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Freelancing and Work/Life Balance – Can They Coexist?

self-employment doesn’t quite look like this so far

What’s the number one thing people say when they leave their jobs to become self-employed? “I want freedom!” (or some variation on that theme).

When I quit my job last December, I definitely had freedom in mind. All those cool stories about lazing on the beach with a laptop and a margarita? That was totally going to be my life. I would set my own hours, be my own boss, make my own rules. And while I technically do all those things, ten months of freelancing have not quite matched up with my pre-freelancing fantasies.

What I’ve Done Wrong

One of the best (and worst) parts about becoming self-employed is realizing that the sky’s the limit. At my old job, there were no opportunities to move up or make more money. At least not significantly more. We didn’t even get annual cost of living increases! There was zero incentive to work harder. But as a freelancer, I can literally choose how much I want to make.

Of course, I have to find enough work to go along with my income goal. But I can sit down, determine an annual or monthly amount I want to make, and figure out how many jobs (or hours) it will take to reach that goal. The only limiting factors are time, exposure/reach, and my need to sleep periodically.

The problem with that? For me, it was realizing early on that an hour I don’t work is an hour I don’t make any money. And following that realization with, Holy crap, if I don’t work, I won’t make any money! I have consistently worked 7 days a week, 15+ hours a day since I quit my job 10 months ago. As I’ve done so, I’ve watched my dreams of freedom and work/life balance fly out the window.

What I’ve Done Right

Before this post becomes whiny (it may be too late for that!), let me just say that I LOVE being a freelancer. I have never regretted the decision to leave my job and I have done everything in my power to ensure that I never have to go back. While 2012 has been far from perfect, there are also some things I’ve accomplished that remind me freedom is possible.

Small breaks. I haven’t made it to that cabin in the mountains or a beautiful beach just yet, but I’ve taken several small trips this year that wouldn’t have been possible in my former career. I got to attend my niece’s first birthday party. I saw my cousin graduate from basic training. I attended the Financial Blogger Conference – they’re nice enough to let me attend even though I’m probably the least financial blogger on the planet – and took an extra day on both ends to travel so I could enjoy the entire trip. Next month I’ll go to my nephew’s fourth birthday party, the first time I’ve ever been able to see him on his special day.

Time with Jayden. With few exceptions, I drop my son off and pick him up from school every single day. He gets to come home in the afternoon instead of bouncing between various sets of grandparents. I actually get to eat dinner with him instead of getting home from work just in time for him to go to bed. It has done wonders for him – his grades are higher, his mood has improved, and his stress level has gone down tremendously (as has mine).

Self-evaluation. This year has given me lots of time to really examine myself, my life, and my goals. I’ve always been kind of hesitant to set goals for fear of not meeting them, but I think I was also unsure what goals I needed to set. When you’re stuck in a dead-end job working 50-60 hours a week for peanuts and there is NO hope of moving ahead, what exactly is there to shoot for? Self-employment has forced me to become better acquainted with my strengths and weaknesses – I can’t afford to spin my wheels if I want more for myself.

Where I Hope to Improve

I left my job with one basic goal: Make enough money to remain self-employed for at least a year. I needed to know if I had what it takes to make it on my own. And so far (knock on wood) I’ve made it through 5/6 of the year with only a few bumps. I can’t even begin to describe how much I’ve learned and how many changes I have in mind for next year.

I’ve finally reached a level of comfort with how much work I need to do each month to pay my bills. In 2013, I’d like to double my freelance income. Not by raising my rates, necessarily, but by doing more work in a more efficient way. I’m also developing several extra income streams that don’t require quite as much time and energy; eventually I’d love for those to pay my bills so I can be more selective in the clients I take on.

I also want to spend more time doing other things I enjoy. I love what I do and sometimes it’s hard to stop even when I know I need a break. But next year I’d like to cut back on the number of hours I work. I want to eat my meals at the table instead of at my desk. I want to stop answering work-related emails on the weekends (one of the hardest habits I’ve tried to break so far). Most of all, I want to create time for ME.

I’ve already decided that I will write down five things in a notebook each day from now on:

  • The work-related accomplishment I’m most proud of that day
  • A work issue I need to improve on
  • The personal accomplishment I’m most proud of that day
  • One thing I did that was only possible because I’m self-employed (and staying in my pajamas all day doesn’t count)
  • Something I’d like to learn, do, or work on (NOT work-related)

Hopefully being mindful of these things will help me seek out a life beyond my computer screen.

So, Work/Life Balance. Is it Possible?

As a freelancer, I have yet to reach the work/life balance I had in mind when I quit my job. However, I do still believe it’s possible to reach it. The thing is, I didn’t leave my career to work for a bigger slavedriver than I did before. Yet that’s what I’ve allowed to happen, and I’m the only one who can fix it.

If 2012 has been all about succeeding as my own boss (AKA not going back to a “real” job), 2013 is going to be about reclaiming some of the things I gave up to pursue this crazy dream of mine. I don’t know that I’ll ever get to work on the beach – how do people keep sand out of their laptops? – but I’m definitely going to take more time to enjoy life and relax a little.

If you’re self-employed, how do you achieve work/life balance? If you aren’t self-employed, do you think you’d become obsessed with work like I have, or would you struggle more with staying motivated?


  1. bluecollarworkman says

    I think the part where you pick up Jayden from school and drop him off is great. My wife does that with our girls and it's wonderful. And very important. Child care is expensive and having your kids shipped all over the place before you get home from work sucks. And I think it sucks for them too. That's definitly one HUGE positive about you doing your own work thing.

