On the challenges of being self-employed and working from home

Self-employment can be liberating – but when you work from home there’s little respite when the demands and deadlines all come crashing in at once

“… and it wasn’t a factory, it was a prison! So they kicked everyone and turned into helicopters! And they flew off like THWOPPA THWOPPA THWOPPA!”

The boy is updating me on the latest escapades of his Transformers. I think. To be honest, I’m giving him completely divided attention. My brain is still upstairs on my desk, dealing with a flurry of demands that keep plinking into my inbox. It’s one of those weeks where all of the deadlines happen at once. Printers and art directors and marketers – everyone needs everything right now.

In an ideal world, all of this work would come with plenty of warning. It would be evenly distributed across the year and I’d always be able to see it coming from a mile off. Client requests would be reasonable, feedback would be coherent, spine widths would be confirmed months in advance of printing rather than hours. That would be nice. Somewhat bland maybe, but nice.

But no, right now, there’s just so much to do. It’s not that my clients or I are wildly disorganised; it’s an unavoidable natural phenomenon. Every now and then, there’s a perfect storm of publishing schedules and marketing meetings and catalogue deadlines and last minute authorial whims, and for a brief moment, a maelstrom of cause and effect sends it all my way. I blame chaos theory and/or
lepidoptra – somewhere, an inconsiderate butterfly is being a right flappy bastard.

My approach to this intensity of work is to alternate between a kind of multitasking mania (as all good productivity gurus will tell you, there’s nothing quite like switching to level five coffee beans and playing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ on loop) and a detached, Zen-like calm.

I quite enjoy it. Ticking jobs off the big list of incoming demands is incredibly satisfying. It almost feels like progress when I email a finished job to a client. Unfortunately, people have this awful tendency to reply to my emails. My brief feeling of accomplishment is punctuated by a plink of new tweaks and ‘could you just?’ requests. At times, I can’t get any work done because I’m so busy discussing with the people I’m doing the work for the work that I’m doing for them.

There is no gradual wind-down, no commute to clear my mind, just a flight of stairs

This pace can only last for so long. When I find myself thinking about how to do the work rather than actually doing it, or when everything I design begins to look vibrating and confused, I take a break and zombie my way down to my ever-patient family.

But there is no gradual wind-down, no commute to clear my mind, just a flight of stairs. The switch from work and home is instant and jarring. By the time I’ve adjusted to one location (and its associated responsibilities, joys and THWOPPAs), I’m back to the other.

Hopefully the chaos of this week means that the next will be peaceful. I’d love to have no work at all for a few days. Well, mostly. The erraticism of self-employment can be unnerving – there never seems to be a comfortable middle ground between ‘can I feed my family?’and ‘can my family really eat all of this caviar?’. Probably best to aim for he latter.

I keep reminding myself that this was – this is – all part of the dream. I get to see my family during the day, one of the luxuries of working at home, but I hate when it makes me this mentally absent and inflexible.

The boy, blissfully unaware of such adult angst, continues to spiral about the room. And, sure enough, I’m beckoned by the distant plink of another email.


Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a freelance designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

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