Three years into freelancing: The good, the bad, and the perfectly fine

Back in April 2017, when I’d been freelancing for two years, I started this post. I think the fact that it’s taken me over a year to actually finish it probably sums up freelancing life better than anything else I could say below. But anyway, just over three years into freelancing, here’s what works, what doesn’t work, and whether it’s worth taking the leap:

So first things first: jump or stay put?

I am definitely not qualified to advise anyone on whether or not to take the leap into freelancing – it’s a hugely personal decision and depends on many factors. But I can tell you that for me, I’d never have been brave enough to do it without the cushion of redundancy. I would absolutely still be working away in the IFSC – very happily – if my office hadn’t closed. Redundancy meant I could give freelancing a trial run for six months, instead of rushing straight to a new full-time office job. And happily for me, it worked out.

For anyone without the luxury of redundancy, I think trying out the freelancing on a part-time basis while still working is one option to consider. It means working long hours, but that’s probably a good taster of life as a freelancer.

Weighing up the financial implications is of course critical, and childcare costs are something to take into consideration. Will your freelance work be full-time in which case you still have to cover childcare costs? Or will your costs go down if you’ll freelance part-time – maybe working mornings while your children are in preschool or school? Something that made a big difference to me in deciding to try it was realising my youngest would start preschool a few months after my job came to an end. So I’d have three hours free childcare every morning – three hours during which to try to earn money, but without the pressure to cover the cost of childcare.

And no two situations are the same – some people can take time out from a job safe in the knowledge of getting back in if it doesn’t work out, whereas for others, it’s a much bigger risk. I don’t think there’s any short cut when it comes to deciding – it’s a matter of sitting down with the figures and doing the sums and seeing if it works on paper. But while it’s not as simple as saying “Follow your heart”, I do think that’s big part of it too, because if you’re doing something you love, you are very likely to find a way to make it work.

And now what I’ve learned:

You work all the hours

I work every morning, and again at night after the kids go to bed, and at weekends. And speaking to other self-employed people, this is the norm. There are never enough hours in the day, but also it’s difficult to have equilibrium – sometimes there’s too little work and mostly there’s too much, deadlines can be tight and work can come up at short notice. But if you’re doing something you enjoy, working all the hours isn’t (always) a hardship.

School holidays are a challenge…

…but I am coming out the other side of this. Two years ago it was difficult to get anything done while the kids were around, but last summer was slightly easier; they understood that I was working mornings and they should play, and we’d do something in the afternoons. And I discovered camps! I got a whole third of One Click written while mine were in camp last summer and I’ve already signed them up again for this year.

Holidays are tricky

Barleycove - office mum

On our holiday in West Cork last year, I had to lock myself away in the bedroom for the last two nights of the trip to work – I knew when we booked that this might happen, but figured I can’t put my life on hold because work doesn’t have a beginning or an end. And in Spain in July, I had my laptop with me and ended up working on two articles while I was there because they were easy to do and I hate turning down work. This is the bane of freelancing – the fear of turning down work and never being asked again.

Do not do housework!

If you work from home, you need to be strict on housework avoidance. I find this quite easy. I figure if I’ve got limited time, I should spend it on something that brings in income. So when I come in from the school run, I start working immediately. I can put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil… Or for some real economies of scale, I wait till I’m putting the lunch dishes in.

People don’t realise you work

This might not matter to everyone, and I’d love to pretend that it doesn’t matter to me, but it does. If you’re working from home, you may have a legitimate need to set boundaries along with an irrational need to explain that you do work. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Peaks and troughs

My friend Sadhbh sent me this illustration by Dutch artist Marloes De Vries (see her fabulous Instagram at Marloesdevee) and it sums up freelancing better than anything I’ve ever seen anywhere:

Image used with kind permission of Marloes De Vries

It takes time to get used to this, and so far I’ve met just one freelancer who does not freak out when work goes quiet, and none who don’t freak out when it gets too busy. But knowing it’s normal and everyone else is going through the same thing helps.

It can be lonely

If you’re used to office banter, working from home by yourself can take getting used to. My work-morning is still very short, so mostly I don’t have time to get lonely, but sometimes the walls close in.

To break up the monotony of working at my kitchen table, once a week or so I bring my Mac to a coffee shop and work there instead – truly one of the loveliest aspects of flexible working.

But where it is particularly lonely is when you’re under pressure and there’s nobody to vent to. When you’re desperately seeking a solution to a problem or a path around a plot hole or a contributor for an article, and the clock is ticking. In my old job, I’d have walked over to a friend for a bit of a chat and a vent. Plus, no matter how tough things got, there was always a team to work on any given problem, and always a higher level above to turn to.

But when you’re self-employed and working from home, you’re on your own – literally. If it all falls apart, you’re the only one who can pick up the pieces. And that can be tough at times. On the flip side, the social media is pretty amazing at replacing office banter, and my work-from-home Facebook friends are my new colleagues – the only difference is, when we grab a coffee, we’re all in our own kitchens.

So on balance?

On balance, freelancing is very rewarding when it all comes together (figuratively, not literally). And so far, in the end, it always has. While it’s not as idyllic as it sounds, working from home is still the best job I’ve ever had, and even on the toughest, rainiest days, I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, except for asking for an actual home-office instead of my kitchen table, and a few more hours in the day, and a few more euros in the bank – but other than that, it’s perfect!)

*

The internet is the freelancer’s best friend, and this is an article I wrote for Independent.ie about why I love Facebook and meeting online friends in real life.

This is one for TheJournal.ie about the good side of social media – particularly for parents of small kids, for carers, and for work-at-home freelancers.

Here’s how my freelance decision came about: Out of the office by the end of the week, and the story re-told to Sophie White recently for Imagie.ie

And for balance, this is a glimpse of how it is when it’s not going well: November walls are closing in!

 

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2 thoughts on “Three years into freelancing: The good, the bad, and the perfectly fine”

  1. Thanks for the tips. I agree the key to working from home is setting clear boundaries.
    I frequently work from home and that is the biggest challenge. Getting out once a week or so, to a coffee shop or shared workspace is a great tip as well.

  2. Office Technology is fast changing and if your area of expertise needs constant update, bear in mind that cost also while deciding on the freelancing option. When you are planning for freelancing, test the market on a part-time basis. If you find it comfortable and get good customers, then it is advisable to go for full time freelancing.

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