how to go freelance without losing your mind

I get asked about freelancing all the time so figured this would be a very useful post to do!

In this day and age, where you can't really open any magazine without seeing a story about someone who's quit their desk job to give their dream a shot, working an office job has almost become unfashionable, a symbol of "selling out".

I really don't agree with that.

I used to, admittedly, as I laboured at my desk jobs in my twenties, dreaming of nothing more than being my own boss, with days to fill as I planned, writing bestselling novels and hard-hitting journalism, even hopping along to a yoga class in my lunch break without needing to be back within the hour, without someone else's agenda to bend to on a constant basis.

But when I started freelancing full time after a well-timed redundancy I learned that, whether it's writing, baking cupcakes or yoga, the minute you start doing it full time, it becomes work. And like any job, it will have its moments of driving you absolutely up the wall.

I don't freelance full time right now - a good opportunity came along for me to go in house, which I've really enjoyed - but I learned a great deal in the two years that I did do it (mostly) full time. In many ways I took it for granted and wish I could do it again but right now I'm really enjoying the benefits and freedom, comparatively speaking, that an in-house position offers too.

I learned so many things as a freelancer, but I think the biggest one was that it's not for the fainthearted. It's really not easy to maintain a consistent level of enthusiasm without the brace of a 9-5 job to keep yourself upright, both financially and in other ways. You need structure and stability to survive the rather grab-bag life of a freelancer and figure out over time the ways that you best keep yourself motivated, sane and forward-thinking.

So here is what worked for me - at least most of the time - and certainly things I wish I had known or figured out sooner. I can't promise that these tips will lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but I hope they're a good starting point at the very least.

Be discerning

I read somewhere (I can't remember where, sorry!) that a freelance gig should be at least two of the following three things:

1. A great opportunity.

2. Financially worth your while.

3. Good exposure.

Ideally it should be all three. But apply this "two out of three" test to any job that comes your way - it really helps, especially in the beginning.

Get a steady and reliable source of income from somewhere

Lack of regular income is probably the most stressful thing about freelancing.  Freaking out about money will not help you produce your best work and it can lead to you making questionable decisions or taking a gig that's not a good fit purely to keep money coming in. Every freelancer I've spoken to has done it so don't feel bad!

The way I solved this problem was getting a part time job, two days a week, and I would really recommend this. It doesn't have to be related to your work, it can just be two shifts a week down at your local Tesco. It just has to be steady and reliable income from somewhere, so you can bank on at least some money coming in each month.

I got a two day a week editing job, covering someone on maternity leave. It was fantastic. I got to go to an office two days a week, I got stimulation and interaction with others, I did work that I was good at (a much needed confidence boost) and I also got to build my skill set. 

Get out of the house

Staying at home all day, every day, does start to turn you a bit loopy. If at all possible (if you're a designer or something like that where you need specialist non-portable equipment it might be harder) try to spend at least 50 per cent of your working week outside of your home. Some people invest in a studio space which they share with others. I couldn't afford that so working in a coffee shop or a library (when I couldn't afford coffees) was a god send. Not only did I get a nice walk in to wherever I'd decided would be my office for the day, but I'd interact with other human beings as well - I was getting sick of talking to myself and the plants!

NB: with coffee shops, go early, say between 9am and 11am, and then take a break and come back after lunch when it's less busy. You can't just get one coffee and sit there all day!

This leads on nicely to my next point which is...

Find out what times of day you work best and optimise them

This is your chance to actually work at hours that suit you, that you feel you're at your best at.  Most writers I know are early-birds (Andrea Eames, who I interviewed for my podcast, gets up at 5am every day) but I certainly was not. However, I found that if I forced myself to keep usual office hours - ie: be at the desk by 9:00am every day - I usually was very productive. As time went on I found the hours before midday did tend to be the most inspiring for me so I would make sure I got up every morning with my husband, make us coffee while he got ready, go for a quick run or walk once he left for work, and then get down to business by 9:00am each day.

