Mention home working, and the reaction usually falls into one of two camps. One is the “I wish I could do that” and the other is “how do you get anything done?”. If you fall into the latter, it may just be working from home isn’t for you, and that’s fine.
Either way, if you’re newly freelance or a remote worker for the first time (in the era of virtual offices, this is a growing reality for permanent employees too), it can be a little daunting.
One of the most common threads I see on Facebook groups (more on those later), is on this very subject, and even seasoned freelancers struggle at times. Typically people struggle with managing their time or keeping motivated without co-workers.
My freelance life is a mix of work I do onsite for agencies, and projects I can do at home. I fall firmly in the camp that enjoys home working best, but when I first started out figuring out how to manage my time was more daunting than I expected
I’m sharing a few tips that helped me, but obviously everyone is different If working in your PJs till the afternoon helps you hit your stride, do it. But, if you need to dress as if you’re meeting clients to get in the zone, do that. No one has the right to tell you you’re doing it wrong, as long a) you’re getting work and b) you’re getting that work done well and on time. I favour the “whatever works.” approach. That said, it can take a while to figure out what that is.
Let’s start with the basics.
Try and wake up at the same time each day
I’m not someone who writes best at night, but I’m not naturally a morning person either. I became a full-time freelance writer during the winter, when it’s even tougher to get out of bed. I decided, to get up at the same time every day - without a regular commute, even getting up at 8 am is a lie-in anyway! Getting up at that time of day means I can get cracking by 08:30 and plan the day ahead, after a cup of tea, obviously.
Find your routine
Probably the most important tip, and emphasis on 'your', it’s a very personal thing. If you’re someone who can roll out of bed and straight into work - I salute you, others might function better after a run, I double salute you. If you’re remote working on a contract, your hours are reasonably fixed anyway. Freelancers with kids have to make the most of when their place is interruption-free and will be working around someone else’s routine.
I’ve recently added 10 mins of Yoga into my morning, the idea is not to look at emails straight away but to uncurl from sleep, and do a bit of exercise before sitting down for much of the day! It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it definitely feels good when I can do it. One of the most disorientating things I found as a newbie was tracking days of the week. It sounds odd, but unless you have an imminent deadline, one day can easily blur into another and it’s unsettling. So check-in with yourself, and other people because it does get easier. Of course, you don’t have to justify how you spend your time, but remember that even when you’re not working on something specific for a client, there is still work to do. Don’t know where to start or how to prioritise? Break your tasks into manageable chunks, don’t let admin like your expenses or chasing invoices pile up. If all your best creative ideas happen early on, make the most of it. If it takes a while to get going, tick things off the ‘to do list’, maybe do some research on your sector or niche, or update your website or portfolio.
Set client expectations early on
I would never say ‘don’t work weekends or evenings’ but the ‘feast-or-famine’ cycle can sometimes mean you’re working more than you did on your day job. If that’s the case, there are still things you can do to preserve your sanity - and claw back time for yourself. That means, no emails to clients at night - you can always reply and leave it in draft until the morning / on Monday. When you communicate over weekends and evenings (unless specifically agreed) - you’re making yourself available 24/7 and you can’t blame a client for calling you at 11pm, if they see an email from you at 10pm.
If you take a contract role, don’t neglect your existing clients, but make them aware you’re working around the 9-5 so they know you might be checking emails on your lunch break or after 6 pm.
Create a working ‘zone’ - and stick to it
This one can be tricky, and applies equally to remote workers as to freelancers. Many of us don’t have the luxury of a spare room or study to work in, and it can be hard to mentally separate work and home. So, even if you’re working in a corner of the living room or kitchen keep a separation between the work ‘zone’ and the living space.
What I mean is, if you can’t literally build a space to work in, do what you need to set it up for when you’re working. For example, my ‘writing nook’ is in my lounge, by the window, surrounded by plants and few useful books on writing. I have my laptop and my second screen up when it’s in use for writing, but I make a point of packing the screens up after 6 pm. Even if I plan to do a few bits later on, it’s important to move the room back to a living space because I share a flat, and it helps me mentality create a work/home separation.
Track your time and projects
Related to finding a routine, tracking your time will help in several ways. Chances are if you’re a remote worker, you might be used to using timesheets or tracking software anyway. When you’re freelance, it helps to manage your workload, quote accurately and highlights what’s taking up a lot of your time.
I keep it simple, I have categories like client work, marketing activity (blogging, social media etc) and new business. I stick it all in a simple Google doc and then I can tell how many ‘billable’ hours I’ve clocked up and how long jobs take me.
Project management might not be your core role, but all freelancers or remote workers have to manage multiple deadlines, and keep clients happy. There are plenty of tools out there to help, from the easy boards and cards set up of Trello to more involved platforms like Asana or Wrike.
Join freelance and professional groups online
One of the downsides to working solo is you don’t have people to bounce ideas around with. Except you do. There are tonnes of groups on social media for pretty much any discipline, I joined groups like The Copywriter and Untamed Writing on Facebook. These groups are great for problem solving, swapping stories and tips. Basically, they’re the colleagues you don’t see every day and you’ll be really glad you found them.
Take regular screen breaks
When you’re ‘in the zone’ / insert appropriate working hard cliché it can be hard to stop. Without colleagues getting up from desks around 1pm, how are you supposed to know it’s lunchtime. Oh, that’s right, you're getting ‘hangry’ - better eat.
Listen to yourself, not your overactive brain box, but your rumbling stomach, your full bladder or your square eyes. Walk away from that screen and do something completely unrelated to work for a bit.
Don’t forget to leave the house
Sounds obvious, but it can hard to do, especially when the work is piling up and it’s cold outside. But it will really help with the ‘losing track of days’ fear too. Apart from anything else - you want new opportunities? Then you’ll need to get out. The loneliness of the long-distance worker can get to even the most resilient of us. Sometimes just being where other people are helps. I’m a big fan of an afternoon cinema trip. It’s cheaper, there’s usually a nice café if you want to do a bit of work beforehand and it’s breaks up the day. Walking is also great for clearing the mind cogs, (especially good if you’re a dog owner or you have friends who are). Some people co-work with other home-workers and there are Meetup groups if you don’t have other freelance pals who live locally. Lunch or coffee with friends breaks up the week, and if you’re curling your toes at the thought of networking - remember they are often more friendly and less about business speak than you might think.
I hope these tips helps you, I’ll leave you with one final thought: time doesn’t = productivity. For some working a standard 9-5 helps, but others need to work when it suits them, whatever the hour, and that's fine.