The nights are drawing in, the leaves have fallen from the trees, and I’m getting cozy and nostalgic. And in my nostalgia, I recently realised that I have been a freelance developer now for over a decade! I don’t know where those years went, but I do know it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I’ve not looked back since.
Okay maybe I have looked back since, maybe a little, fleetingly – in those periods of instability, or on the days where I am working more hours than there are in it, or just when that classic debilitating self-doubt sets in (freelance life can be a hard path to trek). But on the whole I’ve never looked back.
And that’s because for every maybe more challenging element of freelance life, there are countless positives. The freedom, flexibility, autonomy, the satisfaction from building something you are proud of and seeing the direct result of working toward something. Freelance life can also be a very enjoyable and rewarding path to trek.
As with anything, do anything for ten years and you get better at it, and I like to think that’s true for me and freelancing – I’m definitely better than I was when I started, thank god. I don’t want people to read this and think I’m making big, misleading declarations that I no longer ever find myself battling the uphill trek that freelancing can sometimes be – I do, of course I do. However, I can say that over the years I have picked up some tips and tricks, made mistakes and learned from them, and grown into the new lifestyle, so that, on the whole, I generally find myself on the easier, flat path, and have found a balance that looks after both my business and my mental health.
And so, in my self-declared wisdom, I thought I would share the lessons I have learnt and the tips that have helped me, in the hopes that maybe they resonate with someone who then doesn’t have to take ten years to realise them!
1. Create a Routine
The good news when you work freelance, is that you don’t have an employer telling you what to do – you can do whatever you want whenever you want. The bad news when you work freelance, is that you don’t have an employer telling you what to do – you can do whatever you want whenever you want.
No more do you have to be somewhere at a set time to start work in a specified way. Which is great! Until you find yourself working evenings, weekends, or while on holiday. Without the enforced routine of employment, it’s easy to fall into no routine at all and start to create bad habits.
Enforcing routine on yourself might sound at odds with the very reason you chose to become freelance, restriction rather than flexibility. But I have found that a routine is the best protection of that flexibility, it ensures I don’t end up working outside of normal working hours, that I can set more realistic expectations with my clients, and allows me to more productive when I am working and more effective at switching off in my down time free of that productivity-guilt.
I’m not saying that you have to get up at the crack of dawn every day, or turn down those all important coffee catch ups – what a routine looks like will be different for different people, and will evolve for individuals as circumstances change. But, anything from the ritual of making a coffee to have when you sit down to start working, to making sure you close your laptop at the same time each evening, a routine can add a structure that allows you to get the most out of the freelance lifestyle.
2. Get Out of the House
Being a solo operation is great, it gives you autonomy and control, but it also means you spend most of your time working – well – solo, which can get isolating – especially without the zoom calls or slack messages that people who work from home but that work within companies can benefit from to feel connected. It can be difficult to not feel lonely.
This is especially relevant as we approach the winter months. Days are getting shorter and it’s easy to fall into a pattern in which days pass and you haven’t left the house – speaking from experience! This was an issue I faced in my earlier freelancing days and it wasn’t healthy.
Grab a coffee! Go for a run! Eat lunch outside! It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be outside – you’d be amazed what a daily shot of Vitamin D and Fresh Air can do for you.
For me this looks like keeping work and home separate – separate places, separate headspaces. Working alone and running everything yourself presents a unique challenge and it’s easy to feel burned out. Getting ready and heading into work helps set me up for the day ahead and similarly, packing up and going home helps me stop thinking about work and enjoy my evening. For the past few years I’ve rented desks in co-working spaces, but there are other options too that require less commitment, for example there are coffee shops and community spaces which now allow co-working and it’s a great way to meet people in a similar boat to you and get a change of scenery.
3. Find a Freelance Community
Speaking of co-working… Working in a shared space not only provides me with some much needed work / life separation, it is also one of the ways in which I have built communities during my freelance career.
