As I head into my second year of freelancing, I am belatedly realising just how foolish any attempt at creating a work-life balance is. The work I do is highly cyclical in nature, and the deadlines almost entirely not dictated by me (or generally even by my clients); take, for example, the last few months, which have included Chambers UK deadlines (mid-December and mid-February), Legal 500 UK deadlines (mid-February, mid-March, with the deadline for paid profiles the week after the submission deadline), Chambers Europe/Global (first deadline late February), Middle East (start of March) and Asia (start of March/start of April). If all this sounds confusing, trust me it is: I have spent the last few weeks working 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week across time zones to try and accommodate all my clients.
But of course when you have a portfolio career, just because one part of your business gets busy, it doesn’t mean the rest of it slows down. I can’t tell my other, non-legal clients that I am putting their work on hold because I have other deadlines – the fact that I have a weekly quota of web copy to get through for one client, and a batch of magazine articles due in the same day as the Legal 500 is, frankly, my tough luck. Likewise, your personal life doesn’t stop: I’m currently in the middle of moving house, and am dealing with family health crises that consume a lot of my time and energy. You’ll understand, then, if I give people short shrift when they keep telling me how relaxing it is to work from home.
I’m not in any way claiming that I actually work any harder than office-based employees – I have plenty of friends working insane, full on hours in office jobs – just that the perception tends to be that, if you work from home, you spend great swathes of your time swanning around drinking coffee and reading magazines (this seems particularly to be true if you’re a woman working from home – I blame Sex and the City for perpetuating the myth that freelancing for women means a few minutes at your laptop, the rest of the time in cocktail bars). I’m also not complaining about my workload. I feel remarkably blessed to be in such demand. I spent much of last year fretting about building up my business, and it’s rewarding in the extreme to see it starting to grow, and to get repeat work from satisfied clients. More than that, I genuinly enjoy what I do – even at its most frustrating, it’s something I feel passionately about, and I want to keep doing. If I have to work my socks off to make it a success, I’m happy to do that. Working for myself still gives me a flexibility I enjoy and can use to my benefit – if I want to get up at 4am and work I can, likewise if I feel I need an extra hour in bed one day, there’s no boss to shout at me for not being at my desk at 9am sharp. But I’m realising that, at least in my chosen career, work-life balance is not a day-to-day thing: it’s a long-term haul. There simply will be weeks and months when I do nothing, nothing at all, but work, times when every other thing in my life has to be fitted in around deadlines and demands. There will, similarly, be weeks when the workload is light and if I want to I can skive off and spend the afternoon wandering around the shops or a gallery. This also of course has financial implications – I need to keep reminding myself that this is my lucrative time of year, so the money I earn now needs to be banked as a buffer against future lean times (and to pay the tax man – something which came as a bit of a jolt last year!).
It’s not a way of working that suits everyone, and it’s certainly not the fantasy of self-employment that many people dream of. Personally, I love it – I find it liberating beyond measure to be able to set my own hours and to work to my own, often eccentric, internal clock. But it has made me recognise that the one thing you need, more than anything, when you start freelancing, is realistic expectations: if you go into it thinking it’s an easier way of working, it might come as a bit of a shock. I think that, whatever your chosen field, the first year of doing it freelance is likely to be the steepest learning curve of your life – so, like all great adventures, you need to embark on it well-prepared for the journey.
[And, because I really like making things difficult for myself, I put my new book out this week… Wolf Night is available now from Amazon.]