Ever wondered how those super successful freelancers set up their day? Are they doing something that you aren’t that could change your entire work ethic? We asked four such freelancers to tell us about a day in their working lives to find out.
Being a freelancer is a pretty solitary venture. Even if you’re bringing in the cash it can be hard to know if you’re actually doing it ‘right’. Unlike when you’re working in an office, you generally have no idea how other freelancers approach their day-to-day. Do they write for a solid day, or break it up with admin? Do they have more free time than 9-to-5 workers? How long do they spend working on a project?
We’ve snuck a peek into a typical working day of four freelancers, and asked them how they go about their business – do they listen to music while they work? What are their three essential tools? And where do they like working best?
Andrew P Street
Andrew P Street is a writer, whose column ‘View from the Street’ appears regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald. He’s also been published in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Time Out and Elle, among others, and is the author of two books, the most recent being The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat.
A typical day
5.30am Woken up by insistent cat that really likes to get a drop on the day.
6.30-7am Get up. Walk up to the cafe at the corner and get coffees. Have breakfast with my very pregnant wife.
8am Send off the pitches that prevented me from getting to sleep. Most of the time this will be the column I write for the Sydney Morning Herald three days a week.
9am Weigh up the most urgent deadlines. Columns typically have to be in by 12, so they’re the number one priority.
9am-12pm Type type type type type.
12-onwards This changes from day to day.
Monday afternoons Dom Knight and I typically record the Double Disillusionists podcast, so there’s some guest-wrangling and topic-preparation in the days beforehand. The recording we do over Skype and it’s pretty quick – 60-90 minutes tops.
“I also like to have a lie-down in the afternoon, mainly because I used to fantasise about doing this when I was working in an office and now I can.”
My wife works in an office full-time and since I’m generally far more flexible with my time than she can be, I do most of the shopping, cooking and cleaning during the week. Thus afternoons might involve a stroll up to the supermarket, preparing things for dinner, and a quick load of washing. It also means I occasionally leave the house rather than lurk in my study from dawn until dusk.
I also like to have a lie-down in the afternoon, mainly because I used to fantasise about doing this when I was working in an office and now I can. It clears my head, and it’s really important to remember the good things about freelancing – like having a mid-afternoon doze when everyone else is at their desk – to offset the terror over not having sick leave, holiday leave, a reliable income and so on. Sometimes I go for a run, but that only ever happens in the early bit of the week; by Thursday that’s definitely off the agenda.
I also have a guitar and a piano in the study, and I generally play them for a bit at some point to break up the day. Not at the same time, however, as I have insufficient limbs to do that.
If I’m working on a book I minimise my other freelance jobs. Most days also involve either sending off or chasing up invoices, because I’ve learned from painful experience not to let that slide.
7ish Dinner, hanging out, working out which element of imminent parenthood we’re least prepared for and making frantic plans. I try not to work evenings or weekends because I like having proper time with my friends and family, although I also know that I write best from about 8am to 11am and 5pm to 8pm and that 2pm to 4pm is definitely a dead zone where nothing worthwhile will come out of my brain. Good reading and dozing time in other words which, again, is hard to do in an open-plan office.
11ish Bed. Sometimes I read first, sometimes we listen to podcasts: it all depends on how confident I am about playing chicken with my hefty, pervasive insomnia.
Generally music is a distraction, sometimes it’s useful to have side two of Bowie’s Lodger playing on repeat in the background. Massively underrated record, that one.
Andrew P Street’s essential tools
- All the machines with Google Calendar on them, which remind me of which thing I’m about to be late for.
- Whatever four books I’m reading at the time, scattered around the house face-down with their spines cracked.
- A now-unsupported iPod Touch with an external mic that’s near-impossible to get, which is hands down the best interview recorder I’ve ever used.
Researching I generally do at home; actual long-form writing I tend to do at a café or library or a park.
Anna Westcott is a freelance fashion designer and creative director, and founder of lifestyle label Aneau, which works in tandem with the Purkal women who inhabit the foot of the Himalayas to create hand-sewn quilts.
A typical day
My day starts with training in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay followed by a wholesome breakfast – this sets me up for the day.
“I work better in the morning so my most productive time is between 7am and 12pm. I allow the evenings for dreaming and stargazing.”
My next step is a date with my notebook. I’m a notorious list writer. I carry a dusted grey notebook around with me where I jot down lists, ideas and anything that catches my attention that I need to retain. I’m a very visual person so writing a list helps me digest what I need to occur that day. I also use iCalendar which is awesome and sends you handy alerts and reminders. I would be lost without this! Working as a freelancer is a juggling act; one moment you’re brainstorming concepts, then meeting with clients and then of course invoicing.
I work better in the morning so my most productive time is between 7am and 12pm. I allow the evenings for dreaming and stargazing. This often involves dinner or drinks with my boyfriend or friends.
I listen to music unless I’m sketching. If I’m sketching I like silence. I need to find that still place when I’m sketching.
Anna Westcott’s essential tools
- Firstly my Marimekko teapot my twin brother gave me – tea is the best company!
- My dusted grey notebook.
- A dance in the living room to break up the day.