Finding a community has proved invaluable to me – it is a rare thing in life when a big scary problem has a simple (and obvious in hindsight…) fix, but being part of a freelance community is one of those instances. I’m not saying it’s a cure for all ills, but it is a cure for a surprising majority of them.
Panicking about something? Talk it through.
Questioning yourself? Get a second opinion.
Having a rubbish day? Receive some moral support.
Having a great day? Spend all day chatting and get nothing done (ignore that one).
It’s true that “a problem shared is a problem halved” – it’s crazy how much just being around other freelancers, supporting, learning and sharing experiences, can help and boost you – it’s really something quite powerful. Without that community, I think I’d have quit years ago. I can’t overstate how important it is.
Finding a community has allowed me to be in conversations about rates that ensure fair pay for it all, it has given me opportunities to learn for example how other people manage workload or attract clients, but most importantly it’s taught me that just because I work freelance, it doesn’t mean that I’m in it alone.
4. Set Times for Checking Email
You sit down to start on a project when *bling* an email comes in. You read it, you reply to it, you start to action the points in it when *bling* another email, you read it, you may even stress about, you start to draft a reply when *bling* and so on and so forth until you look up, it’s 5pm and you’ve somehow been working all day and got nothing done. It’s frustrating, fragmented and unsustainable.
I switched my email client to Spark, which has a handy feature for focus. You set times when you’ll check your email and between those times, your email client displays a nice image instead of your inbox. You can prioritise some senders if you’re specifically waiting for something, set aside emails to ensure nothing gets missed if you plan to action it later, and a function I find particularly helpful, you can search your inbox without viewing it.
I also make sure I do not check my email at all on weekends or evenings, as I know clients would call in an emergency and I get notified of important things like site outages via text or Slack.
5. Minimise Distractions
It may seem simple, but it’s effective. There is a lot going on, always everywhere, and it is somehow all always more alluring than the task you’re meant to be working on. So, do what you can to engage less with the infinite number of distractions you have at your fingertips.
I’ve found it helpful when I’m working to turn off all notifications from social media, using the work focus mode on my phone. For tasks which require full attention such as coding, I find noise cancelling headphones and a background playlist help me to focus.
I also find it easier to focus when I take regular breaks. Getting away from my desk, grabbing a coffee or having a chat can be just the refresh your brain needs to allow you to focus back again when it’s time.
Finally, where possible I try to work on one thing at a time, for a set period. This allows me to have an intensive, undisrupted focus period with a predetermined end time I can work towards.
6. Follow Processes
It may feel tempting, when working on your own, to approach your work in a haphazard way, especially when setting up processes can in themselves be a task that takes up time – time you don’t always have. However, processes are just as important, perhaps even more so when working independently and half an hour spent setting up certain systems and processes will result in hours saved in terms of efficiency and minimising mistakes.
Everyone has their own style and processes that work for them, and I love chatting to other freelancers to learn how they manage their work. There’s a great community out there and people are always willing to share their experiences of what works and what doesn’t, and there are always opportunities to grow and improve.
When working freelance it is often the case that you are your greatest asset, clients have come to you specifically, for your specific skills, because of your specific reputation, or because of a relationship they have with you. You, you, you.
It would be easy to feel then, inevitably, that it is all on, well, you. But I am here to tell you, it isn’t, and it definitely doesn’t have to be. Delegating may seem difficult, but you would be surprised when it comes to how many time consuming elements of your day you could outsource. This could be anything from finding a great accountant who understands your business to employing a virtual assistant for a few hours a week to take all your admin off your desk. I would even suggest that you consider, where relevant, that bringing in other freelancers to collaborate with you on a project is a great way to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to play to their strengths. It could even mean leveraging software to automate parts of your work. Whatever allows you to focus on the work that only you can do.
It may seem like an expense, but there is nothing more valuable than your time, and having more hours to work on the important stuff (or indeed play on the non-important stuff – Pokemon anyone?) is one of the best investments you could make for both your business and your life.
