Making time for career development as a freelancer

Jackie lam

Back when I had a day job as a proofreader at a small publisher, it became obvious that our company sorely needed a social media and content marketing plan. Besides a simple business website, the publisher had essentially zero web presence.

My colleague in the editorial department and I resolved to turn things around. We met with the head of marketing and put our heads together to plan a calendar for blog content and social media.

We pored over a production calendar for days. After it was approved by the Marketing Department, the owner of the company put a halt to the project. He didn’t understand the importance of social media and internet marketing. Sadly, our efforts went nowhere.

Fast-forward to the present: As a self-employed freelancer, one of the major perks is that I have the autonomy to “do what I want.” If I want to expand my skill set or take advantage of career opportunities, that’s entirely up to me.

In other words, when you’re self-employed you’re the master of your own domain. The driver of your own destiny, so to speak. If you want to pivot and offer additional services, you don’t have to ask permission. Want to take a few months off? The only person you need to get a green light from is yourself.

Here’s the kicker: On the flip side, perpetually being in the driver’s seat has its own challenges.

Unlike working an office job, there’s no “room for growth” within the company. Some hypotheticals: Mark in Marketing won’t one day leave his post, giving you the opportunity to step into his shoes. You won’t pick up new skills by way of a big interdepartmental project or a company-mandated training program.

In other words, you have to seek and create your opportunities. And while you might have the capabilities and drive, it can be tough to prioritize career advancement. Why’s that? Well, humans generally prioritize short-term rewards over long-term ones. It’s far easier to take on an assignment or project that offers immediate rewards and compensation than the ones farther out, where the payoff isn’t defined or guaranteed.

Whether you’re trying to advance your career by taking courses, enrolling in certifications, adding new skills to your roster, or working on personal projects, here are a few strategies that have worked for me and might work for you.

Focus on the big picture

Although the bulk of my freelance work is as a writer, in the past year, I’ve been focusing on doing more outreach efforts toward becoming a money coach, particularly for artists and freelance creatives. While I love writing about personal finance and freelancing, I want to expand my services to include workshops and coaching.

To stay motivated, I have to constantly focus on what I want in the long-term. While it’s certainly hard to develop your career in the long-term by putting in the time and making sacrifices in the short term, you’re ultimately laying the groundwork — developing structure, ramping up your skills, and completing certifications — to diversify your offerings.

Prepare to scale back your income goals

When you’re self-employed, one of the toughest parts of making time for career development is making trade-offs with your income. You might have to scale back on profitable work to make time for that side project or class.

For instance, when I enrolled in a community counseling course last year, I had to commit to taking most Fridays off from any client work. I also needed to carve out a bit of time each day to study for my coaching certification program. I experienced some anxiety. As someone who is used to working a lot, I felt uncomfortable not doing as much client work. After all, when you freelance, variable income is a constant concern. You never know when you might experience a work lull.

To make sure I was in a good place to focus on career development, I re-evaluated my spending plan to see what my minimum income goal was. I realized I only needed to lower my income goal slightly to work four-day weeks. But if you’re planning to take significant time off, you might need to tap into your emergency fund. Either way, having a strong financial plan and staying on top of your savings and budget will give you the opportunity to prioritize your long-term goals.

Stagger your schedule

If scaling back on your income goals or lowering your expenses isn’t something you’re able to do — or simply don’t want to do— look for ways you can toggle between client work and personal projects.

Depending on when you tend to be the most productive, you might want to stagger your work so that you spend mornings on career development and afternoons on client work. Or you could make a pact with yourself, such as spending two hours on career development for every six hours you spend on client work.

Another way to carve out time for career development? Take off an afternoon each week, or devote an entire day each week toward your long-term goals. Remember: We freelancers have earned the autonomy to use our time as we see fit. So, it's best to take advantage!

Embrace the doubts

Real talk: There will be moments when you’re going to experience bouts of self-debt. It’s natural to wonder if a relatively speculative endeavor (i.e., one that hasn’t shown any proof of concept) will take flight. It’s hard to know whether the trade-offs you’ve made will be worthwhile.

This is when you need to remember that you don’t have to remain stagnant merely because you have doubts. Expanding your career or moving in a different direction doesn’t have to wait until you’re fully confident. It’s more realistic to hold a space for any doubts.

When I get clobbered by such insecurities, I try to remember that each new undertaking is about the process, not just the results. And even if I’m not sure what the outcome will be, I know I’ll learn something along the way.

Why I prioritize making time to learn and teach

While it isn’t always easy, I’ve been able to make the most of my autonomy as a freelancer to work on career development and professional growth. What’s more, I’ve expanded my knowledge in the personal finance space through my studies.

By enrolling in a community counselor course, which covered everything from historical discrimination, bias, judgment, and issues in the LGBTQ community, I expanded my understanding of how to work with underserved populations in Los Angeles. Plus, by putting on workshops for freelancers (on topics from money management to how to start a business), I’ve learned about the struggles fellow entrepreneurs face and how I might better approach my work as an educator and money coach.

Bottom line: I know that carving out time to develop my skills and my business is time well spent. And since I’m the only person who gets to decide where my time goes, simply focusing on that truth has allowed me to stay motivated and develop the strategies to achieve my career goals.

Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based money writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Business Insider, and GOOD Magazine. She is currently studying to be a financial coach (AFC®) to help artists and freelancers with their money. In her free time she blogs at

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