At first, it may seem liberating to start your day—every day—in complete control of your own time. Whatever you want to tackle first, it’s your choice, and if you have to run an errand in the middle of the day, there’s no one stopping you.
This kind of flexible work life is usually envied by those stuck in the constantly churning, always-on corporate microcosm. Every year, more workers make the switch to the freelance life as they try to take back the reins of their own success. According to a 2014 survey by Edelman Berland, freelancers currently make up 34%—or 53 million people—of the U.S. workforce, and those numbers aren’t slowing down.
While there’s a lot of pros that come from having complete control, what isn’t discussed enough is the lonely business that is a freelance career. When the house is quiet and everyone is gone for the day, it’s just you and the humming of your laptop—day in, day out. You may go through an entire day without speaking, and often go for several days without having any face-to-face interactions with anyone.
This kind of complete solitude doesn’t work for everyone. After a while, you’ll find that life without colleagues can be lonely and uninspiring. Even small things, like the lack of small talk, can leave you lonely. Additionally, we know that isolation is bad for our health. Lonely people are believed to have higher blood pressure, be more vulnerable to infections, have greater issues with their sleep patterns and logical reasoning, and even have negative responses in their immune system, such as irregular unleashing of stress hormones and inflammation.
During periods when you feel your social needs are unmet, it’s important to find a way to be around other people for the sake of your creativity and productivity. Below are a few reasons why:
Working for yourself doesn’t mean that work problems don’t affect you. They still do, but the downside is, you won’t have anyone to share these problems with.
"If you work for yourself from home, it can be very easy to feel that you are the only one experiencing problems," Rick Norris, a psychologist and author of Think Yourself Happy: The Simple 6-Step Programme to Change Your Life From Within, tells the Guardian. "You might feel demotivated, stressed, or anxious, but you don't have the opportunity to share these frustrations with others. One of the things we know with people who have anxiety and depression is that group therapy or online support groups really help to make them feel better and a lot less alone. It's a concept known as universality—it's a universal problem, not one that just affects me."
Working alone can also isolate you from other professionals who might be able to help you come to a best solution through brainstorming and simply talking things through. To prevent yourself from being sucked into a creative vacuum, consider joining local business networking groups or meet up with other freelancers throughout the week to either work together or just to catch up over coffee. If you can’t do any of those things, at least pick up the phone and call a colleague or friend to discuss your work problems.
Sure, you might need to be alone for head-down concentration, but in order to achieve a high level of innovation, creativity, and differentiation, you need people. This is why it’s so important for companies to create workspaces that offer people the chance to run into each other, like a spiraling staircase in the middle of the office.
"It’s more crucial to make sure people are connecting and brainstorming with each other," Miguel McKelvey, who leads design and architecture at WeWork, told Fast Company last year.
"We’re very specific when we’re drawing work plans. We think about, when a person gets off the elevator, where they will go. We think about how people get to a coffee machine, when they go and get their lunch, when they go to the bathroom."
The hope is that these chance encounters create trust and familiarity between colleagues, which in turn leads to solutions that otherwise would have never occurred.
It’s said that our bodies can only work at optimal level for around 90 minutes at a time. Afterward, you need a break, or basically you’re working at a loss.
In an interview with Gallup, Alex Pentland, an MIT professor and author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, talks about how the concept of the watercooler chatter actually increases productivity:
Think about what you chat about—they're social things, mostly. You talk about your family, sports, traffic. You talk about all sorts of issues about how you live your life, raise your family, do your job, stay sane. A lot of things happen around that coffee pot. That's the stuff of being successful.
Think of your work/life balance and your attitude towards the stresses of work as the social capital that you bring to the job. Also, a lot of the chatter actually is about work. When you look at people chatting about stuff, a lot of times they're gossiping about other workers or about situations at work. That actually tells them a lot about the attitude you should take towards things—what's the received wisdom, what should be taken seriously.
If the person you’re speaking to has a positive mood and attitude, this mindset can also rub off on you, and consequently, inspire you a little more. That’s why when you work alone, it’s essential to frequent a coffee shop or shared workspace from time to time to get the white noise and idle social interactions needed to keep you focused and energetic. Or consider meeting with clients in their office instead of over the phone or Skype to get your much-needed fill of face-to-face interactions.
A freelancing work life can sound inspiring at first. There’s no commute, and if you’re a creative, it’s essential to have the space and flexible schedule to follow through on your ideas. The problem with this kind of solitude is that, in general, human beings are social creatures.
Our basic nature requires us to pay attention to others, and we share moods and attitudes of those around us. If you’re alone, this means when you’re happy, everything is fine, but as soon as any negative thinking or problems arise, that mindset can follow you around for a while, because you have no one to share those feelings with.
We need other people to find happiness and, in turn, career success. In real life, there is no such thing as a completely rational and isolated person.