The Dark Side of Freelancing

03/12/2015 12:52 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

When we are not tied to one job or employer, we are the masters of our own destiny. It creates a tremendous amount of freedom. But as researcher Barry Schwartz observed, "On the other side of liberation sits chaos and paralysis."

This is what researchers Susan Ashford and Ruth Blatt at the University of Michigan wanted to explore. How do freelancers and others working outside a traditional work setting manage themselves? How do they monitor their time and stay disciplined? The answer would not only provide insight into this growing class of freelancers, but also give insights in how work is changing in the new "start-up of you" reality of work where everyone is a freelancer.

Freedom to Own Work

To answer these questions, they interviewed dozens of professionals, from engineers to designers, who worked outside organizations. The motivations were pretty clear and consistent. As one writer shared with them, "The reason I wanted to be self-employed was I wanted this to be my life, no matter how much hard work it took to make sure that I was going to do what I wanted to do. I would rather go through the pain and suffering to make it work my way as opposed to riding the easy ride working for somebody nine to five." That is, they wanted the freedom to own their work.

Challenges of Freelancing

But this kind of work does not come without its challenges. The people they interviewed also felt the onus of too much freedom. "Because the work environment is very much under my own control, it also means it's under my lack of control. So if I'm not on top of it, it can easily slide away." And the income can be unpredictable and unstable. "When I have a lot of work to do, I can't keep up, but then there are long stretches when I don't have any work to do. So it's hard to build up anything stable financially."

Professionals inside organizations share these challenges, but to a lesser degree. They are not living project-to-project, but often year-to-year, with potential gaps between gigs, and it generates many of the same symptoms. Many areas where challenges significantly overlap between people working inside and outside an organization involves the work itself. Sometimes we just don't like some of the tasks in our jobs, somewhat like an artist having to not just create, but also sell their work. We at times find ourselves doing work we aren't sure we believe in.

For example, the researchers spoke with a graphic designer working on a book design for a logging company. At a certain point, he realized, "They think raping and pillaging is good... You're just like, 'I can't believe I'm typesetting this, I can't believing I'm designing this so that will look attractive.'"

Top Challenge: Managing Purpose

Susan and Ruth began their research looking at how people set goals and manage their time when they are self-employed. But as they talked to people, they found that the key issues raised by everyone weren't about time or goal management; what everyone wanted to talk about was how to manage purpose. That was their primary concern. How do I stay motivated and engaged? How do I feel like my work matters? When things get tough, how do I stick it out?

These professionals were actively finding ways to make meaning for themselves and to endure their moments of pain. They were creating meaning, constructing a coherent narrative that linked their activities to a higher purpose and gave them significance.

Meaning & Self-Awareness

The prerequisite to effectively creating meaning was self-awareness. As one consultant shared with them, "I would suggest that the most important thing they could do was to really know themselves, to really understand how they think, what their mental models are, what they believe in, what they care about, how they show up in the world, what they project onto other people, what their shadow is, and to really, really know what this instrument is, and how it works." Or, as another subject shared, "I think the first thing I would do is figure out what your values are, and what you want to accomplish in life. Become clear on your own self-motivators, and you know, your intrinsic motivators."

Understanding the drivers of purpose in your work is foundational to managing that same purpose. If you don't have basic self-awareness of purpose, it is difficult to know how to productively create the narratives and practices that will work. You need to know the WHO, HOW, and WHY of what generates purpose for you, or your Purpose Pattern (find yours here).

In talking to these professionals, Susan and Ruth found that they had implemented four different ways to make meaning for themselves. These become key to practicing purpose and keeping it front and center. With each, professionals create purpose resources, stories, and actions that they use to either keep themselves out of the purpose void or work their way out of it.

1. Task-Based Purpose

The first is task-focused purpose. It means loving the craft of your work and overcoming small, task-related challenges. One database architect described how he works to optimize purpose in his tasks by broadening his contribution. As he described, "A large majority of what I do is understanding the business, understanding how it runs, and understanding not only how it runs now, but what it is that the customer would be interested in in the future."

Rather than just taking a task at face value, he would widen the scope to connect it to a broader task that required him to learn about its context and challenge his thinking. It not only provided the narrative he needed to understand why the work mattered, but also turned the task into a learning and growth opportunity.

2. Impact-Based Purpose

Those using the second approach were impact-focused and created ways to see their work as having an impact on others, part of something bigger than themselves. They considered the impact on society, other people, and organizations. How was the work they were doing helping someone or the organization? What were the consequences of it not happening? Who would benefit from it downstream?

3. Purpose & Identity

Those in the third approach focused on their own identity. How did they develop a sense of who they are and where they were going? Faced with the challenge of making sales calls and not feeling good about it, one professional shared that he created a narrative about who he wouldn't approach for work. "I would never work for a defense company, even though it may be a big contractor." In defining different aspects of their jobs and boundaries, these professionals were able to gain a better sense of themselves and their values. It also gave them a sense of integrity and power to know that they weren't just looking for any client.

Purpose & Money

Finally, the researchers tied it all back to financial drivers of purpose. While money itself is not a purpose, often the reason we need the money is important and purpose-driven. As one person shared, "To me, I look at my family and decide I have to do it." They see money as a means to enable them to achieve their most important purpose-based work--being part of a family. It is about survival and the ability to meet commitments.

How do you bring purpose to your work as a freelancer?

Aaron Hurst is CEO of Imperative, a technology platform seeking to connect people to purpose on a massive scale. He is also the founder of the Taproot Foundation and author of The Purpose Economy.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.