Podcast Episode 11: Overcoming Isolation as a Freelance Writer

In this week’s podcast, I talk about the problems that freelancers can face with isolation – working from home alone can lead to cabin fever, so I discuss plenty of tips for making sure you maintain social contact while still getting all your work done.

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Hello, and welcome to Episode 11 of A Little Bird Told Me, the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing. I’m Philippa Willitts and today I am doing another solo episode and I’m going to be talking about how to overcome isolation as a freelance writer, or freelance anything really.

Before I start, I want to remind you that if you go to ALittleBirdToldMe.Podomatic.com you can subscribe to the podcast in a number of ingenious ways such as RSS, iTunes, Stitcher and you can also find links to our Facebook page. As well, you can find links to my various websites and social media presences. So please, head over to ALittleBirdToldMe.Podomatic.com and sign up and get in touch.

Working at home
Working at home (Photo credit: gibsonsgolfer)

Like I mentioned, I’m going to be talking about overcoming isolation. Working from home is brilliant in many ways. There’s no need to set out early in the morning on a freezing winter day in the rain to catch a crowded bus to work. You don’t have a dress code, you can basically just stumble downstairs in the morning and you’re already at your desk. If you want to take an early lunch you can do it. If you want to start late and finish late you can do it. If you want to work Sundays instead of Wednesdays, one of my own favourite things, you can do that too.

There’s no office politics, no one eavesdrops on your phone calls and let’s face it, there’s no heart sinking moments when that unbearable colleague walks through the door. However, that being said, working from home isn’t without its problems. You don’t have annoying colleagues in the room but, you also don’t have supportive ones either. You don’t have to trudge to the office in the morning but, you also risk not leaving the house at all. When your home is also your workplace, isolation is a big risk factor that many freelancers face.

So, what steps can you take to overcome isolation? My first suggestion is lunch dates. You need to eat lunch in order to fuel your brain for the afternoon ahead so why not once a week arrange a lunch date with a friend, or a former colleague, because when you work at home it’s really easy to get into the habit of grabbing a sandwich and eating it at your desk because taking half an hour or an hour can feel a bit pointless.

However, if you take an hour or two to go out and socialize over lunch it can do you a world of good. You get to see your friends. They’re probably in a similar situation even if they don’t work at home, at their desk they may be tempted to just grab a sandwich and work through so it’s good for both of you and you get to see your friends.

On a similar note scheduling social time specifically is a really good idea because it’s easy to promise yourself that you’ll take an afternoon off but then some work will come in or it’s raining, or you just don’t feel like it so your planned walk in the park, or trip to the shops starts to look quite a lot less appealing. But, if you’ve scheduled the time in your diary and preferably arranged to meet other people during that time it’s a bit harder to cancel so you’re more likely to go out and rediscover what having human company is like.

You don’t need to feel guilty about taking time away from work because chances are if you have a change of scene and some good conversations with someone you care about you’re going to come back refreshed, full of ideas, you might have seen something that sparked your creativity. So it’s not a negative anti-work move, it’s actually good for you socially and for your work.

The next tip is don’t always email. When you need some information from somebody the easiest thing is to just drop them an email. It’s what we do all the time, “Hi, do you have that document?” “What time do you want to meet on Friday?” It’s quick and easy to just send them an email. However, breaking that habit and making a phone call instead, just perhaps once a day, it can be a great way to break through the monotony and have a conversation once in a while.

Why not ring and say, “What time do you want to meet on Friday?” You’ll hear a human voice, you might have a chat, and it’s all good; do it. We kind of forget that before 15 years ago that is what we did, we rang people or heaven forbid saw them. You don’t want to make a phone call for every single email you have to send, but once or twice a day why not pick up the phone.

If you find that you’re getting cabin fever and you’re sick of the sight of the same four walls, work somewhere different for a while. Go out to a coffee shop, go to the library and do some work there. You might find that you’re more focused but also, just having people milling around and being in different surroundings can do wonders for your state of mind and for the work you do.

