ike most humans, I work a regular 8-10 hour day job while freelancing on the side. That wasn't always the case, and, depending on my season of life, I prefer one over the other. Even with freelance as my "side hustle" (I hate calling it that because it's so much more, but just to keep it in simple terms) I was warned not to do it, I was told it’s going to be tough. And it is tough. And sometimes I burn out between the two, but most of the time, I thrive.
Freelancing is not sitting on a beach with a laptop, solving corporate problems from a keyboard, it’s not a day-long bliss where you are free to do whatever you want to. Freelancing is a tough, insecure, lonely job. It has its ups and downs for sure. But it is difficult. But you know what is even more difficult than that? Needing to go to the "office" (this is in quotes because that normally means coffee shop, or another meeting location) — to deal with your clients face to face, adjusting yourself to their pace and their schedule and still being able to manage your time in an efficient way.
I am a hybrid of a freelancer. I have one major client and several smaller ones at a time. I am doing business and marketing consultancy through creating brands that shine. This means that I have the strategic projects that I am doing from home, the day-long training sessions that need days or weeks of preparations, and every now and then I have meetings with my clients and my clients’ clients, sometimes within walking distance, sometimes a two-hour commute away.
My working life is quite busy, it takes a lot to arrange my days and weeks to meet all the expectations of all parties — including myself, being a perfectionist, wanting to do everything on time and at a high quality. There are days when I cannot help it, my work is at the office. And the office hours are the least effective periods of all my business life. I usually organise it well in advance, with all the colleagues, scheduling meetings — trying to minimise downtime. Despite my careful planning, usually, everything goes south.
Traffic happens. It’s inevitable, I know. If you need to get from A to B, no matter how carefully you plan it, you can run into a traffic jam (especially if you live in California). It is possible that you need to go across town during peak hours when the otherwise 15-minute car ride takes an hour. There are conference calls, but sometimes you just have to be there, and for that, you need to travel.
This meeting should have been an email. There are those meetings that have absolutely zero substance and it is a complete waste of time for everyone. Sometimes you know it in advance but it’s impossible to decline, sometimes it just happens that nothing actually gets done. Anyhow, it is demoralising, tiring and makes you question your whole professional existence.
Meetings get cancelled. And to my utter disbelief, they get cancelled 5 minutes after the scheduled time. Arriving earlier to be there well-prepared sounds like a professional idea, but it means I lost that time of preparation too. And now we spend half an hour trying to find another occasion when everyone’s calendar is free. This is mission impossible and being the freelancer I hate to be the one who is hindering the next meeting, so more often than not I am sacrificing a “working day” for it when I wouldn’t be in the office.
People chat. The time in between the meetings would be enough to do some work, only people start to talk, asking me about status updates and asking for an opinion on random things. It isn’t done in a structured way, no one takes notes, and again, nothing gets done.
The lunch meeting is never about business. I am scheduling lunch meetings to chat, catch up and network with people. When I am at my client’s office, it is to save time or to be able to find a common free slot in our calendars. It should be about work, but instead, we queue for the food, struggle to find a place to sit down and then chat the whole time away, only to leave 15 minutes for the otherwise highly important topic. We will need to schedule another meeting to finish it.
Coffee, water, snacks. When I work my full-time job, I'm paid for my coffee-breaks and I love them. It was the best way to connect with people, to share some fun, to complain and to be up-to-date with each other’s private lives. I do believe in workplace friendships, so I nurture them all. But as I said, I was paid for it. Being a freelancer, I am not paid for the chit-chat over coffee, I am not paid for listening to the office gossips, and I have no team I am responsible for. I still care about people, but I am more frustrated about wasting time — having really a lot to do.
And it is all about people and work-ethics.
