For many, making the decision to go freelance comes out of a desire for greater independence or to expand skills. Others may do it out of necessity — perhaps the right staffing role hasn’t come about, or the freelancing allows for flexible hours while balancing family life. But whatever the reason for going freelance, there is no escaping the fact you are earning a living as a direct result of the hard work you put in.
Freelancing means setting your own pace and work hours, managing your workload without instruction or guidance, and having to chase your own payments and file your own tax returns. Then there’s the potential for long hours or forgoing time with friends and family. There is often as much administration as there is work, which can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Yet, freelancing can also be wonderful: taking a well-earned holiday without having to assign a handover, being able to write about a great variety of things that are relevant to your life, and developing a work/life balance to keep you mentally and physically healthy. Being a freelance journalist takes hard work, commitment, and more motivation than you could ever imagine, but the rewards can be great.
Here, successful freelance writers share their advice and experiences on how to successfully navigate life outside of a staffing role, while also maintaining a healthy work/life balance.
Allow Yourself A Transition Period
Remember, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for freelancers, so doing what is best for you matters. If you are new to freelancing, allow yourself a time buffer — at least a few months — to work out how and when you feel most productive, and how much you can expect to earn per month. By accounting for this time financially, you will take the pressure off as you find your feet.
If you are naturally more alert at night, shift your working day to coincide with your most productive hours. Those who wake up early may prefer to start their working day earlier. In time you will also decipher where you like to work and what tools you need. If you’re comfortable working from your sofa or kitchen table, then so be it. Some people struggle to write outside of a professional environment. If that’s you, you might consider getting dressed for ‘the office’ and investing in a desk and chair. You could even rent an office space.
Many freelancers choose to plough through the day but that doesn’t have to be a rule. If taking a walk at lunch time helps to give your mind a break before starting your afternoon, do it. It is healthy to see your freelance life as a passage in self-discovery, so prepare to adapt your working patterns as time progresses and your experience widens. While it’s easy to compare yourself to other freelancers, everyone works in different ways. The key is to find what works for you, without getting hung up on how your peers do things.
Useful Tools For New Freelancers
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• And, finally, it always pays to get a good organisational system going. Our deputy editor Catharina recommends the Roterunner Purpose Planner. “It’s presented in a six-month, open-date format that makes everything super customisable. The notebook brings users through setting big goals, then helps to break them down into achievable tasks.”
Setting Boundaries Doesn’t Mean No Flexibility
An effective way to assert balance between your work and life is to set boundaries between the two. This doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible with your time, but it does mean distinguishing from your working day and your personal time.
“I’ve been very regimented about my work hours,” explains Christian Koch, a successful freelance editor and writer of 12 years. “This sees me at my desk at 8.30am, and working until 6pm. To prevent myself working evenings and weekends, I try to do as much work as I can within these hours. I never reply to personal emails until after 6pm. I also usually go for an hour-long walk to demarcate the space between work and domestic life.”
On the occasions when your schedule doesn’t go to plan, try not to feel stressed out. Instead, find an approach that will allow you to get the work done without losing sleep. “If it reaches 8pm and you haven’t finished that feature with a deadline for tomorrow, just down tools. Set your alarm for 5am and do the work then, instead,” advises Koch. However, 5am starts aren’t for everyone — it’s about what helps keep you level.
“I usually go for an hour-long walk to demarcate the space between work and domestic life.”
Christian Koch, freelance journalist
Much of the work freelance writers undertake is variable, which means it can be hard to set schedules for every task. Bear in mind, you also have to factor in invoicing and keeping track of commissions. Sometimes the administration side of things can take as much time as the job itself. It could be useful to use a free time-tracker like Clockify or Toggl to give yourself an idea of how long regular tasks take.
Corinne Redfern is an award-winning investigative journalist, reporting on gender, human rights, and sexual violence for publications including the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post. She has been freelance several times during her 10 years as a journalist, and has accepted that “there are too many variables” to have a scheduled system in place. Instead, she adopts a few simple organisational measures which helps her to manage her time efficiently.
“I can easily spend the best part of a week trying to track down a single case study, and that’s before I’ve even persuaded them to talk,” explains Redfern. “To keep on track, I have a massive, monster of an Excel spreadsheet where I log all of my story ideas, along with who I need to interview, when I last contacted them, who I pitched the piece to, and when I need to follow up, plus budgets, deadlines, and invoicing details.”
Corrine Redfern (L) and Christian Koch (R) (Image Credits: Supplied)
Redfern’s work as a foreign correspondent sees her travelling all over the world and working at odd hours, often into the evening. “But I do so with the understanding that I’ll take some time off later in the week to balance things out,” she notes. “If I do really need to focus, I’ll put on an ‘out of office’ on my email account and ignore the whole world until I’ve finished the task at hand.”
Dealing With A Lack Of Motivation
Rest assured, all freelancers have days when they aren’t able to get in ‘the zone’ — after all, people are not machines. The fact that freelancers don’t get paid for their time off can play on the mind but learning how to tackle those ‘off’ days is crucial.
Pushing to achieve something you’re struggling with could leave you feeling more frustrated, so don’t be afraid to take time out before starting again. If you’re not on deadline, you can choose to go for a walk, bike ride, breakfast, or massage — anything that might help give you head space to reignite your motivation.