You might cringe a bit at the thought of those guys in Starbucks with their Macs but they do it for a reason. It’s quite nice to have someone bring you coffee and to be in a bustling environment once in a while rather than the solitude of your home office. The library similar, especially if you’re a writer, they’re full of books and information what more could you need.

They may not have Wi-Fi but if they don’t, you’ll probably get even more work done. There are books everywhere, it’s writer heaven and they’re all free which is even better. I generally tend to be too self conscious to set up in Starbucks to work but, setting up in the library is brilliant.

Collaborate [11/52]
Collaborate [11/52] (Photo credit: Brenderous)
My next suggestion is something that Lorrie’s talked about before which is collaboration. It can be a good idea to collaborate with fellow freelancers to offer a more complete service. So freelance designers for instance, because web designers are often times asked to recommend copywriters. Copywriters are sometimes asked to recommend web designers. There are also times when working together on a bigger project can be really valuable.

If you make connections with other freelancers, perhaps local to you, although with the Internet they don’t have to be local to you, they can be anywhere in the world. But, if you collaborate with them and make some really good connections you both benefit and it’s great for business to have those kinds of collaborative relationships. But collaborating with other professionals can break down isolation problems as well.

Now, the next suggestion is one that seems to divide people. Some people love the idea, others hate it and this is co-working spaces. These are where people who work from home can get together and all work together in the same room. They are events that might take place weekly or monthly, they can be in a variety of places but what they’ve all got in common is people who normally work alone can all work together.

Now I attend a co-working space in the city I live in. It’s weekly but I can’t always attend that often. However, when I do go I thoroughly enjoy it. Some weeks it’s quite chatty, other weeks everybody has strictly got their head down and getting on with lots of work. Either way being in the company of other people is great. It’s a whole different situation and I’m quite often very focused when I’m there and I get a lot done.

Some people’s criticism of it is that I think they worry that it might be really chatty and it’s more of a social event than a working event. But, the ones I’ve attended even where some people are chatting, others have headphones on and are working away so even if some people are chatting it doesn’t mean everybody is you can get a lot of work done and you can just get the benefit of being somewhere with other people.

Another feature of co-working spaces is they can offer the beginnings of a collaborative relationship. Some of the coders that attend the one I go to collaborate on work and I am now looking at working with the venue to provide some workshops soon. Now, that was a really unexpected lovely benefit of attending these events. I’ve met some really nice people.

The one I go to is called Jelly. There are Jellys all over the country, all over the world I think but there are other types of co-working events. Google your area and co-working and see if anything comes up and you can try it. I was really nervous the first time, I didn’t know what to expect but it’s been great.

Something to bear in mind when thinking about isolation is accountability. That’s a bit of a sideways reference I suppose but, it’s definitely related to isolation because being entirely isolated can make it hard to keep yourself accountable and make it hard to achieve everything you’re trying to achieve. Keeping yourself accountable does very often involve somebody else. Lorrie and I have mentioned before that we have what we call accountability days once or twice a week or a fortnight.

We basically email each other either every hour or every half hour with what we’ve achieved and what we are doing next. It’s a really effective way of keeping us focused. Some people go quite a lot further. A guy called Maneeshi Sethi writes a blog called Hack the System and recently he wrote a post about how he hired someone to slap him in the face. Honestly he did! What happened was he put an ad on Craigslist looking for somebody who he would pay to sit next to him, they could do their own thing, as long as they kept an eye on whether or not he was working.

What led up to this was that he had used some software to see how much time he was wasting and he was really horrified by his results. I suspect a lot of us would be. So for some reason what came to his mind was paying somebody to slap him and he did it. His productivity increased from an average of 35% to 40% up to 98% on the day that the slappy person, I’m loathed to say slapper was by his side. It’s a fairly extreme example but what it does go to show is it’s harder to waste time when somebody else is keeping an eye on your progress.

Now rather than hiring somebody to sit next to you and carry out acts of violence, why not get together with somebody periodically. You could sit next to each other and encourage each other to keep focused. It can work wonders for your productivity and help to beat feelings of isolation as well.

