It’s taken me eight years to get to this point. This is me – footloose and fancy freelance, you might say – taken at 9.37 AM today, a Wednesday morning in July. Hot tub, coffee, my thoughts and the sound of the birds.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t spend the whole morning languishing in the hot tub’s balmy waters. I got up at 5 AM to take a relative to the airport and was back in time to do a full day’s work. But before I embarked on a day of writing about accessible restaurants in Florida, I decided to take 10 minutes for myself. As the dog slumped in his usual sunny spot on the patio, I thanked the Universe that I was able to have this moment. To have things in place so I could do this and a husband who encourages me – even pushes me at times – to take such opportunities.
The hot tun picture isn’t here to smugly show off to everyone or to piss people off in whatever way they choose to misconstrue things. It’s to give other freelancers who are shit at giving themselves a break some hope and maybe a little motivation to change their self-sabotaging behaviours. I know that state of mind all too well.
It’s taken a bloody long time and a shit load of burnout to find the 2.0 version of my freelance life. Throughout the 1.0 version, I worked days, evenings and weekends. I burnt the midnight oil more times than I care to remember. I didn’t make it to all the school events or appointments that would enhance my life. People bitch about their employer overworking and underpaying them. I was in the same situation, but it was all my own doing. How screwed up is that? It took eight years and some severe burnout after Christmas last year to finally say, ‘Fuck it’.
So, I’m telling you what I wish someone had told me when I started as a freelance copywriter. Here are ten mantras to live by. I’ve learnt every single one of these the hard way. I’m serving them up in easy form for you. Take them or leave them; I don’t care (see Mantra No. 9).
Mantra #1 – Schedule everything.
A freelancing day can slide away from you like a greased rat down a drainpipe if you don’t have a plan. Schedule in breaks, walking the dog, errands and exercise, too.
Mantra #2 – Don’t sit all day.
Stretch your legs. Do a workout. Take a walk. If your sarcastic smart watch tells you to ‘try standing up’, do it. Not doing that commute has saved you a load of time each day. Use that time for the benefit of your health, not to answer emails.
Mantra #3 – Spend five minutes a day tidying up.
If you have the paper equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa on your desk, tidy it up in bitesize periods. Don’t spend the whole day de-cluttering your workspace. You’ll freak out at losing an entire day to the task, and it’ll be enough to put you off doing it for another year. Add five minutes into your schedule – go on, do it now – for tidying one area of your workspace.
Mantra #4 – Say no.
I’ve been guilty of over-committing myself way too many times. When I was a single mum, turning down a job was too frightening a thought even to consider. I took on everything I could, and it was hell. Now I’ve started saying no to clients, and I’m constantly booked up two months in advance. Clients who love your work will stay with you, and prospective ones will see you’re in demand and want to work with you even if it means waiting a couple of months. And the ones that don’t aren’t worth working with anyway.
Mantra #5 – Think like an entrepreneur, not a freelancer.
Freelance life allows you to explore different pathways. You can apply your skills to build a passive – or almost-passive – income. Become a consultant – okay, this takes some years and specific skills, but make it a target, and you’ll get there sooner than you think. Offer coaching in your field. Put together an online course or guide. Write a blog. It’s all there for the taking.
Mantra #6 – Spend time on your business. Every. Single. Week.
You spend so much time crafting projects for your clients, and rightly so, but you need to allocate some time each week to spend on your business. Whether it’s writing your blog, a social post, boosting your advertising, or working on those entrepreneurial ideas, put it in the diary (there goes that scheduling thing again), and stick to it. This doesn’t include admin and invoicing time. That needs to be a separate task. This is about getting yourself out there.
Mantra #7 – See other people like you.
Chances are, you’re working in a vacuum. It’s easy not to set foot outside the door for days. During the pandemic, we had to hide, and when it was okay to come out again, it was a pretty scary step for a lot of people. For my first outing, I forced myself to go to two networking events in 24 hours. (I’m a bit like that, though – I don’t mind a bit of baptism by fire). I’m not a natural networker. I find the chat really hard work. I’d rather hide in the corner with a coffee and pretend to be all busy and important on my phone. In fact, I’d rather be at home with the dog and my laptop. But I put on my big girl pants, gave myself the hard word and showed my absolute best side. I was chatty and enigmatic and enquiring about people’s names and jobs. I worked those two rooms like a mosquito at a nudist camp. It felt fantastic, and the seal is broken now. That fear has subsided, and I’m ready to do more.
Mantra #8 – Make friends with the competition. Genuine friends.
This isn’t some kind of ‘keep your enemies closer’ message. There are lots of freelance creatives out there, but there is also plenty of work to go around. Network, connect on LinkedIn, and meet old colleagues who’ve gone freelance too. They are not a threat to you. They can actually be a support to you when you want to sub out a job you can’t fit in or simply be someone to talk to who gets it. Give that paranoia the finger. You’re better off without it.
Mantra #9 – Care about the right things. Say ‘fuck it’ to the rest.
Care about doing the best work you can do for a client. Care about your family and true friends. Care about yourself. Don’t care about the client changing the logo to puce, or the underwhelmed reaction to a webpage you spent days on, or some 20-something moron on LinkedIn telling you your 30 years in marketing counts for nothing in this day and age. Fuck it. If you’re not going to care about it in six months, don’t stress about it now.
Mantra #10 – Be your true self, with yourself and with your clients.
As a freelancer, you are answerable only to you. YOU have to turn up to do the work. It’s YOUR body, brain and emotions that you have to muster every working day to get shit done. This is why it’s so important to love and look after yourself. When it comes to clients, they are paying for YOU. Show them your expertise and experience. Don’t be afraid to express your opinions. The good clients genuinely want to hear them.
How am I true to myself at work? I have fun (nobody ever died because they didn’t get that promotional email), I swear (because a few good swears add colour and expression where other words fail), I use puns (because life is too short not to throw in a rollicking good pun here and there), and I send the edgy ideas to my clients as well as the safe ones (because sometimes a client might just have the balls to use the edgy one and the world will be all the better for it, even in the smallest of ways). This is me being authentic, and my clients love it. And to those that don’t, see Mantra #9.