What too much time as a freelancer and tinder have in common

Stock-Bilder geschoßen in Hamburg mit dem Model Leona Joia und Daniel Schubert als Fotografen.

Living as a freelancer is like a double-edged sword. On one hand, you get to shape your own work, but on the flip side, you’re constantly having to do it.

I often find myself jumping from one project to the next within half an hour, and by the end of the day, I’m completely confused about what I actually worked on all day. Some projects just seem to drag on and never get finished.

Most of the time, it’s because they depend on collaboration with others, or sometimes simply because they’re big projects. Take putting together an architecture portfolio, for example.

That involves research, getting feedback from people in the industry, finding locations, coordinating with owners, setting up appointments, editing, and so on, and that’s just the beginning because you actually want to use the portfolio.

So, it’s no wonder that when you have several projects like this in the pipeline, you can quickly feel overwhelmed. This overwhelm, combined with too much time, can be a problem – because what does that invite?
Yep, procrastination. That’s exactly what this blog post is about.

Although I write “problem” with a heavy heart because in the long run, it can lead to stagnation and self-doubt, it’s a topic that concerns not only people in the creative industry or self-employment, in that sense, here’s an overview:

Background, a trip back to being an employee

Let’s start with a little detour into my own life. Two and a half years ago, I quit my part-time job in the restaurant industry and fully focused on photography. It was a significant step because the part-time job was like a safe haven for me.

Safe because it covered health insurance, rent, and living expenses. For me, it was clear at that time that if I really wanted to be self-employed, I had to set sail for the ocean of self-employment. After some wild storms and tight maneuvers, but also great encounters and interesting challenges, I came to a practical realization this year.

It’s going well, but if I want to set aside money for another trip, I could really use the extra income from a few months of restaurant work. So, I did it, I reached out to my old colleagues, and within a week, I was back in the kitchen, part-time, and immediately felt right at home again.

It’s hard to imagine how pleasant an employee relationship feels after two and a half years of self-employment, especially when you know the structures, like your colleagues, and the work is easy. Compared to working alone, carrying all the responsibility, and having to prove yourself month after month.

The aha moment on the “free” day

So, I had a day off where I could fully focus on my photography work, and I fell into a pattern that I had adopted in the preceding months. First, sleep until nine, make a leisurely breakfast, watch something on YouTube, take a quick look at emails – no urgent tasks. But there was a very long, intimidating to-do list that had been creeping along since February.

You want to start, but instead of seeing the first step, all you see is the endless road ahead. I started to build up resistance to the various projects and distracted myself with various things, scattered and unfocused. Then the phone rang.

“We have someone not showing for work, could you theoretically work today if we can’t find a replacement?” Of course, I said yes. That’s when an unpleasant feeling hit me. What if I worked in the restaurant all day, came home, and realized that none of my to-dos had progressed? With the knowledge that the phone could ring any minute and I would have to leave the house, I immediately started working through the list.

Work and the time we give it

I once heard that a task takes as long as we give it time to complete. Specifically, it’s a principle by Cyril Northcote Parkinson that says, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

In my case, this was massively confirmed that day because with the thought in the back of my mind that I didn’t have 24 hours to tackle and advance the projects, but that someone could call at any minute and I would have to put the work aside, I completed the next milestone of my projects within two hours: motivated, in a good mood, and focused.

“Is that all?” I thought to myself after three emails, two phone calls, and adding SEO descriptions to images. So, I went to pick up photos, write blog posts, and plan shoots. It became clear to me that setting time limits is much more important for me than I thought.

Why too much time in self-employment can be a hindrance

I think it’s very important to understand where this dynamic comes from because generally, having more time is a good thing. Conversely, having less time is less advantageous.

But what if it’s endless, time-consuming tasks, and the emphasis is on “tasks”? In my profession, you can never do enough marketing (unless you’re swimming in jobs, but that’s a luxury that has been withheld from me except for a few exceptions). You can never do enough search engine optimization or improve your portfolio.

Additionally, working in self-employment is rarely crowned with immediate success, and that is quite an uncomfortable combination, especially in the aspect of work where you theoretically never finish, it can suck motivation out!

Conditioning and dopamine

In general, our motivation works with a form of reward for behavior, usually with a sweet release of dopamine. So that we enjoy repeating a behavior, we need a success experience at regular or irregular intervals – slot machines are a great example of this.

Just like we train dogs with constant treats at the beginning and later it only needs an irregular reward because the animal has learned that the behavior is rewarded. The same mechanism that makes me endlessly scroll through YouTube in search of an interesting video, by the way.

But in self-employment, it’s different because not only do rewards for work sometimes completely disappear – worse still – often we don’t even know what we’re being rewarded for.

We don’t know which activities will move us forward

This may not apply to every freelancer. I’m sure there are enough colleagues who have found their golden path, which promises a 90% success rate (and who now offer 13 common seminars for €200 each on how you can become as successful as they are). But I think everyone knows the feeling of not knowing exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing right now.

