Balancing freedom and security in a freelance career

I’m one year into my freelance career in biomedical writing and editing, and I just passed my two-year blogiversary. So, I suppose it’s time for me to take a look back and evaluate my progress.

In general, freelancing boils down to balancing the need for financial security with the freedom to plan my own day. Freelancing is alternately terrifying and satisfying. Every month I manage to make my income goal, but at the beginning of each month it’s not always clear that it will happen. Summer is particularly anxiety-inducing; most of my clients are academic researchers and their summers are fairly quiet. I fill in the blanks with writing jobs from Japan – not the highest paying gig, but when my schedule is looking light, I’ll take it to fill the gaps.

The satisfying part is that I am a successful  business owner. Even if it is a tiny business of a single employee. Somehow, I am making this work, and that’s kinda cool.

I’ve also learned that even though I am a night owl, it is neither wise nor physically possible to sustain that schedule. It was a holdover of how I had been doing freelance while working full- or part-time during the day. Night was for freelance jobs. It took me a year to get used to it, but I now write and edit during the day, working a full day with short breaks to walk the dog, work out, and eat lunch. Sounds boring, like I switched one office job for another, but the reality is that my schedule is my own. I have time. No more taking my lunch hour to rush out for an errand and then rush back to the office. No fighting weekend crowds at the supermarket. I can take my kids to appointments, I can join them on field trips, and I don’t have to keep track of how many vacation days I’ve used. And I definitely do not miss the daily commute to and from downtown Chicago.

The rollercoaster continues. Sometimes pride in my business wins over self-doubt over finances, other times the fear of financial insecurity wins out over the benefits of freedom and time.

In the end, though, I ask myself one question: “Do you like what you are doing?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Biomedical writing and editing continues to be intellectually challenging, requiring me to creatively merge science with language to communicate complex concepts. It is also personally satisfying to use my particular skill set to help my clients and to have the opportunity to learn something new with every project.

So, that settles that, I think.

This freelance thing? It’s a lot of work.

Well, I’m into month 2 of my full-time freelance career as a medical writer. And I’m still trying to get used to it. I’m very busy, so that’s good. But I’m sure I am not managing my time efficiently – there are a lot of hats to wear when you’re doing it all yourself. And I can’t quite get out of the night owl mode and take advantage of these huge blocks of uninterrupted time I was so desperate for.

I’m really looking forward to this year’s AMWA annual conference, where I’m going to soak up as much information as possible from other freelance writers. I’m attending at least a few sessions on efficiency and tools that can help me manage my time–Although I love Fanurio, by the way. What a great program for tracking time and income!–and not spend so much time on administrative stuff!

So I’m happy to report that even though I am experiencing some growing pains, this move to full-time freelance was a good one. The freedom and time are priceless. The stress I could do with a little less of, but I’m working on that.

Next week, I’m even giving myself a “vacation,” which just means I won’t be at my computer editing NIH grants. Instead, I’ll be attending the 2011 Oncofertility Consortium conference (and then trying to catch up on my writing at night, of course). I’ll be tweeting too (#oncofert11), because I just can’t help myself. I’m expecting this conference to be full of great stuff to share. The Oncofertility Consortium is also one of my longest-running clients, and it’s great to be able to sit in on presentations of the latest research and issues and keep myself up-to-date.

That’s it. When things slow down a bit (after October 5…I live by the NIH grants calendar), I’ll make sure I write something a little more substantial.

Two days in…and it’s all about time

Well, I am officially my own boss. Everything is completely up to me. The best part? I finally have huge blocks of time available to me…during the day. There shouldn’t be any reason for me to be up at 3AM anymore. Rather than “fit in” my freelance work around other responsibilities, now my responsibility IS my freelance work. The other great thing is that I am no longer having to switch from task to task, having to physically and mentally move from freelance work to contract job to staff job. It’s all in one place now, in my home office. I feel efficient and focused for the first time in a long time.

Now that I am fully freelance, I can also expand my Web site (or is that website?) to reflect all the services I offer. No more conflict of interest…on to phase 2 of my business plan. I can also visit clients and pursue career development opportunities without having to schedule vacation days. My time is my own.

Although I am (obviously) giddy with my newfound freedom, I can anticipate at least one big issue. July is a relatively slow month, and I can’t kid myself that it will stay this calm and under control. In fact, the chaos will probably resume as early as next week. So I predict that my biggest challenge will be overpromising. Just because I have these unbroken blocks of time to work with doesn’t mean I need to completely fill them. I have to watch my schedule closely and set realistic deadlines.

But two days in, I have to say am thrilled with my decision to finally take the leap to a freelance career. It took me 5 years and many baby steps to get here. I’m a little proud of what I have accomplished, a little anxious about how to proceed, and very excited about moving forward.