Some journalists have a routine that invigorates them into action. “I’ve been freelance for 12 years and on nearly every working day, I’ve got up at 7am and pulled on my tatty trainers and gone for a run, whatever the weather,” says Koch. “It creates an endorphin rush that will keep on giving all morning.”
In addition, Koch finds his workspace set-up helps him to focus. “Natural light and air aids concentration,” he advises. “Make sure your desk is facing a window and ventilate your workspace by opening the windows, even if it’s January.”
If there is a deadline looming, set yourself an achievable goal, like breaking down the word count. Do something you find calming in between targets, like going for a walk or popping out for a coffee. For me, switching off for a short time works like a reset, and I come back to my laptop feeling stirred and even excited about getting on with the task. Often, I go for a short nap of around 30 minutes, which works wonders when I’m struggling to write.
Meanwhile, Redfern starts her day with an Italian language lesson. By midday, “my brain has fully woken you and I already feel productive. As a freelancer, I don’t have to start working at 9am just for the socially acceptable sake of it,” she confirms.
On the odd occasion, deadlines-permitting, you may have to accept that today is just not the day to be writing — and that is okay, too.
Key Work/Life Balance Takeaways
• Set Boundaries – But Keep Flexible: Set working parameters for yourself, and stay within them. But sometimes, freelancing can come with plenty of things to throw you off-stride. This is okay. Just be organised and stay on top of things.
• Off Days Are Normal: You cannot be productive all the time. Stop kicking yourself for being unmotivated. Try setting yourself smaller, easier goals, or optimising your workspace. Be kind to yourself.
• Know When To Turn Things Down: There will be times when you are not able to take projects on. Don’t be afraid to turn down commissions that you know will not work for you.
• Take Care Of Yourself: This job can be exhausting. Do what you need to so you are not overworking yourself. Take care of your physical as well as mental health. Remind yourself of why you’re doing this in the first place.
Learn To Say No To Commissions
There are many reasons why you may feel you can’t take on a project; it might be because you are overloaded with deadlines, or perhaps the editor needs a quick turnaround, and you simply can’t fit it into your schedule. You may even feel the article is not right for you.
Saying yes to commissions tends to come naturally to freelancers because that’s what the job entails. Saying no, however, can be tough, even frightening, especially when just starting out in the freelance world.
Whatever the cause for refusing projects, this is a conversation every freelancer goes through. “I [now] find it far easier saying no as a freelancer, because editors know they don’t own all your time — unlike when you’re on staff,” says Redfern, reassuringly.
While you may feel nervous about explaining your reasons to your commissioning editor, being honest is best. Most editors will respect your reasons.
Adapting Your Self-Care
Being a self-employed journalist can be tiring at times. In addition, you will sometimes be juggling the myriad of feelings and emotions that come with reporting the stories you care about. While work is important, so is keeping your physical and mental health in good shape. After all, a healthy mind is an essential tool for writing.
Modern contradictions around work and wellbeing can also be confusing, poses journalist Anna Codrea-Rado in her LANCE! newsletter. “[You’re told to] give your all to your job, but have a full life outside of work. It’s exhausting.”
In her book, You’re The Business: How to Build a Successful Career When You Strike Out Alone, Codrea-Rado discusses how to use established boundaries to better your mental wellbeing. “If you struggle to communicate your boundaries in real time, have the robots do it for you instead,” she writes. “My inbox is my most vulnerable spot, so I like to wrap it in a protective shield of auto replies and pre-written templates to save myself the mental exhaustion of asking people to respect my time and space.”
“You’ll have to say yes to loads of prosaic gigs that won’t win you a Pulitzer, but it’s important to do the more fun jobs that remind you why you got into this in the first place.”
In a physical sense, your body will tell you when you are over-worked, but you must take action to relieve that tension. “The more exhausted I am, the more the topics I report on can really weigh on me,” reveals Redfern. “But I’ve learned the hard way, that unless I can take that step back at the end of the day, I won’t be able to continue reporting long-term.”
This has meant Redfern has turned off her email notifications permanently. “I still check [them] constantly, but on my own terms. I also leave my phone downstairs to charge at night, so that I don’t lie awake doom-scrolling through Twitter.”
For Koch, taking care of his mind and body has been a part of the work/life balance. Aside from his daily exercise routine, he also eats well — “fruit for breakfast, a lunch of green veg, grains, and omega-3-heavy fish” — and ensures he signs up for the work he adores.
“Freelancing isn’t glamorous, and to make it work financially, you’ll have to say yes to loads of prosaic gigs that won’t win you a Pulitzer,” rationalises Koch. “But it’s important to do the more fun jobs that remind you why you got into this in the first place, such as travel or music journalism.”
This Piece Of Content Is Part Of Our Reset Series
This piece is part of Reset – a new Journo Resources series about the future of work within the journalism industry.
Our team will be taking deep dives into what’s happening next and how it affects you.
You’ll get insights, advice, and hacks to help you navigate the media industry with the right work-life balance in mind.
Come and see our pieces here or email email@example.com if you’ve got an idea you think we should cover.
Header image courtesy of Dessidre Fleming via Unsplash
Karen Edwards is the senior journalist at Journo Resources.
She focuses on practical, advice-led pieces on various sectors across the industry – feel free to get in touch with her if you have suggestions on what we should cover!
Outside of Journo Resources, Karen writes for print titles such as High Life by British Airways, Grazia and Metro, alongside digital platforms, including IndyVoices and Telegraph Travel.