The common ways a freelance crisis will show up in your career, and how to bid adieu to it quickly.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a new freelancer in search of your first clip or a professional writer who’s been feeding her family through her work for a decade. At some point, you’ll face a freelance crisis that will force you to reevaluate what you do, why you do it, and what motivates you to keep going.
Here are some of the most common ways a freelance crisis shows up, and a few tips on how to bid adieu to the crisis quickly and easily.
Freelance Crisis #1: Burning out
It’s probably the most overused term to describe a freelance career—feast or famine—but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I was speaking to my mother a few weeks ago, and she asked me why I sounded so stressed. I told her I was stressed and busy because I had no work and I was working like crazy to get some. Of course, a week later when we had the same conversation, I had to tell her I was busy and stressed because now I had too much work.
When you’re working at this pace constantly with no breaks because you’re worried slowing down could mean the difference between paying rent this month or, well, not, burnout can be common.
Rest! For freelancers, it’s tempting to do more, more, and even more. I don’t need to tell you that this is actually entirely counterproductive. Force yourself to take those weekends off, no matter how busy you are, and go to the park like you promised your kid weeks ago.
Trust my experience on this: the more you learn to balance your work and your life, the fewer freelance crises you’ll have.
Freelance Crisis #2: Overwhelm
I prefer the feasts in the feast or famine situation, which means I often end up taking on far more than I can handle comfortably. Which is to say, I have lots of experience with this particular freelance crisis.
Writers are creative, ideas-focused people, which means we have notebooks upon notebooks filled with ideas, character sketches, research material, and books to read. Before we parted ways, my agent was looking at four book projects, in varying degrees of completion. FOUR. And that’s only the ones he’d seen.
I’m hardly the only writer who works this way.
Get organized. I won’t tell you to try to tame those ideas because that would go against who you are and I will never recommend working against your natural self. I mean, what are you going to do when you get struck with a life-changing idea in the middle of the night? Not write it down? Bah! Of course you will. It would be irresponsible not to. So sure, force your eyes open and type out the idea on your phone.
But—and here’s what I will tell you to do—come up with a system. Have a place for those ideas, but work on no more than one or two at a time.
When I feel overwhelmed, I pick a single project and make some tangible progress on it. I give myself goal posts and only when I’ve hit those goal posts do I move to a different project.
Freelance Crisis #3: Isolation
There you’ll be, happily going about your hermit-like days, you and your computer, no need for another human being in your life. You get boxes checked off on that to-do list. You write four 1,000-word articles in three days. You like your solitude, you drink your coffee, you watch your Netflix. You don’t understand why people complain about the lack of a social life. This is perfect.
And then, just when you’re cocky enough, you crash. Suddenly, you need a friend. Someone, anyone, to talk to, and there isn’t anybody.
You desperately cling to the Amazon delivery person and they don’t want to have anything to do with you. You call that colleague from that first job you held right out of high school and she doesn’t recognize your name any more. The writer who asked you out for coffee three months ago? Well, you’re kind of embarrassed to reach out now after you bailed on him at the last minute.
Don’t go all-or-nothing with your social life. Keep a balance. Make a coffee date each week with someone you like and trust. You don’t have to run for socialite of the year, but keeping in touch with people (even if it’s online) helps you feel like you’re a part of the community and have someone to gripe to when you’re going through a low period.
Freelance Crisis #4: Low income
This is a freelance crisis that, if you let it, can break your business. Trust me, I know.
Freelancing when you’d like to make money is an entirely different beast from freelancing when you need to make money. When your family’s survival depends on it. I’ve done both, and while I’d like to do the former, for most of my career, it’s been the latter.
I’m currently the primary breadwinner for my household, so when my freelancing income dips, it’s not disappointment I feel, it’s full-blown panic.
There isn’t an easy one. You have to dig deep and ask difficult questions, and tougher still, you have to answer them honestly. How much do you need the money? Is this a temporary blip or is your income consistently low? Are you not marketing enough? Is your marketing ineffective? Which piece of your business needs fixing and can you fix it quickly enough?
Sometimes, when your income is consistently low, it may be worth considering getting a part-time or temporary job that can help you get through a difficult phase while you figure out how to increase it—without the desperation. Remote jobs can provide the perfect middle way.
Freelance Crisis #5: Falling out of love
Just like in a relationship, sometimes you fall out of love because of the little things (too much stress, you hate marketing, you’re always on call), sometimes it’s a big issue that you can’t get over (there’s no money in literary fiction and that’s the only thing you ever wanted to write), or perhaps there’s no reason at all except that you’re not in love anymore.
You get up each morning and instead of being excited about your day, you can’t wait to finish up and go for a long walk, get a drink with friends, or do something, anything, that isn’t talking to yet another client, writing yet another word.
Again, think carefully about what’s causing this apathy towards your business. Has this been brought on by a career stagnation or one particular bad experience, or have you been moving towards this dissatisfaction for a while now? Is it writer’s block?
If you’re just bored with what you’re doing, you could consider changing the topics you write about or finding a new direction, such as writing books. But if you loved writing, and freelancing is making you hate it, are you better off writing in a more stable environment, such as with a longer contract or a full-time job?
Moving on from a freelance crisis
Crises are a regular part of freelancing and you’ll have them every now and again.
The trick is to make sure you’re prepared for them and, when they do arrive, look honestly at the state of your career and how you feel about it, so you can make decisions that work long-term for both your happiness and your business success.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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