The perks and perils of freelancing and top tips to help 

Greg Foot
Image courtesy Greg Foot

By Greg Foot, Freelance Science Presenter on TV, Online and On Stage. 

The sand between your toes, a cool cocktail within arm’s reach, the copy for that Wired feature flowing easily in the sun… Ah Freelance Life. Perfect huh?!

Yer right! But with more and more of us contemplating going it alone, what are the realities of Freelance Life and what Top Tips would freelancers give to get closer towards that holy grail combo of ‘do what you love’ and ‘work/life balance’?

This is a distilled and condensed summary of the ‘Going it alone’ session I had the pleasure of pulling together a panel for and chairing at the Science Communication Conference this year.

Joining me on the panel were Ed Yong (a freelancer who writes features for Nature, Wired, Scientific American, New Scientist & blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science hosted by National Geographic), Timandra Harkness (a freelance radio journalist, contributor to various newspapers, & also a live show presenter) & Ellen Dowell (a part-time employee at Imperial College’s National Heart & Lung Institute, a part-time employee at University of Surrey, plus a part-time freelancer whose work includes curating Einstein’s Garden at Green Man Festival). 

The audio from the full session is below, courtesy of Julie Gould at the brilliant Speaking of Science. It’s well worth a listen – as well as giving the story of each of panelist’s route into freelancing it was also a real laugh and included tips that didn’t make my list below such as the genius suggestion of Skyping in a clever mash-up of neat shirt and PJ bottoms… Winner.

As we covered so much in the session, and time is of the essence for a juggling freelancer (juggling work not juggling… oh you know what I mean), I’ve pulled out The Top 5 Perks of Freelancing, The Top 5 Perils of Freelancing, and The Top 5 Tips For Making Freelancing Work For You.

If you only have time to read one quote, make it this one:

‘Freelancing is like the final scene from Braveheart…
where he’s on the table screaming FREEDOM while being disemboweled’

Ed Yong

Perfect. Let’s crack on.

The Top 5 Perks of Freelancing

1. You get to choose WHAT work you do.

As Ellen says:

‘I have creative ownership over every project I do’

You get to move to the beat of your own drum not someone else’s – quite a difference from dealing with a particular bosses’ style and desires!

Not only that but freelancing allows you to have an improved density of doing what you love. Ed says he feels like he accomplishes a lot more than he did in employed life:

‘I write and I write and I write… I don’t have to deal with admin, meetings or office politics’

This isn’t the case for everyone though; I estimate I probably spend 2/3 to 3/4 of my time doing admin (there are always just SO many emails arranging logistics or discussing the specifics of ideas) and Timandra reckons it’s about 1/3 admin for her. Yes the rest of the time you’re doing what you love, but be under no illusion about the other work you have to do around it to make those incredible days happen!

2. You choose WHEN you work.

The beauty of freelancing is that if you’re a morning person you can work as the sun comes up. If you’re a night owl you can work into the wee hours. Just be careful to make sure you don’t work every hour of the day (see Perils No.4 below ) and don’t forget to try and make the most of that flexibility (see Top Tips No.5). Writing those words is easy but I still can’t find a way to actually act on them. Maybe if I add that to my To Do list…?

3. You choose WHERE you work.

If you want to work at home, in a local library or coffee shop (sometimes known as the ‘coffice’), or on the beach in Thailand you can. In theory.

4. You can work with WHO you want.

Timandra summed this up beautifully:

‘As a Freelancer you get the chance to work with a lot of talented people from a far bigger range than you’d get doing the same employed job’

I’ve definitely found this to be the case. You can go search out the people you’d like to try working with and if you hit it off and have a strong working relationship you can keep working with them in future projects. Do see Peril No.2 for the flip side of this though.

5. Freelancing often means doing lots of different projects at once. That can be a Peril as you’ll see below, but it can also be a huge Perk. As Ellen says,

‘I’m better at all my jobs because I do the other ones’

Having that breadth means that skills you learnt in one job can benefit the others.

The Top 5 Perils of Freelancing 

1. It takes time.

It takes time to get to the point where you can do what you want to do all the time (that’s including the admin to make that work, good luck cutting all that out too!). For me it was a slow process of reducing the number of days of employed work as my self-employed work grew, until the crunch point where I decided to just go for it. It was then a hard graft doing jobs I wouldn’t ideally fill my time with in order to support the work I really wanted to do but that wouldn’t yet cover the bills.

2. It can be lonely.

There, I said it. I know lots of other people feel it too. You’re often working in your spare room, the ‘coffice’, or travelling to and from gigs so you don’t have the group of regular work mates that you get working in an office. Every few weeks I’ll work with the same groups of awesome people that I now call good friends as well as colleagues. But there are also days when I’m working solo on a script or admin. For some freelancers this is a clear Perk not a Peril – they don’t get distracted and can focus. Some freelancers are part of a company so have the bonus of office work mates but for solo freelancers it’s a point that needs attention. Check out Top Tip No.4 for an idea to help out with this.

