Why I sucked at freelancing

Freelancing, there's something sexy about the word, don't you think?

Imagine, if you will, lying around in sweatpants and typing away productively. No dress code, no impromptu meetings and definitely no worrying about Belinda in marketing. She knows what she did.

Now more than ever, young professionals are trading stuffy workplaces for hot desks and fair trade coffee shop armchairs. The idea of freelancing was so tempting that I wanted a piece for myself. So, once I decided to move to Amsterdam, I simultaneously made up my mind to give this freelancing business a go. I had savings, drive and some projects from my old employer lined up – surely it couldn’t go wrong straight away?

Wrong. Very wrong.

Obviously, moving to a new country where you have no connections doesn’t help, but there were a few other reasons that led to my premature departure from freelancing. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Never depend on one company for work

I had one project from one company, and I mistakenly thought this one project would tide me over while trying to acquire new clients. Freelance assignments are fleeting and subject to change at any moment. What I thought would be a four-month project was slashed to two months, leaving me without the income I’d counted on for rent. Always make sure you (ideally) have at least three companies under your belt before taking the plunge.

2. Working with another freelancer is hard. Especially if they’re your partner

Did I mention my partner was also freelancing? Same clients, same room and we only knew each other in a new country. A recipe for disaster if there ever was one.

I’ve always been an introvert: I need my space, and being cooped up with someone 24/7 is a struggle, no matter how much I love them or how many times they offer to unload the dishwasher. Thank God my partner is literally the most chilled person in the world, or we both would’ve been at each other’s throats.

Saying that, things were still tense, which really didn’t make for an ideal working environment. Sure, I could’ve gone somewhere else, but funds were low and, if you’re shamelessly going to use some poor café owner’s wi-fi you probably need to buy at least one or four lattes.

3. Failing to plan a schedule (and sticking to it)

Starting times, planning times, designated breaks… giving your day structure is the first lesson in Freelancing 101. Self discipline is something you either have or seriously need to work on.

As a natural hard worker in office settings, I was overconfident, believing my work ethic would remain the same in a home environment. As you may have guessed (after all, this post is about sucking at freelancing), I once again failed miserably. I started ignoring my alarm, working in pyjamas, watching YouTube videos and taking a little too long to reply to emails. It’s probably the lapse I’m most ashamed of, and there’s no one to blame but myself.

On the bright side, I can truly say I’ve learnt my lesson. Since then, I’ve worked from home a few times, and getting into my work routine is a lot easier. Above anything else, these two steps have been lifesavers for productive remote working:

  1. Being up, showered and sitting at your desk/living room table/sustainable neighborhood café no later than 9AM. Get ready in the same way you would if you were heading to the office
  2. Planning three 15 to 20-minute breaks throughout the day: one 90 minutes before lunch, lunch itself and one 90 minutes after lunch. They’re evenly spaced out and long enough to let your brain rest. 5PM will come around in no time!

4. Failing to network, network and network some more

As a freelancer, you’re nothing without leads to help you nab that next assignment. As experience has taught me, it’s not enough to send off the occasional email: you need to meet people face-to-face, go to meet up events and hand out business cards left, right and center. Remember, anyone could be your gateway into a fruitful freelance career, whether they work at a company themselves or know a friend of a friend who’s looking for writers. Never miss out on an opportunity!

5. Not loving the world of freelancing enough

Think of freelancing as a meaningful relationship. It takes time and effort. You must be fully committed. The other person is sure to get on your nerves. They may even eat that slice of pizza you were saving for tomorrow (freelancing doesn’t actually do this).

Despite all of that, you’ll strive and push to make it work – that’s how much it means to you. It all comes down to this simple line: if you’re passionate about freelancing, you’ll try your damn hardest to make it work. You’ll get out of bed, strive to be productive, follow leads and push yourself every day to achieve that independent lifestyle you’re so hell-bent on creating.

That just wasn’t me. My relationship with freelancing was a fantasy: romanticising it in the beginning, and then realising my mistake too late. I fell in and out of love in the space of a heartbeat, and there’s no way I could’ve survived in the long run.

And that’s where I made my last and final mistake…

6. Not acknowledging failure soon enough

Saying “I give up” isn’t in my nature. It wasn’t an option when I was 8 and learning to ride a bike, and it was a big no when I struggled through my final undergrad exams. No matter how hard the task or the toll it took on my body, giving up was always something others did – not me.

As a result, it took me too long to admit things weren’t working out. I was low on funds, friends and self-esteem. My head felt like lead. And the idea of proofreading another 20,000 word paper filled me with dread. It wasn’t until I broke down in tears that I said those fateful words out loud.

What I didn’t realise is that there are two kinds of defeat. The first involves throwing in the towel and never trying again. But there’s a second, clearer option: to admit when something isn’t going well, and taking the right steps to change your situation. Whether that means leaving freelancing altogether and taking up full-time work again, or re-assessing you work ethic: we must make sure to learn from our failures and pick ourselves up again.

Time to reconsider

In my case, “admitting defeat” meant finding a full-time job. In an office. With other human beings. I contacted my employers and told them I’d be job hunting from now on, and the effort paid off. I felt more passion in those few weeks of CV writing and interviews than I had in the past six months – a good sign if there ever was one.

If I ever did freelance again (just not in the near future), I hope to approach it with more sense than I did before. The experience has made me admire anyone who decides to take it on: they’ve surely got guts of steel.

If you’re also enamoured with the idea, remember to take a step back and make sure:

  • You’re disciplined enough to work by yourself
  • You’re in a position to leave your current job i.e. you have the savings, network and experience to take on freelancing
  • That you give yourself timeframes to reassess your situation after 3, 6 and 12 months
  • You’ve got all the right tax information and stick to deadlines, or have enough income to hire someone to do it for you
  • That you can cope being alone for long periods of time
  • That you have a support group of like-minded people to encourage you if things get tough

Have you ever failed at freelancing? What tips would you give to anyone struggling with it? Leave a comment below or share your thoughts on Twitter or Instagram!

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