Keeping the “free” in “freelance”

Readers: I just discovered that I had inadvertently saved rather than published this post, which I wrote late last fall. Other than that, every word of it remains accurate now that I’m hitting the “publish” button for real.  – AM


I’m free. I’m freelance.

…and please don’t think I mean working for no pay. That’s not freelance; that’s pro bono. (Don’t think I’m about to deliver a tirade against pro bono work here, either. Pro bono can be an honorable, reasonable, and mutually-beneficial option. It’s just not the subject today.)

“Freelancer” is much like “contractor,” a professional who is hired on a per-job basis, or with a specific project or duration in mind, rather than as a full-time employee. While there’s a lot to be said for the stability, reputation, and salary and benefits that often come with a regular full-time job, the beauty of freelance work–the whole reason I went solo ten years ago–is flexibility. For me, scheduling has long been a primary concern.

It’s no secret that though I clock a lot of work hours, I only do this wordsmithing stuff part-time. My biggest job for at least a few more years is my family, keeping three elementary-aged kids fed, clean, clothed, and where they need to be, when; making sure the refrigerator is full and laundry hampers empty; and keeping the house in functional and respectable order.

If our home were a nonprofit entity, you might call my role “project manager” to my husband’s “chief fundraiser.”

With that in mind, the paid work that I do is like a second job to me. While my clients get my full attention during our projects, the time I have in which to get those projects done is limited. And lately, I’ve felt like no matter how well I plan or how efficiently I work, there just isn’t enough of that time to go around.

I think I’m probably not alone among freelancers (or moms) when I say that sometimes, something has to give. A little more than a month ago that that “something” was one of my recurring writing assignments for a local news publication.

As word has gotten around that I’d given it up, the most frequent question I’ve gotten has been a sort of stunned, sharp “Why?”

I’d been reliable.

I’d enjoyed the work.

I’d met interesting people and filled the column with an eclectic array of their stories, and those stories generally got good response.

All true, but I had good reasons. Taken together, they mostly boiled down to It doesn’t fit.

This particular assignment required that I file a short article relevant to a particular geographic territory, two of every three weeks. On the face of it, that sounds undemanding. A 400-word article is pretty darned short, after all, and not even weekly? Why, that leaves plenty of wiggle room for planning and legwork in between.

Right?

In practice, not really.

I found the calendar to be a challenge from the get-go. While my other regular projects followed a straightforward schedule–one is always the last week of the month, and the other is weekly–this assignment’s two-of-three rotation proved to be somewhat less of a no-brainer. I was referring to notes constantly to keep my deadlines straight. In any given month, deadlines could land on the last, first, or middle weeks–and then they’d be entirely different the following month. That’s just the nature of a 2/3 rotation.

I’ve always operated best using a traditional paper planner that showed all my family, personal, and work appointments and deadlines at a single glance. But after two months with the two-weeks-of-three assignment–and still not having caught the rhythm–I found I needed to keep a separate calendar of only work deadlines and working headlines, nothing else. And it needed to kept on a computer document, not handwritten, as it changed so frequently that a paper record became completely illegible.

The separate digital file neatened my long-term planning, sort of, but it turned out the assignment didn’t fit my work calendar in other ways, too. The accounting for this publication was slightly different than the others–running on a “by submission date” month rather than a “by publication date” month. It’s a small difference that matters a lot when you work accounting tasks, as I do, in a batching-type system. (Aside: Are you one of those people that has practiced “batching” forever and only learned there was a name for it recently? Yep, my hand’s in the air….)

Finally, I really prefer to do my work-work during normal school and office hours so that I don’t cheat the time I should be using to check kids’ homework, attend church-family events, or shop for groceries. Back when I first started freelancing, I made it a hard and fast rule that weekends were off limits to work-work. Period.

But for this assignment, that was not an option. My sources for so many of the articles were themselves people with multiple obligations. The only way to conduct interviews, attend events, or drive somewhere to get pictures was to commit to working well later than 6pm, or on Saturdays and Sundays–the times my sources did their most interesting, newsworthy work.

And at times I had to “drag along” the kids for these appointments because my husband, too, works irregular days.

There were smaller reasons to reconsider this assignment, too, but those fit issues were huge. Deal-breakers, in fact. I managed to stick it out for a full year–long enough, in my mind, to merit an entry on my long-term résumé. And then I gave my notice.

Dropping a regular assignment was not a decision I made lightly, but I have not regretted it in the weeks since. A calendar that’s slightly less harried is a breath of fresh air. A relief. It feels like freedom.

Or, maybe I should say it feels like freelancing: the ability to choose what work I do, and what work to pass up because it doesn’t fit.

Readers, does this sound familiar? Whether you work freelance or are a full-time employee, whether your work is paid or strictly voluntary, what’s been your experience with “it doesn’t fit”? Perhaps we can learn from each others’ perspectives on making the calendar work in our favor–share your solutions and ideas below!

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3 thoughts on “Keeping the “free” in “freelance”

  1. Hi AnnaLisa! I understand completely. I don’t have children at home like you do, but I still find there are projects or clients that are not a fit for what I want to do as an independent contractor. At times when I have taken something that just didn’t feel fight, I definitely regretted it and paid for it in stress and anxiety. My transcription work is full time, and I have some clients who have been with me for years and years. But I have to supplement that with project work, which I sometimes take when I shouldn’t because, as you know, with freelance work you don’t always know when the next one will come along! And the stress that comes into my life during the period of that wrongly added project is something I can do without. In my 20+ years doing this, I think I’m slowly learning to have faith enough to turn away what I shouldn’t be doing, knowing that God has something right around the corner that’s truly right for me. And when I do that, I have found it to always be true.

    It’s definitely hard to give up or turn away something you enjoy. But when it truly doesn’t fit and causes stress, it’s really right to let it go. I truly believe that no amount of calendar maneuvering can make something fit that shouldn’t be there.

    1. So true, all of that! And you said a real mouthful in that final sentence, Pam: “I truly believe that no amount of calendar maneuvering can make something fit that shouldn’t be there.” Amen!

  2. Hi there!

    I totally hear you. I’ve been trying to juggle freelance writing with some regular jobs (and a kid and another on the way), and it’s super tough. I’m curious to see what’ll have to give for me, haha!

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing this. It sounds like it was a tough decision but one that had to be made, and which worked out for the best.

    Ryan

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