3 Things Freelancing Taught Me About Work/Life Balance

Does the phrase 'work-life balance' evoke visions of a rusty old seesaw with one end buried a foot deep feet in the dirt, crushed beneath an ever-swelling mountain of looming work tasks? Ok, so probably a little heavy on the imagery there, but most of us have at some point wrestled with the queasy suspicion that our to-do list might be the only part of us that still objectively exists.

Fretting about whether we do in fact spend more time hunched over a hot photocopier than relaxing in our own homes is pretty grim, so running the numbers and discovering it's actually an alarmingly even contest should be nothing short of horrifying. But, in an odd way, I actually find it sort of galvanising: once the mild panic attack subsides, there's something fairly motivational about seeing my life mapped out by the approximate hours of work, rest and play I've (statistically) got left on the clock.

So what am I going to do about it? Well, full disclosure, I already did one fairly major thing: this exact concern was a big part of the reason I left a salaried job to go freelance a couple of years ago. Yes, I knew money would be much tighter for a good while, and yes, since then there have been many ups and downs, for sure. But I do feel I'm gaining a better perspective on the aforementioned rusty old seesaw, and I think I've spotted a few ways to maybe keep it a bit more level in future.

Who knows, I may well end up deciding that I lost more than I gained by going freelance, and steer myself back into a salaried role at some point. But even if that does happen, here are three lessons I've learned about balance as a freelancer that I'm determined to keep with me wherever I end up working.

  1. Buy less stuff
Being self-employed, there's obviously a direct correlation between how much money we figure we need to earn per week/month, and how many hours we therefore make ourselves work. By contrast, most contracted jobs demand a set number of hours, regardless of how thrifty or lavish we are at home. But what's interesting is the way that freelance working has forced me to think about most purchases in terms of my time, rather than using the simple income vs. expenditure model I defaulted to on a fixed salary.

This has added a whole new level of consideration to shopping for non-essentials: I've begun to view expenditure in terms of number of hours it's costing me, rather than simply the extent to which my wallet is getting lighter. At checkout, the sense that time is literally what I'm spending has become inescapable.

Regardless of the direction work takes me in future, this is something I'm going to try hard to keep in mind, because it's had a surprisingly profound impact on my immediate perceptions of value and worth. Put it this way – if all purchases were made not by swiping a debit card, but by actually trading away a small chunk of whatever indeterminate time we had left, how many 'bargains' would still look as tempting?

  1. Double your money/time: save harder
Anything I have left over at the end of the week, month or year is effectively my profit margin for that period, and as my spending decreases, so my profit margin grows. This seems a ridiculously obvious point to make, but I've realised it's crucially important to view that profit margin in terms of its fullest potential. As my outgoings come down, it's not just my savings that go up – it's also the exponential curve of how far those savings will carry me at my current level.

Let's say I'm earning £25k a year (I'm not, yet), spending £24k and saving £1000. At that rate, I'll have to work for 24 years to fund one year of my current lifestyle, which is pretty terrifying. But if I manage to save £5k on the same salary – insane, but let's imagine – I'd be able to support a whole year of my frugal £20k lifestyle after just four years of work. That's one heck of a difference.

Of course, this is a pretty crude demonstration of the general point, but the implications seem self-evident if I'm looking to engineer a significant reduction in working hours at any point before my 110th birthday.

  1. Busier isn't better
The idea that we tend to glamourise our collective state of perpetual busyness these days isn't new, but it's one that's gained a lot of traction in recent years, particularly online. And, after a couple of years working from home, I find myself agreeing more and more emphatically that it makes no sense at all to fetishise the condition of being perennially rushed off our feet.

When working a contracted 9-5 role, answering 'busy!' to a simple 'how are you?' comes as second nature; it's true to an extent, of course, and moreover it functions as a sort of shorthand for protecting your bubble. It pre-emptively blocks and disables potential intrusions in the form of invitations or requests that you're not especially keen on. Which is fine, because a) you ARE busy, kind of, and b) everyone uses it the same way. Everyone gets it. Everyone is busy. Admitting as much is more or less expected of us these days.

Switching to freelance work, though, has rather shoved me through the looking glass of 'busy' – in this position I see busyness from both sides of the fence, and it's a messy thing indeed. At any given moment, I can have just as much to do as I ever did in a contracted role...but because I now ostensibly set my own hours, using busyness as any kind of all-purpose deflector shield somehow feels as weirdly calculating (or conceited, or both) as it probably should do 90% of the times anyone uses it that way. And yet people certainly seem to take your busyness much more personally when you’re self-employed.

On one hand, maybe that’s fair enough – after all, saying we're too busy is effectively admitting we aren't in control of our time, which in my current circumstances must look pretty disingenuous. And yet, logically, it's no more disingenuous than when my friends say it, because the real meaning behind all of our shorthand 'busy' responses is: ‘I’ll decide how and when I spend my free time.' Which, I'm keen to remind myself, is precisely the sentiment that led me to go freelance in the first place.

If I do ever make the jump back to contracted roles, the very last thing I want is to find myself admitting I've effectively given up control of my own time again. And so from now on, I’m going to try to stop automatically saying I'm ‘busy’, even when I am. Because if it isn't meant as a humblebrag or an admission of defeat, then what is it really saying?

All it would really say to me is that I hadn’t managed to balance out that rusty old seesaw at all, which would pretty much mean I’d learned nothing from this experience. We certainly can’t avoid being busy, but we can definitely change the way we view it and talk about it. And so, in future, I’ll be doing my best to see being ‘busy’ for what it is – not as some oddly respect-worthy badge of honour, but as a negative thing that eat up opportunities to spend time on things that, ultimately, are much more important – and avoid defaulting to it when people ask how I’m doing.



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Wednesday, 17 July 2019
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