5 tips for freelancers who like to break the rules

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Written by Guy Walsh

There’s a lot of nonsense talked online about what you should and shouldn’t do as a freelancer. Most of it is well-meaning, but a lot of it is often based on old-fashioned business practices and doesn’t account for our constantly changing world.

You probably became a freelancer because you wanted some control over your working conditions, so why would you recreate the environment of the world you left in the first place?

On top of that, with increased awareness of neurodiversity we’re finally starting to understand that not every body and brain functions in the same way.

With that in mind, here are five simple tips for freelancers who like to break to rules.

1. Get Up When You Want To

One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I started freelancing 12 years ago was something along the lines of “Treat your day like a normal work day. Get up early, have a shower, dress for work, and be at your desk by 9am ready to work.”

Nah.

Find what works for you. Are you an early bird? Great! Get up at 4am, do your yoga and meditation, start work at 5am and finish your work day at 1pm. If that works for you, no one can say you shouldn’t be doing it.

Prefer to start work at 1pm? Do it! Get up at midday, fall out of bed, power up on coffee and work the hours that your body prefers.

Although I only recently discovered that I have ADHD, I’ve been aware for a long time that I work better later in the day. I can do mornings when I must, but my body and my brain would prefer that I didn’t. Why would I force myself into an uncomfortable working pattern now that I have control over my working life? Moreover, if I know I’m more productive in the evenings, why would I force myself to get up early just to sit doing nothing while I wake up?

The only thing to consider here, especially when starting up, is when your customers or clients are going to need access to you, but even that doesn’t need to be set in stone. For example, I generally get up at 9am and start work around 10am. But if I have a client that needs me before this, I simply adjust my working hours the days before and after to make sure that I’m available and coherent!

Get up when you want. No one needs to see this.

2. Take Breaks Whenever You Want

Did you know that hunter-gatherers only typically worked for 15 hours per week? It’s a relatively modern development in human history to be putting the hours that are expected of us in the 21st century, and the lack of breaks is an even more recent development.

This article is a great starting point for understanding how we can better structure our working days to avoid burn out. I’ve been fascinated by the structure of our modern working day for years. Anthropologists have known for decades that our free market current setup is unnecessary and incompatible with the long-term survival of the human race, and this is simply one element of that.

“When we compare the work experience of hunter-gathers with that of… contemporary Apple employees we find a wedge of insight. Modern knowledge workers adopt the factory model, in which you work for set hours each day at a continually high level of intensity, without significant breaks,” observes Newport. “In the hunter-gatherer context, work intensity fluctuated based on the circumstances of the moment. Today, we’ve replaced this rhythm with a more exhausting culture of always being on.” – Cal Newport

But hey – you’re the boss now! You can schedule the three different types of breaks into your work day however you want, and no-one can stop you!

Take a shower in the middle of the day – who cares?

3. Know What You Don’t Know, and Get Support

I get it – you’re a strong independent freelancer and you don’t need anybody else to get where you’re going to.

Err… sorry to bring you down like this but nobody does it alone, no matter what the Wall Street Journal tells you about “successful” businesspeople.

You’re only one person. There are three main elements to running a business – knowledge and delivery of the project/service/product, admin, and sales. Most people are great at two of the three. And sure, you can upskill to give yourself a better understanding and control of the areas in which you may not be an expert, but at some point you’re going to need both expertise and additional hours in the day.

I’m terrible at sales, so I recently outsourced my phone calls to a company offering telemarketing services.

I’m not the best graphic designer, so once I was able to afford it, I paid another freelancer to create my logos for me.

By outsourcing these tasks, it freed me up to focus on the product, the marketing, the existing client relationships, and creating quality social media content.

Knowing what you don’t know is a great starting point for filling in the gaps in your business.

Not everybody can be super-brainy like me.

4. Listen to Everyone – then choose what works for you

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all piece of advice in any area of business. Knowing and understanding your customers is your starting point for your business. Once you are clear who your customers are you can then start to understand which pieces of advice are right for you at any given time – and this will change over time.

I’ve recently started attending a marketing programme for photographers. I first went on a free webinar two years ago, but it’s only now that the time is right for me to utilise it.

There are lots of free webinars out there, and I recommend checking out any that even remotely interest you – you have nothing to lose and you can always leave if you decide it’s not for you. Remember though – the experts running these webinars are ultimately selling their services and a large part of marketing can be creating a FOMO experience. Don’t be pulled in – this is an established sales technique on their part, so take the time to think about what you’ve just learned. You can always revisit it later – even if they’re offering a “great one-off price if you sign up now”!

I can say this because I’m not trying to sell you anything (other than personal branding photography, cat photography and photography tuition) – but if you go into webinars aware of these emotional hooks, you’ll be able to learn enough to make considered decisions on new subjects when the time is right.

Another thing to consider is that some elements of “best practice” in any field may be too much for you right now. For example, most social media experts recommend scheduling posts for set days and times because the algorithms favour this, but this may not be relevant to your business if you’re not using social media to obtain leads.

Don’t waste time working on something that doesn’t work for your business – use the time for something else instead. Over time you’ll learn what to prioritise, as your understanding of your customers’ needs increases.

Sometimes you need an expert that looks like this.

5. Just Keep Going

This is perhaps the most important of all the tips. Unless you’re very lucky, it’s unlikely that your journey as a freelancer will be a linear one. Over my 12 years of self-employment I have changed my offering on multiple occasions, and I continue to do so to this day.

Some things you try won’t work. That’s fine. Try to understand why, and then move on.

Sometimes you won’t be able to understand why it hasn’t worked. That’s normal too. Move on.

The key to surviving as a freelancer is being able to adapt, and never has that been truer than in a world with the increasing influence of artificial intelligence.

And while you should keep pushing forward for as long as you can, it’s important to remember that you can always stop and go back to employment at any time. It’s not failure, it’s not a bad thing – it might be right for you at the time. Don’t let your mental health suffer out of stubbornness.

Sometimes the biggest lesson is that freelancing isn’t for you right now.

You can always try again in the future, and next time you’ll have a lot more insight when you start.

Knowing that you can stop and come back in the future can often eliminate anxiety, and – ironically – allow you to keep moving forward.

Whatever happens – you’ll learn something new.
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