Balancing Act: Freelancing While Full Time

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By the end of the work day, the last thing you want to do is look at another pixel. Since 8:30am, you’ve been firing on all cylinders. Deadlines, meetings and requests have been swarming your desk as restlessly as your fingers against your keys. The mental expenditure you endure each day is taxing. Yet, you’re not done. You have even more deadlines, calls, meetings and requests to honor once you get home–your place of solitude. They belong to your freelance clients. You must pay them the same amount of attention and focus as you give to your day job.

Why? You want to do good work. You’re working on something you actually enjoy doing. You have complete dominion of the project. There aren’t any creative directors, account executives or demanding higher ups interjecting their opinions into your work. You and the client are the team. You have creative freedom and you love it. But, damn, is it hard to muster the energy to exert after (or before) hours work. This is all a part of the magnificent balancing act between your freelance and full time responsibilities. It doesn’t have to be such an endeavor, however. When you masterfully blend discipline, honesty, integrity and the maintenance of relationships, your chances for success increase as your chances to stress decrease.


How does a designer stay on top of both worlds? One side pays the bills, the other pays the soul. The process of prioritization and managing time is critical to finesse. It all starts with discipline. Every designer worth their salt has had to experience some trying times in their career. Perhaps you had to stay up all night in college for a project due the next morning. Maybe, your product head dropped a bomb on your team Friday at 5pm. Yet, each time, you put your head down and navigated through the work. This is your discipline. It is not exerted or strengthened when work is easy. Anyone can do that. Anyone can work effortlessly on a project they love under perfect conditions. Your stripes as a designer are shown and earned when you work on something not glamorous or easy because that’s reality. Life isn’t Dribbble. You won’t be creating work to be complimented. You will be creating work to be utilized for someone else’s gain–someone else’s livelihood. The extension of discipline applies when your workload is over saturated. The only way to trim it down is simply to do it. Pros will execute the excess work well. Amateurs will make an ordeal of the work they’ve agreed to do. So, even though on your ride home from work, you’re cursing the next few hours you’ll spend, again, face down in your computer or notebook, you know it’s necessary. You will do it because you’re a professional and because it will be worthwhile. Above all, you’ve agreed to the work and there’s no backing out.

What does being a professional mean? Is it being accoladed with awards or social likes? Is it the prestige of the firm one works for or the exalted clients in one’s portfolio?


It is your ability to get the work done and done with quality. That’s what brings the balance and allows one to do both career and freelance design. A book I highly, highly suggest you read is called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. In it, the author of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” details his overcoming of Resistance–the self-inflicted force of procrastination, laziness and self detriment. He states that “the professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.” With this attitude, the balancing of a full time career and a side hustle becomes easier to manage. If you’re not conducting your freelance work as professionally as your career work, you can start right now. Start with smaller bites. Your discipline, like design, is a practice. The more and more you consciously do it, the better at it you will become. Don’t expect overnight change. The discipline required to uphold the balance takes time and that’s ok.


Pure discipline burns a finite fuel. It’s effective up front, but begins to empty in the long run. Why? It’s impractical to constantly maintain the balance. It can even be unhealthy. One can tell immediately when freelancing begins to interfere with your day job. At the end of the day, that’s what’s paying the bills and paying your health insurance. To negate its role as the breadwinner is dangerous. Don’t be so quick to burn the candle at both ends.

As soon as freelance work starts hindering your performance in the office, slow down.

Stop pushing. You’ve upset the balance at work and your discipline has lost its ability to steer the ship. This disruption is typically preventable on the front end. You have to ask yourself these questions before taking on additional work:

  1. Is it feasible with my schedule?
  2. Can I truly give it my all outside of my day job?
  3. Is it worth taking on? Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze. Signing a contract for a project that’s not additive to you is a huge mistake!

How do you personally gauge what is worthwhile taking on and what is not? Before you conduct a cost/benefit analysis, you must first accept you’ll be completely honest with yourself. Otherwise, your lie will lead to issues down the road. Examine the budget of the potential client. If you do this work, are the payment installments worth the scope? Is the work interesting, or at least interesting enough for the price? Many times, we take on additional work for sanity’s sake. Our day jobs can be monotonous. If you’re doing mobile design all day, perhaps some small business stationery sounds completely refreshing to you. Examine your client. Qualify their trustworthiness, their competence and their management style. If they’re micromanaging, sketchy or complete luddites, the project may be more of a headache than initially thought.

The honesty with the self will allow the discipline enacted to be easier to muster. Since you already see the landscape ahead, you know where to avoid and where to venture to while piloting the project brilliantly.


Changing directions, designers at some point in time will probably be approached to work on something that may be of conflict of interest with what they do for their employer. They may have signed an NDA or read in their employee manual that working with competitors of their clients or product is in direct violation of their agreement terms. These are treacherous waters. Reason being: you could be offered a lot of money to work on something you’re already, and good at, working on.

Don’t take it.

It’s not worth it, in my opinion. For any word to get back to your employer that you’ve worked for a competitor, you will get busted. That can mean many things–unemployment being the worst.

Back when I worked at an agency, a former higher up wanted to recruit me for a project that was clear, 100% competition to our biggest client. It was tempting to take. It would’ve been good money. Maybe, no one would’ve ever found out. It could have led to project after project and check after check. However, I went through the honesty practice above. I did my own cost benefit analysis and determined that, indeed, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. Since design is such a tight-knit industry in my old town, marring my name as the “turn coat” was horrifying to me. I’m not saying it hasn’t worked out before. I mean, look at Silicon Valley. It’s normal for people to be working on competitor product in hopes that they will make it big over your company’s. That’s a part of their grind. Personally, that existence of being conniving and sleuth is not how I want to practice my design.

Long-Distance Relationship

One of my current freelance clients resides hundreds of miles away. The small, bustling venture kept me on board after I had moved cities. I have, in turn, upheld (and upped) the same respect and attention to the work. Why? They are good people and I’m lucky to work with them. Personally, working with genuine and kind people adds value to my work. It’s always easier to work with considerate and quality humans. Even when I’m driving home in a fogged stupor knowing I have yet more hours to toil on another project, knowing that it’s for friends helps me get through it.

When working full-time with a remote client, the dynamic changes. You can’t meet up after hours for a beer and a meeting. Nor can you work side by side on Saturdays. Now, I have to use my free hour for lunch to make calls or send off emails. I don’t get to directly interface with them. This can put strain on the client-designer relationship. Be sure to reach out to them. Don’t just await contact. Obviously, don’t over do it, but let them know you’re appreciative of their business.

All In all

When it comes down to it, I can’t tell you an exact formula for balance. Your scale is different than mine and the next guy and the next girl and so on. You have to be aware of your balance constantly because the field of design is a shifting landscape. You must enact discipline to ensure you guarantee your clients quality work. You must be honest with yourself when taking on work, when evaluating its worth and your willingness to see it through. Upholding integrity will keep your soul clean. You must maintain your relationship with your clients. They’re people just like you and I. They’re understanding, but also trying to run businesses of their own. You must respect their needs and respect your own. How you balance the worlds of career and freelance design is indeed a balancing act.

It’s up to you to make it rewarding.

About the Author:

Andy McErlean is the Head of Design at Everfest. Slingin’ pixels out of Austin, TX. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

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Written by Iggy

Iggy is a designer who loves experimenting with new web design techniques collating creative website designs. You can follow Iggy on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. Absolutely true and straight to the point.

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