Seven ways to bring more structure into your freelance life

Freelancing is about freedom – the freedom to choose what you do when, to sleep in one morning and get up early the next, to refuse one job and accept the next. But once you have experienced it, you will know that too much freedom can be an obstacle to productive and successful freelancing. It’s too easy for freedom to deteriorate into long sleep-ins, series-watching, eating, or just excessively tidy cupboards. It doesn’t take long to work out that some structure is useful.

Without the need to clock in at 8am, without a boss hanging over you telling you what to do next, how do you add structure to your life? And how do you do it in a way that feels better than the strictures of corporate life? Here are some ideas.

Start with a schedule. Get hold of a diary (electronic or paper), or a whiteboard, or even a blank notebook, and get in the habit of scheduling your time. Put appointments in it. Refer to it regularly. Work out a system that works for you. I keep an electronic diary (in Google calendar) because I can see it on my phone and add appointments wherever I am. But I also draw and decorate a schedule for each week on Sunday evening and use the time to plan my week. I like a visual reference and I use colour for different kinds of tasks. This shows me when my week is out of balance. Work out a system that works for you.

Take regular exercise. As a freelancer your health and state of mind are really important to your business. Exercise is good for both. Starting the day with a run or some yoga is a great way to establish a routine. If you need some encouragement, arrange to walk with a friend each evening. If self-motivation is lacking, sign up for a regular class. Having shelled out the money you may be more likely to go. The nice thing about being a freelancer is that you can attend a 10 am class, and not fight the traffic at 5 pm. Exercise will make you feel good about yourself and that is an important starting point for succeeding in freelance work.

Set aside your best time for production activities. Work out when you function best. Are you an early-bird, churning out copy at 4 am, or do you work better after a good breakfast? Block out three or four hours during that time to do your productive work – that is the stuff you get paid to do. During that time close down your email and social network tabs. Put your phone on silent, in another room. Create space to focus so that you can do your best work; after all your business depends on the quality of what you produce. Being fully focussed on a task also brings a sense of mastery, making work a pleasure.

Vary your surroundings. Working in one place can become monotonous, especially if that place is also where you live. You can try moving between the study and the garden, but actually leaving your home means having to shower and get dressed. Just picking out an outfit to wear can wake your brain up and get different neurons firing. You might be able to work at a client’s site one day a week or find a co-work space that you feel comfortable in. Having to go to work on a Monday demarcates the start of the week and helps to shake the lethargy of the weekend. Experiment with what works for you. You may find some work is easier to do in a different location, while some work is best done at home. I like to paint in my home studio but doing admin is more cheerful at Better.

Meet people regularly. Freelancing works for people who enjoy their own company, but if you are spending all your time inside your own head you are missing out on ideas and perspectives that could enrich your work. You need to have regular contact with other people. Think about the kinds of people who will support your freelance business. If you can find a group of people doing similar work to yours, try to meet at least once a month. These kinds of networks are great for sharing ideas about how you price your work, how to deal with client issues and to swap work when you get a deluge or a drought. You also need to keep contact with clients and prospective clients, so think about events where your best clients gather regularly and how you can get involved. Come along to the freelancer’s social at Better on the first Friday of every month.

Stick to regular admin time. When you create your weekly schedule build in a few hours for administrative tasks. Keeping financial records or completing your tax return is not the most fun part of freelancing, so you are likely to put it off and end up disorganised. Set aside time at the end of the week, or first thing on Monday morning to clear your work-related emails, invoice clients, follow up on outstanding payments, pay your bills and update your financial records. If you do this regularly the work will stay manageable. Keeping an admin to do list and clearing it weekly will also free you from that distracting little voice in your head reminding you of the outstanding tasks.

Take a day of rest. It’s hard to shut down, especially if you are trying to build your client base and the money is tight. You may find yourself working through weekends (what day is it?) just to get the next job done. While the attitude is positive, it’s not a good strategy. Freelancing is a marathon, not a sprint and your freelance business depends on you: your health and your state of mind. So taking a break is really important for your long-term success. Schedule one day a week to do something far removed from work: sleep, read a book, visit family, do pottery, bake, watch sport; just make sure that it is downtime.

