More and more industries are moving toward gig-based work. Do we have the tools to adapt?
by Robin Babb
It’s 2019, and creative work is moving towards going completely freelance or gig-based at breakneck speed.
As a writer, I know that having a salaried staff position is a rare privlege these days—many of us put together our paycheque from varied sources and rely on universal healthcare to keep us in one piece. We may not like it (and there are a lot of reasons not to like it), but it’s the reality that we have to face if we don’t want our careers to stall out.
Some of the most traditionally hands-on industries are allowing (or requiring) remote work as part of their job package to new employees. For writers, musicians, and artists this has been a reality for over a decade. But gig-based work—no central office, no full-time staff, no benefits—is becoming increasingly common for an increasingly wide variety of industries. Even in the world of healthcare, temporary and chronically underemployed “travel nurses” have been a central pillar of hospitals in the US for over a decade. Ultrasound and X-ray techs, medical administration, and even doctors are increasingly employed on part-time or as-needed schedules.
For some workers, remote or freelance work is the necessary reality for a host of other reasons. Making it into an office every day—or any day—is difficult or impossible for single parents, people with disabilities or health issues that require in-home care or frequent doctors visits, or anyone with limited means for transportation. Some may have other personal responsibilities, such as taking care of a family member, that necessitate spending the majority of their time at home. “For people with different disabilities, working from home is so much better for health maintenance that it’s one of the reasonable accommodations that we are allowed to request under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says Willow Curry, a writer in Houston, TX and another contributor to kaur. space. “Many of us cannot work typical office or other in person jobs because of regular doctors appointments, unpredictability of symptoms, and workspaces that are nowhere near accessible.” For all these people, the historically limited availability of remote work can be a huge impediment to finding enough work to pay the bills.
Freelancers Union, an online community and resource for freelance workers, opened their Freelancing in America report from 2017 with the bold projection: “Freelancers are on track to be the majority of the workforce within a decade.”
Whether this rapid growth in the freelance market is a good thing or a bad thing is somewhat irrelevant, because it’s happening. What is relevant is how the members of that workforce will survive under their new conditions. There are many skills, hacks and lots of insider information that make life easier in the gig economy, but perhaps most important of all is the less glamorous ability to put in the work day after day, with only yourself to report to, and (hopefully) without pushing yourself to burnout. This is the key to being effective when you’re working from home, submitting bids for work, or stringing together enough gigs each month to make ends meet. And it’s how we keep ourselves going during the lean months.
The kind of perks to the freelance life that are espoused from trendy Instagram accounts the world over are often not the reality. Working “remotely” doesn’t necessarily mean you can travel the world while you do your work—after all, many remote jobs still require you to keep regular “office hours,” and freelancing doesn’t offer paid time off. Not to mention that much of the freelance workforce is made up of people who work remotely to accommodate for limited mobility, which can make things like frequent travel difficult.
Freelancers also typically have an added workload that many workers don’t, which is finding more work, a task that is essentially never ending. With all this work and without the structure offered by a traditional job, it’s just me and a laptop and unstructured time lying between me and my deadline.
So how do I keep myself from spending that whole time napping and scrolling endlessly through Instagram?
In search of advice on how to best be productive without being self-destructive, I turned to the best resource I know for such things: the Binders. The Binders are Facebook groups for women and gender non-conforming people that are each dedicated to one kind of writing or editing work. There are Binders Full of Food Writers, Binders Full of Reporters, and the “main” binder: Binders Full of Full-Time Freelance Writers. Each Binder is full of freelancers asking and answering questions of each other, offering insider info, looking for sources for a story, and generally complimenting and signal-boosting each other. If you’re a writer and you’re reading this, go look up the Binders on Facebook right now. You can thank me later.
The Binders are unprecedented sources of guidance in a work environment that really has no guidebook. Who’d have thought that Mitt Romney’s tone deaf response to a question about the gender wage gap in 2012 would become a rallying cry for women creatives all over the internet?
Talking to some members of the Binders about how to get work done without the trappings of a structured 9 to 5 yielded a wealth of experience and wisdom. The biggest theme that I discovered is that there’s no one-size-fits-all trick—different people use different tactics to keep themselves going. These are some of the tips I gathered from the wise folks of the Binders.
“Once you figure out what you need to do to motivate yourself, getting things done becomes easier,” said Susan Valot, a public radio/podcast freelancer. Many freelancers I know (myself and Susan included) motivate themselves with small rewards throughout the day or week. Setting a day off or a special dinner at the end of the week for yourself gives you something to look forward to and work towards. Keeping in mind something you want to buy for yourself with the paycheck for a certain project is another way to power through the harder work. The key is finding out what makes you tick.
Another motivation roadblock in the gig economy is not having a boss. Although this may seem like the sexiest part of freelance work, it’s kind of a misconception. I often tell people that it’s not that I don’t have a boss, it’s that everyone is my boss. Every client I have tells me what to do and then I do it. And honestly, thinking about it like that is probably the only way I get things finished and turned in.
“When you report to work in your jeans and a comfortable shirt, you have to make the computer your partner, and literally burn the midnight oil, until whoever signs your paycheck, or sees your work, is satisfied with the results,” says Suzane Bricker, another writer in the Binders. When you don’t have a built-in boss to report to, you kind of have to find a boss to report to.
For some assignments — and for all the tasks related to management of your personal business and brand — this might take the form of an accountability buddy. This is a friend or colleague who sets (more or less arbitrary) deadlines for you to accomplish your tasks, somebody you respect and feel driven to impress. As an added bonus, having a fellow freelancer as a friend means that the two (or three, or four) of you can work together and help alleviate some of the more bummer sides of remote work: the solitude. “Honestly, the hardest part of remote work is the loneliness. It’s so much more fun if I can work with somebody else, and the added social pressure keeps me on task, too,” says Maggie Grimason, a writer (and my accountability buddy) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I know this suggestion falls more into the category of externalized motivation than self-motivation per se, but there’s no shame in using the help that’s available to you.
If you’re going to join the freelance workforce — whether by choice or by force — it’s important to remember that working remotely is difficult, and there will always be some days that are harder than others. There’s nobody on Earth who’s engineered to be the perfect remote worker, and the people who are good at it have become so through developing and tweaking their habits over many years. And even the pros have bad days where the motivation just doesn’t come, and getting anything done feels like pulling teeth.
“I have a tough time motivating myself when I’m preoccupied with excitement about something else, like an upcoming vacation, birthday, holiday (or) event,” says Alaina Leary, an editor and social media manager from Boston. “I’m constantly rearranging how to motivate myself now that I work from home.” Instead of feeling sorry for yourself on those rough days, try to be gentle and understanding with yourself. The next day, change things up and try again.
“Self-motivation is a discipline,” Bricker says, and just like any other discipline it requires daily reinforcement. If you don’t think you’re great at it today, give it another shot tomorrow, and the day after that. You’ll find that it’s a little bit easier each day, and eventually that deadline won’t seem quite as scary anymore.
This story was edited on February 15, 2019 to include the experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illness, after a conversation between the writer and another kaur. space contributor, Willow Curry. If we publish something that excludes your lived experience, please always feel free to send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback on how we can be more thoughtful and inclusive in our writing.
Robin Babb writes about the intersections of food, wellness, and environmental and social issues and works as the Food and Drink Editor at Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spends her free time hiking in the Sandia Mountains and scrutinizing expensive health trends.
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