The Perils of Freelancing

*Note: The experiences below apply strictly to freelance translators.  Interpreters reap few of the benefits of freelancing while absorbing all its disadvantages, like having to get up at ungodly hours.

There was a time when all I dreamt of was to have my own schedule, work from my home office and not have to call anyone if I felt too sick to get out of bed.  Yes, the life of a freelancer is full of extraordinary flexibility.  Time becomes fluid and weekends cease to exist in the form of Saturdays and Sundays: everyday is the weekend.  (Or, perhaps, everyday is a weekday.)

I set up office anywhere I want: my bed, a café downtown, by the pool, at the dining room table.

The terrace at Maude’s Café. Office hours: any random day of the week.

I leave, I come back, I talk on the phone; nobody wags their finger at me for it or sends me to have a talk with HR.  They day begins when I say so, and if I say so.

For $3,695 this can be your office too.

The Oatmeal said it well: no more alarm clocks blaring at ungodly hours; no more itchy pant suits and ugly ties: it’s all knit pants and flip flops for the rest of your life.  No more corny emails from HR designed to boost the employees’ morale actually becoming one of the main sources of their depression.  No more diet-sabotaging free cheesecake.  No more busting some sort of willpower muscle trying with all your might not to fall asleep after a hefty lunch: you can actually go and take a nap.

And yet there are times when freelancing, for all its wonders, shows its nastier bits at the most unexpected of times.

Time becomes fluid.  Having a schedule imposed on you by an external force can be frustrating: I’ve been there many a time, as a student working in retail and getting the worse store hours and having no real weeknights or weekends as a result.  And yet, it also has an aspect of relief, as work time is fixed in a solid place in your schedule.  Your bosses require you to work four hours, or five, or ten –no less, no more.  And when you leave, you leave.  Making your own hours, however, means you’ll always be in work mode to some extent.  I have noticed with some nostalgia how I will get up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and automatically gravitate to my computer.  “Let me do a few segments before breakfast,” I tell myself.  And the fact that my personal computer is also my work station and that home is my “office” means that there is no clear delimitation between work and personal life: it all coexists in a jumble of experience, in which I flow from one activity to another.

Because time becomes fluid and all coexists in the same physical space, the range of distractions grows exponentially.  I have seen myself get completely derailed for one hour into an unrelated website because I opened my browser to look up a word, stumbled upon a new message in my inbox, which included a link with an interesting title, and all goes to hell from there.  Sure, that can happen at the office.  But what about the pile of dishes in the sink which you’ve been putting off all morning but now starts to actually look tempting after half an hour searching for a term that you can’t find anywhere?  Or how about that pregnant laundry basket that makes you feel guilty every time your eyes happen to land on it?  Everywhere you look there is evidence of your laziness, your procrastination.  Perhaps it’s time to clean.  And work out.  Yes, a good run will certainly go a long way towards making you feel accomplished.  Then a shower, then lunch.  By the time you’re done, it’s 2 p.m. and you haven’t gotten past that pesky term you couldn’t find in all the glossaries you possess.

Of course, if I were at an office, surrounded by other people like me, with all my unfinished things out of sight, I would have no choice but to keep searching (especially if I have a boss who keeps strolling by, casually eyeing my screen).  And I could just ask a coworker.  Maybe someone else has a magical glossary I have never heard of, or happens to know a shortcut in Google that will lead me to it.  But when alone at home, there is no one to ask.  You can only present the question in some forum, and hope somebody will deign answer quickly enough with something that is actually useful.

Distractions, however, not only come from within.  Those you can learn to control over time with the secret power of organization.  Distractions from without are an entirely different level.  When you have a job people outside assume you’re busy : your mother would never dream of calling you at work to ask if you could pick up her prescription in half an hour.  But when you’re a freelancer, everyone seems to think you’re in some sort of extended vacation.

Inhabiting my house is another human being who requires attention and conversation.  His job frees him on the weekends, while mine might have me getting Monday and Wednesday completely free but Saturday and Sunday bogged down by an endless mountain of work.  I forewarn him; he understands.  And yet, there is a thin veil of sadness filtering through the house as he sits by himself reading a book or playing a game, holding back with all his might from engaging me in any sort of interaction, while I furiously smash away at keys.  Eventually, when sunlight begins to die out there, we can sit and have dinner while watching an episode of some TV show.  By the time I manage to reach my goal for the day, it’s well into the night, and all I want to do is take a hot bath, drink some hot cocoa and pass out in bed while reading a comic book.

Becoming an accountant of sorts.  Managing absolutely all aspects of your income is one of the things I most dislike about freelancing, and is by far the biggest price I pay for freedom.  Invoices, color-coded project tables, taxes, trips to the bank almost every week: they all eat at my soul a little bit.  One week your are there, contemplating brokedom.  The next, it’s like you hit the jackpot.  Money flows in and out at varying intensities; you never know when it will stop trickling in, so you take all the jobs that come your way, hogging your schedule so completely it feels like you are working from morning till midnight (and sometimes you actually are).  You must save in case King Joseph’s proverbial skinny cows come along, threatening a reversion to daily ramen noodle lunches.  Or perhaps, this 20,000-word project due in a week will gain you that trip to Hawaii you’ve been dreaming of, and you just can’t say no, even if it means there are no free evenings -or free mornings, for that matter.

Let’s hope the palm trees are wi-fi enabled.

Oh, do not get me wrong: I do not yearn for the days when I sat at a cubicle so tiny I could not stretch out my arms within its walls and there were phones ringing ceaselessly and printers whirring all around me, and the smell of ink from the copy machines made me feel nauseated.  And I do not miss that migraine-inducing fluorescence of rows and rows of overhead lights, or the HR manager’s condescending smirks.  I like my freedom.  But that freedom comes at a price: by having more personal time, ironically, you sacrifice more of that time, as work becomes a 24-hour affair.  This is true even if you’re not getting a lot of work, as thinking about how to get more of it and how you’re going to pay the bills next month takes up 70% of your thoughts every hour of the day.  I guess the bottom line is nobody really has it easy. But that is the beauty of life.

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