Freelancing: at its best, it's living by your own rhythm, savoring your non-Keurig coffee and laughing as all the suits march by. At its worst, it's getting out of bed at the crack of 10:30, reading BuzzFeed for two hours, catching up on all those emails and then having a panic attack when darkness falls and you still haven't gotten down to "real work."
How do you put the freedom into freelancing? I talked to some of my favorite freelancers, NatalieAnn Rich, who does graphic design, and Saskia Ketz, who runs a small branding studio, about our favorite freelancer life hacks (with a glass of wine in one hand and a Macbook on each of our laps—of course).
1. Distracted? There's an App For That
These days we sometimes have to use technology to save ourselves from it. The novelist Jonathan Franzen is well known for one of his rules for good writing: "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." Franzen takes his own advice: he physically disables the internet connection on the computer he uses to write.
There are apps that disable Facebook and put "blinders" on your word processor, but for me the best is a very simple app Freedom (also the name of one of Franzen's novels. Coincidence?). Freedom disables your airport for whatever time you indicate, and for up to eight hours. Once you set the time limit, that's it. There is NOTHING YOU CAN DO. It's kind of sad, but it's one of the best $10 I ever spent—it's truly a feeling of relief to be totally cut off from the web.
I sometimes pair this with the very advanced technique known as "hiding my phone in another room."
2. Track Your Time
Time is relative when you're in a salaried employee vs. a freelancer. Or, as Saskia puts it, "eight hours are measured differently." When you're paid per hour or per project, you have an incentive to get things done efficiently. On the other hand, you can also fall into the rabbit hole of staring at the computer screen for twice as long as you were actually working. But as Saskia likes to point out, you can get a lot done in an hour, or even five minutes. Focus is key.
The old-fashioned method of working for 25 minutes, taking a three-to-five-minute break, then repeating (you can also add a longer ten-minute break after four sets) is tried and truly effective. Tomato clock not necessary, though a charming retro touch.
Saskia recommends Mite, a German tool (don't worry—it's in English) that allows you to track time for specific projects that you input, both straight and billable. I'm about to start my 30-day free trial!
3. Create A Flow
Every freelancer is also a project manager. So get on it. Kanban is a project management technique that started with Japanese auto workers at Toyota, and its really the foundation for tools like Trello. You can simply use post-its to do the same thing: make a board with "to-do," "doing," and "done" columns (see here). Amazingly simple, but very effective in breaking down those beastly projects while keeping an eye on the big picture.
4. Save Yourself From Yourself
"I get up, shower and get dressed like I have to go somewhere," says NatalieAnn of her daily routine. Saskia, on the other hand (and I) tend to prefer the, "Oh, I have to go somewhere? I guess I better look presentable" approach. Whatever you choose, it's important to realize what habits you tend to fall into—and check the ones that are hindering your productivity.
Never underestimate the power of habit. I think that constantly analyzing your habits and undertaking actions that will forceably change the bad ones is an essential practice for any freelancer. For example, if you're not the leap-out-of-bed type, try scheduling calls, meetings, or yoga classes bright and early.
5. Coffeeshops, Libraries, and Other Getaways
Work from home too much, and it can feel like the walls are closing in on you. When that happens, leave and find a different set of walls.
It can take some trial and error to find your favorite "coffice." The music, temperature, crowdedness, wifi or lack thereof, availability of outlets, quality of coffee, etc. all contribute to a work environment. I've found a few go-tos in my Brooklyn neighborhood (perhaps the subject of a future post?), plus I love the Park Slope library—big windows with lots of light.
Sometimes when I want to get a lot of straight writing done I purposefully go somewhere without wifi, and again, leave my phone at home. My fingers twitch a little, but for the most part the withdrawal symptoms are minor and I get a lot done in those little cram sessions.
One thing that office-goers have over freelancers is interaction with others. While plenty of people complain about their co-workers, the office is also a social space and we are, after all, social creatures (well, most of us). The feeling of isolation is a real peril of the freelancer life.
Saskia likes to plan at least three networking-related meetings with new acquaintances every week: "I try to schedule two to three people that I don't know, just to meet and talk and have a drink at night."
Both NatalieAnn and I have roommates who also freelance, so we get to interact with them during the day. "We meet up in the kitchen sometimes and talk a little bit," NatalieAnne says. Even a few minutes of real-life interaction can do a lot to lift your spirits.
Working alone together can a good way to break up the monotony—simply meeting up with other freelancer friends for a communal work session.
7. (1.) Lists (2.) Lists (3.) Lists
With great freedom comes great obsessiveness. Lists are a freelancer's bread and butter. NatalieAnn recommends categorizing lists by what HAS to get done today and what could get done tomorrow. "I'll even add stuff that I know can get done quickly so I feel like I'm making progress and I can mark stuff off," she says. The more elaborate the list, the better!
I also tend to make "week" lists and "day" lists. On Sunday night I make a list of goals for the week, and each day I make a smaller list for the next day. Sometimes I even do morning or evening lists. The more specifically you can pinpoint discreet tasks, the less stress you put on yourself.
Really the biggest key to hacking the freelancer life is to schedule the hell out of it. Many freelancers start out drunk on their newfound liberty. They soon discover that just because you're wearing pajama pants, that doesn't mean you don't have to schedule. In fact, you need to be far more on top of it than if you were working a normal job.
8. ENJOY IT.
The freelance life can be hard. Work can be inconsistent, time management can be stressful, and you have to be accountable for all the details that a 9-to-5 would take care of for you (wait, I have to buy health insurance? Wait, I have to pay taxes?). But when the going gets tough, I always remind myself of how lucky I am. Every day that I'm not in an office is a day I've won. I am building my skills, my business, my life to look exactly as I want it to. And if I happen to have a late night one night, schedule be damned—crack of 10:30 it is.