Whether you are freelance, self-employed, running a small business or one of the growing numbers of people developing a ‘portfolio’ career, going it alone can be tough going. I’ve forged my own path for over twenty years so I can say this from the bottom of my heart. On the plus side, it’s a great way to live if you can make it work for you. I was lucky enough to start my freelance career at the birth of the internet so I’ve been able to make the most of the freedoms afforded by virtual working, even living in Turkey for four years whilst working (over the internet) in the UK when my children were small. But if you think freelancing is all about hanging out in cafes with a latte and your laptop, think again. It’s hard – and for reasons that many freelancers are not going to tell you about because these are often hidden struggles.
Looking back over the time I have worked for myself I can track the skills and qualities I have needed to develop to survive and thrive. I’m not talking about business skills or industry talent – let’s assume you have these already. No, I’m talking about the personal and professional development that you need to take on if you are going to be successful and happy working for yourself. I believe these are only just beginning to be recognised now that working for yourself in the ‘gig’ economy is becoming more mainstream.
I’ve trained to be the coach that I wish I’d had in my younger years and here are the top ten themes that arise with my self-employed clients. If you are just starting out on your own or if you are feeling stuck in your freelance work, I hope they may help you to figure out how you can get to a better place with integrating your work and your life.
1 Maintain self-belief
Freelancers are often passionate about they do and success comes with proving your brilliance in your chosen field. We all hit moments of self-doubt, though, and these often pop up at precisely the moment when the workload has dropped off and you need to get out there persuading people what a great person you are for the next project. Added to this, the pace of change in most sectors means you must constantly keep up to date with new trends and skills. Impostor syndrome can sneak in through the back door if you don’t have a solid understanding of your strengths and gifts.
2 Keep on purpose
This is a common pattern I’ve experienced and seen in others: you have a vision of the business you want to create; people come to you and you deliver on time, to a high level; your reputation brings people back with the same kind of work and suddenly there you are feeling bored and stuck again. As the challenge becomes less, so the joy seeps out of the work. And this leads to the next theme, the need to…..
3 Reinvent yourself – again and again
If you work for yourself over any period of time, and if you are anything like me, you can expect to ‘reinvent’ yourself over and over. This may mean a website overhaul, a refocussing of your business offering or just a re-alignment of your skills with what the market needs. I used to think my constant reinvention meant that I was flaky and not good at sticking at things. Now, looking back, I see the common threads in my work – a fascination with language and with personal and professional development. These were expressed in different ways throughout my career and this is where my sense of purpose lies. As the world changes around you, you may need to re-describe what you do and re-align yourself to the new world. For me, this happened when ‘distance learning’ became ‘online learning’ and a whole new industry sprang up where I needed to show my credentials.
4 Set and negotiate boundaries
Many of the lovely self-employed people I’ve coached are their own worst bosses. We tend to be conscientious and driven and it can be really hard to switch off. There’s no one answer to how to keep your work within boundaries so that you can enjoy other facets of your life. If, like me, you want to always learn more about your field you may find yourself reading articles in the evenings, pondering things in the shower and having lightbulb moments as you walk the dog. It’s when it tips into waking in the middle of the night or dreaming about your current project that you know the line has been crossed. Part of being freelance is managing your own schedule so that you can do the other things in life that are important. When the children were small, that was about picking them up from nursery or being there when they arrived home from school. Nowadays, it means going to a morning Pilates session or having the freedom to down tools on a sunny day. Having the discipline to look after yourself can be a hard lesson to learn and to practise.
5 Enjoy the downtime
Work comes in waves when you depend on others to provide contracts. The trouble is that it’s hard to trust that the next project or work offer is round the corner. Talk to any freelancer and the odds are they are either worrying about how to meet the next deadline or fretting about whether they will ever work again. People often say to me, ‘I wouldn’t have the discipline to work from home.’ I find this a curious comment because the discipline comes easily to me – I need to meet my deadlines to earn a living. The more difficult part is allowing myself to take a break, to enjoy the ‘free’ in freelancing. I’m still working on developing the flexibility to ride the busy times and surf the down times.
6 Stay connected
This is often the crunch point for people who work alone and at home. I have always enjoyed time to myself as well as working with virtual teams – and nowadays, I also coach online. But, for many people, it is important to get out and make more face to face contact. This is part of the work; it may not be immediately income-generating but looking after your own need to connect can make the difference between success and failure. It’s about more than networking – it’s about feeling lit up by your work again, having the opportunity to share what you do with others and getting that sense of solidarity and understanding that only people who do what you do can really appreciate. You need people in your life who can support you and nourish you as well as people who may give you business leads.
7 Develop yourself
I’ve worked for most of my career around learning and development so I am always looking for the next thing to learn. But I can’t think of any sector these days where staying on top of your chosen field is not a priority if you want to keep working. It’s easy to get sucked into the ‘doing’ part of your work but it’s really important to have a development plan – and to allocate time and resources to who you are becoming. Not only does it make your work more enjoyable but you will be better placed to anticipate which way the wind is blowing so you are ready - and skilled - to take up the next opportunity.
8 Collaborate with others
A few years ago I hit a wall when I was working as a learning designer. New platforms and tools seemed to be coming out every day. No sooner had I learned to use one than it was upgraded and I was getting exhausted and disheartened. When I first worked in distance learning I was one member of a multi-talented team – suddenly it seemed that I was the team. I was trying to be everything – a writer, a learning designer, a developer, a graphic artist ….. some with more success than others! It seems so obvious now but it took me a while to realise it wasn’t serving me to spread myself so thinly. So I went back to doing what I do best – and reached out to others to help me with the other parts. It was good to have a basic knowledge of other processes so that I could subcontract to people more talented than myself but it was a huge relief to realise I didn’t have to know and do everything.
9 Get feedback
The self-employed life is often about hopping from one project to the next. Projects frequently overlap and it’s easy to miss out on the celebration and launch phase of work that you have been involved in starting. I’ve learned to ask for feedback where it’s not freely offered. Having my work recognised makes me feel good, makes me feel appreciated and helps me feel I am making a difference. I also need to know if there’s anything I can do better. This is just as true for my coaching work as for my learning design projects.
10 Put yourself first
You give yourself the greatest chance of success and fulfilment if you look after yourself and your own development, which is where Personal and Professional Development Coaching can help. It’s an investment in yourself that can fast track the development of your survival skills for working in this new world of work. Working with a coach can help you stay on purpose, be accountable, set your boundaries and maintain your self-belief. It can help you to get back in touch with your resourcefulness and creativity so that you are ready to reinvent yourself, stay connected and actively choose a life that works for you. At different times in your self-employed career you will find yourself in a dip or feeling stuck – it’s normal. A coach can help you get back on track and help you put the ‘free’ back in freelance and the ‘self’ back in self-employed.
All of these themes are life lessons, rather than research, drawn from my own life outside the salaried system. If they resonate with you and you'd like some coaching support, let's talk.