Putting the 'free' back in freelancing

One item on a FastCompany.com list of “five ways to be a happier freelancer* made me stop and think. The title of this bullet point, “Be free,” intrigued me.

Researchers agree that psychologically, the way that self-employment contributes to higher job satisfaction is through greater autonomy, freedom, and independence. ... But in order to make this work for you, you have to exercise that right. Which of the projects you are working on right now are the ones you would do even if you weren't getting paid? Is it possible to shift toward spending more time on those?

This is one of the business tips I give to new freelancers, and often money has something to do with it – for me, at least. When I started freelancing I decided I was not willing to do every single thing people would pay me for. I couldn’t bring myself to write free-association drivel and post it on the web just to put a blog post up. I wouldn’t cover local news I wasn’t interested in – I know other freelancers who can do that, but I wouldn’t find it satisfying. And, I wouldn’t write ANYTHING for $10 a post. My time is more valuable doing other things.

To me the greatest thing about freelancing is deciding what I’m going to spend my time doing. I would rather put time into doing web research on companies seeking freelancers than writing about fashion or home decorating. I would rather do a tutorial to learn new web production software than write product reviews.

Not everyone has the freedom I do to turn down jobs. But at some point, you need to ask yourself what else you could do with your time that would lead to more satisfying, better-paying gigs. What else could you accomplish in the time it takes to write 500 words for $30? How many queries could you send? Could you learn enough about a subject you know little about to write about it?

I decided to stop applying for gigs writing descriptive website copy when I was in the middle of a project that left me cold every time I finished working on a section of the site. I hated designing fill-in forms and no longer take on assignments requiring me to do this – unless it’s for an organization I belong to and someone begs with pitiful puppy-dog eyes.

The question of doing what makes you happy also means allowing yourself to accept low-paying jobs when you want to. I’ve enjoyed doing membership surveys for nonprofits in exchange for website software. I’ve written 1,000 words for $350 in exchange for the opportunity to get up to my elbows in a juicy data set. I’ve done interesting consulting projects for nonprofits so that I would have work samples to include in my portfolio. These were all assignments that made me happy. And, the time it took me to do them was better spent from a business point of view than dragging my feet and procrastinating to squeeze out deliverables I wasn’t proud of or struggled to complete.

If you hate what you’re doing and are not making very much money doing it, get a part-time job in a restaurant or bookstore. At least then you might get free food or books and would be better able to apply yourself to freelancing in the other part-time. 


*The article says it's going to offer five, but only four are given.