Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Why being freelance does not mean you have to work more hours

Posted on 06 October 2008 32 comments

Article illustration for Why being freelance does not mean you have to work more hours

Before I took the plunge and left full-time employment to set up my own business, there was one piece of advice that was given to me by almost every design professional I spoke to: Prepare to work a lot more hours.

So I went into it with a level head, prepared for this seemingly inevitable sacrifice. But I also went into it with a concerted effort to turn this stereotype around. In my mind, if I was sensible about the way I worked and approached things, there would be no need to work more hours than when I was in full-time employment. In fact, I decided I should aim to work much less.

And it worked. These days, I work far fewer hours, work itself no longer encroaches into my free time (it’s the other way around), and my bank balance is at its healthiest… well… ever!

Now, don’t worry, I’m not about to go all Tim Ferris on yo’ ass. I wouldn’t say I’m a GTD fan (using Things and iCal is about as far as I go), I don’t outsource anything (except the tax return to my accountant and the occasional bit of dev work to my friends), and I’m certainly not interested in being a money-grabbing ‘businessman’ (i.e: I want to get paid for the work I do, not get paid for exploiting others). I’m not the type of guy who’ll write a blog about how to ‘make it’, because I don’t know (and guess what? Those guys don’t either). I don’t have any answers, so I won’t pretend that I have.

But it can be done. Although a large number of my friends are working every hour the day brings, I’m positive that it’s not necessary. And a small handful seem to agree. Sam Brown, for instance, has got the balance so right that he’s able to regularly churn out absolutely brilliant personal projects. Hats off.

To those of you out there who are considering whether or not to make the jump, I say do it.

When people ask me if freelance life is going well or if I miss full-time employment, my answer is always the same: “it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

(Photo: Cleo on my desk)

32 comments

  1. Pete

    Pete

    06 October 2008 @ 01:27PM #

    Very encouraging post Elliot, thanks!

  2. Andi Farr

    Andi Farr

    06 October 2008 @ 01:27PM #

    Really glad to hear that it’s working out so well for you! Also, a very inspiring post – I’m just about to leave the comfort of my current job and venture out into the great unknown! While I probably won’t be 100% freelance any time soon, it’s definitely reassuring to know that working every hour of the day isn’t the grim inevitability we all assume…

  3. rama

    rama

    06 October 2008 @ 01:29PM #

    Wow, its very encouraging for me since i’m in the brink of doing the jump too. Thanks Elliot!

  4. Magnus Jepson

    Magnus Jepson

    06 October 2008 @ 01:30PM #

    I agree with you Elliot. When I went freelance seven weeks ago I didn’t go in thinking I was going to work more than I did then. And after 7 weeks I love the flexibility freelancing has given me, and haven’t regretted it for a second.

    Nice cat!

  5. Matt Balara

    Matt Balara

    06 October 2008 @ 01:31PM #

    Just made the leap myself, and I’ve gone into it with the same mindset as you: it doesn’t have to be that way. So far I haven’t had enough experience to say one way or the other, but it’s heartening to hear confirmation of my hopes!

  6. John

    John

    06 October 2008 @ 01:32PM #

    I listened to your Boagworld podcast recently and thought that you made some good points, particularly when you discussed working with relatively high profile clients in your past, both in the music industry and at Carsonified.

    My feeling would be that while this by itself may not have made things ‘easier’ I think it’s probably made freelancing a lot more viable for you because you’ve gained such a high level of credibility in the industry.

    If I decided to go fulltime freelance tomorrow I think that I would get by, but only just!

  7. Jamie Thompson

    Jamie Thompson

    06 October 2008 @ 01:34PM #

    I have to say i completely agree with you. I myself am a failed freelancer. I never seemed to strike that balance so went back to working for the man. My current employer however has recently given me a whole lot of freedom to work from home and i now feel i’ve hit on that magic work/life balance that I never managed to find before. Maybe it’s got something to do with age, but I seem to magically have lots more free time whilst at the same time i’m getting lots more actual work done AND have time for personal projects.

    I feel confident that should I ever decide to go freelance again, things would be very different than they were last time.

    I’m not sure I’m ready to take the plunge from a guaranteed chunk of money at the end of each month just yet though. Not just yet.