As a freelancer you get to craft the life that works for you. What do you do? What works? Share your comments below.

Choose a co-working space that works for you

Joining the co-working trend requires some choices. If you are ready to try it, here are some steps to take to find the space that you can call home (or work, if you must).

First spend some time thinking about what you want from your co-work space.

You will probably want a range of facilities and services including a place to work – most basically a desk, chair and internet connection. Depending on your kind of work, you might need a space to host meetings, or a place to make phone calls. You might also want someone to source a courier for you or help you install some software. Thinking beyond these more practical needs, you might be looking for a great experience, opportunities to grow and contribute, or even to find your tribe: a community of like-minded people for company or to stimulate and challenge you.

I’ve been trying to break these elements down, and here is my list of the things you might want to consider when choosing a co-working space. They are broken into three categories: Practicalities, Intangibles, and Costs. I also discuss the practicalities of going out and joining a co-work space at the end.

Practicalities

So here are some of the practical aspects that you should consider…

Location. You will want to find a space that is easy to get to, taking traffic patterns into account. If you are going to get up and go to a co-work space it needs to be almost as convenient as working from home, or the lure of staying in your pyjamas might be too hard to resist. If you freelance because you can’t face the traffic, see if you can walk, cycle or take public transport. If you have a morning or afternoon school-run, look for something along the route.

Workspaces. Most importantly, look at where you will actually work. Is there a choice of furniture and spaces so that you can find one that works for you? Sit down. Are the tables a good height? Is the chair comfy? Are there meeting spaces? Have a good look through all the rooms and consider where you would feel comfortable.

Wi-Fi and power. Who can work without Wi-Fi and access to power? Check for the location of power points. Are there enough? Are they conveniently situated? Sign on and test out the Wi-Fi. Is it easy to get connected? How fast is it?

Light and air. Then consider the ambient elements. Is the space warm or cool enough? Is there a fresh breeze or are the rooms stuffy? What is the lighting like? Is there glare? Will the room be light even on a dark day?

Noise. Wherever you work you have some control over noise levels – just take a good set of headphones along. But do consider the amount of noise you are comfortable with. Do you like to work with a buzz around you or do you need silence to concentrate? Noisy coffee grinder? Traffic? Music?

Refreshments. What refreshments are offered? Do they suit you? What options are there for lunch? Is it near enough to restaurants or take-away options?

Opening hours. Make sure that the opening hours suit your preferred working patterns. Check whether the space is open over weekend and public holidays, if that is something you need.

Additional services. Other things you might want at your workplace are lockers to keep your stuff in. Even if you don’t plan to leave things overnight, it might be convenient to lock up your laptop while you have lunch. Is there a printer?

Parking and transport options. Where will you park your car? Is it safe? You will probably pay extra for off-street parking, so you might want to ask if there are alternatives, like a bus or train route nearby.

Space allocation. Do people have their own working space which they expect to use every day, or is it more relaxed? Will you need to book a space in advance? Will you need to book a meeting room?

Intangibles

After the practicalities, or maybe before, you will want to consider the intangible aspects of your co-working space. Intangibles can have the greater effect on your experience of the place and the extent to which you are relaxed and happy working there.

Some things to consider are…

Décor and design. A co-work space gives you the opportunity to work in a cool or creative environment. Find one you like. Does the décor appeal to you? Do you feel comfortable in the space? Will your clients feel comfortable in this space? Does this space reflect the kind of work you do? Does it match the brand image you are trying to project?

People. One of the benefits of co-working is that you get to meet people. In choosing a co-work space, think about the kind of people you want to meet. Are you looking for a party crowd, or a thoughtful bunch? Who uses this space? Are they the kind of people you want to spend time with?

Networks. Meeting people is partly about good company, but it can also be about networking opportunities. It might benefit your business to meet others who do similar work, or people offering products or services that you could use. Your next client, or supplier, could be sitting at the next table. Also look at what events are on offer. Are these the kinds of events that suit you and the work you do?

Diversity. Think about your need for diversity. Do you want to meet people like you or do you want to rub up against different ideas and ways of thinking? Are you looking for a place to meet people who are like you, so that you can fit in, or do you want to trip over new views?

