Make it work for you and avoid burnout

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to make money on the side of a full-time job, don’t freelance. It can be incredibly rewarding and valuable for a number of reasons, but it does come with just as many challenges.

This is what I’ve found from six years of freelancing alongside busy and hectic agency jobs, with a few stop-starts and lessons along the way.

If you look at stock photos for ‘freelancing’ you’ll no doubt find someone relaxing on the beach or next to a swimming pool with their laptop out, like the guy above. It’s obviously meant to show the freedom that you expect being self-employed and not tied down to an office. Although it might be an exaggeration for most people, it’s actually pretty accurate for those who decide to freelance on top of the 9-5 as you’re never really off the clock, even on holiday.

A typical working day can finish at 11pm. Weekends will disappear before you realise. And taking annual leave can be the only way to meet your other deadlines. I’ve (technically) freelanced in Greece, Spain, and Australia, but it was meant to be time spent relaxing and didn’t always go down well with my better half.

It’s a big commitment and lifestyle change, but if you’ve read this far and are considering freelancing, this will hopefully help you to avoid the above scenarios and see the upsides of sticking with it.

Avoid conflicts

Taking on what is essentially another job could be against your employment contract or company’s policy, so start by making sure you’re not putting your full-time role at risk by freelancing. I was transparent with my managers from day one and they had no issues provided there weren’t any conflicts, but it might be something that you decide to keep to yourself.

But what are conflicts? The below is almost a word for word copy of an email I sent to my team, after getting a few questions about whether you could freelance on the side, which should help you to avoid problems:

  • Freelance work should only be done during your spare time, after work and weekends. It also shouldn’t cut into your working hours, such as working your contracted lunch time and then needing longer to actually eat and take a break.
  • Even if it’s in your spare time, it shouldn’t impact your working hours or commitments. For example, if you are working on freelance projects all night and going into work too tired or not able to focus. This is the case regardless of what you’ve been doing and pretty standard in employment contracts.
  • The trickiest part is the type of work and whether there’s crossover with your full-time role. I’ve always avoided situations or opportunities that could take potential revenue away from my main role (clients with big enough budgets to hire the agency), working with a competitor, or freelancing for existing clients on the side.

If you decide against letting your manager or employer know, following these points should mean it doesn’t need to be an issue.

Set the expectation

I spent the first couple of years skirting around the fact that I worked full-time as I thought it might put potential clients off and I’d lose their business. My best possible advice is to be upfront about it and set the expectation with both yourself and clients about when you’ll be available and delivering their work.

Clients who are going to call you at any time of the day or expect immediate responses to their emails won’t work out in the long-term, if you do want to avoid the conflicts mentioned above.

I have lost and turned down opportunities on this basis, but there are just as many businesses that don’t mind and are happy to work around this. It also means you don’t have to push yourself too far or meet unrealistic deadlines, as everything can be planned around what works best for you. Whether that’s a couple of evenings a week or just weekends, it needs to suit you.

The “fast” “cheap” “good” rule can help here, where a project can be any two of these but never all three. I’ve found the sweet spot for freelancing lies in “good” and “cheap” with longer deadlines that suit you and stop you from burning out.

“Cheap” doesn’t mean cutting your cost drastically. If you decide on an hourly rate and figure out how many hours you’ll actually be spending on a project across evenings and weekends in a given time period, I’ll bet it’s cheaper than someone who freelances full-time or agencies who offer the same service.

Mix it up

The area that I’ve struggled with the most when it comes to freelancing is finishing a long day of work and going straight into doing exactly the same thing for a few more hours. Energy, motivation, and concentration can dwindle.

What I decided to do was take on projects that are different to the day-to-day. This can also help to develop your skills and knowledge in areas that you might not get the opportunity to at work. I can say with 100% confidence that it helped me to progress in the early years of my career and also made freelancing more enjoyable. Win-win.

You get the choice with who to work with, how long for, and on what terms so make the most of it and mix up what you’re working on.

Don’t be afraid to take on projects as you’re learning the skills too. A lot of businesses that opt for freelancers will likely need help with more than just one area. You can make it mutually beneficial by offering lower costs to reflect your experience.

I’ve built new websites from scratch for clients, using WordPress and Shopify, and although it took me a lot longer than a developer would need, it was a fraction of the cost and did the job for what smaller businesses need.

Treat yourself as a business

There’s a lot of commercial experience to be gained as a freelancer, including finding clients, deciding on your fees and costs, and sorting proposals, contracts, or invoices. Again, this may not be something you do at work currently. I look upon freelance experience favourably when hiring for my agency for these reasons.

Even if you have one client and are unsure on what to do next, my advice would be to treat freelancing as a business. Grow your “personal brand”, build a website, decide on your services, gather testimonials from clients, and professionalise what you are all about.

You might not have a lot of time for this, but keep chipping away and make decisions with the business in mind. It will help to take some of the personal emotion out too as it’s easy to feel more pressure when you’re on your own and calling the shots.

If you have a client lined up that’s going to dominate all of your time and energy, or someone that wants you to lower your costs, would they be the best decisions for the business?

Hire an accountant

The additional income from freelancing can be great. But it is important to understand the tax implications of any money you are making.

There’s a personal allowance that you’re entitled to in the UK of £12,500 per year, which you don’t have to pay tax on. However, it’s a legal requirement to register with HMRC if your earnings as an individual (sole trader) are expected to be more than £1,000 in a tax year.

When you’re already employed full-time, this may happen as soon as you send your first invoice and you’ll have until October 5th after the end of the given tax year (5th April) to register for self-assessment, or risk paying a fine.

You’ll receive a Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) and then be able to register an online account with HMRC. Each year you’ll need to submit a self-assessment tax return and this will disclose the tax you have already paid on your earnings from your full-time role, and what extra tax and National Insurance you’ll need to pay based on profits from your freelance work.

I’m not an expert in this and stumbled my way through it in the early years, so if the above sounds daunting, the best decision I made was to get an accountant. There are plenty of qualified experts who can sort this on your behalf, once you’re set up with an online account, and most offer one-off fees typically between £100-£200, so it’s definitely worthwhile. Have a quick Google for ‘self-assessment tax return accountant‘.

Thanks for reading and to those who sent over questions. There’s a newsletter sign up if you’re keen to follow along and hear more. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any topic suggestions or questions!