Like most freelancers, I paid my dues in full-time employment and office scenarios for the formative years of my working life.
I may have ditched that for the freedom of freelancing and not looked back, but I wouldn’t change those years for anything; they taught me essential lessons in team and client relations, time management, project management and much more.
But when I looked back at those years my lasting memories will always be sleeplessness, office politics, and emails, emails, emails. So many emails.
When I first left full-time employment to pursue a freelance career, I’ll admit it was because I wanted to travel around Europe in a motorhome and needed a flexible way to make money.
Nearly five years later and it’s a full time gig and my sole source of income, but it’s the affect on my overall wellbeing that has convinced me that working for yourself – whether as a freelancer, contractor or business owner – is the only way to go.
The benefits of working for yourself
1. Improved sleep
When you work in an office, you have set hours you’re expected to turn up and start working. This works just fine for those people who don’t struggle to get the perfect 8 hours sleep and wake up feeling refreshed at the sound of their alarm every morning. For everyone else, this means the daily misery of dragging yourself out of bed and wondering how you’ll make it through the day on only 4 hours sleep.
Insomnia and sleep disruption among office workers is a huge topic at the moment – it’s a whole industry in itself – because our long working hours, addiction to devices and inability to disconnect from our working lives are wreaking havoc on our sleep.
When I worked in offices, I felt tired all the time. I still had to be up at 7am every day regardless of how little sleep I managed to get the night before. I was getting burnt-out, feeling under-motivated and miserable, and I know I wasn’t doing my job as well as I could have been.
Now I’m self-employed, I define my own sleep schedule. Sometimes I struggle to get to sleep – yes, money and career worries still keep me awake – and need to catch up by sneaking in a few extra hours in the morning. It’s not an issue as I can catch up on my workload later in the day. If I’m feeling burnt-out or sick, rather than drag my arse to my desk and caffeinate myself through the day, I’ll take the day to catch up on rest and to sort my head out – as long as any pressing client work is completed, ‘course. But this means when I do return to the office, I’m awake, positive and full of ideas. I can smash through that day’s work and the day I missed in one hit, and provide a better service to my clients.
2. Flexible working
Being freelance enables you to find time to do the things you love while fitting work around that, rather than vice versa.
When you work in an office 9-5 it can feel like you never see daylight, especially during the long, dark winter months. This compounds the feelings of fatigue and lack of motivation we’ve already discussed.
The best thing about self-employment is being able to get out and grab those precious daylight hours.
About six months in to my freelance career, I adopted a puppy from a charity in Spain. To my fellow freelancers, I would highly recommend having a canine companion, particularly if you’re a home worker. He may not have the best office banter but he does force me to get up off my chair twice a day to walk him, rain or shine. Some days it can feel like a chore, but it does mean I get plenty of exercise, fresh air and time away from the desk to work out complicated problems in my head or brainstorm new ideas.
3. Avoid toxic workplaces
The sad truth of working life is that every office has its politics. We’ve all been there and it wouldn’t be fair to name’n’shame. When you’re self-employed, you create your own working environment and you can create one that allows you to be happy and productive. And you get to pick your colleagues (see above point about dogs).
Speaking of toxic: an added bonus of working from home is that you reduce your risk of getting sick. In an office, there’s always someone who crawls in with a cold even when they should have stayed at home. That cold then spreads around the office like wildfire, taking every poor soul with it. As an office worker I would catch at least one cold per winter season, but since going it alone I’ve only had two colds in five years.
4. Avoid stressful commutes by working at home
Not everyone who’s self-employed will choose to work from home. Often it makes sense to rent an office space or co-working space, particularly if you have employees or clients that need to visit you, but you’ll still have the option to work from home when you want to.
Working from home is like Marmite – some people love it, some people can’t stand it. I’m firmly in the ‘lover’ camp. For me, there’s nothing better than rolling out of bed at whatever time I choose, chucking on whatever I feel like wearing that day (hello, comfy clothes) and having the contents of the fridge within reach.
I know many of us struggle with motivation when working from home, when the lure of daytime television and unrestricted internet access can be too much of a temptation. I’m a motivated person (most days), so that’s never been a massive problem for me.
Probably the greatest thing about home-working is avoiding the utter hell that is the daily commute.
To be fair, I’ve had good some commutes; like a 20 minute walk through a scenic mountain town when I lived in New Zealand. But on the whole, they’ve been a daily misery spent trapped in other people’s armpits on ever-delayed public transport, while paying a hefty price for the privilege. Never again!
These days I get to hang out with my dog all day, playing the music I want to listen to and without the fear of my lunch getting swiped from the fridge. Happy days.
5. Feel in control of your career and ultimately your life
I’m a very independent person, and if I’m honest I didn’t enjoy working in-house because it often meant struggling to get my opinions heard or having to go along with things that you think are a bad idea.
Working for myself means I make all the decisions on how I run my business. I decide who I work with and when I work. If I want to explore a new avenue or offer a new service, I can go ahead and do it without asking for permission.
For all the reasons listed above, I get to balance working around my life. If I want to meet a friend to go mountain biking for a few hours on a Friday afternoon, I can do it at the drop of a hat. If I want to meet a friend for coffee, there’s nothing stopping me.
Freelancing enabled me to travel around Europe in a motorhome for a year.
…and the downside of self-employment
Freelancing life isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and there are some fairly major downsides which might be a deal-breaker for some. In the interests of fairness, let’s take a look at some of the negatives of the self-employed lifestyle:
It’s less sociable: I’m pretty happy with my own company on the whole, but there are days when I really miss having colleagues to chat to and banter with. I’ve tried co-working spaces, but actually found them to be less sociable than regular offices because everyone was self-employed and wanted to get their head down and finish their work so they could get out of there.
Invoicing woes: The singular aspect I hate about working for myself – and thus having to do my own finances – is having to chase invoices. There is nothing more depressing than having to beg clients to pay you for work that you completed months ago, that they loved and helped them to grow their business. There are many ways around this like invoicing software and having watertight contracts, plus a no-nonsense attitude to late payment. And on the subject of finances, don’t get me started on tax returns! My advice: if it’s not straightforward, pay someone else to do it (I highly recommend Austen at SBM Accountancy)
Lack of consistency: The cycle of ‘feast and famine’ is a common topic in freelancing circles. One month you’re drowning under an ever-growing workload, the next month it’s all tumbleweed and a swiftly depleting bank balance. My advice? Make hay while the sun shines and make sure to put aside a little money for when it all goes quiet. Embrace those quiet times; focus on a personal project, go on a trip, or invest time and energy in to growing your skills and knowledge so that you can bounce back better than before.
It can be tricky to take time off: The unpredictable nature of freelance work often means you’ll find yourself quiet at times when it’s not convenient to go on holiday. When you do want to take a holiday, you’ll find yourself with a fantastic new project that simply can’t wait. Time off means time away from your business. If you work on billable hours, like I do, this means loss of earnings. In the last few years I’ve hardly taken any holidays – although I do regularly take days off for social occasions and the like – which I would strongly advise you not to do. When your head is full of your own business 24/7 it’s important to get away, get some headspace and rediscover the passion that drove you to go it alone in the first place.