  8. Alex Older

    Alex Older

    06 October 2008 @ 01:38PM #

    I’m looking to make the jump after Uni depending on how things go and this has encouraged me further.

    A great insite! Thanks.

  9. Dave Ellis

    Dave Ellis

    06 October 2008 @ 01:38PM #

    I seem to be going the opposite way, I need to make a conscious decision to work less.

  10. Phil Bowell

    Phil Bowell

    06 October 2008 @ 01:56PM #

    Whilst your post is very encouraging, I’m in agreement with John (the post above me). I really want to go freelance, it’s the ultimate goal for me professionally (I’m nearly a year into my first job after uni), but if I was to go tomorrow I think it would be insanely hard for me.

    I don’t have the reputation or the connections you do which I believe would make it harder for me, things would be very tight.

  11. Gary Stanton

    Gary Stanton

    06 October 2008 @ 01:59PM #

    Wish I knew how you did that. I’ve been freelance for around three years now, and while I love my work and feel far more fulfilled and satisfied as a whole, I do find myself working pretty much every waking hour.
    The bottom line for me is that clients aren’t willing to pay the kind of money for projects that I would like them to, and so I simply have to take on more projects!

  12. Pete Eveleigh

    Pete Eveleigh

    06 October 2008 @ 02:00PM #

    I tend to agree with what you say but the article doesn’t really say why you work less hours, just that you do.

    Is it because you are “master of your own destiny” and so can better control a project?

    Having that direct line of communication with a client is a huge benefit I think. In the past I’ve found myself spending time doing silly things or things in a more time consuming way because of what has been said between an exec. and the client. Unless you’ve got very tech savvy execs it can all go wonky quite quickly.

  13. Pete Eveleigh

    Pete Eveleigh

    06 October 2008 @ 02:11PM #

    BTW I loved this bit…

    I’m not the type of guy who’ll write a blog about how to ‘make it’, because I don’t know (and guess what? Those guys don’t either).

    Made me chuckle to myself. My sentiments exactly.

  14. Christoph

    Christoph

    06 October 2008 @ 03:08PM #

    Very motivating and encouraging article!
    But I have some second thoughts :-)
    I’m considering going freelance, too, but I’m not sure if I can do it with less effort of time than in my current job.
    You need great clients with enough money, or say it vice versa, you have to be good and lucky enough to get those clients :-)
    If not, you have to work more and harder, to earn enough money.

    Broadly: You have to comply some requirements to be in a position to work not too much, it’s not only your personal approach/attitude to work.

    Nevertheless working less is a big goal worth achieving, and it is always good to hear that there are people out there, who reached it.

    By the way: very nice cat!

  15. prisca

    prisca

    06 October 2008 @ 03:59PM #

    Elliot,
    great to read you’re making such a success of your freelance life ;-)

    Inspiring to read – though I do think you had an easier start to your freelance career than most of us – but it certainly shows that with determination – you can do anything :)

    Thanks ;-)

  16. Rajesh Pancholi

    Rajesh Pancholi

    06 October 2008 @ 04:41PM #

    Good for you, remember why you’re making the change and don’t ever forget it. I set up on my own 18months ago. The hours I put in I make count, I don’t pretend to look busy but then again after 14years of working with small design groups/agencies I never did that anyway. Its’ a great chance to build good strong direct relationships and learn from the past, remember how others behaved and worked. It’s not always easy but so what…. There’s no hiding place for you so make everything count.

    Good luck to all of you who made the change and took control

  17. Romba Ksekouboti

    Romba Ksekouboti

    06 October 2008 @ 09:57PM #

    The question dear Elliot is whether this situation is sustainable. When I took the same step I was really happy for awhile but as the time was time I was finding myself swamped with more and more work. And no it was not because I was a money grabbing ‘businessman’. I really hope it will work out for you but allow me to remain sceptical.

  18. Randy

    Randy

    07 October 2008 @ 12:00AM #

    I think its all in your personality and how each of us does things. I definitely work every waking hour i have, but then again if im not working on projects than Im mowing the lawn or cleaning the kitchen.

    I think some of us just need to learn how to turn work off… or maybe, learn to want to turn work off..

