Why freelancers are never unemployed

Last Updated on 1 August 2023

Someone having a snooze

When I ask people on my courses what they think ‘freelance’ means there’s often some wag who shouts ‘unemployed’.

It’s usually someone who’s just left employment and is getting their head around the freelance lifestyle. It’s also meant as a joke, but with a frisson of ‘it’s funny because it’s true’.

The word ‘unemployed’ implies a period between employed jobs, when no income is coming in and you have nothing to do. This makes sense if you see work as being controlled by an employer.

Reframing work

But for freelancers it’s important to recognise that ‘not earning today’ does NOT mean being unemployed today.

It might be a day when you’re not earning, but that doesn’t equate to unemployment.

A cocktail booth with a bored server who is not unemployed
A barista who is not unemployed

This is because freelancers need to think of themselves as one-person businesses.

I like to use the analogy of a cafe on the high street. Just because no one buys anything on a particular day, it doesn’t mean the cafe doesn’t exist.

The cafe owner might not be best pleased, but they don’t think to themselves ‘oh dear, I’m unemployed today’. They get on with tidying the displays, advertising on Instagram or doing their admin.

On a day when you’re not earning as a freelancer you can still be working on your business.

The pie-chart of time

I’ve been a freelance trainer for nearly 20 years, and I’ve found it helpful to think of my time in three parts.

  1. Working time for which I’m being paid
  2. Working time for which I’m NOT being paid
  3. Personal life – cooking, watching old films, etc…nothing whatsoever to do with work
A pie chart with three sectors - Work (paid); Work (Running your freelancing); Personal life

I often find people wrongly equate working with earning. They therefore consider any activity where money is not coming in as being ‘down time’.

In fact ‘down time’, like ‘unemployment’, doesn’t really exist for freelancers. You’re either deciding to do something for your freelance business or you’re deciding to forget work and concentrate on your personal life.

It’s important to recognise that work for which you are not paid – the red bit of pie – doesn’t include working for nothing. It represents time you are investing in your freelance career.

Typically this includes

  • looking for work/networking (vital and time consuming)
  • coming on my training courses, and gaining new skills (a lot of fun)
  • admin (ideally the least time consuming, so use my templates)

Decision time

Only you are running your life, so it’s up to you to decide how you balance these three bits of pie.

I have always found it helpful to allocate days in the diary to one of them. I even think of them as green, blue or red days.

Each working day is blue or red, but I always give myself a deadline by which the day will turn green. That makes me more efficient when I’m concentrating on work and more relaxed when I’m not.

It also helps me focus. If it’s blue or red time I will be checking work emails and switch off from my personal life. If it’s green I will switch off my work phone and never look at work emails.

Wait what?! Switch the phone off?? Yep – something I’ve blogged about elsewhere.

Over to you

So how do you get the right balance? How do you stop yourself working too hard when you’re not earning, and focus on having a personal life? I’d love to hear.

Posted on 01 August 2023

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