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Work Smart: Freelance Survival Skills

More than 1 out of 10 adult workers are self-employed, and that number tends to go up in a recession. To anyone yoked to a traditional nine-to-five job, the idea of being your own boss and working from home might sound like heaven. The truth is, freelancing isn't easy. After seven years of self-employment, I've found the three biggest challenges 1099ers face are managing time, money, and expectations.

The first question every employee asks when they find out you work from home is: How do you avoid the distractions of being at home? If no one's stopping you from wandering into the living room midday to watch Days of Our Lives, what motivates you to work instead? Freelancers have to be extra mindful of how they spend their time and set up ways to transition between home and work mode without a commute. The best way to switch gears is to create a space dedicated to work and work only. Ideally this will be a home office with a door on it, but even a dedicated desk and computer in a corner of a room will do. The key is to train your brain that when you're in this space, it's time to work.

Managing your money isn't easy when you get the same amount of money in a steady paycheck every two weeks. But when you're a freelancer, things get exponentially more complicated. A freelancer is usually in one of two financial modes: feast or famine. It can be stressful, too. A recent survey showed that while freelancers are more satisfied with their jobs than nine-to-fivers, they also shoulder more financial stress. The survival skill here is to reduce money stress with a financial safety net, or buffer accounts, that you feed during feast days and draw on during famine.

Finally, good freelancers know how to manage client expectations: under-promise and over-deliver. Estimating the number of hours a job will take is a skill a freelancer develops over time. The rookie tends to underestimate the amount of time a job will require, wanting to impress and offer a competitive price, but forgetting to account for overhead like administration and travel. Studies have shown that all people tend to overestimate their capacity for time-consuming commitments. Freelancers have to overcompensate in the other direction. One rule of thumb: Come up with a number of hours you think a job will take, and then double it.

Every working adult has to learn how to manage time, money, and expectations, but for the self-employed time is money, and no one else is footing the bill. Creating a work-only zone, building a financial safety net, and setting realistic time estimates are the most important skills to know.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Work Smart appears every week on

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