9 things nobody tells you about going freelance

Cup of espresso by a computer keyboard

Until November 2014, I was editor-in-chief of Creative Bloq's sister Apple titles, MacFormat, MacLife and more. Then I decided to go it alone, and spent the next year-and-a-half working from home as a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

That leap – from secure full-time employment to uncertainty – wasn't one I took lightly. But it's fair to say that however much my wife and I tried to rationalise the pros and cons, and do our sums to see if it was financially viable, it really was a leap; I screwed up my eyes, balled my fists, and jumped into the unknown.

And let me tell you, there's a lot people don't tell you. I was prepared for a lot of what freelance life brought – the need for good bookkeeping, the benefits of having a dedicated office space you could close the door on, the process of pitching stories, broadening my client base and keeping myself engaged – but I've learned a lot in my time spent freelancing that I've never heard anyone say.

So if you're thinking about making that leap into the gig economy, let me show you where a few landing spots are.

01. You need less money than you think

Toasted sandwich

Making your own lunches and avoiding aimless wanders through shopping centres will save you money

We did some calculations and worked out what the minimum amount of money I would have to make as freelance would be, to ensure we covered bills and some very basic food; it was tiny. (I am lucky that my wife works too, and so was offsetting the amount of money we needed as a household, even though I had been the higher wage earner. If you don't have a partner, though, read on.)

In the first month of freelance, I made nearly 10 times my minimum. To be clear, I'm still earning less, gross, than I was when I was employed, but for all the usual reasons – self-determination, reduced pressure of work, flexibility and so on – I'm vastly more happy.

The bigger point, though, is that although my earnings have dropped, my savings have rocketed. What? Partly, that's conscious; we were understandably cautious about spending money when we didn't know how freelance would go. But also, I found I just spend less money now; because I work from home (and since there are no shops around me).

I'm forced realistically to buy my week's lunches when we do the one big grocery shop – and to make smarter use of leftovers. And because there's not the constant temptation of a £3 coffee, a lunchtime pint, a burrito treat and so on, freelancing is simply a cheaper lifestyle for me.

02. You get playtime back

It's far too easy, both in full-time work and when working freelance, to feed the beast. But play is really important, especially for those of us working in creative industries. That's not just because it's rewarding but because if you're pushed for time you'll only do the things you know will work – and that leads to mediocrity.

Play, discover, explore. Build playtime, whatever that means for your industry, right into your day and it will bear fruit. (And if you try something and it doesn't work, celebrate – that's what it's there for.)

03. Made enough money? Stop working

A book and a beer

Reward yourself with treats now and then – you're your boss!

After a few months (and by tracking your invoices even just on a simple spreadsheet, as I do), you start to get a feel for how much money you make in a typical month, and whether that's sufficient. 

And the really great bit? When I can see that magical number looming, I know I can ease off the gas a bit. It usually doesn't mean I stop pitching or writing or doing other ancillary stuff, but I can take a day off here or there, take a long bath, go for a walk, or better still…

04. You have a routine – but you can break it

I get up every day at 6:15am, drive my wife to the station, come home, make myself some breakfast and eat it on front of my Mac, catching up on feeds and the news of the day. Shower, dress and ready to work by 9:30am. This is good, as otherwise I know from some other freelancers that the lure of the sofa and daytime TV is strong.

But at the same time I need to keep reminding myself: I don't work in an office. Bad night's sleep? Lie in. Glorious sunshine? Take my laptop to the pub. Nothing pressing today? Go for a drive and visit a town I've never been to before.

05. You get vastly more done in a day than you think

A screenshot shows a user choosing to quit the Mail application

Away from an office/team, there are fewer distractions

Without phones ringing, emails pinging, senior colleagues dumping new initiatives on you and junior colleagues needing help and support, you get so much more done in a day than you had been used to when you did a regular job.

Especially if you've drifted into a senior position at work, you'll recognise the feeling that you spend more time writing emails and juggling spreadsheets than you spend doing the creative thing that you love. At a stroke, you can cut all that stuff out; for the first few weeks, I'd portion out work for the day yet be done by mid-afternoon, since all I was doing was the fun, creative stuff.

06. You get fat

A graph shows daily steps

The 10,000 steps per day target is a lot harder to meet from the sofa

My commute used to be a three-mile daily walk, and that wasn't counting pounding the office floor to talk to colleagues or walking between buildings. I was never slim, but this helped keep the paunch at bay. 

Now, I could commute from my bedroom to my office with one step, and my Wi-Fi scales have been tracking the inexorable consequence. I'm trying to force myself to exercise more, but it's always optional, and that's a problem.

07. You need to appoint an HR manager

The best HR managers promote training, mandate holidays, support sick leave and more. You don't have that when freelance, but someone needs to be looking out for you or else you'll burn yourself out doing the thing that was supposed to stop you burning out. 

For me, it's my wife. For you, it might be a friend or relative. If you have the will, your HR manager could even be yourself, but you need to explicitly take stock every so often to check both your professional development and your mental and physical health.

08. You get your weekends back

A washing machine control panel

Get the boring stuff done bit by bit mid-week, freeing up the weekends for fun

When my wife and I both had office jobs, weekends were for catching up on chores and straightening the house out. Now, as I work from home, I can keep things ticking over during the week. 

It doesn't mean I'm explicitly blocking out times to do housework, but you'd be amazed at the cumulative effect of taking that plate through to the kitchen when you're going through anyway, sticking a load of washing on while a bath's running, or throwing together a big pot of stew in the afternoon that you'll freeze in batches. Basically, I follow my 'commit to commitment' mantra, and when the weekend comes around, I get to spend quality time with my wife.

09. You discover your real interests

There are other constraints besides routine when you work in an office. Even if it's a job you like, you're still told what to do each day, more or less. When you're freelance, you start every day with "what shall I do today?", and that presents an unparalleled opportunity to discover what it is you want to do that day – and the next.

So that's what I've discovered, and I hope, if you're eyeing the chasm that is freelance, that it proved useful – maybe even encouraging.

Liked this? Read these:

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Christopher has written and edited a range of publications, including Apple-specialist titles MacFormat, Mac|Life and iPad User. His work has also featured in the BBC, Computer Arts, Digital Camera Magazine, PhotoRadar, Practical Photoshop, Macworld and TechRadar. He is currently head of podcasts at DC Thomson and has spoken at various design and tech events.