Articles - 26th November 2020

Why you never need to be online 24/7 to succeed as a freelancer

Words by Amar Patel
Illustration by James Merritt

Staying open all hours feels mandatory when there’s no fixed salary to full back on. But it’s an unrealistic and self-harming expectation. If you find yourself in a slump, don’t just peddle faster. Be a better boss to yourself and make some changes.

The irony of freelancing is that many of us feel chained to a desk, trying to hit peak productivity and profit by the hour. The office is wherever the phone or laptop sits. Multitasking is the default mode, ultimately a feckless, stress-inducing one. And if you are set up at home it’s difficult to switch off. Work is just there… always waiting for you.

Then there is toxic comparison culture, scrolling ourselves into a state of slow despair as we see how much better everyone else seems to be doing on social media. Throw in a debilitating global pandemic and alarm bells are ringing.

If there is an opportunity to take time off during quiet periods, we get ‘work FOMO’. Research by IPSE in 2019 found that freelancers feel anxious about future periods of little or no work (60%), and they don’t want to lose money while they can get it (57%). After all, the bills don’t stop if the gigs do, and there’s not statutory paid holiday to offer respite.

So what’s the answer? The first thing is to set clear boundaries, says Rebecca Seal, author of SOLO: How To Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind) and a freelancer for the past 11 years. “My husband and I don’t discuss work before breakfast, we don’t talk about it after 8.30pm or on weekends. We can ‘play a card’ once a week in an evening, and once a month on a weekend, but only if really necessary.”

Seal and her husband each run their own business, plus one together, so she has struggled with being ‘on’ too much. Social media, in particular, is a double-edged sword that requires careful management. “It’s allowed me to talk directly to people about why not working long hours will make you better at your job, about how to care for your mental health, and that is an incredible privilege,” says Seal.

“But it’s also a source of pain. None of us are immune to social comparison. It’s one of the harder aspects of lockdown, in that we are less exposed – through friendships and via colleagues – to what life is really like for others.”

She recommends not looking at social media in your downtime, even if you think it’s leisure. “It inevitably blurs into being ‘on’ and you will see work-related content. If possible, create rituals that signify that work/online time is over – shut things down, close doors, chuck a sheet over your computer if you have to.”

But what if social media is your business and your profile is an extension of your portfolio, your main source of commissions? Malvika Sheth is a 21-year-old fashion and beauty content creator based in California. She spends between seven and eight hours a day online in work mode, but also searches for inspiration on Pinterest and other sites in her free time.

“I am grateful for social media because I can finally put the things I love – fashion, beauty, writing – to good use,” says Sheth, “but on some days it does feel like I am forcing myself to produce, to build a personal brand, even if I am feeling burnt out or uninspired.”

Creating content across five platforms every day does take its toll. “A lot of anger, depression, anxiety and other feelings can arise from spending too much time pleasing others and not enough time taking care of yourself,” she adds. “It’s a lesson a lot of freelancers who hustle have to learn the hard way.”

Consistency is important on social media, so Sheth has tried to get better at planning and scheduling content. This means she has something to say each day of the week but there is more breathing space. Switching off has become increasingly important though.

“You have to know your limits,” she says. “If I’m noticing too much negative self-talk, it’s usually a sign that my battery is drained. I’ll give myself some time to just eat my favourite foods, read, journal a little, practice dance… The best value you could ever provide to someone is showing up as your best self. Take time to get to your full and best self.”

Another way to gain focus and stability in your career is to keep to a schedule. This need not be the classic 9-6, which many of us went freelance to avoid. Figure out when you perform best, set regular hours and keep to them. And don’t be afraid to say no if you are feeling overwhelmed or undervalued. Just because you can work any time you want, doesn’t mean that you should.

Freelance journalist Anna-Codrea-Rado protects her time by blocking out moments to do the things she enjoys. These could either act as incentives or rewards. “I’ve stopped letting others dedicate my day,” she writes in her newsletter The Professional Freelancer. “I now ring-fence moments when my time is strictly for me, to do with it how I see fit.

“Mornings are a sacred creative time. I get between an hour and 90 minutes [of writing] done before I do anything else, including showering. The phone stays on ‘do not disturb’. I don’t open my emails. I don’t let the outside world in until I’m ready for it. Mid-afternoons are for going to the gym, reading, playing with the dog, getting my nails done.”

Isabel Sachs, a London-based project manager and founder of I LIKE NETWORKING, has been freelancing on and off for 10 years. She also hits the ground running every morning. “I like to have a to-do list and make sure I tackle the hardest task first.”

“I have come to really understand my concentration levels, so I try to schedule meetings and minor tasks in the afternoon when I am less energised,” she says. “It is important to work around those things when you’re a freelancer. If you’re super-focused and crush all things in four hours, give yourself some time to chill.”

Sachs also stresses the importance of being outdoors, away from a screen. “The best ideas tend to come on random walks. It is so key to have time away, to let ideas bubble and to recharge. I also avoid eating while working. Meals should be in a relaxing environment. Be as selfish as you can with your time and energy, because that’s your currency.”

Many freelancers rely on things like Facebook groups and Twitter to counter feelings of isolation by providing community and conversation. They are fantastic resources for getting advice, finding inspiration and opportunities, or having a little work banter.

But we mustn’t lean too heavily on digital media for interaction. See faces, hear voices, exchange smiles. “I do voluntary work and spend time with family or friends,” says Danielle Neah, co-founder of digital PR agency Handnote. “It’s a refreshing way to not get zapped back into talking about marketing or feeling the urge to go online.”

Neah went full-time freelance with her sister after they were both made redundant during lockdown. Working with clients in multiple time zones and always keen to gather first-hand insights on her industry, Neah has felt pressure to be constantly in the know. But through trial and error, she has developed other useful strategies.

“I now have separate business and personal accounts to keep a better work-life balance,” she says. “Only go online when you need to post or research, and give yourself a time limit. Manage your notifications so you don’t get bombarded all day. And know your triggers. Don’t follow people who make you feel uneasy.”

A final thought: you are a human being first, a freelancer second. So allow yourself time and space to be in the world. How is the unconscious mind ever going to work its magic unless you pause to let it wander and make room for those “moments of serendipity”?

Find spaces (preferably physical but virtual will do for now) where you can chat honestly about how you are doing without feeling pressure to perform or project success.

Social media can accelerate your career, but don’t let it define your existence and sense of fulfilment in life. Don’t let it make you doubt your abilities, question you value, sap your soul.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

Make your UP portfolio

Related Articles

A checklist for the January 31st tax deadline

It’s boring, but if you’ve saved money specifically for this purpose, it shouldn’t be painful. Here’s what you must do to get through your self-ass...

Read more
The what, how, and why of pivoting as a freelancer

Pivot. It’s one of those words that we often cast off to the figurative bin labelled ‘corporate jargon’ alongside the likes of ‘leverage’ and ‘syne...

Read more
How freelancers can use cold emailing to attract new clients

Have you ever written an email to someone you’ve never met before, asking them for something? It’s tough; cold emails can feel pretty d...

Read more