Freelancing Diaries: Part 4 — Work-Life Balance

August 18, 2016 in Freelance, On Writing by pacejmiller

worklife

Hory shet. Has it really been nearly six months since my last post on this blog? Apparently so.

This is a huge moment for me — it’s the first time since that last post back in February that I have no freelance work on my hands. Well, I have some things lined up, but I haven’t received them yet, so technically I am free — for now. That said, you never know what can happen in the next minute. I guess you can say freelancing is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

I’m about 10 months into my freelancing experiment, and so far I have been extremely blessed. When I first made the decision to make the switch, my immediate concern was not being able to find any work or having insufficient work to support my family. Instead, it’s been the complete opposite, with one project after another rolling in since Chinese New Year in early February to basically keep me busy every day of the week. I can literally count on one hand the number of days since February where I have not done anything work-related, and this includes all weekends and public holidays, and even the times where I have been travelling or on vacations with my family. Sometimes it might be 15 minutes a day, and at other times — like it has been every day over the past week — it could be 15 hours a day. Either way, there’s always something to be done, whether it is corresponding with clients, doing administrative work (of which there is a surprisingly annoying volume), or doing the actual work.

And that brings me to the focus of this post: Work-life balance.

I have experienced both ends of the spectrum in full-time jobs. In first proper job in a law firm, life did not exist. It’s not that you’re really that busy all the time — it’s more that the job consumes you, in the sense that you can work crazy hours for stretches but you can’t relax even during what is supposed to be downtime. I used to be always tense in the office, and even when I was out of the office, I dreaded knowing that I’d have to go back the next day. Work was always on my mind, as was the dread of work. Just thinking back about those dark days makes my scrote shrivel up.

In my last full-time job as a translator/editor/”journalist”, things were the exact opposite. I was in the office from 9 to 6, five days a week, but the actual hours of work I did was probably around 2 to 4 hours a day. I was focused and put in the effort whenever I actually did the work, though this was a place where the only reward for efficiency was more work, and there were no consequences whatsoever for slacking off. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out this was not conducive to a positive work culture. We had 2-hour lunches (sometimes more), played basketball and worked out at the gym, and wasted copious amounts of time on YouTube and social media. I used to think I had wasted a lot of that spare time by not working on something more productive (apart from the odd freelance gig), but now I realise it was practically impossible to pursue personal creative endeavours in such a toxic environment. At least I was in great physical shape and happy to go to work.

As you might imagine, the work-life balance of a freelancer can fluctuate wildly between these two opposite ends. You can be busy as hell or bored out of your mind. Neither is ideal, and that goal of having a sustained and balanced stream of work is really just a fantasy. I have been lucky in the sense that I’ve been at the busy end of the spectrum for essentially six months straight, which has been great from a financial perspective. At the same time, I’ve gotten to do a lot of fascinating and varied work, from doing subtitles for movies and TV shows to translating marketing articles and corporate newsletters to transcribing for YouTube videos and documentaries to ghostwriting letters for ex-presidents and Nobel Prize laureates to even working on church publications. It keeps me interested in the work and motivated to learn and improve. It’s a much more fulfilling lifestyle than my two previous jobs.

In terms of work-life balance, it’s actually a lot better than you’d think. When I have a full plate of work, I usually start working at around 9 or 10 in the morning, after I’ve dropped off the kids to school and had a hearty breakfast. I take a break for an hour or two to have lunch, either at home or out at a nearby cafe or restaurant. In the afternoon I can go home to work, or I can take my laptop to a cafe and keep working away until around 4 (I often concentrate better when there’s a bit of background noise), when it’s time to pick up the kids. If need be, I will keep working after they come home until dinner, and after dinner and after they’ve gone to bed if I have to meet specific deadlines. Most of the time, however, I get the evening off to watch something on TV. When it’s busy I work on weekends as well, but I don’t dread it. You’re thinking about just getting the shit done, not how you’re missing out on the weekend. And that’s largely because you can still do whatever you want during the week by adjusting your schedule. Provided I don’t have any urgent deadlines, I can go watch a movie during the day if I want to. I can go shopping if I want to. I can go away on vacation if I want to. I can go catch up with friends if I want to. In fact, on at least a couple of days a week, I accompany my wife to a mall or shopping district to walk around. If I have work, I’ll just find a cafe or a seat anywhere and do it, while my wife can continue to shop or do whatever she wants. There’s a lot of freedom.

The downside of this kind of work-life balance is that work is never too far away. If a client calls or emails you, you have to answer it. Even when you’re on vacation or overseas, if there’s work to be done you have to find time to do it. And most of the time, work will pop up out of nowhere and derail your plans, especially the ones you’re really looking forward to. Clients will try to squeeze your time so they can have more time, and if you want their business you just have to suck it up. This week, I had been planning to finish a bunch of work on Tuesday so I could watch Suicide Squad and get a massage on Wednesday. However, a client was late in getting work to me, which pushed everything back, and on top of that one of my kids got sick and had to stay at home, so I won’t be able to see the movie until Friday. Judging from the critical reception, perhaps the movie Gods are trying to save me some money.

On the whole, work-life balance of freelancing has been fantastic. I’m earning more money and having more time to spend with my family, plus I find the work more challenging and fulfilling. I certainly wouldn’t exchange it for a day job that pays in the same range. As a freelancer, your time may be dictated by clients, but it is also entirely in your own control because you have the freedom to organise your own schedule and turn down work you don’t want to do. That said, I do recognise that I’m one of the lucky ones. Freelancing could easily be stressful if you’ve constantly got more work than you can handle or if you have no work at all. I would certainly appreciate it if I don’t get any new work for a little while so I can relax and unwind a bit, but of course I would start getting nervous if the situation continues for too long. The only thing I’ve really been sacrificing since the switch to freelancing is health (well, and this blog too, I guess). To be honest, I haven’t done much exercise for the past 6 months and it’s starting to show. It’s just hard to get into a routine when work always takes priority, and even when you have spare time you’re so tired you just want to relax. As I’ve said countless times before, things are going to change starting next week!

 

If there are any pearls of wisdom on improving work-life balance that I can impart to people thinking about taking the freelance plunge it would be these:

  1. Find regular clients. The key is to add more routine and take out the unpredictability, so if you can get clients who can feed you a steady stream of work at roughly fixed times and intervals, it will make your life will be a whole lot easier. My next post is going to be on dealing with clients, so stay tuned!
  2. Don’t procrastinate. Be motivated to get stuff done immediately and leave it until the last minute because shit always pops up when you least expect it to and your basket will end up overfilled. Procrastination guarantees a stressful approach to deadlines, so avoid it as best as you can.
  3. Do good work. This is related to the first point of finding regular clients. If your work is consistently good, you will get repeat work and new clients through recommendations. People may even find you because of your reputation. The more regular clients you have, the easier it becomes to manage your schedule and the less you have to worry about work drying up.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to watching more movies and catching up on my movie and book reviews, exercising and getting back to playing some basketball.

PS: I’m not kidding about this — just as I was about to press the “Publish” button a got an email with more work. Such is the life of a freelancer.