Here’s a 30-second summary of this post: as a freelancer, you’ll find that some things feel effortless and some things feel like pushing a cement mixer up a hill. Analyze the difficult things and figure out how to make them less difficult, and your life will be much easier.
This post was inspired by a question from a student in one of my classes. “How do you stay so organized?,” she asked. “You seem to do a lot, but never get stressed or frazzled. What’s the secret?” And two answers popped into my head: 1) I’m probably somewhat less organized than I seem, and I do sometimes get stressed and frazzled (ask my husband!), and b) I don’t know: it just doesn’t feel that hard. I look at my day or my week, and think “What absolutely has to get done?,” then I do that first. Then I think “What should probably get done?,” and then I do that. And then if there’s any time left, I do the “as time allows” tasks. In 13 years of freelancing, I’ve never missed a deadline; a “late” day for me is when I finish work half an hour later than planned. So, when I talk to translators who report that they are routinely up until 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM finishing deadlines, I’m essentially never in that boat. I don’t use time tracking software, or a rigid schedule; I just eyeball it and everything seems to get done, in the available amount of time.
And there are other things that don’t feel that hard. I’m good with managing money: at my first job out of college, I made…wait for it…$750 a month plus room and board, and I had some money left at the end of the year. I’ve never carried a credit card balance in my life. In the same vein as time/productivity management, I just look at how much money I have available, and I spend a little less than that so that I can save some.
But…the fact is that everyone has facets of freelancing, or of life in general, that just come naturally. It’s hard to explain how you do them successfully, because you don’t know what you do: they’re just never a problem. Then there are the ‘cement mixer’ facets, which are things that you have to have a strategy for, because your natural tendency is to work against your own best interests. For me, food is one of those things. On the positive side, I’m a vegetarian and I love to exercise (another one of those “comes easily” things; I just don’t get what’s not to love about exercising!); on the negative side, I have the metabolism of a hibernating bear and I love good food; I’m also “fortunate” to be surrounded by people who are incredible cooks–my husband, my parents who live near us, various friends. So there’s never a lack of something tempting to eat. It’s not a crisis, but, like a translator routinely finishing deadlines at 3 AM, or never paying off the last $1,000 of the credit card debt, I gain-lose-gain-lose-gain-lose the same 10 pounds, over and over again.
For me, food is my “can’t just eyeball it” issue. I find diets depressing and counterproductive, but without a system, I chronically eat a little too much, a little too often. Because I’ve recognized this tendency in myself, I’ve developed some systems to protect against it, and to keep the chronic 10 pounds from becoming 50 or 100. I think you can apply this system to your “can’t just eyeball it” issues as well, so that if you can’t overcome them completely, you can at least keep them from dominating your life:
- Avoid unrealistic rigidity, or anything that involves the words “never again.” You’re not going to immediately start following a to-the-minute time tracking plan, or a to-the-penny budget, or a no-peanut-butter-cheesecake-ever-again-in-this-lifetime rule. Pick small adjustments that you think you can stick to: no Facebook during the work day; no non-paying work until the paying work is done; let non-critical e-mail wait until the end of the day; put $50 in an envelope at the beginning of the month, and that’s your coffee money; leave your credit card at home in a drawer so that you cannot use it for impulse purchases.
- But create a system that overrides your natural tendencies. For example I have some simple guidelines I try to follow: no more than two cups of coffee a day (because I drink it with cream and sugar), otherwise only water and herb tea; only raw fruits and vegetables for snacks; no eating straight out of a bag or box, only out of a single serving in a bowl, etc. To me, these don’t feel punitive: they feel like the speedometer on a car; just a little tool that helps you stay in bounds.
Whatever your problematic tendency is, you can create a system like this to help you: make a simple checklist of small adjustments that you need to make in order to be successful. Don’t look at it as a punishment, or as if you can’t be trusted to manage your own actions. In my experience, that will only make you more obsessive about the problematic issue. Just give yourself a dashboard gauge so that you can slow down when you’re five miles an hour over the speed limit instead of 30.