Every freelancer I know is familiar with looking back at a busy day and wondering how so many hours of effort could have produced so few results. There are always, of course, days when things go wrong -- when sudden client requests throw off your game plan, or when the words or the editing or the code just doesn’t turn out right. But there are also days when nothing goes wrong so much as it somehow just doesn’t go.
This is one of the traps of self-employed work: it can be easy to fill hours with activity that doesn’t actually accomplish much. I call this strange experience “neither working nor not working” because it doesn’t provide the full-on leisure of actual time off, but neither is it a productive use of time and effort.
And it does involve effort. One of the tricky things about being neither working nor not working (which I will perhaps just call not-working for brevity) is that it generally feels more like work than not work. It thus short-circuits the salutary prick of guilt most of us feel when giving in to laziness, and allows it to seem like we are doing something. Which we are: doing things. Just not productive things.
This is, for me at least, a specifically a 1) freelance, and 2) online experience. Having a formal workplace, responsibilities, managers, peers, etc. means having structure and direction that is often lacking in the freelance life. And it's tough to get lost in physical distractions (doing the dishes, finally putting away those tools ...) as it is in the wonders of the Internet. Turning to the web to research a story about mid-twentieth-century farm consolidation, for instance, can easily become -- perhaps hours later -- an odyssey through 1960s Nigerian funk music and debates over the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. Some days the Internet is an amazing resource that provides just the right fact at just the right time. Other days, it’s a beguiling labyrinth of fascinating dead ends.
The phenomenon of “news grazing” is a good example of how time and effort can vanish into the Internet aether seemingly without results. if one skims and scrolls through news sources without taking the time to read entire stories, then it’s possible to have dozens or even hundreds of headlines and teaser quotes pass before your eyes and yet to have not engaged with the actual substance of any of them. This results in a very superficial sense of being informed, which is problematic in its being a general waste of time but also in the resulting and quite mistaken sense of having acquired real knowledge about actual things.
Social media is a particularly meretricious case of the time-wasting power of the online world. I mean, has anyone ever been able to really just do “one quick thing” on social media? By their very nature Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the rest are designed to tempt us to keep clicking and swiping to see what everyone else is doing, and all the more so when we find our cleverness validated and sense of social worth rewarded with likes and retweets. And of course using social networks is professionally important, so opting out of them entirely is a bad idea from a business perspective, even if their effects on our social-psychological reward systems didn’t make walking away into social isolation tough to countenance.
Even our old, reliable pal email can turn against us. Unless you have excellent inbox organization skills, there are a myriad of distractions waiting for you when you tab over to look for that client’s RFP you haven’t read in detail yet. At the very least there are likely new messages waiting for you, but also a vast archive of fully- or partially-ignored items that perhaps you should just take a second to deal with or file. And oh yeah, did I reply to Greg last week? But I’m sure I unsubscribed from that newsletter: better make sure. And suddenly an hour goes by and you wander off to make coffee, the RFP still unread.
So the experience of not-working is, troublingly, enabled to no small degree by the distractions and fascination built into some of the best and most important tools that let us actually do freelance work these days. When the possibility for self-defeat and -distraction is so close at hand, what can we do about it?
Well, I’ll move on to that in part II :)