3. It’s often hard to separate work and life.

As Ed says

‘I often work and relax in the living room. It’s hard to stop doing one and move to the other’

I totally agree with Ed. Unlike that glorious feeling of returning home from a hard day in the office, as my home is also often the office I find it hard to clock-off. Without that clear line it’s tough to move from ‘work mode’ to ‘relaxed mode’. See Top Tip No.3 & for advice on helping that one.

4. As freelance life is done when you want it’s hard to NOT work.

That sounds crazy, but it’s often very hard to tell yourself to not work knowing that you have a To Do list as long as Inspector Gadget’s arm. ‘Weekends’ don’t really mean anything to a freelancer, except that that’s when your employed friends / loved ones are not working so it’s the best time to see them. The danger is that weekends are extra days to get stuff done, and lovely quiet days where you’re not firefighting the inbox. Again, wise people say that if you do work over the weekend try to take a ‘weekend’ day or two off during the ‘week’, with the added bonus that those days will be much quieter. And again I haven’t yet put these wise words into action.

5. It’s tough to say no.

When you start freelancing you’ll be very conscious of needing to do enough jobs to cover the bills. As your experience and reputation increases you’ll get more work so that will get easier but it’ll still be tricky to shake that feeling of needing to say yes to everything. Plus if you keep getting offered jobs you want to do you don’t want to say no to them. As Timandra noted, the day before the session she’d done a whole bunch of gigs in completely different towns / cities. You have to become an admin ninja. 

The Top 5 Tips For Making Freelancing Work For You

1. Juggling everything.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with To Do lists. I use them to keep track of each and every task and love crossing items off but I hate that they never seem to reduce in length. Argh! I recommend an app called ToodleDo which offers you Project Folders (with hierarchies within them) so you can focus down on one project at a time. They key is to experiment and find what works best for you. Timandra told us how she works to deadlines and prefers a whiteboard and post-it notes showing each deadline. I also use flags in my Inbox – Urgent, To Do Soon, Waiting For Reply etc to keep track too.

2. Managing your time.

There are 3 bits to this one. The first is Plan In Advance. As Ed says

‘At the end of every Sunday I know roughly what I’m going to do that week and before I go to bed I know what I’m going to be doing the next day’

I try to do this too. As does Ellen. The key is to demarcate your time and therefore help give focus to all the projects you’re juggling. Be aware that all best laid plans fail sometimes though and don’t beat yourself up about not hitting your own self-imposed deadlines if something else came up or the project took longer than you expected.

The second is Use a timer. Timandra had a great suggestion

‘I set a kitchen timer for one hour and focus solidly solely on one project during that time’

People often say to then have a reward slot after that – go check twitter or your emails etc. But just be aware of how that reward slot often grows.

And the third is Stop your procrastination. Ed uses an app called Rescue Time which sounds a bit Orwellian but is a great idea. You ask it to block all distractions for a chunk of time and it’ll intelligently block your most distracting sites/apps while still giving you access to research pages.

3. Help separate work & life.

If you work at home then try to create a clear space for ‘work’ that you can close the door on or pack away at the end of every day. That door-close or pack-up will signal the end of ‘work’ and help that transition to ‘relaxed mode’. Some audience members also suggested having different areas of the house for different projects to help separate headspaces for different projects too. This could be done with different cafes / libraries / wifi hotspots too.

4. Form a network.

To relieve the lonely feeling you may get as a freelancer the first thing you can do is leave your lounge and head to a café. The problem is you won’t know anyone and it’s unlikely people will chat much. A year or so ago I played with the idea (along with Matt Parker and Laura Youngson) of setting up a SciComm Freelancers’ Office and that’s still something I’m keen to do as we got a LOT of interest (and spent a long time working on a business plan and finding potential spaces too). In the mean time I strongly recommend getting a group of freelancers together who you can go and share a ‘coffice’ together – ie a corner of a café! I do that with a bunch of scicommers so if you’re interested drop me a tweet. Not only is the social side cool it also give you the opportunity for that water-cooler chat that often leads to great collaborative ideas.

5. You’re the master when you work and where you work – so make the most of it!

As I mentioned earlier a huge Perk of freelancing is being able to work where you want, when you want. Feel more creative at the zoo? Go work in their café! Not feeling it right now? Go visit the Science Museum while it’s quiet and then get back on the laptop when you’ve got your mojo back.

That about sums it up. Hope you find some of the above useful.

Let’s end on another superb Ed-Yong-ism:

The treadmill can be a right pain but it keeps me motivated… and interested in what I do. The coasting [of employed work] is easy, but it’s bad because it’s easy.”

If you’re thinking of becoming a freelancer or you’ve been doing it a while and are keen to try to improve your way of working – good luck!

Greg Foot is a Freelance Science Presenter on TV, Online and On Stage. To find out more about the ‘Daredevil Science’ he does check out his website.