The biggest problem I’ve had to face during my personal freelancing journey is one that I knew (in theory) would be somewhat of a hurdle, but I had no idea that it would become the daily struggle that it is: the need to convince the people in my life that what I do every day at home, lounging around in my pajamas, is just as valid as their 9-5 (or 10-7, or 3-11) out-of-home jobs.
And honestly, I get it. If someone were to peek into my office (slash bedroom) on any given workday (as they often do), they would see me lying on my stomach, my feet on my pillows, my eyes glued to the laptop at the foot of my bed; my planner at my right with a pad of paper, a few gel pens, a set of highlighters; headphones to my ears, mutely radiating Nirvana or Alice Cooper or James Taylor, depending on my mood; an open Word document in front of me, or a random web page. (Or maybe I have closed my laptop and have an open book in front of me, or my current cross-stitch, partly to work through the brain fog that inevitably builds during times of heavy concentration, partly just because I want to. And I have that option, because I work at home.) It doesn’t necessarily look like I’m working.
They see that I am comfortable. I own my time, or at least the organization of it. I can eat, or walk to the store, or take a random long break whenever I feel like it (although I will pay for it later in the form of lost sleep). And because of that, even when I am in the darkest dredges of whatever manuscript I’m working on, when I’m in the deepest zone of concentration I’m able to achieve that day, when I’m at my most frazzled because I’ve taken on too many projects during a month when an unusually high number of unexpected Life episodes pop up . . . people still don’t get that I am working.
Those who have “normal” jobs, with structured work hours in a work-like environment with a boss who demands they stay on task, may not understand the freelancing lifestyle. They get up, go to work, and when they come home, they’re done with that aspect of life for the day (and I understand this isn’t true for all jobs; many people are working for months on end, or are always on call), and they can focus on their families, or whatever else they want to do with the rest of their evenings. Freelancing is a different animal – my brain is always ON, always gearing up for the next task, even when I’m enjoying time with my family or friends. So the people in my life don’t necessarily understand the struggles that come with my particular job (not that they don’t have equal or more difficult struggles that come with their own careers; I’m not comparing here, just saying that our lifestyles are different, and it’s hard to empathize when you have an outsider’s perspective).
So here are the coping mechanisms I’ve learned to utilize.
I live with a number of family members right now, so a door (or door-like structure) to my work space is a necessity. Preferably with a lock. A closed/locked door is a pretty powerful message to others that I would not like to be disturbed, and it puts one in a position to knock, which sets up the dynamic I am aiming for – “I am working, and you are disturbing me. Please make it brief.” When they do knock, I can be short and distracted and still keep it friendly, which helps to further develop that dynamic without hurting feelings.
If a door absolutely cannot be accomplished (I once set up shop in my daughter’s closet when she was an infant and didn’t much mind that I was invading her space), I set up my work area in a way that distances myself physically from the social flow of my house. Sometimes all it takes is to place my desk (or desk-like structure) so that my back is to anyone who may pass. Headphones are good – they’ve become the universal “Please pretend I’m invisible to you” symbol. (Of course, I have a young kid, so all of these techniques can be a strong invitation to approach me to strike up a long, complex conversation, or to begin making lots of noise and/or mischief, but that’s another matter altogether.)
I turn off my ringer – if my family sees me taking a personal call, they will feel insulted, and they will begin to think I’m not actually working when I say I am. When I am in my work space, I do not meander over to Facebook or STFU Parents or Memebase – whatever it is I feel like turning to for a few minutes that day to break up the fog – this has the same effect on family members as taking a personal call. (Even when I’m networking, which is a necessary regular task, I don’t let other people see me on a social media site; I wait until I’m alone, or log on with my phone instead.) A sign can be helpful – a simple “I’m working right now; please don’t disturb” will ward off polite/sympathetic family members.
I try to encourage my family to respect my need for space and quiet when I am in my work space. This takes time. Even after the initial “Hey, I’m working from home now, and it would be awesome if you could respect that” conversation, it is, of course, natural for them to talk to me when they see me, whether to discuss a particular issue or just to catch up on the day. It becomes much easier for them to adjust if, when they do accidentally violate my work time, I say, “I’m sorry, but I’m right in the middle of something this second. I was going to take a break in a few minutes, could we talk then?” and then stick to my word.
I try to be consistent (and firm) in my insistence that I need to work, but I also try to be consistent in taking short breaks to give my family some face time. Not only does that (hopefully) ease the (temporary) sense of abandonment that stems from me being able to spend every day at home but no extra time with them, but it refreshes my overworked brain, and it serves to remind me that the need for quality time with my family still exists, despite my overabundance of physical time with them. I carve out as much face time with them as possible. The more I am available to them during my free time (and I try to make sure to let them know I have free time, and not just get lost in my book when I give up for the night), the less deprived they will feel while I am working.
For friends and family outside my personal space, who always feel like they don’t see me enough: I must carve out time for them, whether it’s once a week, once every two weeks, once a month, whatever I can do with the workload I have at any given time. To them, again, I am home all the time – I can visit them, or invite them over, whenever I want to. And if I could fit in an hour once or twice a week over lunch, then by all means, I do. But oftentimes, I’m not able to, and they, also, feel abandoned. (I live over an hour away from many of my family and friends. To visit them is an excursion and is often a day of work or more missed. It’s usually a choice between seeing my much-missed people, or meeting deadlines. Most of the time I settle on losing a whole lot of sleep.) This is not as immediately detrimental as depriving my in-home family of quality time, but in the long term, I risk losing friends, or at the least, straining my relationships with them.
The phone is helpful here – I can usually find 20 minutes, during one of my breaks, to make a call and say, “Hey, we haven’t spoken much lately. What’s going on with you?” A collaborative calendar, for my tech-savvy friends and family, is a handy thing. I let them know what my work schedule is – not my hourly schedule, since I could never keep up such a thing – but what days I may be free. If I have a dentist appointment, why not take the opportunity to visit a friend for an hour? Or schedule to take a day off when feasible (again, depending on workload) to go out and see some of my people, or invite a group of them over for dinner and drinks. They need the time with me, and I need the time with them. I can also take the opportunity to discuss work, and remind them that I actually do have a day job, I just don’t have to leave home for it – that, in fact, I often can’t leave home because of it.
If things pile up and I’m not able to make my date (I try not to do this too often), I settle for a quick phone date: “I’m so sorry, I have to reschedule. I had no idea this project would be as much work as it is. I’m completely drained and probably going to pull an all-nighter. Do you want to talk for a few minutes while I take my coffee break?” Over time, if I am firm and consistent (and again, consistency goes both ways), they too will begin to adjust to my new life.
Many times people will expect me to be available to do things on the fly – go to dinner, help them move, give them a ride somewhere. I often screen my calls for this very reason, since I’m still not very good at saying no. An emergency is one thing, but if they’re calling just because I’m home, I ask myself if they’d call someone who works in a traditional work setting with the same question, and if the answer is no, then I can feel okay to give them that same response. If my workload that day is such that I can swing it, and I actually feel like doing it, then I go for it, but I have to be sure that it’s on my own terms. Once I start giving in to guilt, it’s a slippery slope – I will find myself being the reliable, go-to friend who also happens to be constantly sleep-deprived and full of resentment. I don’t want to be that friend.
My most important coping mechanism? To maintain psychological security in my position as a freelance worker. My job is valid and I respect myself and my work, and if I continue to radiate that energy, the people close to me will take notice and respect me and my work as well. And that’s really what it boils down to.
Those are some of my techniques. What are yours?