Opportunities to learn and grow. As a freelancer you are responsible for your career growth. Some spaces offer training sessions and workshops, and if these are targeted to the kind of work you do, it could be a good space to keep learning and growing.

Opportunities to contribute. Being able to contribute to a community can be satisfying. If this is something that matters to you, you might want to consider what opportunities there are to contribute. Is this a place that you can play a part in shaping? Can you run workshops, facilitate interactions or plan events? Ask about the ways in which you can get involved.

Vibe. Then there is the indefinable “vibe” that you get in a place. Is it professional and office-like? Is it cosy and homely? Is it fun and frivolous or more serious? Find a space that suits you and your kind of work.

Costs

When thinking about the cost, there are quite a few aspects to consider…

Basic cost of access. Like cellphone packages, evaluating the real costs of membership at a co-work space can be difficult. A good place to start is with the cost of access for a day. Co-work spaces in Johannesburg charge between R100 and R300 for a day.

Structure of packages. Packages vary from monthly access with limits on the number of days to bundles of days that you can use as you please. Look carefully at the conditions and ask if you are unsure. Match your choice to how you will work. Do you want a place to go to every day, or will you work two or three days a week? How much flexibility do you need?

Bundled perks. Packages often come with bundled perks. Have a look through the perks that you value and see which package includes most of those.

Contracts. Some venues offer discounts for taking longer contracts, while others operate from month to month. Decide whether you are ready to commit to long-term use of the venue before opting for a contract. You may want to start with one month until you are sure you have found your place. You may prefer not to be tied to contracts.

Are refreshments included? Is the coffee and tea included in your entrance fee or does it cost extra? If you are paying extra, check that the prices are reasonable. You don’t want to have to pay high prices for the convenience of having coffee at your desk.

The cost of a guest. If you need to bring a guest along or a group of clients for a meeting, will you have to pay extra? That could add up. Read the details on guest pricing.

Cost of other services. Even if you choose a lower-level package with fewer perks, you will usually be able to buy the extra services offered. Check the prices for those. Occasionally paying to have data captured, or some typing done for you, might be a life-saver in a busy week.

Ask for options. If you can’t find a package that works for you, do ask about alternatives. Most co-working spaces are flexible and, as long as you are not expecting everything for free, will try and find a way to accommodate you.

Getting in and getting acquainted

Most co-work spaces will gladly show you around if you just drop in. Call and make an appointment if you want the undivided attention of a host to explain the facilities and options.

Most places will offer you a chance to “try before you buy” in the form of your first day free or discounted. Make use of this. Pick a day when you will go to the space as if you were working there. Take along a project you are busy with and spend a good few hours finding out what it’s like to actually work in the space. You need that long to assess the comfort of the chairs, the ambiance, the Wi-Fi and to get to know some of the people. Do go and grab coffee when others are doing that, so that you can introduce yourself and ask about their experiences.

If the venue has some kind of informal social or meet-and-greet event, go along and use the opportunity to find out what kind of people inhabit the place. Mingle. Ask people what they do, how long they have been using the space and what they like about it. Take a friend if you are shy. At the very least, have fun investigating the different co-work spaces until you find what suits you best.

What do you think? What have I left out? How do you choose?

 

Colour mixing workshop (for Hannah)

If you are just starting out with painting the range of colours available can be confusing. Which colours do you need to buy? How do you go about mixing the colours you need?

This workshop will give you an introduction to the basic colours, show you how to mix colours and give you a feel for the different shades you can get from a few basic tubes of paint.

You will construct a comprehensive colour wheel from primary colours as well as mixing darker and lighter shades of different colours. You will also experiment to see the effect of starting out with slightly different primaries.

Take home your colour maps as references for your own painting.

We’ll be working in acrylics, but the principles apply broadly. No experience or artistic ability needed!

 

Who: Anyone* who wants to learn more about painting and the use of colour, or just needs a refresher or a morning of exploration

When: Weekday morning, 9:30 to 12:30, enquire for the next dates

Cost: R150 including materials, free for members of Better (EFT details)

Please book to secure your place on 011 327 6098 or email create@better.joburg

 

*Better is a place for grown-ups to play. You must be 18 or older to attend events at Better.

