Successfully managing freelance work through college (how to balance study, work and social)

Freelance work is one of the best jobs for college students. You get to pick your own schedule and work from home. You can pick up part time work and fit around your schedule.

I spent my first year of college (or University, as I called it), thinking it wasn’t really possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life. On these grounds, I sold my blog, stopped doing freelance work and basically disappeared from social networks.

In my second year I added a ton of responsibilities running societies, started taking my academic work more seriously but started accepting a little bit of freelance work.

In my third (and final) year, concious I wanted to transition to freelancing full time after graduating, I took on roughly one day a week of freelance work – the very thing I thought two years ago wasn’t possible. It was possible, but required a lot of forward planning (this all looks very similar to freelancing next to a full-time job).

College is a normally a tripartite beast where one is required to stay on top of:

  1. Academic work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

Adding freelance work throws a spanner to the work. Now you have:

  1. Work
    • Academic work
    • Freelance work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

You don’t really want to compromise on any of these, which is where the difficulty comes in. It can be done though. Here are some of the things I learned about successfully managing freelance work for college students.

Finding part time work for students

I’m not going to spend too much time on this as I was able to leverage contacts from building and running WPShout to get work. If I had no online presence and was starting out, I’d ask these questions:

  • What skills do I have or could I develop?
  • How can I position myself in a market where my skills are valued, rather than a market where there’s a race to the bottom?
Here’s an example: writing is a frequently recommended field and for good reason: there’s no problem working remotely and as a student you’re already well skilled in writing.

The obvious problem is lots of other people are also good at writing. Instead of working in the very low end of the market, writing for $5-a-time content mills, how can you add value? Look at how you can leverage your writing skills to break into other markets.

For me that was WordPress, later social media and later still marketing. For you? What do you find interesting? Does this offer a route in? Do some Googling and think about it.

Once you can identify a market to be working in, you can establish yourself as someone whose skills are to be valued and an authority by setting up a website and blog and publishing regularly. I’d recommend using WordPress for this.

Start publishing good stuff and promoting it in the market you want to work in. After a month of regular content creation you can start advertising you’re available for hire or – the more effective method – get in touch with people who you think would want your services, tell them what you can do for them and ask them to hire you. I got the vast majority of my early freelance work this way.

You don’t need to mention to clients that you’re a student. As long as you get the work done, it’s not a problem (although you may wish to have some time off around busy academic periods – more on that later). I’ve never had a client value my time less because I’m also in full time education, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens.

Be exceptionally disciplined

You must be exceptionally disciplined. You will not succeed as a freelancer if you don’t show up without fail and reliably do the work.

I liked to keep a schedule. I had one day of contact hours (lectures and seminars), one day for study for each of my four modules) and then one day for freelance work. The seventh day in the week provided some leeway for fun or essay writing when necessary.

Knowing what work was to be done on which day meant I spent no time working out what needed to be done, I just got on with it. I liked to use weekly repeating tasks in OmniFocus (expensive but well worth the money imo). Plus, the regular schedule meant I always got my academic work done (and often did more reading/seminar preparation than my peers) and also always got my freelance work done.

Having a schedule is one thing, but you need to religiously stick to it. This is where the discipline comes in. By taking on freelance work next to your academic work you’re reducing your leeway for spare time, so you’ve got to show up and get the work done.

Be exceptionally disciplined. Set a regular schedule, show up and do the work

Say no to things so you don’t burn out

Saying no to opportunities was something I’d rarely done before, but realising I needed to do it was a big eye-opener. Clarity on this came from reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism.

The book makes the same point again and again, but it’s a good point so it gets away with it: identify what’s important to you and focus on it, and cut out everything which is secondary to your primary focus.

If your focus is on the tripartite beast we discussed before – work, social and wellbeing – then things secondary to that focus need to go.

I cut out a number of commitments after this minor revelation, declining to continue my involvement with running societies, turning down extra client hours when I thought it would negatively impact on other areas and making a call on when my own projects were not worth pursuing (this meant putting my blog on hiatus).

Identifying your focus is of extreme importance here. I’m making the assumption work, wellbeing and social life are important, but for you that may be different. Well worth thinking very seriously about what it is you’re focussing on, and how all the work you’re doing fits in around that primary focus.