My 5-year plan

I’m coming into the final stretch of what has been a pretty crazy two months, mostly because I made the decision to have what essentially amounts to three jobs: my part-time agency job, my freelance business, and a contract job. On the AMWA listserv, there was a question posted recently about the wisdom of combining freelance with a staff position, and the consensus was that it’s not easy, and that it is more likely to lead to scheduling issues. Yep. Gotta agree with that. For both my agency job and my contract work, which is really a remote staff position, I must set aside certain number of hours per week. And then my freelance work gets scheduled around the set hours. There comes a point where you realize that there are only 24 hours in the day, and at least some of those must be devoted to sleep and the occasional shower. Thankfully, I can eat and work at the same time.

Insane. Yes, I know. I have been told that repeatedly. The only way I have been able to get through the month of May is to remind myself (and my incredibly understanding and supportive family) that it is temporary.

You see, I am rapidly approaching the end of my second post-graduate school 5-year plan. The first 5-year plan was to establish my career in medical writing and buy a house. Check and check. The second plan started when my first child was born and will end with the ideal balance of work and personal life.

Okay, stop rolling around on the floor laughing. It is possible, I just know it.

Anyway, I got it into my risk-adverse head that I was going to transition to a freelance career gradually over 5 years, with periodic transitions that would keep us financially solvent. I did not factor in keeping myself sane. In any case, I continued to grow my career and my freelance business, taking short breaks to have a family, until I realized I could not sustain the full-time agency job. So I went part-time, and my business continued to grow, most recently with the addition of the contract work.

I love what I do, and I have this habit of taking writing and editing jobs and then realizing later that there may not be enough coffee in the world to sustain me. And then I run the very real risk of doing a poor job – and that is not acceptable at all.  There is nothing worse than having a client question whether you are overextended or incapable.

So my 5-year plan technically ends when my son turns 5…in August. Tick tick tick. Obviously I can’t sustain this level of work, so the time has come for me to make this decision, once and for all, and get going on my next 5-year plan. I’ll let you know how it turns out, but right now it’s time for me to make the June 5 R01 deadline for two of my clients. See you in June!

Watch out! It’s a deadline crash!

In my year-end post, I believe that I listed “Time management and scheduling” as an area for improvement in 2011. Two months in? Not doing so great. I have never been busier in the nearly 8 years since I started The Tobin Touch. Which is good, fantastic even, except that it requires me to have at least some proficiency in scheduling so that I can make my deadlines without going completely batty and working until 3 AM. (And dropping deadlines is not an option – see my last post.)

February was a very good month, and March is shaping up to be the same, but I am entering this next month determined to manage my time more effectively. Admittedly, I have a lot of things to manage outside of my freelance business, but I think that I can make a few adjustments to improve my schedule.

I work on my freelance business every day, but some days I do more of the administrative stuff. Contracts, invoices, correspondence, etc. Here and there I might take an evening off, particularly when I have a deadline that is a bit off in the distance somewhere. Or several smaller projects come in with shorter turnaround times, and I focus on those. All the while, my projects with longer deadlines are there, waiting for me.

And this is my downfall, because as the smaller projects’ deadlines start to overlap with the longer projects’ deadlines, I experience a “deadline crash” where I am looking at several days of non-stop work, day and night. And that’s just not a good way to operate.

So for my sanity’s sake, I decided to take a closer look at why these deadline crashes happen. I’m not lazy, taking an evening off here and there. I’m not taking on too much work (though this may be debatable). I think it might stem from me being project-oriented. I focus on a project and get it done. This approach is okay for shorter projects. Manuscript editing, a poster, a Web article. I set aside 2 or 3 days on my schedule and get it done. But with larger projects (grant writing, research, conference reports), this isn’t going to work.

If I can get more comfortable with the idea that I will need to work on some projects a little each day, and I won’t be finished in 2 or 3 days, I think I can avoid my schedule crashes. And I also need to get used to the idea of switching gears–setting down those longer projects I’ve been chipping away at to focus on a smaller project, then picking up the larger project where I left off.

Easier said than done, but as a scientist, I’m up for testing this hypothesis! I’ll report back on my findings. Until then…

Start at the End

Just a quick post on time management and deadlines. Used to be, when I did this freelancing medical writing thing on the side, I’d have one project at a time. I’d finish it, and if I had another project waiting, well, that was a bonus. I’d move onto that one, finish it, etc., etc. Now that the “on the side” has turned into a full-fledged medical writing business, this approach just won’t cut it. More often than not, I have multiple projects on my calendar, with overlapping deliverable milestones and due dates.

I just finished reading The Accidental Medical Writer by Cyndy Kryder and Brian Bass, and on the topic of deadlines, there is only one thing to say: Don’t miss them. Ever. I wholeheartedly agree. There is nothing worse than being late on a deadline. It’s a reputation killer.

How do I avoid this? I start at the end…I set reasonable deadlines. And the only way to do that is to make sure I know everything I can about the project up front – the scope, the deliverables, the client expectations. And I never promise a deadline until I’ve completely evaluated everything in the context of my schedule.