 

Self-care for freelancers

Freelance work is better than full-time employment in many ways, but as a freelancer you depend heavily on your self – your health, your state of mind and your own skills and abilities. So you have to look after yourself.

This workshop forces you to focus on yourself for a change and think about how well you are doing and how you can take better care of yourself. We discuss your physical and mental health, how to be a good boss to yourself, managing money and time and how to cultivate networks that work for you. We share ideas, hacks and hints for a saner freelance life. Take away a portfolio of resources and your own self-care plan.

The workshop is very hands-on, working through exercises. We work with small groups so that there is time to listen to each person’s story and discuss specific strategies and solutions for you.

This workshop is for freelancers at all stages who want to lead a saner, more balanced life.

Weekday afternoon, 2:30pm to 6pm, Tuesday 10th October.

Cost: R400 (R300 for members of Better), click here for our EFT details

Six places only, booking essential! Contact Candy on 011 327 6098 or create@better.joburg

Better is a co-working haven

You love the freedom of freelancing, but you miss having colleagues and the casual chat in the kitchen. Your local coffee shop has free WiFi, but you have to pack up your laptop to go to the bathroom and that coffee machine can be noisy. You might have tried shared offices, but they are pricey and can be too trendy to be comfortable.

So what if there was a space like this?

  • A comfortable, homely place, with a range of workspaces from tables to armchairs
  • Quiet areas and more social areas, and a big garden
  • Other excellent humans as colleagues
  • Books and curated resources to enhance your freelance work, and courses and seminars to share ideas
  • A safe workspace for members only

…plus fast WiFi, tea, coffee and snacks, lockers for your stuff, safe parking, administrative support, tech support, and meeting rooms?

Well, we made the space, and we want you to share it with us. Better is a shared workspace designed by freelancers, for freelancers. Judy (an artist, writer and academic) and Andrew (a writer and programmer) wanted a space to work and to meet up with great people like you, who have also chosen a freer style of earning.

We wanted something warm and welcoming, rather than edgy and self-conscious, and we wanted to make it accessible to freelancers just starting out, as well as offering substantial value-adds for the more-established. Join us to work, collaborate, share information and support, relax and play.

Read our story to get a feel for who we are.

Visit Better and see the place for yourself. Work here for a day, for free.

Join our community as a member. Membership gets you in on your terms.

So you plan to write a book?

If you are anything like me you have four or five books outlined in your head, or even in a document. You may even have started writing one or two of them. I have a good 10000 words down for one of mine. But “finally writing a book” has been on my to-do list for the past four or five years.

I’ve decided that actually getting it done needs me to make some kind of change – a change in my habits and way of working.

The habits of published writers have been dissected and reflected on and so we know that writing is about discipline and that successful writers cultivate the habit of writing. Among prolific writer Henry Miller’s commandments for writing we find:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  3. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  4. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  5. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  6. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

I can see I need to work on 1 and 5, but I like 4 too!

I’ve learned in my academic life that the only way to make sure that research papers get written is to schedule time for writing and then to guard that time ferociously. Students and colleagues who knock on my office door when the “I’m writing” sign is up, get snarled at. It also helps to make writing fun and to do it in great surroundings, hence the growth of writing retreats at universities.

An interesting outcome of writing retreats has been the realisation that, while the actual act of writing is solitary, there are lots of supporting roles for other people to play in the process. My academic writing has benefitted from the support of colleagues to egg me on, give advice, suggest new directions, make me stick to deadlines and generally to commiserate during the process. Those who attend retreats are pleasantly surprised at how productive they can be writing in a room full of writers.

While I have academic colleagues on tap, when it comes to the other books I want to write, I don’t have much opportunity to include others in the process. So part of the story of Better is to make those opportunities. I am hoping that Better is going to be habit-forming. I certainly want to use it to improve my own writing habits and perhaps it will help you to improve yours.

