25 tips for staying sane as a freelancer

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Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

There's a myth about working as a freelance designer that it largely comprises lounging around in your pants watching Netflix.

And while there may well be the opportunity to plunge into a YouTube vortex without colleagues glimpsing snatches of 'Monkey Riding a Pig' or Father Ted reruns, in reality working for yourself demands the stamina and discipline of a marathon runner.

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What's more, while your PAYE counterparts can sit back knowing that a payslip will magically appear in their bank account every month, you've not only got to hustle for the work and then do the work, but you even have to fight to get paid for it too.

You're on your own. But don't lose focus. Here are 25 tips for staying sane as a freelancer

01. Run a strict regime

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

With nobody to crack the whip, the biggest hurdles are psychological. The possibility to procrastinate is infinite; but a fridge clean enough to pass the Foods Standards Agency's most rigorous testing and a Pantone-ordered pencil case won't make a blank page any less terrifying, and the post-procrastination guilt can make starting all the more daunting.

Knowing yourself is key, as is a strict regime to suit your peak productivity. "I think in the morning, and do in the afternoon," graphic artist Pâté, aka Paul Pateman, explains. "Ideas, colour choices, and so on, I work on in the morning, and then social media, invoicing and PR in the afternoons."

Deadlines are essential for Pâté and he even forces them for personal work by contacting shops and galleries before he's finished a piece. "It means you have to do it because the wheels are in motion."

02. Break down tasks

Procrastination hits when your available time stretches generously into the distance – something easily overcome by breaking down tasks.

When illustrator Stephen Cheetham created 50 illustrations for the NSPCC in a month, he kept on top of the project by engineering false deadlines, policed by Skype feedback sessions every Monday and Thursday with the client.

"If there wasn't a schedule or my client didn't want to work like that it could have been quite stressful," says Cheetham.

03. Test a task management app

Cheetham's SAS-style regime was aided by a vital hack: a piece of software called Things. A task management app (check out Huddle, Quire too), Things allows you to schedule tasks by project, which it then organises into daily to-do lists.

"I recently worked on some packaging for M&S," Cheetham explains. "That project is now done, but I've set a reminder to chase the invoice, to ask for images and to send a mailout once I've received those images."

Many of these programs have a free trial period, so you can test which suits your way of working before paying the full fee. "It doesn't allow me time to stop and wander off," adds Cheetham.

04. Hack yourself

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

Bad habits are hard to break, so sometimes self-sabotage is the only way. Downloadable apps like SelfControl block your blacklisted websites even if you restart or delete the app.

Similarly Milan-based illustrator Sarah Mazzetti has set up her Chrome browser so that Facebook automatically redirects to the Guardian's homepage. "With the internet and social networks, you can lose control," says Mazzetti. "Facebook is so addictive that sometimes you go to it without even noticing, and at least this way I know when I'm doing it."

05. Restrict social media

When updating social media actually is important for your work, it again comes down to structure. "The key with social media is to be efficient," explains illustrator Jitesh Patel.

"I set myself just 30 minutes to visit Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. I use software such as Buffer to auto-post to Twitter and Facebook, and I use RSS feed software Feedly to channel all the websites I follow into one place."

06. Allow structured procrastination time

If you really can't avoid procrastination, build it into your day – with structured time-slots. "I just can't settle straight away so I have a good hour of faffing time in the morning," says surface pattern designer Esther Cox.

But Cox is strict, and tries to make it relevant – in this morning's 'procrastination hour' she researched Parisian rooftops, which was inspiration for a textile commission.

07. The occasional off-day is okay

Essentially, productivity is about doing something – anything – rather than struggling. "I try not to beat myself up if I'm not feeling it," explains photographer Jess Bonham. "Ask yourself what you can realistically achieve today before you write it off completely."

Rather than plan shoots or concepts, Bonham might spend 'off-days' organising folders on her hard drive, weeding her inspiration folder or filing receipts; tasks that don't need brain energy.

08. Beat creative block

With no-one to bounce ideas off, creative block can turn into a maddening affliction that piques Dawson's Creek-level angst. To ease its grip, you need both preventative measures built into your daily routine and crisis management.

"I write down 10 ideas a day," says Patel. "Some are serious, which I think might make a good illustration, others are fun and totally pointless. The point is to become an ideas machine, with flowing and constant solutions."

09. Create a routine

Routine is also important for Cox: "I draw every day for the sake of it. It helps you explore new ideas without client needs, and it alleviates creative block in the first place."

The added bonus is that this creative play can be used as a social media tool. "A lot of my client work I can't share because of contracts," adds Cox. "This way potential clients can still get a feel for my style and it shows I'm busy."

10. Keep going…

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

But when a deadline is imminent, working through it is the only option, says Pâté. "With creative block I just try to make sure I've had an idea by the end of the day, no matter how good (or not) it is," he says.

"Make sure it's on a piece of paper, even if it's rubbish. When you go back in the morning, you can pick it apart, and maybe take one element of it forward." The psychological advantage of going to bed with something also means you'll probably sleep better.

