Making the Most of the Flexibility of Web Working

Flexibility is one reason many of us became freelancers. The idea of being your own boss, choosing your own hours, and having room in your life for other options are all very appealing.

This article originally appeared on FreelanceSwitch, and is no longer available online. A version of the original article has been saved on the Internet Archive.

Rockall Recruitment’s Freelance Guide lists flexibility as one of the benefits of freelancing:

Freelancers are their own boss. The only people who dictate to you when you work is you and your bank manager. This flexibility can be beneficial if you have interests outside of your chosen career field, such as your own business, family commitments etc. If you develop a good relationship with your agency, then they will quite happily accommodate you if you need to take a few months off to pursue your own interests, whereas you will seldom find this if you are working permanently for a company.

In the last few months I’ve been able to do some things as a web worker that would never have been possible if I had a nine-to-five job:

  • I look after my eleven-month-old son some days while my wife is at work, meaning that she can work more day shifts, and less exhausting night shifts.
  • I unexpectedly traveled interstate when my dad was very unwell in hospital.
  • I also traveled interstate to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday.
  • I was able to keep up all of the essential parts of my work while being very sick for ten days.

There is often a cost to achieving flexibility, but in each of these cases it has been really worthwhile. Here is how I achieved it.

Caring for My 11-Month-Old

Looking after my son was one of the main factors that drew me towards a more flexible job. My wife, a nurse, had been avoiding day shifts – when I was at work – and did as many evening, night and weekend shifts as possible. She would look after Hayden when I was at work, and I’d look after him when she was at work. And we rarely saw each other.

The transition has gone very smoothly. My wife is still required to do a variety of shifts, but now does more day shifts. And I’m actually able to get more work done than I expected when she is at work.

I normally get up quite early, and do a couple of hours work before Hayden wakes up. And because he’s still quite young, he normally sleeps for an hour or two both morning and afternoon, which lets me get another three or four hours of work out of the way. So when evening comes, more then half of my work is already done.

During school holidays and on weekends, my other kids are sometimes very helpful in sharing the responsibilities. In other ways it’s harder to work when the whole family is home, but that’s another story.

Visiting My Sick Dad

A couple of months ago, my dad was found to have kidney stones, and a few days later had an operation to have them “blasted”. The doctors didn’t realize when they sent him home that they had missed the stones and put a hole in his kidney. After a few days of passing a lot of blood, he returned to the hospital weak and concerned. He received four blood transfusions and was kept in for observation. I kept up with the news of his recovery over the phone.

The next day I was having a great work day – I had got up at 5:00 am and worked productively till lunchtime, when I had finished all of my essential tasks. But while I was working, my wife and sister had been speaking on the phone. My sister lives in Sydney not far from Dad, and had been visiting him. She was concerned, and felt under pressure. The two ladies decided I should go down and support.

They convinced me. I grabbed some clothes and my laptops, borrowed my son’s car, and made the eleven hour trip.

It was an effective week. I stayed with my sister, visited my dad most days, helped him around the house once he was released from hospital, and spent worthwhile time with my sister and her kids.

And I kept up with my work. I got up at 5:00 am every morning and got between two and four hours work done before going to see my dad. I usually got an hour or two done in the late afternoon, and finished the rest before bedtime.

I worked in the lounge room, on the sofa lounge that was my bed, on the dining room table, and at McDonalds, taking advantage of their free wifi. I tried to do most of my work when the kids were in bed, at school, or at sport. One disastrous evening I worked at McDonalds until my laptop battery died, only to arrive home and discover my sister had given me the wrong key. I was stuck outside in the cold for an hour or two with nothing to do.

One lesson I learned that week is to keep my work as portable as possible. While I already kept a lot of my work in Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Sites and Remember the Milk, I had been doing some of my planning in a paper notebook. That notebook was the one thing I forgot to pack, and as a result, I published one article on the wrong day. While the mistake certainly wasn’t a disaster, it is a lesson to learn from. Now I make sure that all of my work and planning are accessible from any computer.

I was very grateful to have a flexible job that week. I spent a lot of quality time with my dad, supported my sister, and felt like I made a difference. And they understood my work situation, and were supportive when I had to vanish for a few hours to “get things done.”

Celebrating a 21st Birthday

My oldest son is doing well for himself and moved to Melbourne this year. He recently turned twenty-one. (Yes, I really do have an eleven month old and a twenty-one year old … and four others in between.) Though he is so far away, I was determined to share his birthday with him, and booked some flights.

There was little disruption to my work during this trip. I didn’t want to try to do a full day’s work on the day of the flights, so I did extra work on the days leading up to them. The rest of the time I worked as normal, took most of the two weekends off, and even went into the Envato office a few times.

On his birthday, my wife surprised us all. She had taken some time off work, and drove the rest of the family around 1,800 kms to celebrate with us. She can be very spontaneous, and the surprise was appreciated by everyone. Unfortunately when passing through Sydney she picked up a very contagious stomach bug while visiting my sister, and shared it with us all. And that leads me to my next story.

Doing the Essentials While Sick

I’ve been quite sick for the last ten days. Every day I’d wake up expecting to be better, and each day I’ve been disappointed. Maybe tomorrow!

If I had a normal nine-to-five job, I would have been on sick leave for the whole time. I wasn’t well enough to leave the house, and I’ve been concerned about sharing the germs. But as a web worker, I’ve been able to keep up with the important parts of my work.

I haven’t done everything, and I have only been able to work in short bursts. But by carefully choosing what really needed to be done, and making the most of my time, I’m surprised with how much I’ve accomplished.

I haven’t done any computer support work. I passed on whatever calls I had to others, or delayed the appointment until a time when I’m likely to be well again. I haven’t returned every email, though I monitored them and answered the ones that were urgent. I haven’t done all of my planning and organizing and paperwork. But I have managed to keep up with my writing and editing, and all important correspondence.

None of that is meant to say that I’m not entitled to be sick. But I want to recognize that a flexible job allowed me to do things when sick that would never have been possible in a “normal” job.

In Summary: Four Key Principles for Flexibility

As a web worker, I don’t want absolute flexibility – I need to maintain a routine to be productive. But from time to time opportunities arise that a flexible lifestyle allows me to take advantage of.

But in order to take advantage of those opportunities, I need to be prepared. Here are four principles I’ve learned:

  • Don’t leave everything to the last minute – leave yourself some room to move.
  • Understand priorities – what you can put off (temporarily) and what you can’t.
  • Be organized – and have a system you can take with you.
  • Remember that flexibility has a cost – your work will have to be done eventually, either late at night, or in long catch-up stints. Make sure it’s worth it!

How flexible is your work? How do you take advantage of it?

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