Better offers a conducive environment and the company and support of other writers. If you are a writer with experiences to share, or an aspirant writer wanting to establish new habits, come along to our Regular Writer’s Tea on Friday mornings for a chat.

Embrace everyday creativity in 2017

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”

– poet Mary Oliver, Of Power and Time

The New Year is a great time to re-evaluate priorities and make plans for how better to spend your precious life-time. If you are feeling the call to create, the urge to escape the corporate nine-to-five, or the need to balance your life with some more fulfilling pursuits, consider joining the Better community in 2017.

Better is a place where people doing creative things for fun or money can work, share and relax. Better is about promoting a culture of making and about celebrating creativity.

In Making is Connecting, David Gauntlett speaks of the “inherent pleasure in making; we might call this joie de faire (like joie de vivre) to indicate that there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before”. He goes on to propose a definition of everyday creativity that takes into account the emotional aspects of creating, as opposed to the more traditional definition of creativity as that which results in unusual or celebrated outcomes. It’s a long definition, but worth repeating in full:

“Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something. The activity has not been done in this way by this person (or these people) before. The process may arouse various emotions, such as excitement and frustration, but most especially a feeling of joy. When witnessing and appreciating the output, people may sense the presence of the maker, and recognize those feelings.”

That’s the kind of creativity Better is about. We believe that all human beings are inherently creative, and we want to make a space where you can explore your creativity and experience the joy of making.

Better caters for artists, designers, writers, poets, programmers, photographers, and all kinds of crafters. We are open to accommodating other creative pursuits where at all possible. We’ll provide space and some equipment, as well as fast internet, tea and coffee, and a program of events. We need you to help us create a friendly and stimulating atmosphere. Come for coffee, stay to write, compare notes and helpful tips, join or host a workshop, and share your latest project with others who care about creative work.

Better is an emerging project; we are making it up as we go along! We welcome your input. What do you want at Better?

Better is based in Saxonwold, Johannesburg (more about that here) and will be opening in February 2017. Watch out for more information during January, including your invitation to visit. Leave us your e-mail address to be kept informed, follow us on Twitter (@betterjoburg) or find us on Facebook.

 

Coral reefs and tangled banks

Steven Johnson argues that coral reefs and the tangled banks of rivers are the environments that best support innovation. These complex, messy environments that support a variety of intertwined life forms, have unique properties that lead to a rich, fertile and flourishing state. Rich, fertile and flourishing is what we are aiming for at Better. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation, (also subtitled The Natural History of Innovation in other editions) Steven Johnson delves into the history of innovation to identify seven themes which reflect on the conditions that support creativity. Some of these themes inform our vision for Better as a creative space.

Part of the vision for Better is that it is a place where people can share ideas, projects, knowledge and skills. We want it to be a place where you will be able to bump into people who share your interests and challenges. Andrew talks about it being like a bar for creative pursuits. You go there when you want to meet people and you can usually be sure that there will be someone there.

Johnson talks about a liquid network, one that is dense and viscous enough that ideas can move and collide. Solids prevent movement, while in gasses the particles are so far apart as to make collisions unlikely. We want to be sure that a range of people come to Better – not the same people all the time (which would be like a solid). We envisage having a member base large enough so that you meet different people on different days. We also envisage events that bring non-members into Better to provide fresh ideas. We want to make sure that there are enough people there on any one day for you to find someone interesting to share a coffee with, and we plan on using themed afternoons and evenings to make sure that you bump into the people who share your specific creative domain.

Another of Johnson’s themes is that of the slow hunch: ideas emerge slowly, they take time to mature and grow in response to information and impressions that are gradually added to. This idea reflects the growing concern to rediscover slow scholarship, allowing for deep ideas in academia to emerge. Slow scholarship, the movement’s slog (slow blog) explains, “is carefully prepared, with fresh ideas, local when possible, and is best enjoyed leisurely, on one’s own or as part of a dialogue around a table with friends, family and colleagues”. By being a physical space for actual warm humans, Better provides those local ingredients as well as the tables and the company. In particular Johnson notes that “pressures, distractions, accountability and supervision all work against ideas”. Better is a place where those pressures can be left behind, where you can contemplate quietly, and let your best ideas emerge, slowly.

