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Why most freelancers are work-aholics (and how to save yourself before it’s too late)

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Here’s the most common path I’ve seen creatives take to freelancing:

  1. You’re a work-a-holic at a job you hate
  2. You decide to make the switch to freelancing
  3. You quit your job, set up your “business” and get started
  4. Before your know it, you’re working more than you were at your old job
  5. Eventually, the fun and passion of running your own freelance business fizzles out and you’re left with exactly what you had before: work-aholism at job you hate.

So why do so many freelancers find themselves discouraged and overworked instead of fulfilled, happy, and filled with passion to live life to the fullest?

There’s one pivotal moment that will determine the happiness of any freelancer.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

And it happens pretty early on.

It’s the moment when you start to build your freelance business.

A business or a job?

What most freelancers don’t understand is the different between building a business and building a job.

You’ve probably had a job all your life.

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You’ve likely worked at a number of jobs.

You started by doing chores at your childhood home.

Then you flipped burgers as a teenager.

Then, as an adult, you got a job.

So you’ve had tons of experience building a job. But how many businesses have you ever started? How many successful businesses have you run? If you’re like most freelancers, the answer is: not many, probably none.

So it’s easy to, in an attempt to start freelancing, simply start another “job” for yourself.

But you don’t want another job. You want a business. Here’s the difference:

Signs your “business” is actually just another job

If you’re not sure if you’ve built yourself a business or just another job, take a look at a few defining features below:

  • A business allows the owner to be flexible with their time and resources; a job forces its owner to work a certain number of hours each day/week
  • A business makes money based on productivity, regardless of hours; a job makes money based on hours worked
  • A business can be scaled exponentially to make more money or be more productive; a job is a one-person show with no option to grow
  • A business is a slave to it’s owner; a job is the master of its owner

So have you started a business by striking out as a freelancer? Or have you just started another job?

If you’re just working “another job” for yourself, then you might as well go back to working for someone else. (Am I right or wrong on this one? Leave a comment and let me know!)

But if you really want to build a business, there’s one thing you really need to do…

Create a solid business plan.

Without a plan, you’re sunk. You’re likely to just start another job. And this time instead of working for someone you hate, you’ll work for a job you hate.

So save yourself before it’s too late.

Build a business, not a job.

(PS: In case you haven’t heard, soon I’ll be talking with freelancers on the new Millo YouTube channel. We’ll talk about finding clients, building a business [instead of a job], making more money as a freelancer and much more! I’ve already got a lot of great interviews lined up and you won’t want to miss them! Subscribe to the Millo YouTube channel now and be the first to see the interviews when they release!)

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. Greetings,

    Your newsletters are great, thank you. In addition to my graphic arts certificate, I’ve taken Business Management (in particular small business ownership) and along with 5 years of graphic design under my belt I’m not sure if I’m building a job or a business. I do know I feel quite unbalanced. I have been freelancing full time for about 1.5yrs, but I supplement the slow times with Yoga instructing. I have a business plan, but now what? I’m not really looking for extra loans, and am fairly successfully gaining new clients through networking and mainly word-of-mouth referrals. I do find, however, that I’m a slave to it, and when I have 2 or 3 projects on the go, my time management is horrible and I drop my life to meet my deadlines. Perhaps time management is my area of weakness?
    Thanks a million, Roxane, St. Albert, AB.

  2. I disagree with some of your comments in your article. Firstly, I went into this profession because “I love it”… I have been self-employed as a designer for over 32 years… and guess what… I still love it. For sure some clients can get you down, and some days you wonder what it’s all about… but I wouldn’t swap it for a 9-5 job ever! No way. Being your own boss (and the responsibilties that go with it) is wonderful. More designers should do it – but then again it comes down to “personality”. Some are very happy 9-5 drawing a regular wage… but being in business is exciting… and can be very rewarding. Either way, it’s still worth it! If you have any doubts, forget it!

    • I think you’re missing the point…
      even if you’re in love with your job (that is a blessing), the point is that, if your financial incomes are in ratio with the TIME you spent, you can’t call it a business… it’s just about definitions, I think…
      The analysis of the difference between a business and a job here is clear and very helpful…

  3. Making and properly Executing Solid Business Plan is the key. Learned it the hard way 😉

    Very nice article. definitely young freelancers and freelancers who lost the way would be benefited from this.

