What the pandemic taught me about freelancing

Two and a half years ago, I bought a chair.

Moving on past the vast wave of apathy that will inevitably greet that staggeringly uninspiring start to this piece, on a personal level it was quite a big deal. I had been living in Mexico for about 15 months at this point, and this represented a marker of sorts. By some distance, the most significant purchase I’d made so far, it was a statement – I live here, I’m comfortable buying furniture, I’m comfortable spending real money.

Plus, it was a really nice chair.

It was also a big moment for me from the perspective of my life as a freelancer. In the summer of 2018, I jacked in 10 years of slow, steady professional development and fled the cold shores of England to the warm welcome of Mexico City. I arrived in a new country unable to speak the language, with no job and few prospects, and a vague realization that I would probably have to earn some money at some point.

I had a few ingenious/dumb ideas to get me started. 

One involved buying baskets of precooked tacos de canasta (1000 tacos for the princely sum of $40!), making my own salsas, and selling them to drunk foreigners outside the bars of Condesa, trading on the novelty and absurdity of a ridiculously blonde, ghostly pale taquero.

Another was recording English voiceovers for Mexican companies looking to break into an American audience. Somewhere out there exists an advert for a Mexican fintech company (whose name I have redacted from my memory) where I make a series of nonsensically heavy-handed innuendos about the size of the Mexican market and why it is worth investing in.

At some point, it dawned on me that these avenues were non-starters, so I looked to skills I already possessed and started to rebuild my professional experience and network in marketing and communications.

A year later and I was well set. Having started out proofreading academic essays in English by Chinese students, I’d moved into content writing, and by November 2019, I had a strong base of regular clients around the world. From adapting poetry for the all-staff Christmas email for a Canadian technology provider to writing a guide to planning the ultimate gay wedding for a lifestyle blog in the US, via Turkish graphic design, British telecommunications, and Mexican hospitality startup, my portfolio was varied. 

So back to the chair. 

The chair was my first serious attempt at creating a proper working environment for myself. I’d adapted a neat little desk that had belonged to my girlfriend’s grandmother, borrowed an old swivel chair plus dog-shaped cushion from her brother, and popped a few photos in frames, and this had kept me going. But this chair was the final piece of the puzzle and the first part that was totally mine.

It felt like I’d made a big step, finally taking the advice that I’d written extensively about in articles like 10 Tips on How to Stay Productive While Working Remotely or How to Supercharge your Freelance Lifestyle

From November 2019 to March 2020, I sat on my chair pretty much every day. Then everything changed.

From the outside, it might seem that the pandemic would not have made much material difference to freelancers and remote workers. After all, we already worked at home, didn’t leave the house all that much, didn’t socialize with colleagues regularly, etc etc.

But there is, it turns out, an enormous difference between not having to leave the house and not being able to.

As March arrived and Mexico City went into a lockdown of sorts, our horizons shrank. With my girlfriend’s parents living upstairs from us, we became extremely risk-averse. My girlfriend stopped going to the office to work. We no longer went to restaurants, bars, or cinemas in the evenings. We left the crowded center of town well alone. The weekly fruit and vegetable market at the bottom of our road became a no-go. Using public transport seemed unfathomable, and the city, this vast metropolis of over 21 million souls, contracted to an area of about 20 blocks. The furthest I got from the house in 6 months was about three miles on my very early morning 6-mile runs. 

Suddenly, having a set workspace where I could spend every working day seemed suffocating rather than liberating. Having to sit in the same place every day, when the evenings brought little respite from this experience, was not to be tolerated.

In six months, I must have used my new chair, my pride and joy, my mid-century modern masterpiece, roughly six times. 

I worked from the bed, from the sofa, from the kitchen table, upstairs in my girlfriend’s parents’ house, on the roof (!), and most importantly and most often in the garden. The regular changes in my working environment, and the chance to spend some significant portions of the day outside, seemed far more important than the benefits of a properly designed workstation.

I have been fortunate in that my work remained steady and constant throughout this challenging time. Unlike plenty of other freelancers, I didn’t lose jobs or clients. If anything, the rest of the world adapted to my way of doing things, and normal working life looked far more like my own chaotic schedule than it had since I arrived in Mexico. However, the pandemic upended what I thought the most healthy ways of working as a freelancer were and changed how I look at my working day. It also gave me a bunch of insights into other, less chair-related elements of my work.

I’ve come to appreciate the relationships I have with my long-term clients far more than I did. Tiny things like sharing great feedback, or picking up on a throwaway comment in an email and remembering it later, make a huge difference when you aren’t seeing friends and family in person. For me now, what makes a good client isn’t whether they pay on time (although that’s obviously important) or whether they send over clear briefs, but how we communicate and what the working relationship is like. I love feeling like a part of the team, which can be tricky when working on individual, discreet projects, but the best clients make this possible. 

I’ve seen how much easier it is to apply good habits in helping other people get work and manage their freelance lives than to practice what I preach in my own career. As soon as things started getting heavy in March, my girlfriend and I started working on developing her freelance options in preparation for her main work going under. I found it so much easier to help her to find new, good clients, negotiate, set terms, and build up a body of work than I had for myself. The experience has reminded me of the importance of not underselling myself and has helped immensely in maintaining current relationships and building new ones.

It has given me a greater appreciation of the importance of routine. Before lockdown, my girlfriend used to leave for work, come home for her lunch hour, and return after work, so my rhythms were set automatically, but without that, it is incredibly easy to fall into bad habits. I’ve learned a lot more about when I’m most productive during the day and have managed a routine to take advantage of this.

Finally, it has driven home that while freelancing is fantastic and has allowed me to ride out this uncertain time in far more comfort, and in a far more pleasant climate, than many of my friends, I still miss elements of traditional office work as well. 

This feeling is easily papered-over without a lockdown. Things like coworking spaces offer a taste of the collegiate atmosphere, long-term clients involve you in long-term projects that let you feel part of the team, and taking Friday afternoons off to go trail running is a panacea for almost everything. 

But removing these sticking plasters has reminded me that having colleagues and working as part of a team is kind of awesome, that having a higher goal than just the success of an individual project helps inspire you, and after-work beers on a Friday evening are pretty special too. 

Freelancing is a wonderful life. But when you remove most of the other stable foundations of everyday life, you are reminded that it does come with a level of instability itself. 

You do get to choose exquisite office furniture, though…

2 Comments

  1. Nice to see you in print again. A neat well constructed blog. Long overdue! Speak tomorrow Dad x

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. Love it. You have a delightful writing style. We are at Labarthe, home on Thursday. Any chance of a chat on Sunday? Mxx

    Like

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