8. Work Life Balance
Delegating leads me very neatly then onto my next point, because while the beauty of delegating is that it frees up more time for work, it also frees up more time to live your life (shock! I know from experience what a radical idea this can seem). Working freelance, it is harder than ever to take time off from work. It’s understandable, the work you’re doing is yours, for which you are solely responsible, and probably particularly passionate about. Freelancing also means choosing a life where it is often the case that how much you earn is directly linked to how much your work, and that can be difficult to walk away from.
But there is value, both personally and professionally to taking time off. Looking after your mental health, avoiding burn out and recharging your energy levels are all things that will benefit your work, your clients and your efficiency. It’s also nice, and fun, and important to not forget that we are working to live and not the other way around – especially when this lifestyle choice is often the reason people choose to work freelance.
So I can’t emphasise enough the importance of taking time off, making time for hobbies and personal projects, and trying to minimise the work you do outside of your set working hours.
It’s important to set boundaries and not overcommit at the expense of your work life balance, especially with clients who haven’t worked freelance themselves and maybe don’t fully understand how it can be (without the luxury of annual leave, sick pay, legal protection, a regular salary etc).
I saw a quote which really resonated with me: “the only people who will remember all those extra hours you did will be your kids”. Switch out kids with loved ones or pets etc and you get the idea. Your work is important, and your clients are important, but not at the expense of your health, happiness and relationships, and the reality is, some things are just not worth it.
So, work hard, optimise your business, and set boundaries so you can do fair work for fair pay and then, importantly, enjoy life outside of that. Hustle culture is nothing but a toxic guilt machine, you don’t have to be, I would argue that you shouldn’t be busy and working all the time.
9. Project Manage
The idea of project managing when you are the only person working on a project may seem unnecessary (who are you managing? Yourself?) but it is actually an incredibly efficient and helpful way to organise my work and set expectations with my clients.
Project managing when working alone looks much the same as when working in a team, it’s about scheduling work, prioritising tasks and estimating durations. It’s also about giving yourself an action plan and list to work through. This allows you to later switch off from the project-manager role, freeing up more brain power to dedicate to being in the actioner role, rather than having to be both simultaneously.
I use certain programmes to help with this, on Trello I use a Kanban approach to list my tasks and keep track of where I am with them, and I use Toggl to timetrack and gain insight into what tasks take longer than expected and so I can better estimate my work.
10. Learn to Say No
Last but not least, learn to say no. This is maybe the hardest lesson to learn as a freelancer, when starting out it is easy to fall into the trap of saying yes yes yes, and never getting out of that habit can be an even easier trap to fall into (especially if you’re a people pleaser…).
But, there are clients and projects that will be a right fit for you and those who won’t, and you are always better off waiting or focusing your attention on those who will.
Trying to please everyone can end up pleasing no one – know your skillset and where you can add value and know when a project does not align with this.
You also, and I know this may be difficult to hear, need to accept that there are only so many hours in a day, and that not all of them should be spent working. So, sometimes you may have to say no to something that is a great fit, purely for logistical or timescale reasons, and that too, is okay.
Good client communication is vital and people will appreciate honesty more than over-promising and under-delivering; saying no can feel uncomfortable but it will be better in the long run, both for your relationships with your clients and to protect you from the burn out.
So there it is, my 10+ years of wisdom laid out on paper(ish) – the fruits of my labour and the lessons learnt from every mistake I’ve made along the way. I know the next decade will be filled with another whole load of mistakes and lessons, and I for one can’t wait. If these past years living the freelance life have taught me nothing else, it is that there is always room to grow and learn, and I look forward to writing ‘10 more things I’ve learned in 10 more years of coding – see you all in 2033 (when I’ll be writing this from my flying car).
Hello! I’m Amy, a Cardiff-based coffee-drinking, travel-loving, self-confessed geek that loves the Arctic. Oh, and I’m a self-taught, freelance front-end developer with over 15 years’ experience. Find out more