The Freelancer’s Workday

I’ve completed my first year living the dream as a full time freelancer in the RPG business. I am so lucky to be able to do this, and so grateful to Clark who provides the steady paycheck and the insurance that makes this possible.

I’m still struggling with some stuff, though. I’m sure that, like a marriage, you never actually reach a point in your career where suddenly things are perfect and you have nothing left to improve. It’s a lifelong relationship that grows and changes over time.

Here are some of the things I’m still working on. If you have any advice or similar stories, I’d love to hear it.

I haven’t learned how to differentiate my workday.

It’s not like I leave an office at the end of the day and head home—my office is a corner of the sofa. It’s also where I help the kids with homework, it’s where I sit to watch TV, it’s where I write book reviews, it’s sometimes where I eat dinner. Working looks a lot like everything else I do. This means that it’s all too easy for my work to be interrupted by other things and for work to become a constant undercurrent. “Sorry, kids; I know we were doing stuff, but I just got an email I need to deal with.” Often it feels like I’m always half working, and that’s not ideal for my family or my job.

It would be great if I had room to make a home office, but I don’t. Working away from home gets expensive, and it means I have to deal with lots of other people—honestly, one of my favorite parts of working at home is that often the only other living thing I have to deal with face to face is a sleeping cat. Since I’m working with people who live in different time zones or have day jobs that aren’t this, I feel like I need to be available well beyond a typical workday. It feels like a constant tug of war, and I’m not yet gracefully handling transitions.

Even though my time is flexible, that doesn’t mean it’s unlimited.

Because I could always technically get to my editing later, it’s hard to say no to family and friends who need something. This is all the more true because I’m one of the few people who does have the flexibility to help out during the workday. And often, it really isn’t a big deal to run an errand or even give up the occasional day—I can make up the time in the evenings or something.

But when I don’t know how to say no, it’s also really easy to lose several days, and that’s not so easy to make up. And the more I don’t say no, the more people expect me to be available during the day. I think it’s hard for people to understand that I’m working a real job when I’m sitting at home on my sofa and there’s no boss breathing down my neck if I take a personal phone call.

It’s true that my workdays are flexible, while my evenings are totally full with my kids and—if I’m really lucky—some time with Clark. But I’m having trouble learning how to protect my work time while still living up to my responsibilities to extended family and friends.

Home is distracting.

One reason I have trouble saying no to people is that I’m painfully aware that I probably could give them some time if I hadn’t gotten distracted by Twitter, or finished that book, or given in to the urge to take a nap. Most days I do pretty well, but some days everything seems more interesting than whatever I’m working on (this is in no way a reflection of whatever I’m working on, because the same thing will engage me completely the next day). Because I work alone, I have to motivate myself to stay on task. No one will actually know if it takes me five hours to do something I could have done in two.

I find it especially difficult to stay focused on things that don’t have deadlines breathing down my neck. I’ve always been like this—I was the college kid pounding away on the paper due that day as the sun rose over my computer monitor. I’m learning to set arbitrary deadlines for myself on long term projects, but sometimes I find myself hard to fool!

I’d love to hear from you.

What are some of the issues you face as a freelancer and/or someone who works from home? Have you found any strategies that work particularly well for you?

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10 Responses to The Freelancer’s Workday

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    So, the thing I’ve probably gotten the most benefit from under semi-similar circumstances is being pretty rigorous about partitioning my day. Folks don’t get to get used to me being flexible.

    While my daytime work hours (about 9-5, with wiggle) are also compromised a bit by childcare, I try to make sure that if I have something work-related to do, I schedule it within that hour range rather than let it eat into my evening. This lets me also establish a firewall around my evening: “Yeah, I can’t Skype then, because that’s wife-time.”

    With those barriers in place I can then consider the occasional bridge across them that lets exceptions happen. But it’s always seen and communicated as an exception when it happens, and sometimes with a clear trade: “Sure, I can do that skype call tonight. I’ll have to stay offline tomorrow in order to make up for the lost family time that represents, though.”

    Without those barriers, any distinction you have between work time and family/available time is a fiction only you can perceive.

  2. John says:

    Some strategies that have worked for me (more than 15 years freelancing, and also 1 year almost exclusively freelancing in game design):

    1. Set hours – Because I’m in charge of my schedule, and because I know I have distractions and other people/things vying for my time, I have to make sure that my working hours are my *working* hours and not the hours I passively and/or superficially glaze over work. So everyday from 9 until 1, then 2 to 6, then 7 to 9 (that’s when my attention is most focused), those are the hours I deal with work. Granted I have a luxury of no spouse, no relationship and no kids, but there’s still plenty I could distract myself with if I let my attention wander. During those hours, work comes first. Sure I’ll also do dishes or make food or do laundry or do other things during that time if there’s no work to be done (or if I’m waiting on emails), but work is the priority. Having set hours makes it feel like a job, so the discipline kicks in.

