When you’re working from home, depression caused by loneliness and isolation can really sneak up on you. You may not have spent much time thinking about how to avoid being lonely as a freelancer. I certainly didn’t think much about “entrepreneur loneliness” when I rashly quit my job back in 2007 to work for myself full-time. It wasn’t like I was best friends with anyone from work, and I also had other people in my life outside of work. I was looking forward to working from home, depression wasn’t really something I was concerned about. I just didn’t think much about it either way.
But all these years later, I wish I had known a little more about how loneliness can negatively affect freelancers, even introverted ones like me. Introverts need social interaction too.
In this article, I’m going to give you some of my best strategies and working from home tips on how to not get isolated as a freelancer. We’ll talk about freelance coworking spaces, what to do if you’re a freelancer feeling isolated but can’t afford a coworking space, and tons of other strategies.
To be fair, it’s not that people don’t talk about this part of freelance. You don’t have to look very far to find blog posts by freelancers who are feeling isolated and lonely (for example: here, here, and here). But I think people who want to freelance probably just gloss over these accounts if they encounter them. If you’re fed up with your job or you’re in introvert tired of dealing with people all day, the idea of social isolation and loneliness probably sounds like a trivial complaint, if not a downright relief.
But I’m here to tell you that this is a real issue and one you should be prepared for. I’ve been experiencing, studying, and coping with loneliness as a freelancer for over a decade, and I’ve heard from many of the tens of thousands of freelancers in my audience that these struggles are common.
And if you are struggling with this, I want to tell you that you’re not alone. You shouldn’t feel crazy for feeling so lonely. It’s normal, and it’s one of the main disadvantages of working from home. But don’t worry, because after you read this article, you’ll have the tools you need for a long, happy career with the right amount of solitude.
Loneliness vs. solitude
To be clear, when I talk about feeling isolated as a freelancer or entrepreneur loneliness, I’m not talking about solitude. The life of a freelancer is built around solitude, and that’s a good thing. That’s part of why most of us do this in the first place.
I love this quote:
Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.
To me, the word “solitude” indicates taking a break from people to gather your thoughts, to process, to recharge, to do your best work. It’s being alone intentionally, for a period, and for a purpose.
By contrast, “loneliness” is when you want or need to be around people more than you are. It’s feeling like no one really understands you or what you’re going through. It’s feeling like no one wants to spend time with you.
And loneliness is really devastating to people’s well-being.
Loneliness is killing us
It’s not just freelancers, of course. Social isolation and loneliness are on the rise, with devastating effects. Some studies indicate that loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking or obesity.
But freelancers are especially prone to loneliness and isolation just given their work context. A report from the UK shows that loneliness is one of the top stresses for self-employed folks. Given our lower population density and individualist culture in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are even worse for American freelancers.
How to tell if you’re lonely
One thing that I’ve found odd about loneliness is that it sneaks up on you.
I’ve had periods in my life where I felt pretty stressed by things going on in my business or personal life, but I didn’t feel that it was caused by loneliness exactly, just by the circumstances I was facing.
But then I’d find myself leaving a fun-but-rare social gathering, and just feeling irrationally happy and energized. Nothing particularly joyous had taken place, but simply being around people and having fun was such a breath of fresh air that it lightened my entire mood for days.
And that made me realize that I probably had been feeling lonely without realizing it, and I needed to make more of an effort to get out and connect with people.
The point is: don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of being lonely. Even if you’re an introvert like me and you don’t find yourself feeling particularly social most of the time, you still could be suffering from some isolation.
Here are some other signs of loneliness to watch out for:
- Trouble sleeping, or feeling unrested even if you sleep a lot
- Unexplained health issues or just a general malaise
- Getting upset or depressed over relatively trivial things
- Not having a sense of hope about the future, feeling like the way things are now is how they’re going to stay
- Retail therapy, feeling like you need to acquire stuff
- Spending more time on social media, even if it’s not enjoyable or fulfilling while you’re doing it
- Caring less about personal care or your appearance
Just a note: these symptoms are similar to those for clinical depression. If you’re feeling very lonely and depressed, it might be worth it to speak to a professional therapist. I’ve worked with therapists on several occasions in my life and I heartily recommend it. A trained professional can help you work through some complex issues much more effectively than you’ll be able to on your own.
