The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Priorities

I’m posting this first section shortly after the introduction to give this series some substance. Normally, I’ll post a new section about once per week.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Priorities
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

From the moment we’re born, someone else imposes structure on our lives. First our parents set the agenda. Then our schools chime in. Finally, our employers tell us what to do and when to do it.

Most people set their own hours only on weekends or during vacation. One of the hardest things for a retiree to get used to is the abundance of free time. We receive training from the very first breath we draw in how to respond to other people’s needs and demands.
We don’t know how to respond to our own.

Most people who start working for themselves get nothing done in the first six months. These are productive folk, who used to work full time, deal with their family, and conduct their business on the side. Suddenly, faced with 24 hours with no schedule at all, their productivity vanishes. Many find their waking hours sucked up by television or video games, Facebook or family visits, or in my case the first time I tried to freelance, reading two to three novels per day.

First let me state that a decline in productivity is normal for anyone who quits her job to become a full-time freelancer. Without the structure, the freelancer doesn’t know how to organize her time. It’s a subtle thing, but a very real one.

And it’s frightening.

In 1985, after quitting one of my many part time jobs, I moved into a new one-bedroom apartment. I was going through a divorce, my best friend had moved out of the city, and I lived in a new neighborhood. My very first weekend in that apartment, I received no phone calls and talked to no one in the neighborhood.

I wondered if I existed at all.

I have had that feeling many times throughout the years. It means that I let myself get too isolated. Not only is work an economic necessity, it’s also a social gathering point, one that doesn’t seem valuable until it’s gone.

The loneliness and the lack of structure often cause panic. Those two things, more than financial worries or lack of success, cause the freelancer to hurry back to the nine-to-five world.

So a lot of these posts will deal with structure. In this post, I’m going to deal with an overall structure, one that applies to your every day life.

Structure comes from establishing priorities. Once you know what’s truly important, then you make sure that thing gets done first.

Here are the priorities that I believe all freelancers should have in their lives. I’ve put these priorities in order from most important to least important. Your list might look different.
First I’ll give you the list. Then I’ll explain each item and why I placed it where I did.

A Freelancer’s Priorities
1. Family
2. Health
3. Work
4. Leisure

Seems simple enough, right? If I said the list aloud, most of you would nod, thinking that you understood. But there are elements in each category that I can guarantee most first-time freelancers have never considered.

Let’s take them in order.

Family: By this, I don’t necessarily mean your biological family. I mean the people that you live with and the people that you love. Family should always come first.

Think of it this way: When you have a day job, family and work compete. But your work has given you structure. You know you’ll be home at, say, five p.m. From five until you go to bed, you have an opportunity to be with your family, an opportunity that most people use.

You schedule doctors appointments during lunch, parent-teacher conferences after work, and occasionally ask for time off to attend your daughter’s soccer game. But these are scheduled events, just like your children’s bedtimes. You know where you need to be, when you need to be there, and how you have to work around your nine-to-five job.

Most successful full-time freelancers schedule family time around their work, just like they would if they have a nine-to-five job. Sometimes it takes training. Some good friends of mine consistently ask me out to dinner, which falls right in the middle of my work day. I’m a harsh boss (we’ll discuss being your own boss sometime in the future) and I only give myself an hour for dinner, including prep and clean-up time. Going out takes an hour and a half or two hours, which gets in the way of my work schedule. I have to repeatedly explain to these friends that I cannot come to dinner because I work during that time. I know they don’t understand, but they’re slowly learning. Now they only ask me out to dinner on very special occasions—the kind of occasion that would cause me to ask my real-world boss (if I had one) for the extra time off.

As you’re learning to plan your schedule, figure out how much family time you normally have, how much more you need/want, and how to fit it in. Then divide the hours in your weekly schedule, placing the family time on the calendar first.

