A year into my freelance career depression hit me like a brick.
While the reasons were manifold, work played a major role in it.
Getting better, I started to reflect on both my personal and professional life, thinking about the parts that were working out for me, as well as the ones that didn’t.
Job-wise I could come up with a whole book of mistakes I made and revelations I had over the years.
For a start, I came up with the three most important common-sense habits that kept me sane and whole ever since.
Keep your finances in order
Accounting can be fun. There. I said it.
If you did an apprenticeship and/or spent three years at a university learning how projects theoretically work in a perfect world, chances are that Finance and Accounting is still a black hole to you.
If you, like me, chose Design as a profession, chances are even higher you can relate to that statement.
In design related education, any practical classes on a fundamental understanding of how taxes work or what your salary should (or could) look like after you are done playing around seems to be an utterly foreign thought.
One of the main stress factors in freelancing are financials. You get bombarded with horror stories of people going broke.
Taxes and an utter lack of financial organization keep you up at night.
The first year of full-time freelancing I lost quite a lot of sleep because I kept being haunted by my financial setup (apart from the always prevailing fear of not being booked the next month).
So I cherry-picked two of the financial advices I would have liked to give my past self.
Outsource the hard part
I could do my own taxes.
I just really don’t want to.
Using online tools, by the end of each month I can simply hit a button and all my receipts and bills are sent to my accountant. She does both my book keeping and monthly VAT tax statements. She also fixes any mistakes I might have made and keeps me informed of ways for me to save money.
The german tax system is hell on earth. Every year new laws pop up, sometimes contradicting existing ones.
Even a professional tax advisor has to keep track of the load of new laws and regulations.
So why should I?
Knowing the basics and automatically keeping track of my expenses is enough for me to double check if I feel like it (“Trust, but verify.”). If I think in opportunistic costs, I would not only lose precious time of my life but also money doing all taxes and accounting myself.
I can sleep soundly at night, knowing that I can rely on someone to do my accounting for me. I don’t have to carve out time on top of everything else to do things someone else can do better and faster than me.
Important disclaimer here: Having a tax consultant doesn’t completely absolve you from having a basic understanding of how much money you should save for taxes and your monthly cash flow. I learned that the hard way by loosing quite some money on my first tax consultant who literally forgot to inform me about a massive upcoming prepayment.
Over the years I automated most money related processes to a point where I barely lose any time (or nerves) at all.
Here are the three main measures I took:
- I set up an account with an online accounting service, automating all my bills and visualizing a rough estimate of my cashflow each month
- I built an Excel Sheet to keep track of all recurring monthly expenses ( I was so proud of that, I even showed my dad)
- I automatically deduct a percentage of all incoming bills off for taxes and then another percentage for my retirement funds
There are a lot more financial “hacks” that work for me, but those would fill up an article in itself.
Simply put, the more time you spend setting up an automated system, the more it will save you a ton of time and stress in the long run.
Time spent organizing yourself is time well spent.
Take a break
I know, right? Captain Obvious here.
Even though this is basically common knowledge, most Freelancers (me included) frequently get caught up in the urge to say yes to every job offer heading their way.
The first year of freelancing I literally said yes to every new project I got, which ended in me working 60+ hours a week.
It was a blessing for my, at the time, very depleted savings account and my professional network. I got a foot in the door and met a whole bunch of great people and friends.
I also didn’t know when to stop and smell the roses, which led to the aforementioned forced break in the form of a severe depression.
To this day I still tend to work in bursts of highly productive periods, sometimes working on 2–3 projects at a time. It works for me, because I usually go on a prolonged hiatus for a couple of weeks up to a couple of months after those periods.
The concept of Mini Retirements, where you take a dedicated time off to recharge and do your own thing appealed to me.
Why wait until you burn out before you take a break?
Why not take a break before you’re even starting to get tired.
I am fully aware that I’m sitting on a high horse here, because I usually don’t have to worry about getting a job anymore. I appreciate being able to actually enjoy taking some time off. It took me years to reach this point.
Yet, I still wish I took some more time back then to just stop and rest before that brick hit me.
Build a network of friends
I can’t stand networking events.
I tried but I just couldn’t bring myself to go up to complete strangers and hand out my business cards like chips. I usually ended up having a drink at the bar, chatting with other miserable participants who couldn’t quite figure out what led them to think this was a good idea. Those where usually the people I kept in contact with.
Most people have that image of the freelancing world as a massive tank full of sharks in mind. Everyone is out for blood.
I know of a lot of stories and obviously had some bad experiences myself. Yet I somehow managed to build a solid professional network of people that I genuinely like and admire in one way or another. It’s nice to be able to both talk about work and private matters with the same person.
No one is out to get you, people are usually just waiting for you to ask for help.
I have people I could call in the middle of the night because I said yes to a C# programming job without having a clue what that actually meant.
I can also call the same people in the middle of the night if I feel overwhelmed by life in general and just need a pep-talk from a friend.
From day one of my freelancing career I never had to do any serious client acquisition. I barely ever use Xing or LinkedIn. Choosing to make friends instead of work colleagues helped me to build an amazing network of people I can completely rely on at all times, be it to find a new gig, help with a project or just having a coffee.