Another theme in the history of innovation is that error plays an important role. “Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes” says Johnson. So one of our concerns for Better is that it needs to be a messy space for trial and error, for experiment. One of the challenges of creative work is the ever-present fear that what you have made is not good enough. Particularly when it comes to the visual arts, so many people are paralysed by the fear of their stumbling efforts being seen and criticised. Better is a playful, permissive space, not only for the accomplished. We want people to try, to do things they have never done before, to produce misshapen mistakes in the process of learning and having fun. We welcome and celebrate things that go wrong or don’t work. We hope to see fabulous flops.

And finally, Johnson makes the point that innovation requires platforms, places where innovation can take place, where the habitat needed for innovation is built by what he calls ecosystem engineers. Better invites you to be an ecosystem engineer, and help to build a coral reef or a tangled river bank, to shape Better and make it into the kind of space that supports your creative process.

 

Software tools for writers

While you are planning and outlining your writing you might want to try note-taking tools to capture thoughts, quotes and resources, and to play with structure. EverNote allows you to capture notes as text, or photos, and has a plug-in to your browser so you can automatically save from web pages. WorkFlowy enables you to put together nested lists (of chapters, sections, characters, tasks). I love the mobile app that allows me to work on these lists in meetings. For the less linearly-inclined there is Spiderscribe that keeps your notes in mind maps.

For the actual writing, you can use your favourite word processor, but you might want to try tools like Scrivener or Writer’s Blocks that are designed for more heavy-weight writing. These tools help you to keep track of large and complex writing projects with outlining and overviews and allow you to easily move text around to re-structure a large manuscript. Scrivener also gives you the tools to output your work as an e-book. If you want to write an e-book, but don’t want the full power (and cost) of Scrivener, try Sigil, a free and open-source e-book editor.

If you struggle to just get the words out, try WriteorDie which uses a game-like format with rewards and punishments to make you write. You set a target for, say, 1000 words and then you have to keep typing until you reach it. It’s a great tool for doing initial free-writing about your topic. I use it for the first draft of blog posts. And if you are easily distractible, try some of the tools that declutter your desktop, taking away all the social media notifications so that it’s just you and the text, and possibly a soothing background image and soundtrack. FocusWriter and OmmWriter are worth a try.

For academic writers taking the time to build up a database of references in a good reference manager will pay off in the long run, making it easy to find and format references and taking your productivity to dean-pleasing heights. Mendeley and Zotero are both free (for basic functionality) and store your references in the cloud so that they are easy to access. Both have tools to automatically index your database, making it quick and easy to add items.

Do you have favourite software tools for writers? Share them here.

Better tools for writers

I am running a writing retreat next week and have been putting together lists of my favourite writing tools to share. I thought I’d share them here too.

“The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker, subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” is a book about why writing matters, what makes writing good, and how to navigate unsettling changes in language with style, without being stuffy about correctness.

The Book on Writing” by Paula LaRocque is a great guide to writing simply and for clarity.

“Keys for Writers” by Ann Raimes and Susan Miller-Cochran is a (costly) reference text for academic writers. It covers the writing process, using resources and referencing, technical aspects of language and a very helpful guide to how the grammar of different languages impact on expression in English. The international edition is available through Exclusive Books (not Amazon).

Refseek is a great source of reference web sites. Think of it like the reference section in a library. It has a guide to online dictionaries, including general dictionaries and those for specialist terms like medical, computer and financial terms. The site also gives links to other reference works, such as style and grammar guides.

Visuwords is a really fun graphical dictionary where you enter a word and related words pop up around it. Try it! Good for really understanding all the nuances of any particular word and identifying possible ambiguities.

Urban dictionary is a great way to while away a boring meeting or seminar. Words are defined by the users of the site so there is nothing official about them, but it gives great insight into how words are actually used. You can submit your own definitions too, so get creative!

There is nothing like good writers for advice on writing. Here is one of my favourites, Ursula K Le Guin, on Rules of Writing. Explore her site for more or hunt for your favourite author online and let them excite you about the possibilities of words.

What resources inspire you to play with words? Share your favourites here.