Earlier this month, I struck out as a freelance writer after 15 years in office jobs. I was apprehensive about leaving my job: I enjoyed a lot of the work and liked and respected my colleagues, but working for myself was the best choice for this time in my life. Many people congratulated me on escaping the cubicle, but I’ve realized that my experience in my day job actually helped me in my freelance life.
Here are seven things I learned from years of experience in traditional jobs that are valuable in my freelance life.
I worked for several publications in my last position that required numerous revisions and exchanges between editors. There was a specific system used for saving each version of each file so that you never had to wonder who touched what when. Prior to this system, I saved things in frustratingly random ways in useless folders with labels like “Photos” or “Things.” Now that I’ve begun utilizing the naming system I learned at work, I can quickly find what I need and, perhaps more crucially, be able to easily store my files out of sight until I need them.
I confess I did not care for this when we were asked to do it at work. I felt like my work habits were being scrutinized; plus, I don’t typically work in a linear way: I write until I get distracted and I start something else, but it all comes together in the end. It felt unnatural to focus on one job at a time and write down when it started and stopped. However, not only is it good for me to see how long certain projects take, but I find myself focusing more when I do work for more discrete periods of time.
With a family at home, I was pretty strict about leaving my work at work. While I disliked my commute, it was undeniably “my” time, free from the computer as well as household tasks. But now my days and nights tend to swish into each other and I miss the ability to clearly delineate the work day from the evening. Keeping the mindset that I have “office hours” helps in this regard. Even if I can’t help but check emails in the evening, it makes me feel less stressed to know that I am “closed” until the morning and won’t respond until then.
I kept a catchall folder on my desk at work where I’d dump everything that needed attention at some point but not immediately, like bills. Working from home, at first, it was hard not to let myself be distracted by every single invoice or reminder that came my way. I realized there was no reason why these things couldn’t wait while I worked from home the way they could wait while I was at my office. Every Thursday after lunch (when I don’t need as much brainpower), I tackle that folder, and on all the other days, it’s helpful to have a dedicated place to banish all those tasks so they’re out of sight, out of mind.
In my old life, I did a lot of tasks that were educational, challenging, and fun. I also was assigned several tasks that were poorly explained, tedious, and not terribly meaningful. I learned to (try to) take as much care with the jobs I liked less as with the ones I liked more because the faster I tried to get a job out of my face, the more likely it was to come back to me and demand more of my time. I’m learning that in the freelance world, at least starting out, I’m going to have to take on some work that isn’t as fun as other assignments. That’s just working life (and being an adult).
I ended the day with more peace of mind if I took a few minutes to tidy up my desk before going home. Leaving a messy desk meant I know I was leaving future me a chore to do, and that stressed me out. Now, at home, I feel more stressed if I go pick up my son from preschool and know I’m going to have to tidy up a huge mess later in the night. So while I don’t have time to clean up the house throughout the day, I try to at least pick up our kitchen and dining room (especially putting away my work materials) before the evening starts so I can have a clean start to the evening.
My last job taught me to ask questions in two different ways. One is selfish: When you work with a lot of people who do what you do, isn’t it useful to find out what they’ve learned? So when I speak with other freelancers, I ask how they tick, and have gotten ideas on things from what invoicing software to use to what to eat for breakfast. You’re wasting an opportunity if you don’t learn from your colleagues, even if you don’t work in the same building.
The second is as important in any profession as it is in journalism: If you don’t know the answer to a question, try to answer it yourself, even if that means the awkwardness of asking a stranger a question. My manager’s advice to me on the way out the door at my job was “Stay curious,” and I found that insightful and encouraging.