Health: Everyone plans to take care of their health but very few people do. It’s extremely important for freelancers to monitor their health because if they get sick, they don’t get paid. I’ve seen more than one career cut short by freelancers who put off basic health care because they didn’t have time or the money or the proper insurance to solve a minor problem that eventually became major.

I’ll deal with money and insurance later in these posts. Right now, let me talk about health in general.

First, limit snacking. First-time freelancers always gain weight because the refrigerator is only a few steps away. Do what it takes—whether that is scheduling your eating times or failing to buy your favorite snacks.

Drink a lot of water. Not fruit juice, not Red Bull, not alcohol. Water. There are two reasons for that. First, water cleanses the system, keeping toxins out and helping to fight fatigue. Second, water flows through you pretty quickly. Most freelancers are doing work they love, and don’t move around much, which puts them at risk for repetitive injuries. A glass of water per hour equals one bathroom break per hour, which means getting up once per hour and walking around. Sometimes staying healthy is just that easy.

Get enough sleep. Most people need six to eight hours per night. A lot of creative people take a twenty-minute refresher nap in the afternoon. Sleep allows you to think clearly and perform at your best. It also staves off illness. However, don’t sleep too much. Some first-time freelancers sleep ten to twelve hours per day. That’s as unhealthy as sleeping too little. Get the recommended amount of rest, no more and no less.

Begin an exercise routine and/or maintain your exercise routine. Exercise improves mood—which is important, considering how much time freelancers spend alone (people who spend time alone are prone to depression). Exercise also improves blood flow, oxygen intake and nearly everything else. If you pay attention to studies of almost every disease and chronic condition, you’ll learn that people who exercise do better than who don’t exercise.

I’m a loner. I don’t like exercising around other people. So I go for a run, a solitary bike ride, or a half hour on the elliptical machine six days per week. I prefer the run or the bike ride, simply because it gets me outside in the fresh air.

If you’re not a loner, schedule a daily walk with a friend or join the local cycling club. Keep your gym membership and use it at least five times per week. Yes, exercise takes time from both family and work, but it is not a leisure activity. It’s a necessity—especially now that you’re not walking around the office, taking the stairs from the parking lot, or running errands all over town. Exercise improves health, reduces stress, and boosts creativity. Need I say more?

Get routine check-ups, even if you have to pay for them yourself. Do not let a high deductible get in the way of maintaining your health. That includes eye exams and dental exams. No fun, I know, but essential to a long-term freelancing career. If you catch a problem early, you have a better chance of recovery. You’ll also lose less work time to illness. Get a flu shot, take your vitamins, and do all the other things that go into prevention. Freelancers don’t get paid sick days, so it’s better not to get sick.

Finally, socialize at least once per day. It sounds silly to say this, particularly in the health category, but freelancers are prone to loneliness, which is an extremely destructive emotion. My husband Dean Wesley Smith (who also freelances) and I go out to lunch every day, often at the same restaurant. We see people, talk to friends, and touch base with the community.
One of my freelancing friends swims with the masters (adult) swim team four times per week. Another friend takes an hour per day to run errands that he could easily get his wife to do. It gets him out of the house and seeing people, which is all we freelancers need.

Work: This is the actual thing you quit your day job to do. Give it at least as many hours per week as you gave that day job, preferably more. The harder you work, the more success you will have.

Schedule the same time for work every day and post that schedule on your fridge or on your family’s bulletin board. Tell your friends not to interrupt you during that time, unless it’s an emergency—just like you would expect them to do if you worked for someone else.

Know this, however. If you do not stick to your schedule, your friends and family won’t either. If you think missing one day won’t hurt, then the next week, you’ll miss two. Eventually, you’ll go back to getting nothing done, and you’ll become frustrated and angry with yourself.

