For those of us who’ve spent our careers in 9–5 office jobs, the idea of working anywhere other than a sterile cubicle is inconceivable. After all, steady income, solid benefits and the comfort of morning coffee with coworkers is hard to give up. As a journalist, writer and editor, working for myself was so far out of the realm of possibility that I never even considered it.
But after nearly 20 years in the biz, I realized I had lost sight of my professional goals. Sure, I was making money writing, but my passion for storytelling had waned. So, with the support of my husband and his cushy state job, I decided to leave the office life behind and go out on my own.
As many freelancers can attest, the gap between expectation and reality is huge. Once I leave my job, I thought, I’ll have all the time in the world. I’ll be like those women on Instagram, feet up, hands cradled around a steaming mug of coffee with an inspirational message on the front, creating beautiful prose for all the world to cherish. I’ll take a yoga class or have a chai latte with girlfriends. I’ll get tons done around the house, volunteer at my son’s school, or make something amazing from the hundreds of DIY projects on my Pinterest boards. Oh, and I’ll get in my 10,000 steps. Every. Single. Day.
But then reality sets in.
As I sit here in my ratty jeans among dirty cereal bowls and unsigned permission slips, I admit I haven’t yet mastered the work-from-home thing. Yes, I get to pick my son up from school every day, I save a lot on makeup and hair products, and I no longer have to wear pantyhose or heels. I’m still learning the ropes, but there are a few things I learned during my first 90 days.
Treat your freelance job as a job. Too often, the line between work and home becomes blurred. If you choose to work from home, then work from home. If you choose to be a stay-at-home parent, then be a stay-at-home parent. You can’t be both. Even with the most meticulous scheduling, it’s simply impossible to be two things at once.
I learned this the hard way. During the first 90 days, I tried (in vain), to crank out articles while making sure the house was clean, the laundry folded and the dishes done. But working from home means working, not housekeeping. Granted, I’ll throw in a load of laundry now and then, or unload the dishwasher if things are slow, but my writing always comes first.
Distracted? Leave the house. If the pressure to keep a perfect home is too strong, it’s a good idea to find a coffee shop or shared workspace to plant yourself for the day. If, like me, you’re too distracted by people-watching or don’t yet have the budget to rent an office, then find a park bench, go to the library, sit in the mall, whatever — just get out of the house.
Create a schedule. It will take time to sink into your routine. The first 90 days at home were rough, even though I no longer had to battle traffic or schmooze with the C-suites. I tried to take on too much, too soon. I thought I could write, respond to emails, pitch editors, exercise, clean, shop and cook, all while keeping my son entertained. Now, I prioritize my work. I know I’m the most productive first thing in the morning, so I knock out my writing early. If there’s time left over, I do the rest.
Establish specific goals. To boost productivity, I write down specific goals for each day. This not only allows me to get more done in less time, it also allows me to factor in time for non-work activities, such as chaperoning a field trip or going to the doctor. It’s crucial that goals are specific. For example, rather than “work on article,” my daily goals may be “review final draft” or “transcribe notes.”
Take breaks. Treating a freelance career like any other job means treating yourself like any other worker. It’s crucial to give yourself a break and clear your mind. Take 15 minutes to yourself, twice a day, and at least a half-hour for lunch. This is your time, so do whatever you did when you worked outside the home — read a book, surf the internet, take a walk. It goes a long way in recharging your brain and you’ll be sharper when you get back to it.
Avoid temptation. Some well-meaning friends and neighbors may mistake working from home with “available all day to chit chat and flit about town like socialites.” Kindly decline offers to “just stop by” or “grab a bite” — these can easily lead to wasted days. It’s fine to say hi, but set a strict time limit on social engagements.
Avoid time suckers. Social media, television, online shopping — whatever your weakness is, avoid it. For me, it’s social media. I belong to several writers’ groups on Facebook and subscribe to job listings on Twitter but I have to visit these sites cautiously lest I get sucked down the rabbit hole of the internet. During my first 90 days, I found myself clicking through the Creepiest Unexplained Photos Ever, Life Hacks That Are Borderline Genius and Most Epic Parenting Fails. Entertaining, yes. Useful for moving my career forward, no. Thanks a lot, internet.
Get dressed. Trust me, I understand the lure of wearing pajamas all day. Rolling out of bed, firing up the computer and working in an old band T-shirt and worn-out flannels is something all freelancers do from time to time. But I’ve found that getting up at the same time every day, showering every morning, and ditching the jammies for jeans tricks my brain into taking the day seriously.
Most importantly, just work. I spent countless hours reading articles, watching videos and listening to podcasts on how to succeed as a freelancer. I made spreadsheets, checklists and indexes on every contact, pitch and idea. I collected photos for articles I had not yet written, tweaked my website to perfection and scoured job board after job board. But this all took time away from the one thing I should have been doing all along: writing.