And if you’re having serious thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please, please call 800-273-TALK or go here for live chat with a trained counselor who can help you immediately. Don’t hesitate or feel ashamed, we all need help sometimes.
Strategies to beat loneliness
OK, so we’ve established that loneliness is dangerous to our health, and that many freelancers and entrepreneurs feel lonely and isolated in their work, especially if they work from home. We’ve also gone over some tools and signs about whether you might be dealing with a sense of social isolation in your life.
Assuming you are feeling somewhat lonely, what can you do about it?
4 general principles to keep in mind
I’ve got some hands-on strategies and actions you can take below, but first I want to break down some high-level strategies to keep in mind.
1. Be honest about it
I’m good at being honest with myself, but being honest with other people about loneliness is hard. Talking about being “lonely” feels a little pathetic, doesn’t it? It kinda sounds like you’re upset because no one wants to be your friend.
I think men are particularly bad at being honest about needing social connections, but it’s nothing to be weird about. I’ll take my own medicine:
I’m a little bit lonely lately. I have a wonderful wife and daughter that I see every day, and I have some very dear friends that I see every couple weeks, but I shared an office for years with a good friend and fellow freelancer. I’ve been on my own for the last year and working by myself all day, every day, is just starting to wear me down.
Additionally, I’ve always found and nurtured most of my friendships via church, but for reasons that I’m not going to go into here, I am currently not attending church. And while I’m very happy with that decision, it does mean that I have to be much more intentional about making space to spend time with people.
2. Don’t neglect face-to-face relationships
The internet is amazing and has allowed us all to connect with so many interesting people, but there’s still something special about face-to-face relationships in the real world.
So some of the tactics below are things that are online-only, but you should also make sure you don’t neglect having people that you can spend time with face-to-face.
3. Go for depth over breadth: focus on a few key relationships
When most people think about the opposite of loneliness, they probably think about someone being the life of the party, with dozens of close family and friends that they’re constantly having rich interactions with.
Forget all that. Instead, focus on building or strengthening a few key friendships. Our goal here is to solve the loneliness, remember? It’s hard to feel lonely if you’re spending a lot of quality time with even just one other person.
4. Don’t internalize it: it’s probably not you
Have you ever felt like you’re always the one making the effort in your friendships? You’re always the one to reach out about getting together, they never do. You’re punctual and they’re not. You hold the time open, but they’re more likely to flake.
It’s very easy to feel hurt, because it seems they just don’t care about your relationship. And perhaps they don’t.
It’s also easy to think it’s something about you: maybe you’re no fun or not interesting enough. And sure, maybe not, but that’s probably not it.
Here’s something it took me far too long to realize:
Most of us are terrible at relationships.
Think about it: our world is so much more complex today than it was for our entire history as a species. We have complicated careers that are always hungry for more of our time. We’re under siege by thousands of corporations constantly vying for our attention with entertainment, products, and services. We have little monster devices in our pockets that will happily devour 100% of our happiness, attention, money, and time.
But friendships require space. They require us to have some margin in those things. And most people are in short supply of margin, so we all spend less and less time together and get more and more isolated.
Honestly, if you can make a lunch date with someone and you both show up on time and talk over your meal, you’re doing really well. Think of all the distractions and other options that are constantly trying to stymie such an event.
If you can learn to be someone who creates connections and holds space open for them to grow, you’ll be fine. But you can’t expect it to just happen, not anymore. You have to be intentional about it.
And also, if you find someone in your life who consistently makes an effort to reach out and foster a stronger connection, hold on to that person like grim death. They are all too rare.
14 tactics for busting through isolation as a freelancer
Now that we’ve gone over some general strategies, let’s talk specific tactics for how you can bust through loneliness as a freelancer:
1. Consider not working from home
This one is not for everyone, of course, but it’s something to consider. A coworking space is the obvious one
I know what you’re thinking:
“What if I feel isolated as a freelancer but I can’t afford a coworking space?”