Be smart about academic work

Successfully managing freelance work through college involves being successful with academic work. You don’t want to compromise on academic results or the growth from pursuing interesting ideas and asking difficult questions.

We’ve established keeping a schedule is important, but a schedule only works if you can consistently get work done in the time you’ve allotted. You can resolve needing to do all your academic work but only having a fixed time to do it in by being smart about it.

Keeping on top of studying is a lot easier when you’re smart about it.

The arguments of the pareto principle, that 80% of work comes from 20% of effort, are well rehearsed. Given students don’t start from a point of doing 100% of work (does anyone do 100% of the reading lists for semianrs?) you can’t just cut your work to a fifth and expect to maintain results. You can, however, make intelligent decisions about which work to do.

As a Politics student a lot of my work was reading for seminars which wasn’t assessed. A lot of my peers did the bare minimum reading, but turn up knowing nothing and you’ll take nothing from the seminars. So how to do the reading, just faster? A number of things:

  • Find tools to work faster. I needed to read books and journal articles and take notes. I wanted digital notes but most PDF readers don’t let you copy text, so I’d just type out notes. Solution: get a dedicated PDF highlighting app and switch to Evernote, which can handle notetaking better.
  • Know when to do more work, when to do less work. I had a lot of choice for what I was assessed on. Identifying topics I wanted to choose way in advance, from looking over the schedule at the start of the year, would mean I could focus especially on those weeks. Equally, if I definitely wasn’t planning on doing any assessed for on a topic I could safely cover the basics but leave the advanced reading.
  • Start early. Being a week ahead with reading brings a huge amount of leeway into your schedule. It’s really easy to do: in the long holidays just start on the next term’s work the week before term starts. Knowing you’ve got a week spare brings a huge amount of flexibility.

Subjects with more frequent assessment may find this less effective, but there will definitely be ways to work smarter and work less whilst maintaining results.

You also need to know when to prioritise academic work above all else. Around exam times and when essays are due you need to be able to focus exclusively on those. This just involves keeping on top of those dates. Let clients know way in advance when you won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks and there shouldn’t be a problem. Try and squeeze everything in – and that’s just not going to work.

Practice deep work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work over the summer and virtually everything there resonated very strongly with me. A grossly simplified summary of the basic thesis is for maximum productivity one should schedule “deep work” sessions where you focus wholly on the task in hand. All distractions are to be ignored, Facebook and Twitter are to remain unchecked.

This is really good advice. Working out how to be really productive is the final piece in the puzzle of making this all work.

I swore by the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a productivity system whereby you work in 25 minute blocks with no distractions, then have a five minute break. You then repeat. I adapted it to work in 50 minute blocks followed by 10 minute breaks. Do whatever to make it work best for you.

My entire work schedule revolved around these 50 minute “deep work” sessions and I’d highly recommend it. The time pressure guilts you out of any (or at least most) procrastination and facilitates the getting done of a lot of work. I liked using Pomotodo to track my sessions. Sara Laughed has some interesting ideas worth thinking about on this. See also Ransom Patterson on this.

I’d also recommend starting work earlier. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme – just starting at 7.30am instead of 9am makes a huge difference. You can still finish at 6pm, just you’ll have gotten a lot more productive hours done each day.

It can work and it can work well

Writing this has made freelancing through college seem herculanean, zero fun and stoic. I’m probably guilty of slightly overdramatising; it’s not like you make the choice to earn money in place of having fun.

I wanted to do freelance work but I didn’t want to compromise my academic work, so the solution was just a lot of work. A lot of my friends and peers were doing just as much work, but where I was working freelance they were teaching and marking, running societies, working more traditional jobs and/or engaging in hobbies. Freelance work was just a different type of demand on my time.

It is absolutely possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life whilst at college or University. You just need to keep on top of everything, make strategic compromises and make your work count. I’m now graduated but if I was doing it again I’d probably do slightly less freelance work and trade it for more time off, but on the whole I have no regrets about the experience.

I hope this post inspires some action. If you’re wondering about the feasibility of work, go for it. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences – let me know @AlexDenning.