I also recommend deciding on a set time that you work and try to stick to it. It's so easy for freelance work to eat into hours after 8pm and beyond. It can be especially difficult if you're a creative and can't always control when inspiration strikes, but write down your ideas after "office hours" and that way you'll have something to start with when you next clock on. Working all the time not only turns you into a bit of a hermit but it can also be isolating for your partner as well.

Start your own platform

One of the hardest things about freelancing, particularly in the beginning, is being either rejected or ignored much of the time. You start to feel a bit small and useless. The way I combatted this was by starting my own platform to make connections with people I admired rather than being in the cycle of pitching all the time, which really helped boost my confidence. So if you are trying to get a piece published in a magazine or vying to be interviewed for a particular podcast....why not start your own instead? Like anything you'll have to stick with it but it's always worth a try. 

Keep fit

This, I found, was crucial. Lisa Jewell goes to the gym every day, Andrea Eames also told me she runs most days....I found getting daily exercise to be a real motivator, as well something to help keep the Freelance Fifteen (or whatever term you want to apply to freelance related weight gain) away! During a period of particuarly low confidence with my work, I trained for three half marathons. Doing that kind of training reminded me of the value of persistence, setting a goal and just bloody well showing up. Keeping your body healthy tends to keep your mind healthy as well. It kept the demons at bay. I recommend it.

Other random lessons about freelancing that I've learned:

Show me the money.

This was something I hated doing - chasing people for money or having to ask potential clients whether they were intending to pay me for the work they'd asked me to do. It's so awkward, I know, but you've got to get over it. This is business. This is your business. Don't be flattered they've thought of you and just assume they will pay you. If you skirt around this subject at the beginning of a transaction it will bite you in the arse later on, trust me.  Unless it's your mum or a friend to whom you owe a massive favour, do not do ANY work for anyone until you have asked about renumeration. If you get the whole "we don't have the budget to pay you" line, then you make the call as to whether it's worth doing for free (some things are). 

Be bold.

I know it's uncomfortable, but you have to be able to blow your own trumpet a little bit and, when approaching people, tell them all the cool things you've done and why they should take you on. Self promotion needs to become second nature and, despite your concerns to the contrary, you certainly can do it without being a jerk. Seriously, editors/CEOs/your potential clients are busy people. They need to know very quickly why you are the best person to write that article/be their new intern/design their website. If you don't ask, you won't get and, more to the point, you won't be on anyone's radar - which is crucial to making your freelancing career work.

Do what you say you'll do.

If you tell someone you will email them/phone them/be at their office first thing Monday, always follow through. Use every contact you have. And strike while the iron is hot and contact editors/PR people while they will still remember you from that launch/shindig/dark pub.

Motivation is not a dirty word.

The buck stops with you so you've got to keep yourself going here. Your partner and your friends can only do so much. Keep yourself accountable. Be disciplined. Change your routine, and often.  Surround yourself with inspiration. I often started the day by watching a TED talk or listening to a podcast - anything that would fire me up and get me thinking "yeah, I can do this!" 

But tax is.

There's no way around this really but to be as organised as possible. If you aren't sure what code you should be on, ring the tax office and ask. Pay your quarterly NI contributions (or whatever the equivalent is in your country) on time. Keep all your receipts. Have a filing system so you know where everything is. And for the love of God, don't wait until the week before the cut-off to file your return! The Guardian has an excellent article about how to manage your finances, particularly tax, as a freelancer.

Obviously I've only really scratched the surface here, but if you want more advice and inspiration, I think one of the best blogs on freelance life, with heaps of practical advice and insights, is Kim Lawler. I love her work.

I think working freelance has so much going for it - flexibility, self-determination, creative control - but I also think having an in-house 9-5 job has many benefits too. Like everything in life, you've got to do what works best for you and never be afraid of making changes if things aren't working out as you hoped. There's more than one road and they all lead to Rome, baby!

I hope you found this useful. If you're a freelancer, what are your tips for staying sane and productive?