case, then you’re likely in the wrong job or the wrong business, or you are a workaholic and are afraid to stop. Or you’re being exploited and you should be paid a lot better so you have the power to set boundaries.
Well, yes, many freelance service providers (editors, website designers, business consultants, programmers) will sit (or stand or walk a treadmill) in front of a screen, but how is this different from similar on-site employee jobs? The only way to get away from the screen is to do some kind of artisan work, or be a wilderness guide, or a landscaper, or a shop owner, some other job or business that involves being outdoors/in a shop. That’s really about what work you feel like your are suited for, not whether you are doing it on a freelance basis or as an on-site employee. We all have to find some balance of activities to keep body and mind healthy. See No. 5.
7. Social drought of working as sole proprietor
Michael makes a good point here. By definition, if you are working the kinds of tasks normally associated with “freelancing,” you’ll be a sole proprietor doing most/all of the work yourself in a home office. There won’t be any office chatter at the cooler (or donuts in the morning, or meetings, either!) or prospects for friendly after-work sessions at the local watering hole, etc. I have found solo freelancing to be a bit of a challenge because I’m an extrovert. It does pay to have an interest outside of work (church, social club, music, etc.) to go to on your time off (which you should be arranging anyway—see 3, 4, and 5). I also have a lot of online interaction (only downside is it means more screen time) that’s personal and not about work.
8. Expecting others to understand the unpredictability
I do also agree with Michael on this one: If you need regular paychecks and don’t want to do all your own bookkeeping and whatnot, it will be hard to make a living freelancing. I’d love to hire out some of that stuff, but I haven’t been able to do it except for tax preparation. Other folks do sometimes think that because I’ve got all this “flexibility,” I’m not really working hard and can be interrupted for errands, etc. This situation goes back to the setting of boundaries in all aspects of your life, though. Might be time to adopt the local coffeehouse and “go to work” so folks at home or in your neighborhood can think of you as not being available.
Actually, this has been an excellent exercise for me in looking at how to use my time better as a freelancer. Most of it seems to be about setting boundaries with others (work- and play-related) and creating your own structure to work for you.
Let me know in the comments how freelancing works, or doesn’t/didn’t for you, and why you still work that way or have gone back to an employee position with an organization.