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Earnings and Yearnings: The Freelance Personality

Are you home-office compatible?

Should have started this article two weeks before I actually did. I couldn't let go of another project long enough to start calling sources for this one. I needed a good manager to keep me on track, but my boss—well, she's a nice lady, but she can be overindulgent, inefficient, and reclusive. The upside is that I can insult her in public like this without having to worry about losing my job. I'm a freelance writer, you see. My boss is me.

Freelancers of all sorts—designers, consultants, computer programmers, therapists—face the challenge of managing their time wisely. Many of us struck out on our own precisely because we can't stand the idea of others imposing a schedule on us. We work best when we're free from interference, office politics, and dependence on colleagues. We have the solo artist's spirit.

But that doesn't mean such people don't have to cultivate freelance-friendly traits and fight a tendency to get pulled into family or household duties while on deadline. Some people are simply not cut out for the freelance life. And others should carefully consider the challenges they'll face—given their temperaments and habits—before setting up their own shops.

"A person who has trouble working in a structured environment and who likes to be in control would make a good freelancer," says Daniel Fisher, a psychologist and a partner in the talent management-consulting firm Fisher Rock. Consequently, however, freelancers must be able to tolerate isolation.

The most important trait a freelancer should have or be willing to hone, according to Fisher, is confidence. "When you're part of a team, you can hide within it," he says. "As a freelancer, you're the one on the hook. You have to be able to pull that off."

Self-assuredness is also crucial for one activity that freelancers absolutely must engage in: self-promotion. "Unless you can convince others that you're worth hiring, you won't get enough business to keep yourself going," says Pamela Slim, a consultant and the author of Escape from Cubicle Nation. And that same belief in your abilities will serve you well when you face rejection. "If a relationship with a client doesn't work out or a venture fails, you need to not take it personally."

Nearly as important is the ability to shut out distractions. Several competitors are fighting for my attention as I type this: There are dirty dishes in the sink. My mother just called to ask why I don't visit more often since I "don't have a job." And I can't shake the memory of my three-year-old's face when I dropped him off at preschool—he frowned tremblingly and said, "Mama, I just want to be with you."

Staying on task at a "real job" is easier because you're accountable to others. As Fisher puts it, "In an office, there are cues to work all around you." At home, there are many cues to do everything else but work: read, finish that laundry, shave your legs, snack, surf the web, take a nap...

I give myself breaks to reward spurts of self-discipline. But I wonder: Are the most successful freelancers blessed with military-grade resolve? "If willpower is like a muscle, then some people come into the world like Arnold Schwarzenegger and some don't," says Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University. But, Pychyl says, as with weight training, even self-control weaklings can strengthen their willpower. Small steps in one area of life can help improve other areas: Practicing better posture for two weeks might make it easier for you to resist halting your invoice upkeep for a cookie break.

At home, die-hard procrastinators will find no weekly meetings to keep them from putting off projects indefinitely. But Pychyl doesn't think they should rule out freelancing . "In fact," he argues, "freelancing could be the absolute cure for procrastination. When you have autonomy and you do things that are meaningful to you, you're more likely to get the job done."

To avoid self-sabotage, procrastinating freelancers must identify their fears, says Jane Burka, co-author, with Lenora Yuen, of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It NOW. You may be afraid a project is too difficult, but embarrassed to ask for help. Or you may leave minimal time to complete an assignment so that you can assure yourself that it would have been brilliant—if only you had had an extra day or two. Or, believe it or not, you may belashing out against authority—even when you are technically in charge. If you are quick to feel controlled, the pressure to meet deadlines can be tantamount to losing your autonomy. Says Burka: "One way to assert your independence is by procrastinating, even if the person you are rebelling against is yourself." Keep reminding yourself that finishing your work on time will in fact keep you free—free from alarm clocks, HR workshops, and shoes .—Amy Rosenberg

How to Boss Yourself Around

You've hired yourself; now get the most out of your prize employee:

  • Get Help. You may be a brilliant idea-person or craftsman, but if bookkeeping or client outreach just isn't your forte, enlist experts. If money is tight, get an ambitious student to pitch in for a modest fee.
  • Suck it Up. The buck stops with you now, so Tim Pychyl recommends that you "refuse to give in to feeling good" when facing a dreaded task. "Avoid instant gratification; it can help you dive in when you're feeling stalled."
  • Time Yourself. If you're anxious yet unproductive, pick a task that can be accomplished in just 15 minutes. To better manage your deadlines, predict how long a project will take to finish, and then scrupulously record how long it actually takes. Learn from the discrepancy.
  • Translate Goals into Behaviors. Vague ends are hard to achieve, says Jane Burka. Don't aspire to "get organized"; plan on clearing off your desk or making file folders. Don't make "get more clients" your aim; resolve to spend one hour making cold calls instead.

The Self-Employed Sound Off

My biggest distraction is...

The Internet. It's a black hole. I go from site to site, and link to link, and before I know it four hours have passed. —Vela, Illustrator

My family and friends who think that because I'm home I must not be working.—Mike, Programmer

My trick for staying focused is...

Thinking of myself not as a freelancer but as running my own business. I make it a habit not to socialize on weekdays. If I don't have a busy week, I devote that time to "business development." —Kathleen, writer and editor

Getting a good night's sleep and staying away from caffeine and sugar. And a little rock music in the background can be motivating when working in Photoshop. —Cara Lynn, Web producer

I really miss the office when...

I think about all those idle hours spent socializing that I used to get paid for. —Aaron, Web consultant

I run out of birthday cake. —Jessi, Comedian