Don’t be so quick to assume that. You might want to check if your city has any more affordable coworking spaces through an entrepreneurship center, a university, the library, etc.
You also can check into coworking “subscription” services like Croissant, Deskpass, or Copass, if they’re available in your area. You pay one monthly fee and get to try out different coworking spaces in your area for much cheaper than a full-time membership. Similarly, startups like Spacious or KettleSpace turn restaurants into coworking spaces during the day, though they too are only available in a few cities right now.
Finally, you might also try renting a small space with one or two other freelancers. This can take some work to setup and maintain, and it’s obviously not as cheap as working from home, but having just one or two office-mate might be enough to brighten your workday.
2. At least work outside of the house a couple times a week
Even if you do want to stick with the home office approach, it’s still a good idea to get out of the office a few times a week and to work around other humans for a few hours. Options that have worked well for me:
- Rent a desk for a day per week with a daypass or limited subscription at a coworking space
- Coffee shops, obviously
- The public library
- A nearby university if they have spaces open to the public
- A friendly client’s office if they have space
- Diners and restaurants during off-peak hours
- The park if it’s nice outside
- The home of a fellow freelancer who works from home (you can trade off every week or two)
- Coworking “subscription” services like Croissant, Deskpass, or Copass, if available in your area.
- Startups like Spacious or KettleSpace that turn restaurants into coworking spaces during the day
I recognize that those latter options aren’t an option if you don’t live in the cities they operate in. The point is, be creative. Just because WeWork is charging $600 a month doesn’t mean you can’t find a free or cheap place to work for a few hours every week.
3. Take care of yourself, even if you don’t feel like it
It’s a vicious cycle, because the more you feel depressed and lonely, the less you want to take good care of yourself and get enough sleep and exercise, eat well, etc.
But forcing yourself to get enough rest and go be active even before you feel like it can help you break out of a downward spiral and have the motivation to go out and build some social connections.
You might also try a two-birds-with-one-stone approach here and ask a friend to meet up for a run or workout class together.
4. Get a pet
This one isn’t to be taken lightly, but lots of studies indicate that companion animals are a great antidote to loneliness.
I recommend a dog, partly because I’m a dog person, but mainly because they’re more affectionate than most other types of animals.
Additionally, dogs need to be taken out and walked several times a day, which sounds like a burden and interruption of your work, but ends up being a useful forcing mechanism for taking regular breaks and not sitting too long staring at your screen.
Do whatever works for you though!
5. Collaborate on something
Find another freelancer or person whose work you admire and collaborate on something together. It could be a paying project for a client, but don’t feel pressure to focus on that. It can be really enjoyable to hack together something creative with someone else just for the fun of it.
6. Find your tribe online
No matter who you are, what you do, or what personality you have, there’s a community of people online for you. Or you can cultivate one on social media. There are tons of small and not-so-small communities where you might feel at home.
I’m an active member of a half-dozen communities, forums, slack channels, etc.
Communities where you’ll feel at home and connect with people like you are out there, you just need to go find them.
7. Make evening plans
I find it much easier to get through a day working alone if I know I’m going to be seeing friends that evening. The anticipation of an event is half the fun, so try and plan out dinner, drinks, movies, whatever with friends every week or two.
8. Consider working in different way
This might be a weird one to hear from me, but ask yourself if this lifestyle is really what you want? Do you really want to work alone from home all the time? For a decade or two or three?
If you’re not sure, then carry on and try some of these strategies before you decide the answer is no.
But if the answer is a clear no, let me suggest a few other approaches that might make sense to consider:
First, you could try being a fully remote employee. This offers many of the benefits of being a freelancer in terms of the flexibility and freedom, but with a more stable paycheck and a community of coworkers working on a shared vision. Most remote companies also get together in person several times a year too.
