The number of people freelancing has increased by 53% since 2008 as more and more of us embrace the freedom and flexibility it affords. In the UK, there are nearly 2.2 million freelancers making up roughly 7% of the workforce. They provide their services to clients for a fee in occupations that span a range of professions, from writers to web designers and artists to engineers.
Freelancing can bring huge benefits in terms of job satisfaction, lifestyle and independence. It’s not all positive, however. There’s the lack of security, repeated rejection and piles of pesky paperwork to deal with, too. How can you truly thrive when working freelance? We asked Anna Codrea-Rado, author of the freelancing handbook, You’re the Business: How to Build a Successful Career When You Strike Out Alone, for her top five tips. Codrea-Rado is a journalist, author and podcaster whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the BBC among others. She writes about business, culture and technology, with a particular focus on working life, and has been freelance since 2017.
How to be a happy freelancer:
1. Know your rights
It’s true that as a self-employed person you don’t have the same rights as in-house employees. However, you do have some rights and it’s important to know what they are. In the UK, that means knowing about the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act, which entitles you to prompt payment.
It’s important to know technical points, too. For example, if you go to work for a company and you’re on site, you are protected by the same health and safety rules as anyone else.
There’s a narrative that self-employed people have no rights and they should expect to be treated badly, but that’s just not the case. If you know your rights, you know how to stand up for them—and where you are protected and where you’re not. You’re helping to strengthen your position in the face of any clients trying to take you for a ride.
2. Find a work wife or work spouse
You need a freelance buddy—someone who gets it and understands what it is like to work for yourself. They can talk you through a difficult client situation, reason something out with you or help you to look over a contract, all that sort of stuff.
Find that one person because freelancing can be a lonely business. It’s important to build these connections because you just cannot do this work entirely alone. Share a contact’s details or share experiences about a project—it’s really valuable and it will help you in the long run.
This feeds into the idea of a “scarcity versus abundance” mindset. There is enough space at the top. There is enough money to go around. There are enough opportunities to go around. All of us have something unique to offer. If I share an editor’s contact details with a friend, it doesn’t mean that they are never going to commission me again. It just means I’ve helped someone out who may help me out and then, you know, the universe will look favourably upon me. The other person is going to get commissioned to write a story that I could never write anyway.
3. Get comfortable talking about money
When you’re employed, you might negotiate your salary when you get the job and potentially once a year after that when you talk about a pay rise. But when you’re freelance, you think and talk about money on a daily basis. You’re setting your rates, negotiating a fee or worrying about tax—whatever it is, you’re thinking about money constantly. That’s never going to change, no matter how good you are or how much money you make.
It’s really important to get comfortable talking and thinking about money. Find one person or a few people who you can have those low-stakes money conversations with. You can get a sense check: “I got asked to do this thing for X amount of money, does that sound reasonable?” or “I’ve been asked to quote for a piece of work and I have no idea, do you have any advice?”
Then when you do need to have those bigger, more difficult conversations, you have the confidence to go in and have them.
4. Understand what value means
It’s really important to understand that your value isn’t about you and how good you are. It’s about what you can provide to your clients. Value is determined by your unique set of skills, expertise and creativity. It’s about perspective and context.
When you’re talking about selling your skills to a client, that client has a perceived value of what you can give them. So, there’s a guy in a communal laundry room and he’s washing his trousers because he needs them that night for a really important dinner. They’re his best trousers and he has to wear them. He’s in the laundry room and he doesn’t have enough quarters to dry them and they’re soaking wet. He needs 75c to dry his trousers and he only has a $10 bill. Another guy comes in and the guy with the wet trousers exchanges that $10 bill for 75c in coins with him because, in that moment, the value to him of being able to dry his trousers is greater than the monetary value.
It also helps to create a bit of distance between you “the person” and the service you are providing. So often I hear from freelancers that they are apprehensive about promoting themselves because it feels really grubby and it feels like bragging, but you’re not promoting yourself, you’re promoting your skills and services.
It takes a while to get your head around value. It’s not a switch you can flick—so many things feed into this, especially for women. We are taught not to ask for things and to be humble and all of this crap, and that’s not something you can undo straight away. It’s something you can keep working on.
5. Look after yourself
You’re the business: you are your work, you’re the whole enterprise. It is just as important to look after your wellbeing as it is to learn new skills. If you don’t set boundaries and factor in rest time, you will burn out. It’s important to look after yourself. The main ways that I advise freelancers to do this are:
- Book your holidays in advance
There are few things that I like to borrow from the employment world, but holiday days are one of them. Allocate yourself holiday days and block them out in your calendar. Otherwise it’s so easy to keep on working and six months have gone and you haven’t taken a single day off.
Sit down in January and say, I want to take two weeks off in September. It doesn’t mean you’re going to book a holiday—you might not even actually go on holiday then—but it’s in the calendar so that when the time gets closer you’re not saying yes to work.
The same applies to taking days off here and there. Also, think, “Do I want to take bank holidays off or do I want to give myself my own bank holidays so I can take advantage of going on holiday off-peak rather than when everyone else is off?”
- Take a weekend
What are your days off? What is the working pattern that suits you? I rarely work on weekends any more. Most of my existing friendship group is in full-time employment, so I want to be able to be on their schedules and socialise when they do. But that will vary. You need to figure out something that allows you those breaks and those boundaries.
- Keep burnout at bay
Burnout is more common when you’re freelance. One of the big causes of burnout is when you feel you’re not getting out as much as you’re putting into your work. That is so easy to happen when you’re freelance because you’re caught in a double bind: in order to get work, you have to put yourself out there, but that inherently puts you at massive risk of rejection. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how big you are or how long you’ve been freelancing, you will face rejection on a fairly regular basis.
When you’re feeling really low and your reserves are depleted, it becomes harder to bounce back from rejection and the scales tip. You feel you’re putting so much work in and you’re not getting enough out of it. Add the pandemic into the mix, and we’re all feeling quite crap anyway. I’m talking openly about feeling burnt out and I’m inundated with messages from people in a way I’ve never had such a flood of messages in my inbox before.
This is the hardest point for me: sticking to boundaries and looking after myself. It’s like exercise—it’s so hard to get into a routine and yet so easy to miss two workouts and that’s it. Six months have passed and you haven’t done anything. It’s very easy to know in theory what you need to do but it can be much harder to action it. It’s not a set and forget, it’s a constant: make sure it’s a priority and keep doing it.
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