    Nice work Preston.

  4. Your comments are very on target. Being a business person is a very different thing from being a good employee. You need to consider where your passion lies. For me, more than anything, I love to design and make stuff. I don’t excel at doing books, selling, or administering. That is not where my skills and passion are. So I choose to work a “job” where, though I do a lot things are not my passion (like budget), I still get to do a lot of what I enjoy. So it is a good fit. Being self-employed wasn’t for me. So “know thyself.” You may be a nice person to get to be friends with!

  5. you can´t be wrong… all this happened to me from december 2011 to current day, when I returned to work for someone else :S … but I believe that in my case there was environment issues that took a lot of part in this, a real hot weather with no airconditioning, dust entering at its pleasure at home, desk and everywhere else… I´m still trying to figure out what happened beside that, because also the sleepless night were to much, I´m still with the Idea of having my own studio, but for that I will need to make more money first, so I can invest in conditioning my home office. Started to learn web design and preparing to make the jump again… this time, I have this blog to learn a lot. Thanks for every post you make Preston.

  6. This is a good thing to think about. I’m just starting out freelancing, so knowing the difference now could save me a lot of wasted time. I’d be really interested in reading articles about how to build a business plan.

  7. What an eye opener. I am the very person you are speaking of. I left my full-time and have been slaving over growing a business (working a job!!). I have read so many of your articles and I thank you for all the tips, eye-openers, and rejuvenating inspirations. I have some adjustments to make!

  8. I disagree with the article. Main thing to succeed is to see the difference between: job, freelance and business.
    Freelance can be both or none – job or a business. But the main thing of freelance is the lifestyle. You are free! You can work whenever and wherever you want. If you are good in time management you will be happy cause of having balance in your life.
    As a small business owner or company director you ll spend more hours than being full time employed. But if you like challenges such as: dealing with clients, heating short deadlines, do accountancy, manage the strategy with swot analisys and cash flow, advertising, designing… and many more – try it! Build the company!

    The crucial thing is to have balance in life and decision which type of designer you are. A worker, freelancer or company director?!

    • I think you missed it, the article explains that ‘freelance’ IS the job and business and the advantages of this… it explains the two.

  9. Great article! as a follow-up it would be nice to know what sort of content to include in our business plans to make room for growth as a designer as I think alot of people may agree but don’t necessarily know where to go from here? Maybe just me then.

  10. Hi – I agree with Nathan. I love what I do, but often feel trapped by the need to generate more work when times are slow and struggle with time management when the work tumbles in from my efforts. I have a few regular clients but need to grow my base of clients to keep regular work coming in. I work with three marketing firms that are apread across the country and they are the base of my clientele… so I have developed a niche here and continue to have a good relationship. But when work falls off and things slow way down – I tend to panic a bit. It is easier sometimes to go back to work for someone else and draw a paycheck – not worrying about finding, satisfying and retaining clients so much. But the freedom of not having to work a set schedule with someone breathing down your neck is much nicer. It’s a trade-off. Stable income vs. freedom. My circumstances require both. That’s the tough part. So how does this business plan stuff work?

  11. Great article! now, whats the business plan you can shear with us? I tried to make myself a business plan that I follow, but I want to hear from you good ideas. Because in freelance business you are the designer, the marketing office and the sale person…3 hats for one head!
    Waiting to hear from you.

  12. Great article, indeed. Since the beginning, I wanted a business and not a job. But, after more thatn 8 years, I still find myself with a job and not a solid business. I have had planned my business several times, but I can´t find the way of executing my plans. Moreover, I work with my wife and we are both at the same crossroad. Regarding to one of the comments above, when of the things I do know is that time management is esential to have a good productive business. Otherwise, you may sink in your own work, trying to get to the end of month.

  13. How about ‘Building a Lifestyle’? That’s the ticket!

  14. I don’t believe this theory is realistic. Am I really going to turn down work because it doesn’t fit my business trajectory and would be categorized as a “job”? I would never work!

