One rainy Thursday evening last month, it all came to a head.
I was uploading an article I’d written for a homes and interiors site I’d recently started doing freelance work for. I’d spent a long time on it – learning the publication’s style, researching the subject, finding and resizing images – and it was finally all coming together. Halfway through uploading, I clicked the save button on the CMS and went to make dinner. When I came back and opened the article again, thanks to some glitch in the system, all my words and images had gone.
How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I save them in a Google doc first? I could have just started again, of course, but the energy had completely drained from me. It was 9 pm. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a large glass of wine and just stopped working. I was overloaded, burned out, fizzing with anxiety. The article was needed the next day.
That week, I’d also been doing in-house sub-editing shifts at a magazine during the day, usually trying to keep the lid on a simmering panic attack and to appear functional and competent in front of people I’d never worked with before. I would work on this article at home in the evenings, so I was on about six hours’ sleep most days. I’d also spent the last few weekends working on a big copywriting project for a brand, which I didn’t really want to do, but had accepted because it paid well. I hadn’t had a day off – even a few hours off – in weeks. At a time when we’re being encouraged more than ever to prioritise self-care, how had I managed to get it so wrong?
The feast-or-famine nature of freelancing can make us feel as though we need to grab any and all opportunities with both hands, as we’re always fearing the quieter times when pitches go unanswered and commissions dry up. During my busiest time, I spoke to some of my freelance friends about my woes and felt relieved when they nodded in recognition – it seems to be a common problem among new freelancers, who often lack confidence and assume every gig they get will be their last. But with hindsight – and good advice from freelancers who’ve got their lives more together than I do – comes wisdom, so as a little helper to anyone else who’s found themselves tearfully downing an espresso at 1 am, here are a few things I should have done…
Ask freelancer friends if they’d like to take any of your work on
At any given moment, for every freelancer who feels as though they’re drowning in work, there’s another who can’t seem to get any at all, no matter how many pitches or cold emails they send. So, reach out to friends who do the same kind of freelance work as you and ask if they’re available – it might make their week. Make sure you clear this with the person who’s booked or commissioned you first, though. Charlotte Davey, a freelance journalist, says the best way to deal with it is to be honest: “A good way to get around it is to just say you really underestimated how much work you had, but you could recommend XXX who has XYZ experience to do it in your place.”
Prioritise what’s due first
Make a list of everything you need to do and the deadline for each project. When you’re overwhelmed with work, it can be hard to know where to start, but the best idea is usually to put them in order of what’s due first – focusing on one task at a time means the whole thing won’t seem quite as insurmountable. Hayley Scott, a freelance writer, sets herself a daily schedule for each week. “Write it in a Word doc or planner,” she says. “Allow an hour or so for each task you need to do every day and cross it off as you go along.”
Get off social media
It’s always been the same: the more work I have to do, the more time I spend on social media. When I’m carefree and happy and filling my time with other things, I don’t find myself scrolling much at all, but when I’m staring at a blank Google doc, Twitter and Instagram are little pockets of relief. To give myself a much-needed slap on the wrist, I’ve been using StayFocusd, a free Chrome extension that allows you to block websites for however long you need. Yes, I might have missed out on the Colleen Rooney vs. Rebekah Vardy debacle unfolding in real-time – something I will always regret – but I made my deadline.
An overflowing pile of laundry, a stack of dirty dishes in the sink or an empty fridge when you’re up to your eyes in edits is pretty hard to bear. If you’ve got an understanding partner, family or housemates, you could ask if they can take on your share of the domestic chores for a couple of days, leaving you free to work – making sure you promise to repay the favour when your busy time is over, obviously.
If you’ve realised that you really, really can’t get all the work done on time, the only thing for it is to figure out which jobs you’re most likely to be given extensions for, and just ask. It’s probably best to be honest with the person who commissioned you about having taken too much on – making up a story about being sick only to bump into them when you’re ordering your skinny flat white probably isn’t going to land you any future gigs.
Learn from it
In the future, avoid this situation by marking out blocks of time in your calendar for jobs as soon as you’re offered them – if you can’t find enough free time for it, it means you can’t do it. “When I was getting up at 6 am to write before a shift, I made myself what was essentially a school timetable,” says Charlotte. “I mapped out every hour of my day for a week – which is when you can conceptualise how bloody close to burnout you are.”
Your calendar shouldn’t be completely chock-full with work – if you need to block out hours to remind you to take some time for yourself or to see friends, do that too. “Make sure you take time off later in the month or week to compensate for the extra work,” says freelance journalist and sub-editor Charley Ross. “Be realistic with your time, and make sure you don’t sacrifice food or sleep to manage your workload.”
I now make sure I schedule enough downtime in my Google calendar every week – I’ve learned that if I don’t, I’ll just wear myself out to the point where I can’t get anything done anyway. I’m four months into freelancing now and am slowly growing in confidence. I trust that enough work will come in, and don’t feel as though I need to accept every offer that comes my way with the eagerness of someone stranded on a desert island who’s just been asked if they want a lift home on a private yacht.
The bottom line? As a freelancer, you’re essentially an employee of your own business – and if you wouldn’t think it was fair to heap the same amount of work and pressure onto someone else, it’s time to take a step back.