This blog is the best example of that. I’ve been writing blog articles for over four years, spread across three websites. I spend between half a day and a week or even longer on one article, depending on how much effort the research requires. Then they’re translated into English and optimized for SEO. Have I had a big benefit from this over the years? No idea.

Comments on my posts are rare, and I’m mostly only directly addressed about the blog articles by close friends. In the end, I write this blog because I like to share my knowledge, as I’ve often benefited from the knowledge of others.

And also to give people who want to work with me an insight into my knowledge and an authentic picture of who I am. But still, I regularly ask myself, does this contribute to my career?

The ignorance of when we are Sisyphus

At the beginning,

I was motivated and wanted to continue my sociological studies with interesting blog articles on social and political topics. Today, it’s mostly about external representation. But do I know if I ever acquired clients with this work? As far as I know, I’ve landed more clients with pictures I posted once in Facebook groups or simply because I happened to talk to the right person at a concert.

And now, while writing blog articles is mostly enjoyable for me, even if the feedback or the benefit is low, I can find something in it. But if I send out hundreds of marketing emails and have no idea if I’ll ever land a job, it quickly feels like a tedious Sisyphean task.

Unfortunately, we often don’t know, especially in the creative field, which of our activities will bear fruit and which will lead to nothing. This becomes particularly exhausting when we always have time to work. The good thing about a “nine to five” mentality is that even if we don’t particularly enjoy it, our reward will be our salary.

In those moments, having too much time for tasks that we think need to be done without an immediately visible reward is no longer a blessing but a curse.

Less freedom, more “eustress”

So, that was a long journey. For those still reading, thank you. We finally get to the realization and value. What this call and the resulting motivation and creative boost showed me is that time limits give me positive stress (eustress).

When I know I only have a limited time window to complete certain things before I have to push them into a new day or the future, or the opportunity is simply gone, I get back into a flow that I actually enjoy. It helps to give me the impulse I need to get through unpleasant tasks.

I think that’s why so many professional coaches are highly praised. Not because they serve up the secret recipe to revolutionize everything for us freelancers on a silver platter. But because they give us a framework and eustress through external pressure to implement exactly the things we already have in mind. In the end, they take away our autonomy, lead us by the hand, and free us from the freedom of having to decide everything ourselves.

In my case, this eustress didn’t come from a coach who takes me by the hand and says, “By the end of the week, I want to have a mind map where you see yourself in five years”, but rather a simple: “Hey, can you work this afternoon?”. But I by no means think that this is limited to professional life only. Take dating apps, for example.

How Tinder and Co can lead to stagnation

I think dating apps are a great comparison to this topic because they give us the feeling that we can always do something to meet someone new, exciting, interesting. There’s no time pressure because the person can swipe back at some point or not, no limit to possible matches (or kudos to those who swiped to the end of Tinder), so basically limitless, cozy, pleasant, and at the same time, they feel incredibly exhausting in the long run. Why?

The success recipe of dating apps is not to find the perfect partner as quickly as possible, unfortunately, that’s a contradiction in itself because they work like routine work: swipe, swipe, swipe, write, make plans, meet, talk, drink, sleep together, ghost (I know, I know, not always, but mostly).

Seeing someone in a café or on the dance floor is a fleeting moment, and the time, the opportunity to get to know that person, is limited. We only have this time window, we can’t improve our bio beforehand, upload better photos of ourselves later, swipe the person later, the opportunity is here now, and we can only use it now, that creates more of a eustress than endlessly swiping on Tinder – that can lead to distress (negative stress).

Not to mention a sobering experience across the board. Just like freelancers who can fall into the trap of never-ending work with too much time for it, users of dating apps fall into the trap of never-ending dating opportunities.

And in both areas, there are coaches who want to show helpless seekers the way out of their helpless, unlimited freedom, with explicit steps and sequences that promise quick success. They take us by the hand and guide our loose ideas/goals into fixed paths.

Neither of these is really fulfilling, and unfortunately, it quickly sucks the joy out of something that should be exciting.

Make stress great again

That’s exactly what I’m getting at. I think limitations, whether in time or options, can massively help us stay motivated. Especially in the creative industry (or when dating), too much freedom can quickly build up more pressure and burden than it actually relieves.

Just as suddenly having five possible dates open, with endless possibilities just a swipe away, can quickly weigh heavily on your mind. Especially if the actual reward for this work is not apparent or foreseeable.

If things seem to be stuck, if they get heavier and heavier on your shoulders, and if they get more and more unpleasant in the back of your mind and just won’t end: It helps to put them on the back burner a bit and look for other areas to focus your energy on.

It helps to give these things a little more structure and perspective, and when they’re suddenly no longer the star of the show, then we can tackle them with energy again.

If you enjoyed that blog post here is the first part of a series about love and in case you want to read more about freelancing, I wrote a three-piece long documentation about things, I would have loved to know, before I embarked on my photography journey.

Streetphoto in one of the backyards in munich in spring 2023, for a blogarticle from daniel Stein, that should help you find a fitting photographer for your project.
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