    As much as I can wait for return clients and pound the pavement, who’s to say any of those tactics will achieve goals set in a business plan? There are too many factors beyond one’s control to really stick to a plan. I’ve had jobs fall through because of budgets, client reorganizations, client indecision, even hurricanes. How do I account for those sudden and unexpected incidents while trying to follow a business plan?

    I’ve been freelancing for 6 years now – some years good, others not so good. My “plan” is always the same – secure as many jobs as I can (and turn down unattractive ones). Building a business is not something I feel I can maintain with outside factors constantly impacting my work. The life of a freelancer is spontaneous, and I just can’t plan for that.

  15. I agree with the article as a business owner if you are on the defense then what are you really learning this article makes you stop and think about how you are running your business and really look at your mentality as a business owner. I didn’t get the opportunity to start a business because i wanted to – i started mine because i had to due to a layoff from a 100K job where the manager hired me just because they wanted to keep someone else from getting me and eventually they would find a real design position for me so when the overhead ran out they let me go. After 10 years and working for several freelance agencies this year i’m getting clients completely on my own. It took me a long time to get out of the employee mentality and i can say this is the best year i’ve had not because its been easy but I’ve learned more about myself as a business owner and the type of clients i want to do business with. And now i don’t have to wait for upper management to make a change because I AM upper management.
    I use liveplan.com and so far so good

  16. I have had my own businesses dince 1986 and could never work for anybody again.

    One thing any would-be freelancer must always remember is that ‘Nothing Happens Until Somebody Sells Something’

    Paste that on your desk.

  17. hmmm…I’m not sure everyone would agree… “if your financial incomes are in ratio with the TIME you spent, you can’t call it a business”, granted, it’s a “poor” business model 😉

  18. Hi! Freelance Graphic Designer here! This is the first time I have read your article and I have to agree about the business plan bit, but disagree about the business not being a job bit, especially the part where you state that a job is a person working alone has no option to grow.

    I work alone and in the past 4 years, I have grown quite a bit. I work alone because I love it and I make money working alone. I am happy working alone on projects I choose to work on that will make me money compared to the amount of time I spend on them. Be it packaging design or ad work.

    My business model may be unconventional, but it works for me. I travel and clients know this, some even like the fact that while I may be based in the USA, I can be accessible everywhere in the world I am through an internet connection.

    And you have to take into consideration that the way they work their ‘business’ is what works for them. My model doesn’t work for everyone because not everyone can afford to work from Germany or Singapore once a year, or tell clients a month in advance “OK, I am going to vacation in Costa Rica for a week, you need anything before I go?”

    I make enough money on my business to be happy, and I grow at my own pace.

  19. James Monroe says:


  20. There can be so much more meaning to starting your own business when you have the desire to serve others with your God-given talents. When you recognize that you have unique skills and can use them in a way that no one else can, you can really focus on others and not yourself.

    A great book that can shine a light on this way of thinking is “The Prayer of Jabez” It is about asking God to enlarge your ‘territory’, then depending on Him to supply you with clients, and then asking Him to guide you through the process. This dependence is key to having the right attitude and knowing that you may not necessarily have all of the answers to people’s questions, but God will give you resources that you never knew you had.

    Anyway, that’s what has worked really well for me, and the money is just a secondary effect of excellent results!!!

    Another helpful resource is “Humility” by CJ Mahaney.

  21. after 25 years of owning a business, clients are forcing us to work long hours for reduced rates.

    Clients are the broken chain in productive schedule, where most of our problems in our business lie. Clients are disrespectful of deadlines, leave everything too late, can’t proof read copy before going to artwork, can’t understand the difference between design and artwork, can’t supply materials to our specs no matter how many times we explain, don’t understand we are craftsmen, making something bespoke and hopeful as perfect as we can. Want to make endless changes instead of trust us, and under value our commitment to our work.

    I used to feel my business was a business but no I feel like a slave to the 50+ ‘bosses’ ( clients). It doesn’t seem to matter how much we try to ‘educate’ them, now it’s an attitude of ‘its on the computer’ so therefore it must be easy, take no time, have no technical requirements etc etc

    Whew, that let off so steam!

  22. Thanks for this article. I just started my business after few years as an employee. It feels good to read you right now. I’ll keep it in my favorites and will come back to it every once in a while to get some energy when I need it ! Cheers !


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