Freelancing Diaries: Part 4 — Work-Life Balance

August 18, 2016 in Freelance, On Writing

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.

Moving forward without regrets

September 23, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, On Writing

I had a great catch up with one of my former bosses this week.  He’s undoubtedly the best supervising partner I’ve ever had (where I worked that didn’t mean much), though he didn’t really supervise me much as I was often pulled away by other partners for long-term deals and projects.  However, I always appreciated his sharp wit and I was extremely grateful for his help and support when I told him I had decided to make a switch (and he wasn’t even my supervisor then).  Interestingly, both of us have left our old firm and are starting something new.  I’m heading into the uncharted waters of writing while he has abandoned his million-dollar income for a fresh life as a barrister.

[For those who aren’t familiar, we used to work in a commercial law firm where we represented and advised corporate clients.  We could attend court on our clients’ behalf but that’s not our specialty — for contentious points of law or full blown trials and hearings we usually brief barristers (the guys that wear cloaks and wigs) to get their expert opinion or to get them to represent the client on our behalf.  In some ways, barristers are like freelance writers who have to manage their own business and clients.  Good ones earn big bucks.  Bad ones struggle to make ends meet.  In Australia, you only need to take the bar exam to become a barrister — in America you need to pass it just to practice as an ordinary lawyer.]

For both of us, the decision to leave was not all that hard.  Obviously it was easier for me because I had only been a lawyer for about four years and I had lost all passion for the work I was doing.  Well, it’s questionable whether I ever had the ‘passion’ to begin with.  Enthusiasm, maybe, but I wouldn’t go much further than that.  On top of that there was the constant stress, anxiety and long hours that had morphed my once youthful appearance into something more commensurate to my real age, or perhaps even beyond.  I just wanted to get out, and the earlier I did it the better.

For him, it must have been a titanic struggle.  He had been a partner for almost a decade, meaning he was probably taking home around $1.5m a year.  Most barristers apparently make a loss in their first year or two while they build their profile and business.  With a family and several young children to support, the financial comfort could have been reason enough to tough it out.  But he admitted that he had had enough of the place and that he simply wasn’t enjoying it any more.  Partners were dropping like flies in the prolonged aftermath of the 2008 GFC and there must have been ridiculous pressure to keep his practice afloat.

I’d be lying if I said I never wondered what it would be like had I not quit the law and just stuck with it.  On good days I would think about the positives of working there, such as the pay, friends and the perks that come with working in a big firm with loads of money to throw around.  If I had stayed, I would have been earning well in excess of a 6-figure salary by now, and considering how tough it’s been financially the last year or so (thank goodness the wife still earns something), that money surely would have been nice to have.

I have a few friends who started around the same time as me that are earning big bucks now, and a few aren’t all that far away from partnership (in that I mean 3 or 4 years…if they’re lucky).  I had another friend who left the law to become a journalist tell me the other day that a former colleague of ours (whom a new recruit once thought was my gay lover — we arrived late together to an after-work function) is now a partner at a rival law firm.  He had just been made senior associate when I was around and must have taken the fast track to partnership.  I couldn’t picture the campy person that I knew, with his arms flailing all over the place every time he spoke, being a partner of a big law firm.  And yet he was.

My ex-supervisor had told me before, and he told me again when we caught up, that I’d most probably make partner if I stayed.  For a moment my ego inflated and I fantasised the prestige and income that came with it.  But just as quickly I tore it down.  There wasn’t any part of me that wanted that life any more, and certainly no part of me was willing to endure the torture to get there.

He then said something that made a lot of sense, and applied to both of us.  He said that he could have, if he really wanted to, toughed it out — but then he would have always regretted not giving his new career a try.  He had always wanted to be a barrister but, like many others before him, got caught up in the partnership ladder and never got to live his dream.  If things don’t work out as a barrister, then fine, he would seek something else, but at least he knew in his heart that he gave it a try.

I feel the same.  You won’t believe how many people think I’m crazy for switching to writing — most just give a friendly warning about how hard it is but you can tell from their eyes that they think you’re crazier than a bald-headed Britney.  But if my ex-supervisor — someone that had already done the hard yards and was earning millions could walk away and start over — and can bear the condescension and doubting voices of his family, friends and peers, then surely it can’t be that hard for someone like me.  I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have the ability and opportunity to make a change.  If I don’t take advantage of it and put in 100% then I am a fool.

The fear and doubt is still there but at least I am moving forward with no regrets.

Pressure is a good thing

March 23, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study

Source: ninemsn.com.au

I had a first meeting with my supervisor today for the major writing project I am to complete this semester.  Well, I probably won’t complete the whole thing, but the intention is to get at least 20,000 to 30,000 words done before June to put me in a position to actually finish it, with potential for publication down the track.

My supervisor is quite a well-known and critically successful author (though I assume not commercially successful enough to not have to teach).  That said, I was still very surprised and impressed by how many great suggestions he/she had for me.  Before leaving for Shanghai I had compiled a 1.5 page outline/proposal for my project, which he/she provided a little bit of feedback on.  Upon my return, I beefed it up to a comprehensive 4 page proposal.

Using that 4-pager, my supervisor was able to tell me which books and authors I should read, which shows and films I should see, what I should aim for and what I should steer clear from.  He/she also immediately grasped what I needed to concentrate on and the things I needed to turn these 4 pages of pretty rough ideas into a proper narrative that would capture audiences.  The advice was all spot on.  He/She hit everything right on the nail and set off multiple light bulbs in my head.  Don’t you love it when that happens?

Now, with the short China trip out of the way, it’s time to get down to business.  Our next meeting is in a couple of weeks and I need to have words for my supervisor to see.  I need to have words for my other class to workshop.  I need to finish my next magazine article (due for publication in June).  I have to find a publisher for one of the other articles I completed last year.  I have books I need to finish quickly because I have recommended books to read.  I have books and short stories to read for class.  I have pieces I need to read and workshop.  I have to submit an entry for a short story writing competition.  I have heaps of posts I need to catch up on.  I need to check on how my domain change is going (haven’t heard a peep for a month).  And while I am doing all of this, I need to keep an eye out for potential jobs, because I’ll be graduating in a few months.

Do I feel a bit of pressure?  Of course I do.  But strangely, I welcome it.  I’ve spent too long NOT having any pressure and it hasn’t been healthy for my motivations and ambitions.  Maybe that’s why certain authors can keep churning out books faster than printers even though they are already successful — because they have contracts that require them to write more books and adhere to deadlines.  Maybe that’s why first-time novelists take so bloody long to finish that first novel.  I feel like I need a bit of a push right now, since having no push hasn’t been doing it for me.

Come on!

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December 19, 2009 in Novel, On Writing

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December 19, 2009 in Blogging, Indiana Pacers, On Writing

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