What happens if I do mess up and overpromise? I put on a pot of coffee and work all night, that’s what. I will not let myself miss a deadline.

That said, I do have some long-time clients who would understand if I contacted them ahead of the deadline to negotiate an extension. But the key here is “ahead of the deadline” — no one wants a call the night before to find out I’ve dropped the ball. But I try to avoid these calls altogether. If they don’t kill your reputation outright, they will erode it over time.

So, time management. I have a pocketbook calendar that I carry around with me everywhere – oldskool, I know, but I haven’t got one of them fancy smartphones yet. And then I have a plain old Excel calendar on my office computer, where  I can keep track of all my overlapping projects and deadlines and set a month’s worth of priorities. Nothing fancy. But without it, I’d be toast. Or someone would find me under a pile of Post-It notes muttering about dates and numbers.

Everyone does it differently, but the key for me is to know my deadlines, see how they fall out on the calendar, and then set (and re-set) my priorities so that I don’t miss any deadlines. I’ve had to move away from the one project-one deadline model to one that is more flexible and can accommodate shifting priorities, which happens almost daily as new projects are added to my calendar.

It’s all very exciting–and maybe a little scary–for someone who does well with a little more structure and predictability in her schedule, but I’ve learned to adapt and make the most of the freelance rollercoaster.

Giving in to the rollercoaster

I knew that this was going to be the hardest part of being a freelancer – the ups and downs of the work schedule. And I anticipated that it would be a source of incredible stress. I like order, organization, predictability. (Which is why I had such a difficult time after my first child was born – what a smack upside the head THAT was!) When the work load is light, I get anxious and start new projects (like, um, a blog, for instance), and when the work load picks up, like it did in the past couple months, I feel like I can’t catch my breath. When I come to a lull in the schedule, I look around me as if I am coming up for air. Then I dive right back in.

The learning curve for setting reasonable deadlines for projects and prioritizing them in a sane manner has been less steep than I’d hoped. But my personal scheduling prowess is only part of the problem. My work really centers around grant deadlines, and also tends to be heavier during the school year, since my clients are primarily academic researchers. I recently finished editing three back-to-back R21 proposals, with the October 16th deadline looming. July and August – pretty slow. Everyone is sharing their work at meetings, taking time off, and preparing for the next school year.

I’ll admit though, part of the problem is me – I really, really love what I do. I love editing, helping researchers organize their thoughts on paper, helping them create a persuasive story around their research. I find myself getting into a grant and looking up a couple of hours later, amazed at the time. I also tend to say yes to everyone. Why in the world would I say no? What it comes down to is giving myself enough time to work on all the projects I want to, and work on them with the level of intensity I want to.

So far, I’ve been able to take on all the projects I’ve been given, with very, very minimal shifts in deadlines. But I’ve learned the importance of setting reasonable deadlines and prioritizing up front, and accommodating with grace any project changes that might result in a steep rise on the rollercoaster (click, click, click). I may have very little say on the actual ups and downs, but I do have access to the brake when I need to slow it down.

A Night Owl With a Day Job

I’ve always worked better in the wee hours of the morning. It’s quiet. There are no distractions. No one to call, nothing on TV, just a large block of time characterized by nothing but a still hush. Add a fresh pot of coffee and the possibilities are endless. I imagine Edward Hopper’s painting, but with a laptop perched on the diner counter.

The problem is, I have a day job. And two munchkins who wake up at 7:30, no matter what. I don’t need an alarm clock. Thankfully, I’ve found a way to make this work by shifting my day job (in healthcare communications) to an afternoon job, which gives me the morning to recover.

The only drawback so far has been my personal tendency to try and make the most of every waking hour (I struggle with the concept of “time debting”). There’s been a bit of a learning curve with figuring out how to best schedule my working hours. But I’m getting there.

Time Debting is my New Thing

So I started to get serious about going freelance back in April, and four months on, I think the hardest part for me has been the ebb and flow of my schedule (and cashflow). And then there’s this nagging little voice in my head that is constantly reminding me that time is money. Now it seems that every hour is worth something, for better or worse.

I was at an AMWA chapter meeting yesterday and heard the term “time debting,” or using time to do things for your business that don’t directly generate any income. Like marketing yourself. Like using social networks to gain visibility and reputation. Like blogging.

Time debting. It almost sounds sci fi, doesn’t it? I think that might be why I like it so much.

I figure time debting can’t really hurt—and might even help—when business is slow. June was absolutely crazy. July…not so much. I’ve been spending the downtime researching leads, writing letters and designing marketing materials, editing my brother’s book pro bono, and now, starting a blog about my career. (Catching up on sleep? No. Why would I do that?) A few other things I thought I might try while I can: setting up a Facebook page and Twitter account for The Tobin Touch and signing up for Google alerts so I can keep up with my industry.

I don’t know how long this will last. I’m afraid that my posts will be erratic at best, but at least it’s a way to stay productive through the slow times. And for me, it’s always good to have something to do, even if it puts me into time debt.