Monday, August 16, 2010

Gigging Versus Self-Scheduling

I originally wrote this article on spec for FreelanceSwitch, a great blog for freelancers and entrepreneurs. They turned it down, but I thought some people might find it interesting, so I'm posting it here.

The two most popular reasons to go freelance always seem to be: "Getting to be my own boss" and "Getting to set my own schedule". What if you could keep the first one but not the second? Would it still be worth it to you? Some professions, like web design and copywriting, are almost 100% self-scheduled. Work is commissioned, a deadline is set, and everything from start to finish is orchestrated by the freelancer. Of course they check in with clients from time to time to get feedback during the process, but those conversations frequently happen over email, and even when phone or face-to-face meetings are requested, the freelancer usually gets to say when and where.

Gigging is the other side of the coin. The people who do it have as much autonomy as their self-scheduled colleagues, but they get paid to do their thing in realtime, at their client's convenience. Some professions can go either way: A 100% self-scheduled musician spends all their time in their studio, writing and recording songs and depending on record sales to make a living; a 100% gigging musician spends all their time performing, depending on revenues from concert tickets instead. Similarly, a 100% self-scheduled translator works online, downloading documents or audio and uploading translated versions within a certain time frame; a 100% gigging translator interprets for their clients on the spot, as each word is spoken, whether it's in person or online.

Of course, many freelancers do a little of both rather than veering all the way to one side or the other, and most jobs that involve gigging also have offline components, such as skills development, marketing, or post-project analysis. I spend most of my time in college classrooms, transcribing lectures and seminars for Deaf students at up to 225 words per minute. It's not easy, but it's more interesting and pays far better than the transcription work I rely on during summer vacation, when it's just me, my steno machine, and all the time in the world. Still, every night when I come home from a day of feverish realtiming, I have to sit down, clean up all the transcripts I produced, and send them off for my clients to study from. Then I analyze mistakes made on the job that day and either change my steno dictionary or put in some practice on my machine to make sure they don't happen again. Even though that time is off the clock, it's a vital part of the job.

Gigging can have considerable financial and personal advantages. Because the job involves showing up at a particular hour -- either physically or virtually -- and doing something for the client's instant gratification, they're often willing to pay more for that immediacy than they would for the same work product delivered a few days later. The risk, of course, is that one careless slip-up or off day can do serious damage to your reputation. On the other hand, gigging freelancers get to enjoy a flow state leavened with a heavy dose of adrenaline, which is an experience I recommend to all sensation seekers. There are also more prosaic benefits, such as an incentive to get out of the house and the ability to interact with clients in a more immediate and engaging way.

Even the apparent disadvantage of having to set aside blocks of free time to accommodate certain gigs can do wonders for efficiency. During the summer, when my time is entirely my own, I find myself dragging my feet and taking longer to complete my transcription work than it really warrants. During the year, when I've got to get all my scutwork done during two-hour breaks between classes, I find myself able to break projects into digestible pieces and get them done before running off to my next scheduled gig. The less time I have to myself, the more careful I am with it, and the less I take it for granted.

Even if your profession doesn't normally lend itself to a gigging mentality, there are plenty of ways to work a little performative realtime action into your day. Some software companies have already done this by implementing pair programming, in which one coder essentially writes on the spot while their partner critiques their work as it happens. It can have benefits even for the purest of self-scheduled freelancers. If clients seem underwhelmed when you email them an unadorned design package, consider offering to come in and do an onsite presentation, highlighting the best parts of your work while taking questions from the crowd.

Even if your favorite part of the job is being able to hide behind your monitor, working in your sweatpants while everyone else is sleeping, it pays now and then to do something dazzlingly spontaneous. Start a podcast or screencast series and learn how to talk off the cuff about what you do. When you're writing an article, think about what changes you'd make if it had to be spoken aloud. When all else fails, pretend that someone's looking over your shoulder, silently judging each brilliant brushstroke or slackjawed game of Bubble Spinner. It never hurts to stay on your toes.

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