  2. You've made it this far without having to go back to a "real" job (as some would put it), so that's a plus. No one can realistically expect to have a complete change in lifestyle immediately after making the switch; it takes time to adjust and build up to that level of success. The key is recognizing where you need to improve and setting your mind on making the necessary changes or taking steps to fix what isn't working the way you'd like. Since you have already reached that point, I'd say you're well on your way to a big turn-around!

  3. I don’t know which way I would go but history says slack off. However, if I rely on the income which I would hope I would work crazy hard until I exceeded my income goals.

    Hopefully your freelancing income has been enough to make it worth it to you and you’ve been able to stash some cash.

  4. I love your idea of a mindfulness notebook.

    If my freelancing self would be anything like my student self, I would have the most trouble staying at consistent work level. As a student, I go through spurts of major productivity and spurts of working very inefficiently.

  5. I think it would be really tough for me to feel like I could turn jobs down. There's something about wondering if there are more jobs coming in the future that would stress me out.

  6. plantingourpennies says

    I'd like to think that I'd keep a schedule and try and stick with it, but it's hard to say without having really done it for an extended period of time the way you have!

  7. I've been working longer than my 4 hours max a day admittedly. I also cannot take my afternoon siestas as easily when I was working anymore b/c I'm way too excited to do something else or new! It's never ending, which is great, but needs to be tempered!

    I''ve yet to work more than 10 hours a day though. My hope is that again, I work hard now, so that I don't have to work as hard online in 2-3 years.

    I think you'll do even better in 2013 as you've formed your web design company!!

  8. your boss sounds like a slave driver 🙂 acknowledging the problem is the first step!

  9. I think you are doing great so far, and I look forward to seeing your progress next year. I work from home, and I have never been able to achieve balance. When I am working, I wish I was with my family, and when I am with the family, I think of all of the work I should be doing. Sometimes it is just easier if I leave the house to focus on work.

  10. Budget & the Beach says

    Well, there is a cost of achieving work/life balance. I've always been a big advocate of it, even when I was working full time. It's boundaries. It's making other things a priority. That being said, there are negative consequences. I make exercise a priority, but like you said an hour not worked is an hour I'm not getting paid. Also if I have something in the evening and the client wants something, I do have a hard time saying no because I don't want to appear "difficult." But for me…I know myself, and if I don't get a little balance then I turn into a huge bitch. And how does that benefit me? It doesn't.

    So now I try to say no, but with a gentle solution like, "but I'd be happy to work earlier tomorrow to get you that file…" bla bla. Usually their perceived emergency is just that, perceived. Usually stuff can wait.

    Anyway, it's tough to find I know…

  11. Hi! I'm a new reader! Congratulations on your success so far and I hope it continues to grow for you in the future!!! 🙂

  12. makinthebacon1 says

    I think I'm the type of person who likes order and structure most of the time. Could be because I'm a virgo. I was sort of self-employed as a personal trainer at the local gym. It was weird for me having to work for free a lot and self-promote myself. I'm by no means an extroverted person so it made getting clients very hard for me. It was definitely a struggle to stay motivated. Needless to say, I only lasted 8 months with that.

  13. Canadianbudgetbinder says

    Not many people have the bollocks to go out on their own so good for you. I don't presume it's easy and I probably would be the person that would struggle to make that decision. Keep up the great work Andrea. Mr.CBB

  14. I think everyone struggles with the work/life balance. Personally I struggle with the work/blog balance. But I think more then anything the flexibility that being self employed gives you is the most important thing. I know that I benefited from my mom being self employed growing up, especially being a special needs kid!

  15. What an inspiring post. Thanks for sharing with all us single moms out there.

  16. No work-life balance here, at all. Climbing the ladder and drowning in success. I need help, but not as bad as I need sleep. And motivation.

  17. There is really no balance in work/life balance, it's more of a compromise. You have to ask yourself if you are willing to give up the security and benefits of a corporate job to have the freedom to do what you love with being self employed. I am using my freelance work to build myself as a brand and I hope to be 100% self employed some day (very soon). I want to do what I love and that is what I am working towards.

  18. americandebtproject says

    You're on a very good track with some of the products you've created at Nuts and Bolts which are GREAT, a good value for your clients, and don't require a lot of additional work on your part. The part where you have to stay tied to your work because the amount you produce is tied to how much income you bring in is tough, but I do thing the hardest part is the beginning and once you have a reputation and huge portfolio you will be on Easy St. :). I am not self-employed and don't like the idea of freelancing for myself – I know my tendencies and could see myself falling behind very quickly. But I DO plan to own my own businesses which is basically being self-employed and it will take a while to get used to the change. For example, I won't have holidays or get to turn my mind off work when I leave the office on Friday, never to be reminded that I even have a job all weekend long until I remember on Monday morning that there is somewhere I am supposed to be. I think the balance comes after some trial and error, just like you've been documenting here 🙂

  19. I'm self-employed, and I deal with these issues constantly …. I spend almost every waking hour "working," but I'm only operating at 70 percent efficiency during that time. I log hundreds of hours in front of my computer, but only some of those hours are spent writing/researching. Other time is spent getting distracted by celebrity gossip, staring out the window, and trying to shoo my cat off the keyboard.

    There's a theory called Parkinson's Law that says that work expands to fill the time you allot for it. Allot less time for work, and you'll feel the pressure to be more efficient.

    I'd like to try that, but narrowing those hours is hard when they boundaries are artificial (there's no actual reason for me to stop working).

    I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that I struggle with work-life balance, as well. But that said, I love being self-employed. I would have a hard time going back into the traditional workforce.

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