Lessons learned from a year of being self-employed

Caitlin McAllistair, aka the brains behind The Desk Life Project shares with us her musings on the 1 year anniversary of her self-employment.

Ever heard the story about the girl who had to quit her job because she burned out? Of course you have. It’s a tale as old as time, with the happy ending coming in the shape of a P45 form. 


I still remember sitting at my desk on the 1st of June last year. After realising that the jobs I had been in for the last 3 years weren’t benefiting my health or my life goals, I decided to become self-employed, and that was pretty much the extent of my plan. June 1st was my inaugural work day after leaving my job, and I had gone from a great salary, to no salary at all. I had gone from being surrounded by colleagues who I considered great friends, to being completely alone. That’s what burnout will do to you. It forces you to take what appears to the outside world as insane measures, in order to catch your breath and think about what you want. 


I started that day with a huge smile on my face. I’d spent the weekend reorganising my spare room and re-purposing a fold-out table to create my new home office, complete with an inspirational quote on my new cork board (who did I think I was?). I was committed to being one of those super organised beings who archived all of their receipts, tracked their spending, kept spreadsheets and folders everywhere, and held things together with rose gold paper clips. Seriously, who did I think I was?

Not everyone has experienced the gut-wrenching fear of having quit your job with nothing else lined up. Seeing your rent be taken by standing order each month and not receiving the monthly salary to counterbalance it is scary, and it will make any new freelancer question their decision. As you can imagine, the further into that first day I went without a client, the more my smile faded and was replaced by a deep-set line in my brow that I’m not sure will ever go away. 


There comes a moment when you’re about to hit the “Apply” button for a role doing pretty much exactly the same thing as you did in the job you just left, when you realise that it’s only two days into self-employed life, and you should probably give it at least a week before you freak out. Giving myself that first week to sit in silence staring at my inspiring cork board lead me to my first client. And then another one. And then another one. Pretty soon (in less than two months actually) I hit the financial target I had set myself, not believing that I would get there for at least the first 6 months. 


I know what you’re thinking: you want that cork board. But that wasn’t the key to my success, it was simply giving things time to fall into place. The idea of being patient and trusting in your decision was the first lesson I had to learn during my initial year of being freelance, and it was soon followed by more lessons that I’ve been reflecting on during my self-employed-iversary this week.


Here’s what I’ve learned:


Saying no if you don’t feel like it is absolutely OK

The first few clients I took on gave me a lot of work for much less than my asking price, and in one instance the client turned out to be one of those take-their-work-and-never-pay-them types. It wasn’t the best way to start my self-employed career, but throughout those experiences I kept saying yes when I should have said no. I’ve learned that if a project isn’t absolutely the perfect fit for me, then I don’t have to feel guilty when respectfully declining. For me, being self-employed is about choosing who I work with, when I work, and what I work on, and if those three things don’t add up to my dream project, then nowadays I just say no and put them in touch with a fellow freelancer who may want to take on the job. And I don’t, and shouldn’t, feel guilty about that. 

Sometimes you need to change things up

Being self-employed and working from home means that, unless you have a phone call or meeting planned with a client, you could literally go Monday to Friday without speaking to a single human being or leaving the house. That’s a recipe for loneliness, low mood and bad health. Since the very beginning I’ve prioritised taking at least a half hour break to go for a walk when I’m working from home, and at least once a week I head out somewhere, whether that’s a cafe or a coworking space, to change my scenery. One of the best things I did was start going to networking events and meeting other self-employed people like me, because I now have a network of friends who I can call upon for lunch and a chat whenever I just feel the need to talk it out, or to break free from my usual routine. 


Don’t let your mood reflect your bank balance

Believe it or not (and you may want to sit down for this), being self-employed does not automatically mean you get to start carrying a money clip. It may look that way when you see people on Instagram telling you they quit their 9-5 and travelled the world on their private yacht while working only 1 hour a week, but for us mere mortals who are just starting our self-employed journey, it actually looks more like the odd month of indulging in the Taste the Difference range, followed by two months of straight up Lidl. At the end of the day you have to remember that (and I’m taking a guess here but I’m pretty sure I’m right) you didn’t become self-employed for the money, you did it because you wanted more control of your lifestyle. And that’s what it’s all about. Don’t let what’s going on in your bank account affect the enjoyment you get out of your new found freedom. 


Know what you’re worth, and don’t bend if you don’t want to 

It took me a while for this one to sink in, but after several projects where I wasn’t being paid what I had initially set as my hourly rate, I knew I had to take it more seriously. Your prices will most likely be negotiable on occasion, but you are always the one in control, not the other way around. What you are worth shouldn’t be up for discussion, so if you ever feel you are about to agree to something that doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to put your foot down. You may get the classic panic that will make you say yes to anything just to secure the client, but if you say no instead and leave the space free in your calendar, there’s every chance that you can fill it with someone else who truly values what you do. 

There’s nothing wrong with a spontaneous Friday off

Or any day for that matter. In the beginning I was putting in ridiculous hours trying to get new clients onboard, but eventually this was no longer an urgency, and I realised that I didn’t need to be at my desk 24/7 on the off chance that someone might email me. Decide your working hours in advance so you have structure, but don’t feel bad if you finish all your Wednesday tasks and you fancy going for a run, or reading your book, or spending time with a friend. It’s your business, and while some degree of discipline is needed, you are the boss, so you can decide what is a priority for you. 


My advice is nothing new, but for anyone who is in a job that they don’t absolutely love and may need to hear it again at this particular crossroads, remember that we all get a very short time on this planet, and waking up every day feeling stressed and anxious about a job that isn’t making you happy, is no way to spend your time on earth. 


A year of being self-employed really isn’t all that long, and I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet. That being said, I’ve learned a few things so far, and if you harbour a secret desire to give up your job and chase a better work life balance, please do get in touch with me if there’s anything I can help you with. I’m not a coach, I’m not selling you anything, I just like to chat to others who are new to taking the self-employed leap. 


I’ll leave you with this quote from my favourite fictional TV character:

"We have to remember what's important in life: friends, waffles and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third." - Leslie Knope

You can follow Caitlin’s self-employed adventures on her Instagram visit her blog desklifeproject.co.uk, or send her an email at caitlin@desklifeproject.co.uk


Caitlin's story will be live on our Launch Pad this summer.

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