Networking is an important factor in being a freelancer, being self employed. But, it doesn’t just have to be a business benefit, it can be a really good opportunity to socialize as well including meeting possibly other self employed people who will be in a similar situation to you. I attend networking events, I’m not brilliant at them I have to admit, I’m forever striving to improve how I do them. But, they’re a great way of meeting lots of people who quite often have something in common through your work.

They can have many kinds of benefits and bonuses from a business point of view. You can make contacts, you might get some work as a result if you meet someone who needs just what you’re offering. You’ll probably swap lots of business cards but also it means you spend two hours talking to people, making conversation, chatting. It’s not just good for business it’s good for freelancers to make sure they get out and meet new people.

The next point is easier said than done but it’s keep the work coming in. Basically the more work you’ve got the less time you’ll have to feel lonely. Having a good structure to your day can also really help to keep your mind on work rather than thinking about how much you want to chat with someone.
I’m one of these people who functions very well on her own but there are points where I realize I haven’t had human contact for way too long and that’s not healthy. But sometimes if I’ve just not got enough work I kind of mistake that for feeling feed up personally. I’m not, it’s just that I don’t have enough to do so, if you keep a steady about of work coming in this is obviously easier said than done for a freelancer, but if you can do your best to do that it will help with pangs, I think.

Now, social media it’s not the same as meeting up with people face-to-face but getting yourself on Twitter or Facebook, wherever your friends are basically, can be a really positive way of interacting with people when you’re home alone. Mutual support, interesting links to click, and just silly things to make you laugh. They can all make a positive difference.

Similarly online forums for freelancers or local business forums can provide advice and support that can be really beneficial. Even start a podcast, the conversations that Lorrie and I have around our podcasts, not to mention once the recording is finished on Skype, are really good for mutual support and plenty of gossip. Lots of people, not just freelancers, who can’t get out and about rely on social media for social contact.

I know lots of disabled people who can’t get out and Twitter for them is a life line. Even if you’re in a different situation and it’s just work that you do on your own, having somewhere, be it a supportive forum, or friends on Twitter or Facebook, or wherever it is that works for you where you can go and let off steam or get some advice is really valuable so don’t write it off just because it’s not face-to-face contact.

The final tip is join, join, join. Join groups, join classes, join societies. These can be work related or they can be entirely unconnected with your work. Do you want to learn about bird watching? Do you want to improve your dancing? Do you want to improve your professional development? Go for it. Do it. There will be something that you can join that will force you to meet other people, probably once a week, and having that as a regular event in your diary will be brilliant.

You’re learning new skills, be they work ones or personal and you’re forcing yourself into a new situation with new people. There are things like Geek Up which is where web developers can get together and just socialize because a lot of web developers are freelance and work on their own. I know various people who attend Geek Up and really get a lot out of it.

There are that kind of group for all sorts of professions and all sorts of interests, and skills, and situations. Check out your local college, look for adult education centres, and look for societies and groups. Lots of towns and cities have one of those cafes where there’s a notice board with notices about all sorts of things. I can think of the exact one in my city. Go and have a look at the notice board and see if anything takes your fancy. Then, sign up and do it. Don’t think about it endlessly, just do it.

I hope some of those will give you some good ideas about how to combat any isolation you might be feeling if you work at home on your own. Freelancing is brilliant. I love the flexibility, I love working from home but, sometimes you really do need human contact with somebody else. When you’re self employed you have to make more of an effort with that than most people do. Plan things, don’t be vague, plan it specifically and mnemonically to do it.

Thank you very much for listening. Don’t forget to go to ALittleBirdToldMe.Podomatic.com and subscribe. You can also leave us reviews on iTunes, comments on Stitcher, or on our Facebook page too. We’d love to hear what you think. Also, go to the Podomatic page to check out the show notes where I will link to places I’ve mentioned on this podcast and you can also find how to contact me.

I’ve been Philippa Willitts and I will see you next time!