  19. Rick Hurst

    Rick Hurst

    07 October 2008 @ 04:16AM #

    hmm… i’m a year and a bit into freelancing and still trying to find a balance on it! i’ve made a few bad decisions along the way I think, but absolutely determined to work less ( just as soon as i’ve cleared this damn backlog!)

  20. Liz

    Liz

    07 October 2008 @ 06:26AM #

    I feel exactly the same way! I left my full time in February of this year to do freelance full-time and I’m happier, healthier, thinner! I get more sleep, eat better, i see my family and friends more, I spend less hours working and worrying about work, but yet make plenty of cash, have lots of fun projects and even have time to do “just for fun” and pro-bono work.

    I think a lot of it has to do with working smart, having a process and being organized. Plus, my old firm job demanded me to work fast, so that skill helps!

    My response to the “don’t you miss being at a firm” question is always “HAHAHAHA. No.”

  21. andrew

    andrew

    07 October 2008 @ 08:56PM #

    It’s really cool that you can do what you’re doing. I don’t do freelance right now, so I am not arguing, but I am curious if your ability to work the amount you do and still make decent money, has something to do with the name you’ve made for yourself already in the web world.

    Do you think it’s possible for everyone to do as you do, or do you think some people who aren’t as established might have trouble getting work and charging enough to do likewise?

  22. Lee

    Lee

    07 October 2008 @ 11:04PM #

    Am wondering what to do after the student life ends in January. Taking freelancing a bit more seriously (as against juggling it with coursework) is an option so it’s good to hear about your success and love of freelancing.

  23. Dainis Graveris

    Dainis Graveris

    09 October 2008 @ 02:19PM #

    Maybe for professionals It works – I know that I cann’t afford this! But nice inspiration for further work..as freelancer! :)

  24. Anurag Sharma

    Anurag Sharma

    10 October 2008 @ 11:33AM #

    Very well presented. I agree Elliot that freelancing has been stereotyped as “have to work longer” thing. When I started off I was told that I will need to work as hard as I will in 3 years of full-time in just 1 year of freelancing. That was kind of illogical. People who didn’t knew anything about business wanted to become my business consultants giving me every advice they wanted too. I felt that some people just want to live their own dream of being a free lancer by giving advices to people who actually freelance. I don’t know if I am making any sense. So, I’ll wrap up things now. Keep posting. I always look forward to read new posts here. Thanks.

  25. Michel

    Michel

    10 October 2008 @ 01:05PM #

    thx for post!
    nice blog..

  26. Lawrence Brown

    Lawrence Brown

    10 October 2008 @ 07:51PM #

    Great post Elliot. Blogs are often littered with ill advise on this subject and recycle content. I have been freelancing for nearly a year now and I love the workflow, sometimes my control over it slips but I think that is often the case for any freelancer. If you love what you do, you can get on and do it and learn much more than you might at some agencies.

  27. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    13 October 2008 @ 04:38PM #

    Cheers for commenting, guys.

    A few of you (on here and via emails / Twitter messages) pointed out that I hadn’t actually explained why I work fewer hours, so I owe you an explanation. Also, it’s been pointed out to me that this position is made easier if you’re relatively well-known in the industry and have a portfolio with some big names in it. I completely agree, and don’t want you to think that I’d deny that fact.

    However, these topics require a bit more discussion that me just posting a response in the comments, so head over to my follow-up article and let’s pick things up there…

  28. factotum218

    factotum218

    20 October 2008 @ 07:09AM #

    Nice article.
    My problem is I have six factors working against this idea.
    1. No name recognition (I know, I know, comes in time with some breakthrough idea)
    2-5 are mouths that need to be fed and housed.
    6. I mean really, no matter what you do, you can’t get anywhere if you live in Michigan.

    If your single and/or have that freedom to pursue a freelance career by all means, grab it by the throat. If your not, and have a family to support, enjoy the layoffs (on this side of the pond anyways).

  29. patricia

    patricia

    22 October 2008 @ 04:25PM #

    it’s a relief to hear this kind of advice since i and many others have heard the same “get ready to work more hours”. i never got my head around this idea (i’m a little stubborn) and am seeking a “work less hours” method. besides i tend not to believe just one person’s perspective. to every point of view there is always the opposite; so thank u elliot for expressing your very encouraging perspectice.

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