    2. A workspace – For years my dining room table was half meal-depot, half office. I sat in one chair to do work, and a second chair to eat (and on busy days, it was the same chair). It was only when I finally gave myself an office (a separate room with a door and everything) that I took myself far more seriously, gave my work more attention and treated everything ‘professionally’ because it had its own space in the house. Sure there are still piles of books, manuscripts, games and notes. Sure, there are corkboards and white boards with things tacked and scribbled on. But when the door closes, it’s an office and that workspace doesn’t get touched by cleaning fairies or maniacal mood swings of reorganization. Having that division also lets me walk away from work when I need a breather.

    3. You have to say no. You and I both don’t say no nearly enough or nearly clearly enough to make effective use of our time. Whether out of perceived scarcity (if I say no, no one will give me work ever again) or out perceived respect (the person won’t like me if I say no) or whatever, “No” just doesn’t come out of our mouths enough, and it should, especially if we have things other than work we’d like to focus on (like a family or chores or the Xbox or grocery shopping or whatever). I’m still working on it, but have so far found that “No” is also a testament to how successful I am. I have to say no to some projects because other projects have taken my time. And that position is not one I thought I’d be in. More “No” practice is needed.

    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Bo Williams says:

    Like Fred, the biggest change I’ve made is setting boundaries on my work day. From 9-5, I’m working. Sometimes shit happens and I have to work later than that (I am not a freelancer, but a salaried employee who works from home), and when it does I make it clear to my spouse that though I may be home, I’m unavailable until the crisis is over. On the other hand, if I’m working something just because I want to after hours and my wife asks me to do something, I drop the work. I think probably I’d be healthier/saner if I never worked after business hours (again, outside of crisis) but I like what I do and sometimes it’s just fun.

    As for distractions, oh do I hear you. I won’t go into detail about my particular desk/work area, but the general advice I can give is much like that of a cubicle worker- have a sign that means “I’m concentrating right now, so you can ask politely for my attention but you must know you are interrupting me.” For me, that sign at home is the same as it was in cube land- headphones. If they’re on, I’m busy. They also help drown out noise if my wife is home sick or has the day off. Even if it’s not music, I’ll put on some white noise and that will help immensely.

    Finally, my last advice is get out of the house. I’m about a hundred times more productive with a change of scenery. We have a great public library nearby with good WiFi and nice work desks, so I’ll pack up the laptop and head there when I need a change of pace.

  4. Spomenka says:

    Shoes. Seriously, wearing shoes when you’re working gives you the physiological cue that you’re “on work time.” There are lots of little hints like this that make a difference, but besides the reminders of boundary settings the other commenteers have made, getting your body into “work space” helps bring your mind across.

  5. ayvalentine says:

    Thanks for the many great ideas! I definitely need to make some clear delineations, and lots of these will help, even with my space limitations.

    One of my biggest problems, though, comes from people who don’t live in my house. The kids and Clark are pretty good about respecting my work time (and I need to be better about respecting their mommy/wife time). I suppose I could (and maybe should) start doing things like ignoring non-business phone calls during the work day, although finding time for that stuff once the kids are home from school isn’t easy, either.

    Does anyone else have issues with people not looking at jobs from home as real jobs? Like, “Oh, you work from home – therefore you’re available to help with this thing that needs to happen during the workday”?

    • Clark says:

      This is the thing that annoys me most on your behalf* – the perception among some that your job is not really a job, it’s a hobby that sometimes cuts you a check. I hesitate to bring this up, as it could take the conversation in a direction you didn’t intend it to go, but how much does your gender play into this? Noting some generational differences, do people see “housewife with a hobby” rather than a professional working in a nontraditional office with you where they might not with me? **

      * I fully grant that I need to stop getting annoyed on your behalf.

      ** Genuine question – I’m not implying it’s necessarily true.

      • ayvalentine says:

        I went from being a stay at home mom to a working at home mom – when I taught, it was only 3 mornings a week so I was still at home a lot. From the outside, it may not look like very much has changed except that, if anything, I’m even easier to get in touch with.

    • Fred Hicks says:

      It’s hard to remember that there’s a real job that I’m tucking into the extra spaces between non-job events in my life, unless you’re me. The burden of the WFH-er is to make it hard to *forget* — for everyone else.

      Adopting behaviors that you would adopt if you had a job with a workplace and a supervisor, vis a vis interruptions, calls in the middle of the day, etc, go a long way towards that. 🙂

      • ayvalentine says:

        This is a good point – I think maybe what I need to do is to establish an interruption period. I can take calls, run errands, etc. during this established time frame. Outside of that, I just can’t do it.

        • Fred Hicks says:

          Sure. You can, in essence, define for yourself a 6 hour work-day, with a 2 hour “slush fund” of hours that are sometimes interrupted for errands, phone calls, etc, or sometimes get utilized as bonus work. However you want to set your boundaries that works for you. But set them!

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