It’ll take time to set up this schedule. You’ll have to find the best hours for your business and the best hours for you. I’m a night person, but I do most of my business with people who live in New York City. I live in Oregon. I make sure I’m available at noon my time (3 p.m. New York time) just in case I need to return a phone call or answer important e-mails. That’s a compromise between my schedule (I’d prefer to start work mid-to-late afternoon and work until 11 or 12 at night) and a schedule imposed by the type of business I’m in.

Scheduling your work time also takes discipline. I’ll write several posts on this, because it sounds simple but is actually very hard. In the meantime, those of you who need help with this right away should check out my husband’s blog. He has two series of posts which deal with making time for your freelance work. One concerns setting goals (check it out here) and the other concerns learning how to get rid of distractions (check it out here). His posts focus on freelance writers, but the principle is the same no matter what freelance business you’re in.

Remember this rule about freelancing: The more time you put into your job, the more you will gain from it. Not just financially, although that’s true too. But you’ll also gain opportunities. So make sure you schedule at least 40 hours of work per week, preferably much, much more.

Leisure: Human beings need to rest. The hardest thing for me to learn as I took up sports in my late thirties was that I needed a day off. I wore myself out exercising and even fractured a bone in my foot because I didn’t give myself enough relaxation time.

As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, I have trouble taking time off. I like being busy, and I like my work. But a person needs to recharge. Time off does that.

The time off can come in one hour per day or the standard two days per week. The key is this: You must schedule your leisure time weekly. Rest isn’t something you do for two weeks out of every year. It has to happen on a regular basis to have any value at all.

But don’t overdo your leisure either. I learned the hard way that I had to schedule my leisure time after my work day was over. I like to read. Early in my freelance career, I’d pick up a book at lunch, promising myself one more chapter, just one more chapter, until I finished the book. By then it was dinner and “too late” to start work, so I read another book. I lost entire weeks before I realized I couldn’t read until the work was done. Then reading one more chapter became a reward instead of work avoidance.

You’ll learn all of these things—what keeps you from work, what causes you to overwork, and all the other problems in between—over time. You learn what works for you and what doesn’t, how to arrange your day, and what makes you the most productive.

But to start, make your list of priorities. Figure out how you juggled those priorities when you had a day job, then translate that juggling to your new freelance career. Add in the health care and the exercise (I know—you thought that could wait, right?), and keep track of your daily schedule to monitor how you’re doing.

You won’t get it right the first week or even the second. It’ll take time to refine your schedule to fit your life and your priorities. Gradually, however, you’ll find what works best for you and what makes you both the happiest and the most productive.

In future weeks, I’ll go into more detail about all of these topics, as well as cover other things like finances and insurance. Be sure to send me questions, comments, and any links you find on related topics. And please do point any friends or colleagues who plan to freelance to this site.

Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Priorities copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.


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13 Comments

  1. “So make sure you schedule at least 40 hours of work per week, preferably much, much more.”

    Um …

    Sixty? Eighty hours? That kind of narrows down the time for family, sleep, recreation, like that, doesn’t it … ?

    Reply
  2. Not really, Steve. Most people who work outside the home are gone from the house more than 40 hours. Most people who have an 8 hour per day job don’t work 9-5, they work 8-6. Then they commute, usually 30 minutes both directions (actually the new figure is 1 hour both ways). So if you add those 3 hours per day 5 days per week, you’re gone from home 55 hours per week.

    Most freelancers work at home. So instead of reducing your hours “away” from your family to 40 hours, keep that extra 15 hours in your schedule. 55 hours sounds like a lot, but really isn’t.

    And remember, the freelancer isn’t just doing one job. She’s doing everything, from bookkeeping to reception to janitorial to the actual work that brings in the cash. You have to factor that in too (but that’s another essay).

    Reply
  3. Hello Kris, and thank you for posting this series.

    I would put health at the top of the list, rather than second. If your health is not all it can be, then everything else is likely to be affected as a result. It’s also been known for “family” to have detrimental effect on health, so in those cases I would sacrifice family (not literally) in favour of health.