It is very easy to get used to working alone, counting on just your own discipline and work ethics to get things done. As a freelancer, 95% of the time, I work alone, and I manage to work from home. I can arrange my day however I want, I schedule my tasks carefully to meet my most productive hours, I have my routine of switching off everything around me when it comes to writing or working on other personal projects. While meeting my clients is necessary, it is killing my productivity and my mood as well. I suddenly don’t feel like writing, I am too tired to work out. And I don’t feel strong enough mentally to spend quality time with people I love.
But what can you do if you can’t work from home, either because you have a 9–5 job, or you need to be at the office as a freelancer?
I have always been a very disciplined employee, the one who gets things done, in time — even if it means working after hours. As the office is by default quite an unproductive environment I learnt quite a few things already back in my employee time, that comes in handy dealing with the downsides of an office.
Some of us work better in the morning, others during the afternoon or night. It depends on many things. You need to identify the best time for yourself. There are time management online courses and tons of articles about it, but the best way to start is to log your activities for a couple of weeks — to look for clues. The mere fact that you are logging it makes you more attentive to your highs and ups. You need to log what type of activity you are engaged in, how important it is to be immersed in it, how easy it is for you to do it, and how enjoyable it feels. And while answering quickly some emails and giving feedback can be done without getting too engaged in it, writing an article, creating a strategy, doing research, putting together something more in-depth will need more of your concentration. The key is to find which time of the day you work best in concentration heavy tasks. The rest can be scheduled around it.
Whenever you can, block out time slots in your calendar for the times when you are most productive. Make others respect it, and try to respect it yourself too. Sometimes it won’t be possible, due to deadlines or ad-hoc requests, but without at least trying it, you will never have your precious time dedicated to the in-depth work. Make a habit of it, get people used to it — and keep yourself to it as much as possible. You might need weeks to make it accepted and respected, but start it, and in a short time, it will work.
One of the biggest challenges is to switch off distractions. Never forget your headphones, and don’t be shy about finding a quiet space in the office. Don’t apologize for removing yourself from the office chatter — start to say no to things that you wouldn’t want to participate in anyway. Saying no doesn’t have to be rude, you can say no and still be nice. One of my favourite lessons was a “how to say no” exercise.
My biggest challenge was to refuse to help someone who asked my assistance. I realized that I was always trying to be too nice with everyone, so I said yes to everything, even when I had no time and it was at the expense of my own projects. Out of this exercise, my preferred way of saying no was “to say yes, but link it to conditions” or take it on in a timeframe that was already too late.
“Of course I can help, can you just send me everything that was already done, collected in a folder and named properly?”
“Sure, but I can only start with it when I finished this presentation and handed it in on Friday. Will Monday EOD work?”
You cannot avoid your colleagues, you cannot always refuse the chit-chat with your boss without appearing rude or arrogant — and you shouldn’t. It is part of the work culture, it is part of being human. Use these instants to get to know them better, instead of being annoyed that they hinder you in your job. Make peace with it that there will be minutes or even hours that will go wasted in the office — the coffee breaks, the cancelled meetings, the rescheduling. You cannot change it, but you can avoid the frustration — and that is already good for both your productivity and your mood.
When you are commuting to work, it is usually empty time, you won’t get productive, you won’t really get anything major done. You can reply to some emails, or check your social media, but it won’t help you feel better. Find a useful or pleasant way to spend your traffic jam time to avoid frustration. You can make it into me-time, just thinking about what to write, musing about your ideas, gathering inspiration from the people around you — but do it consciously. Or you can listen to a podcast or audiobook, that you didn’t have time to listen to — not having enough time in one sitting. Or take this time deliberately to mindlessly scroll your social media accounts, read all the articles that you bookmarked, retweet your peers’ posts, or call your mom — and save yourself from needing to do these at times when you could do something more productive. And if you are a freelancer, you will come across sooner or later with freelancer’s guilt. I usually have it, and I need to consciously remind myself, that it’s due to my increased productivity that I get work done quicker. I need to remind myself that some days I work only a few hours — and I am still doing fine, making enough money, having time for other things too.
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