Next page: 15 more tips for staying sane as a freelancer

11. Know who you can bounce ideas off

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

Working on your own does not mean you're the sole survivor in a post-apocalyptic world. "It's risky but you can also use the art director that you're working with," adds Pâté.

Bouncing ideas off the art director of The Washington Post for a recent project meant better results, even though the initial concepts were rejected. "The ideas that I came up with second time round were so much better than the first," he adds.

12. Don’t be an island

Freelancing can be a lonely business, affecting not just your social wellbeing, but the opportunity to learn from others. Meetups like Yo Illo, Glug, The Big Draw, as well as local exhibitions, will keep you sane and offer informal spaces to delve into how your idols got started, practical portfolio tips and views on different agencies and clients.

13. Try a skill-swap

It's a big feat to approach a creative you admire even if it's just to suggest a coffee – the key for confidence is not to go empty handed. "What has worked for me is to skill swap, rather than taking something for nothing," says Patel.

When launching a range of tote bags, Patel helped a textile designer he met at designer-maker meetup Crafty Fox with some illustrations in exchange for her thoughts on potential manufacturers and retailers. The result was that both parties benefitted from money-can't-buy expertise.

14. Put on an event yourself

The skill swap approach can also be less direct: tempt your heroes to meet you by putting on events so exciting or innovative, they won't want to miss out.

15. Don’t overlook the human touch

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

Real-life networking is also essential for winning pitches: take the time to meet someone and you'll come to mind quicker than a name on an email signature.

Researching the client, and making sure your portfolio is geared towards their interests is obvious, but it's the human touch that people often overlook, says illustrator Ben Tallon.

"Out of fear and respect for a client you don't treat them with the kindnesses you would your friend. If you find out your client has a family, ask about their family. Perhaps they like football or the same band as you. Ask them if they're better if they've been off sick."

Tallon's approach has paid off professionally and personally. "I remember going to see Sam Price at The Big Issue when I first started out, and he was like a God to me. I went to his wedding last week!"

16. Follow up on initial meetings

After the initial meet, a next day follow-up is crucial, says freelance designer Gordon Reid.

"If you meet a creative director at an event and you don't have their email, tweeting them to say thanks is a really good way of keeping in contact. It's likely that they'll add you back, and then six months later, they'll still be looking at your work."

17. Appreciate your followers

Networking is not just about clients and collaborators, it's about appreciating followers too. "I have a New York fan with a big Instagram following, and whenever she posts a picture of my work I get another 50 followers," says photographer Jess Bonham.

It gets better: "When I went to New York I arranged a meeting with her to chat and say thanks," she adds. "It led to another project for a magazine called Coach."

18. Know how to hustle

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

Sadly the hustle doesn’t end once you’ve done the job – the bane of every freelancer’s life is getting paid. “I’ve sent emails in the past saying: ‘Please can you pay me as I need to buy food,’ which was true at the time, although it didn’t make much difference,” sighs Andrew Rae.

“Most people get round to it eventually but it can be really annoying and 90-day payment periods seem to be becoming worryingly normal on agency jobs – it’s a disgrace.”

19. Agree your fee first

First things first, make sure that the fee is agreed before you do any work on a job. “People will take advantage of you,” says Jess Bonham.

“Just the very fact that you’re showing them that you’re taking the budget seriously and you want it to be transparent, makes them realise that they can’t mess you about.”

20. Have clear T&Cs

Like many freelancers, Cheetham has 30-day payment terms, and charges a 5 per cent late fee, which goes up to 10 per cent after 60 days, but he admits they're largely a deterrent. "It's good that they're written there, but you could have written anything," he laughs.

22. Join an industry body

Cheetham recommends joining an industry body like the Association of Illustrators, UKWDA or DBA, as the former has given him legal advice on non-payment but has also helped him with pricing.

"You can ping them over project details, and they'll give you advice on fees." This was essential when he was entering the uncertain world of licensing existing un-copyrighted work.

23. Arm yourself with insider intelligence

Freelance tips

Illustration: Jamie Coe

If you're working for a client on a regular basis, get to know what their policy is so that you can beat the system armed with insider intelligence.

"If you're unlucky enough to time an invoice wrong, you might be looking at six to eight weeks, as opposed to 28 days," Tallon explains.

"And it becomes difficult then because a client has to alter their company policy to meet your invoice terms. Most people just won't do that."

24. Play the reliable card

Working with the system also has its advantages. “One of the benefits of being reliable is that you can say, “Am I okay to invoice this two days before the brief because I’m a bit skint?” and people who know you are generally fine with that and will process it early,” he adds.

25. Chase repeatedly if you have to

But, sadly, sometimes you're pushed so far into a corner that your only option is to make yourself as annoying as humanly possible. Follow up a late payment with a friendly email, but if no response is forthcoming then don't be afraid to escalate.

"Ideally contact the right person in the finance department, so you can separate the person you have to be stern with from the creative person," says Bonham.

"But essentially, if you've done a good job for somebody, and they haven't paid you, then they should be the person to feel ashamed. There is nothing wrong with chasing them repeatedly, and don't work for them again."

This article was originally published in Computer Arts, the world's leading design magazine. Subscribe here.

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