I had a studio in Surry Hills, but I was on jobs and working elsewhere, so was hardly ever there; now, when I’m not on location, I’m working from my apartment in Elizabeth Bay, which is broken up by café runs and park hangs in the sunshine to recharge and get interaction with people. I find working from home really great as I’m hardly ever there otherwise. It’s a nice air-filled old Art Deco apartment building, so lends itself to an harmonious work environment. Having said that though, I do miss my studio as it was a share space for freelancers; it’s really nice to have that interaction and support from other creatives doing similar things.
Dan F Stapleton
A typical day
I hit my email as soon as I wake up. I’ll often have messages from the US and I prefer to respond straight away in case any of my contacts are still at their desks. Cleaning up my inbox also puts me in a productive headspace.
I’ve never been very good at making schedules and sticking to them. I find to-do lists helpful, though. Being able to cross items off a list is therapeutic.
At least 50 percent of my job is organisation and admin, and I try to get most of it done in the morning. My capacity to write generally increases as the day progresses, so getting my admin done early leaves my afternoons free to write.
“I can write for many hours if need be – my dinner time is flexible!”
I tend to schedule appointments and meetings for late morning or lunchtime, so I can be home and ready to write by mid-afternoon. Travelling around Sydney can be frustratingly slow, but the roads are generally clearest in the middle of the day.
If I’m working on a feature article, I’ll generally write it in one sitting using research and quotes that I’ve collated previously. I tend to plan my articles quite carefully, so by the time I begin writing, I’m very confident of the structure and have everything to hand. I can write for many hours if need be – my dinner time is flexible!
I rarely write for publications after dinner, but I’ll often keep working in some shape or form throughout the evening. People in Europe wake up around my dinner time, and I’ll often have things to discuss with them. I also do most of my reading in the evening – I’ll scan The New York Times, The Guardian, and some speciality sites. I’m lucky to enjoy the research aspect of my job, and I’ll quite happily surf the web and research story angles until late.
I never listen to music while doing serious writing work. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that I function best when mono-tasking. Silence maximises my productivity.
Dan Stapleton’s essential tools
- I don’t drink alcohol so sparkling water functions as my vice – give me good water and good coffee and I can work happily for hours.
- I also use the TextEdit program on my Mac constantly – using it as a notepad allows me to keep my fingers on the keyboard, and it’s the quickest way to de-format text.
I’ll work outside my apartment if I have to, but my preference is to be at home. Partly, it’s so I have greater control over my environment, but it’s also because I’m essentially an introverted person and I feel more confident when I’m not on view.
A typical day
I wake up at 8am, get ready and read at my local cafe. At 10am I go into a client’s office in the CBD to work until 1pm when I leave the client’s office and have lunch.
“I work in digital and I know there are a bunch of apps out there, but I’m still a little old-school and prefer to write things in a diary. Keeping a record of every single thing you do at what time is crucial as a freelancer.”
After lunch, around 2pm, I’ll do one of three things: Go to my next client’s office to run a workshop or in-person discussion; go to a cafe or library to finish work; or go to the beach (this probably only happens two to three times a month because there’s normally more work that needs to be done).
My schedule depends on the client or project. For example, I work with BRICKX and they need daily in-person contact for social media content and execution, while my other client, Fotobox, is a combination of both onsite and remote work since I’m building a business/brand strategy for them.
At 4.30pm, I’ll do yoga, then 6-7pm have dinner.
From 9pm onwards I’ll do more work or schedule meetings/chats with new potential clients. If I’m working, I’ll usually work for at least an hour. Worst case scenarios are up to three to four hours.
I used to listen to music when I worked in my full-time job to block out my surroundings and focus. These days I don’t need it.
Karen P’ng’s essential tools
- I’ll always have my portable hard drive – that thing is my saviour. It’s a big orange block so you’ll always see it connected to my laptop wherever I am.
- Ever since I became a freelancer, I’ve been running around so much that I’ve ditched the heels and swear by my Converse sneakers! I almost have an attachment to them now – sometimes I do feel like a fish out of water when I’m in the CBD surrounded by corporates but in the end, I feel like they are part of my “look” now to stand out from the rat-race crowd!
- My diary is essential for logging in hours and any appointments I have. I work in digital and I know there are a bunch of apps out there, but I’m still a little old-school in this way and prefer to write things in a diary. Keeping a record of every single thing you do at what time is crucial as a freelancer.
Some projects can be done remotely with other clients, but I also have one client in financial services where they are more comfortable with me being onsite, as [my role] deals with speaking with their legal advisors. I have a list of my favourite spots to go to. They’re perfect for a 1-2 hour working session:
There is no single formula that works for everyone when it comes to routines, but one thing is clear: trying different ways of working is essential to figure out when and where you’re most productive. Discovering you’re most creative or focused in the afternoon, for example, will help you structure your day to maximise your strengths and make producing your best work a regular thing.
Che-Marie Trigg is a freelance writer and full-time subeditor. Her work has appeared in Virgin Australia Voyeur, Collective Hub and GoPlaces with Toyota magazines among others, as well as on websites like Broadsheet and Junkee. Follow her on Instagram @chemariet.