Second, you could do onsite contract work rather than remote project work. So the idea would be that you’d take 6-12 month long projects working onsite with a client as part of their team. In terms of flexibility and freedom, it’s somewhere between freelance and an employee. You might make more money this way than if you were an employee, but you’ll have coworkers that you see face-to-face everyday.
The point is: the world is getting more complicated and there are more and more different work situations out there. Maybe you work remotely as a part-time employee for a company
9. Send an email thanking a stranger for their work
OK, email is NOT a substitution for face-to-face interaction, but it’s a start. I like to periodically send emails to people online whose work I’ve found valuable. It’s led to some great conversations and I sometimes run into these people later in life, like at an event or something, and we already have a connection.
10. Pick up the phone
I generally hate phone calls, but I’ve also come around to the idea that it’s healthy to have them sometimes. Go for video calls over just voice. It’s a lot more personal to be able to see each other’s facial expressions.
11. Get off social media
I know it’s “social” media, but this is not what you need right now. It’s everyone’s highlight reel and it’s just going to make you feel like literally everyone has more interesting, active, beautiful, glamorous lives than you do. While you’re sitting alone at home struggling to grow your business, all these people are living the high life, together! Without you!
Not exactly a recipe for happiness and joy. I understand that you might need to spend some time on social media for work or even to make plans with people, but at least set a time limit on how much you can use your social media apps per day.
And try to remember to catch yourself if you find yourself scrolling through an endless feed of beauty, joy, and cleverness while feeling darker and darker.
Put the phone down!
12. Find an in-person meetup
You don’t have to spend all day with people to feel less lonely. Even just a weekly meeting for an hour can make a real difference. There are probably some options in your city (Google “[CITY NAME] [TYPE OF WORK] events” for a start), but here are some ideas to get you started:
You might also check with local coworking spaces, entrepreneurship centers, and universities to see if there are any interesting events you should know about. If you can’t find a group that sounds interesting, you can always create one yourself 🙂
Also, consider signing up to give a talk! I know it’s a little intimidating, but it’s a great way to meet a bunch of people quickly, and it’ll force you to show up if you’re supposed to give a talk.
13. Join a mastermind group
One of the best decisions I made in 2018 was to start a mastermind group. I asked four other entrepreneurs whom I admire to join me, and the five of us do a video call for 90 mins every other week. We share what’s going on in our business, resources and connections we’ve found valuable, and seek and offer advice to each other.
It’s been so useful and powerful, I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re interested in starting your own, check out the info at the end of this article.
14. Help someone else
The most sure-fire way that I know of to break out of a funk is to stop focusing on myself and look for others that I can help. Where can I be useful and add value? How can I find someone else who is struggling with loneliness or something else and make them feel better.
This works great at conferences and events, by the way. Look for people who are by themselves and seem unsure of how to strike up a conversation or join an existing group. Reach out to them, make it easy. We’ve all been there, and they’ll remember that you helped them.
Same idea here, but on a broader scale. Can you find a freelancer who is pretty new at this and meet for breakfast once a week to help them navigate it? Could you put together a group of people who work from home for a monthly working session at a coffee shop?
Good principle for life: whatever you’re feeling, whatever you’re dealing with, you’re not alone. Be honest and open about your struggles, and look for ways to help other people solve that problem too.
You can also do something totally unrelated to your work or freelance and volunteer at a nonprofit or get involved in a cause you believe in.
It’s all part of the adjustment
In conclusion, if you’re relatively new at trying to come to grips with this aspect of working for yourself, don’t get too worked up about it. Just keep trying to work it out, and you’ll find your way. Most of the long-term freelancers I know have implemented a few of the strategies above until they found the right balance of solitude vs. feeling isolated. You’ll get there too!
I might be able to help you connect with your peers
I’m testing a new product idea to help the tens of thousands of readers of my site to connect with each other and form mastermind groups. If you’re interested in participating, fill out the form below. No guarantees, as I’m only going to proceed with the work of matching up people if we can reach a critical mass. I also don’t know about pricing yet. I suspect I’ll do a free version, but you’ll need to pay if you want to be matched to a group with people above a certain income level.