Leaving a traditional office setting, where I commuted to work and sat at a desk for a 9-to-6 job, was a huge change for me. It was risky no doubt, and it was not a decision I took lightly. But, it was 100% the right one. I’ve now been essentially working full-time for myself at TFD for over a year now, and I’ve experienced things in my career I never dreamed to be possible. I’ve had to become my own toughest critic, power myself to stay motivated, set my own short and long-term goals, create deadlines, etc. I’ve learned to cultivate and implement a degree of responsibility and professionalism that I never had to before, since I was sheltered from everything outside of my daily design work. Nowadays, I’m MUCH more well-rounded as a professional and can handle and execute things I would have previously
sprinted away from avoided. Now, if a process at work sucks, it’s up to a very small handful of people (myself included) to determine what the problem is and how to fix it. I never had that kind of responsibility before (and it was a welcome change to get it), and over the last year, I’ve learned things about myself that I will carry with me forever. Hopefully, all the learning will make me a better designer, business woman, colleague, and friend.
Overall, I feel that there are things I’ve only gained clarity on because I started working for myself, and my work surroundings changed quite a bit. My workflow has drastically shifted in some ways, and in other ways, it has stayed mostly the same. Before I left my former job, I devoured a ton of stories and testimonials from other designers who went full-time freelance (which is pretty much the same as owning your own business — it’s just a business of one!) For example, Jessica Hische is a (wildly successful) freelance goddess who has written extensively and thoroughly about how to work efficiently, price work, get freelance work, etc. Some of her workflow tips and honest #realtalk are helpful no matter what industry you work in. I wasn’t just focusing on design work when I came to TFD, but rather, I was building something that demanded a diverse skill set. So, it was helpful to read things to help me stay focused and productive in an area I already felt comfortable in. This helped me branch out and tackle new challenges and tasks.
Below are five things I’ve truly come to realize only because I now work for myself. Some of these are things I vaguely knew/was familiar with before, but they didn’t knock me over the head until I set out on my own without the traditional work dynamic I had always been familiar with.
Overly-long meetings. kill. your. soul.
It’s something I already knew back when I was working at my old office job, but it became even MORE pronounced when I stared working on such a small team. Since every one is highly specialized at what they do, everyone’s time is super valuable. I truly feel like there is a golden length of time for an ideal meeting (usually around 20 minutes), and if you can’t get to everything, you’re doing something wrong. I used to sit in hour-long process meetings, meetings to create future meetings for different teams, meetings to review things that could have easily been discussed via email, etc. Time is extraordinarily precious, and when a lot of meetings occur over platforms like Slack and Gchat, you have to be direct, precise, and brief. Otherwise, that shit can drag on for h o u r s. For me, it was a huge challenge to learn to be direct and articulate with people.
I am someone who tends to give lengthy answers that demand a deeper discussion from the team, and don’t provide an immediate solution. (I like to #talkitout y’all.) As someone who never typed or explained myself via writing — we talked through every issue at my old job — learning to communicate with a team with remote members was difficult for me. I’d be typing a response for way too long, not take notes the way I would in former IRL meetings, and then I’d forget what was discussed. (I would then be forced to scroll through chat history for 15 minutes to remember the conclusion we arrived at.) Thankfully, it’s gotten much easier for me as time has gone on, which has influenced the way I communicate with people face-to-face in a much more positive way. Yay!
I’m naturally way more forgetful than I previously thought.
At my old job, I never realized how forgetful I could be because I was constantly surrounded by a flutter of activity, copy machine sounds, coworkers, announcements, and the like. It’s easy to stay on track with the things you have to do because you are incessantly reminded you are in the “work zone.” When I started working for myself in a vastly different environment, it took me awhile to get used to being in a “work” frame of mind when I wasn’t shackled to a cubicle in the same place every day. With no emails coming in to remind me to send around a presentation for review at 4pm, it was easy to get sidetracked by other projects/work. I’d forget about things I needed to get done for other people I was working with remotely. Again, as I said above, I had always been used to speaking out loud to my supervisor about daily tasks at our morning status meetings, but when I began working for myself, I had to be the one responsible for creating those meetings for myself and the larger team. You can’t afford to be forgetful when you work for yourself — there are much fewer people to catch your mistakes.
The ~3pm slump~ is incredibly difficult to overcome.
Man, I used to brush off the 3pm slump pretty easily because my old agency had a 4:30 end-of-day status meeting to check in with how ahead (or behind) we were on getting stuff out to clients. If I felt sluggish or tired, I simply couldn’t let myself succumb to the afternoon stupor. My ass was on the line if I showed up to a status meeting with my work half-finished. Now, around 3pm, it’s entirely up to me to keep myself powered through the next couple of hours, and I don’t have a ring of senior management to cower to.
However, even though the 3pm slump is real, I’ve found it in myself to keep working hard because I genuinely love what I do. I work more passionately now because I’m not meeting a deadline for someone else’s work. I owe things to myself and to the TFD team (who are my peers), not people much older and more distanced from me. Now, when I need a short break to overcome the slump, I take a quick walk outside or simply chat IRL with Chelsea as I make myself a cup of coffee. Overall, my days do seem to move a lot faster than they once did because each day is different. I’ve also found it incredibly helpful/useful to physically write down a to-do list each morning (thanks for that idea, Maya!) and check it off as I work. By 3pm, I revisit the list, wind down for a bit before I attack more emails, and start planning for tomorrow. This always reinvigorates me for the latter half of the day.
File organization is everything.
At my old job, I was somewhat “graded” on how organized my job folders were on our shared art director’s server, and I usually had a less-than-ideal score. The pace of agency life moved so quickly that I rarely had time to meticulously name and organize every file and folder. Needless to say, I got scolded more than a few times from my then-supervisor. In the last year working for myself, I’ve come to fully understand that the single most important and ~honorable~ trait as a creative professional is being organized AF. The same habits and organizational methods I used to think of as drains on my precious time, I now look at with reverence and extreme necessity. Since I am the sole designer on the TFD team, and responsible for all the visual assets, title cards, infographics, video graphics, iterations of marketing materials, illustrations, etc., it’s on ME to know where everything is at all times. I’m now obsessive with the way I organize my external hard drive and desktop, and have implemented a number of tactics and strategies I would never have done on my own at my old job. I shudder at the thought that I might not have learned what I did, and might have been stuck in the sloppy disorganized world of pre-TFD Lauren.
I actually crave group projects.
I used to loathe working on group projects at my old job, but now I crave them. I love working with the editorial team to create graphics for posts, images, recipes cards, marketing materials, etc. I thrive when we discuss big projects, and I then go off on my own to create work that will benefit everyone by contributing a part of something that makes a better whole. I used to hate this process because I wasn’t passionate about what I did, and it was always a massive bummer to have to do a ton of legwork, coordinate across departments, and send rounds upon rounds of emails, only to produce something that felt “meh” and hollow.
I’ve learned more about the kind of designer I am, and infinitely more about the kind of professional I want to be since I started working for myself. I don’t know if I would have ever learned as much about myself as I have since leaving a traditional office setting, and for that, I am eTerNalLy gRaTeFuL.