    Otherwise I agree with your most useful tips. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Reply
    • You have a good point, Captain Black. Health is extremely important. But as I said with all of those items, priorities differ for different freelancers. So pick your order, but don’t leave out health, like so many do, figuring it’ll take care of itself. It will–to the negative.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for doing this column, Kris. I have been a freelancing for 12 years, and I agree wholeheartedly about including the commute hours in your work schedule. I used to commute an hour each way, now I give that time to my dogs (and ultimately myself). We walk a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening. I’ve been doing that for 12 years, unless it’s too cold or lighting, and consider that a part of my exercise program.

    The other thing that I think drops away, or needs to, if a freelancer is going to be successful, is the Monday-Friday mindset.

    Some times I work 7 days a week (and in this economy, who would mind that?), because of choice, or most likely, too meet deadlines.

    I live day to day and work that way, too, finishing one project so I can start another (hopefully).

    The Work Every Day If Necessary Rule is hard to adjust to. My friends with 9-5 jobs are put off sometimes by the “Sorry, I’m working on Sunday” response…but my real friends, who I can see any time I’m not working–like on Monday afternoon, don’t seem to mind.

    Allowing Monday-Friday to fade away allows you to stay in the moment since you’re not working for the weekend anymore.

    Reply
    • Excellent point, Larry. I too work seven days per week most weeks. I was just going to ease into that for the newcomers. :-)

      You also mention that work so much because of choice. I do too. Here’s what differs from a day job: I love my work. It’s what I used to do in my leisure time. So the problem for me (and many other freelancers) is to moderate the amount of work I do–and don’t overdo it, so that I burn out. Great topic. And I’ll write about it in the future.

      Folks, I really appreciate the comments, forwards, and ideas. Keep them coming!

      Kris

      Reply
  5. Hi Kris I think this is great advice. I’m guilty of working too much and not getting enough sleep on occasions (had 2 hours last night) which of course is no good, but being a relative newcomer I do worry about my work. So I would agree about the health aspect. I’ve had to cut down to work mornings nnly for a while but in fact I found I’ve got just as much done! So much to cover – a huge topic. Well done you and thanks for taking the time.

    Reply
  6. I just got a glass of water and closed my novel!

    Reply
  7. Hi Kris,

    How long did it take you to set up a structure that worked for yourself? I want to think that it has become easier with time.

    Thanks for your blog!

    Reply
    • It does get easier with time, Anne. (Sort of.) I slowly learned the games I play to keep myself away from the computer and circumvent them.

      Reply
  8. Great look at priorities, thanks.

    One thing that has become clear in my years of freelance programming (over 15 years) is that balance is the key. Not a static balance, but a dynamic one.

    Balance is always a moving target. I am very disciplined, and sometimes drag the old methods along even when they are no longer working. I find I need to take a breath every once in a while and reevaluate my priorities and the mix.

    It’s kind of like cleaning your office. Daily (if I’m lucky) I put things away, monthly floors and dusting, but every once in a while I really dig in and think about how things are arranged, what works what doesn’t. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it really helps. The same is true for your freelancing priorities and processes. It is important to dig in occasionally and find out what is working and what is not.

    After all these years it is still a work in progress. In my experience, there is never “I got this all figured out” point that sticks long. In fact when I think I do have it all figured out it’s probably time for a big adjustment.

    Reply
  9. Work: This is the actual thing you quit your day job to do. Give it at least as many hours per week as you gave that day job, preferably more. The harder you work, the more success you will have.

    If I would invest as many time in my writing than I do in my day job, I would – doing the math – be able to publish four 60000 words novels a month. Theoretically :).

    Isn’t this a bit much?

    Just wondering …

    Reply
    • If you’re worried about that, publish under different names. But honestly, we’re in a new world, and readers seem to want more not less. So do what you can. And see what happens. Never be afraid of doing too much. Be afraid of doing too little.

      Reply

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