Balancing work and family is challenging for anyone in today’s busy environment. Throw freelancing into the mix? With constant client demands, shifting finances and variable income, things can get … let’s call it “interesting.” I recently sat down with Nicole Jackson, a freelance virtual assistant and editor, to find out how she manages the freelance life as a busy single mom of two kids under the age of seven. She shared her best secrets for balancing work and family — all while building a successful business that keeps clients coming back again and again.
The Three O’s of Running Your Business
Jackson says that running her business comes down to three O’s: “It’s all about organization, optimization and optimism, right?”
Without the right plans in place, it’s nearly impossible to get everything necessary done in a day. “I work very rigid hours: when my oldest is in school, and when my youngest is in daycare. I don’t have time to waste on Facebook or Twitter. My work hours are clearly scheduled down to the fifteen-minute interval. It’s essential that I track my deadlines, make the most of my time and walk out of every work day knowing that my client obligations are settled,” says Jackson. “Without a partner to back me up at home, I’m on the clock as Mom 24-7 when my kids are with me. At most, I can sneak in a little time after bedtime or early in the morning for an emergency. But that’s not a recipe for a sustainable life, either.”
Keeping Organization on Lock
- Scheduling: Consider using a schedule that locks down your time in 15 or 30 minute intervals, instead of a to-do list. “This helps keep you on task at all times, and ensures that you really understand how long each of your work tasks typically take you.”
- Pomodoros: “I work in 25-minute Pomodoro spurts, and take five-minute breaks. It helps me plow through my work, keep momentum up during the day while minimizing wasted time.”
- Assessing Your Systems: “I am constantly looking at my systems to find better ways of doing things. For example, I recently started paying a small fee for my accountant to handle quarterly tax payments. It was taking me hours every three months to sort it out. It’s much more cost-effective for me to pay her to take care of it, and use that time to work.”
Balance: A Nice Goal, Within Reason
“Balance is an illusion,” says Jackson. “It’s less about saying ‘X hours are for work and Y hours are for family’ and more about making sure that you’re spending the right proportions of time in these areas.” Day by day, it may mean making sure that clients are happy, while finding ways to solve emergencies at home.
Recently, Jackson had a day where both of her kids were sick with the flu. “I could find a sitter for one, but not for two sick kids. Ultimately, I put my kids down for a nap and used that time to take care a few emergencies. I renegotiated deadlines, outsourced a small project, bought a couple of extra hours from my VA and worked that night after they went to bed. But the priority was being there to take care of my kids and get them healthy as quickly as possible.”
Ultimately, she says, “You can’t do everything all the time. Some days go more smoothly than others. Get really good at identifying priorities and communicating with everyone how they’ll get what they need. That makes it easier to keep everything in balance.”
Freelance Financial Jenga: Diversify, Plan and Stay Ahead
The fourth pillar of a successful career as a single parent solopreneur requires attending to your finances. Life on one income can be tough, but at the end of the day, Jackson relies on strategic planning and aggressive savings goals to weather variable income. “Probably the toughest thing for me was just getting into the rhythms of irregular income,” she says. “I’m not naturally a big saver, but I learned early on that a budget and cash cushion are essential to making this work.” She keeps her financial life stable and on track by focusing on three tips:
- Expect the Unexpected. “Kids are expensive, and despite all your best planning, something often comes up. A chance to go to the movies with a friend for my oldest, or a fee associated with a daycare field trip that I hadn’t planned for. You can say no, of course, but in reality savings are your biggest weapon.”
- Diversify. “Don’t let a single client, agency or revenue source comprise more than 30 percent of your income,” Jackson advises. “When an agency that I worked closely with lost a big contract, my income dipped by half. It was a big wake-up call, and I had to market aggressively to find new clients.”
- Invoice Promptly. “Invoice promptly for projects when you complete them, keep track of who has paid and follow-up immediately on overdue payments. I have heard colleagues say they don’t want to bother clients, but the reality is that this is simply being professional. You can head off a problem before payments become weeks or months overdue.”
Despite it all, many parents wouldn’t trade the freelance life for the security of a nine-to-five job. “I’m building a career that I love, while also creating enough flexibility to give my kids the support they need in other areas,” says Jackson. Balancing work and family is always tough. But in the freelancing world, taking advantage of building your own scheduling and mapping out what your career looks like can actually make it easier to reach your personal work-life balance goals.