The Writer

Find Your Work/Life Balance

May 2011

Burnout is an occupational hazard for hustling freelancers. We asked for our them what they’ve learned about avoiding it—while still finding success.

A day in the life of a freelance writer goes something like this: wake up, walk to the computer, respond to emails, interview sources, write articles, query editors, answer more emails, follow up on article payments, research upcoming projects, conduct more interviews, write more articles...and hopefully remember to change out of your pajamas and grab something to eat by 6 p.m.

If a freelance writer doesn’t work, they don’t paid. This fact causes many work-from-home writers to keep long hours and take few breaks; after all, vacation may equal missing out on their next big assignment. Meanwhile, burnout creeps in.

Due to the nature of the job, writers often struggle to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Is this balance possible for writers? According to veteran freelance writers Alison Stein Wellner, Sue Marquette Poremba, Stephanie Dickinson, and Michelle Taute, it is. The Writer sat down with all four ladies to find out how to strike the elusive balance and still be successful.

Alison Stein Wellner

Alison Stein Wellner lives in New York City and began freelancing 15 years ago, after graduating from college. Her plan was to take off a year before law school, but after researching magazines in the phone book and signing a few clients, she abandoned her plans to become a prosecutor. Today, Wellner writes on travel, culture, art, and food for the likes of The Washington Post, Huffington Post and New York Magazine.

What was your life like when you began freelance writing?

It was a struggle in the beginning. Since I’d just graduatd from college and had never worked in an office, I didn’t understand the cycle of professional work. For example, I didn’t realize you could take a vacation. I experienced a fair amount of success early on and was busy writing books and taking on a good deal of gigs. I thought that if I went on vacation, I would lose that work.

I was working until the point that it hurt. I’d work from the time I would wake up until late into the night, just flat out, not pausing to go to the gym or even eat. I was absolutely broken and misearble.

When was your breaking point?

It was in 2004 when I took a day off to see a Broadway play. As the lights went down in the theater, I began crying. I was so relieved not to be working. I thought, ‘this is not good.’ I knew I still needed to earn money, but I needed to find a way to do it without killing myself. I was burning out a very young age.

How did you get your life into balance?

I started incorporating exercise into my routine. I joined a gym and started swimming. I realized that I worked better after going to the gym. I also read the The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, which helped a lot.

I started taking more breaks; nice long lunches with girlfriends. My productivity declined once I started adding these lunches, but it was ok. It wasn’t a critical decline. I also changed the focus on my career from business writing to travel writing.

What is your life like today?

I enjoy my work more now. That said, I don’t have a sharp divide between my work and family life. I do work on the weekends sometimes, but these days I am more likely to take time off during the week if I need it.

Why do so many freelance writers struggle to find a work/life balance?

I think that we writers are prone to burnout because we have a combination of an entrepreneur’s attitude with a creative person’s passion. What makes you successful can also make you sick. And if you get sick, you will be "line down" for a longer time than if you make the time to try to stay healthy.

What advice can you give to freelance writers trying to find balance in their lives?

Start small. People think of balance as an all-or-nothing proposition. Remember: you are not going to start an exercise routine in a day. Instead, start with a 15-minute walk. Anyone can take 15 minutes away from their desks. If you are into drawing, spend 15 minutes of your day sketching. Or play with your dog or cat. Experiment with small things.

Look at the labor laws in your state. Slavery is illegal in this country. There are minimum standards for workers. Why should you be a bad boss just because you are bossing yourself around?

Take a vacation. I took my first vacation after five years and when I returned, I felt awful. One vacation in five years won’t make you feel good. Instead, go with several small vacations. These days, I take a week vacation at a beach house with a friend in Oregon and my husband and I take one other vacation together each year. A change in your geography is always a good thing.

Sue Marquette Poremba

Sue Marquette Poremba began freelancing six years ago when her job a a university lost its funding. Today, the State College, Penn.-native writes about information security and computer technology for and a variety of trade magazines such as SecurityNewsDaily, Processor, and Diversity/Careers in Engineering & Information Technology.

What was your life like when you began freelance writing?

Switching from a full-time, staff job to freelance work was a big adjustment for me. I realized I had to be physically working to make money. It was a hustle to try and make the most of every spare moment where I wasn’t writing and interviewing. Back then I was working 50 to 60 hours per week and not taking any vacations.

What was your breaking point?

About two years after I started freelancing, I worked through an entire Thanksgiving holiday. My husband was finishing graduate school at the time and he was on his computer, too. I remember looking at eachother and realizing that work was starting to consume both of us. I knew then that I needed a bit more out of life.

How did you get your life into balance?

I started really looking at what I was doing and at my workload. At the time, I was working on an editing job that was too much work and didn’t pay enough, so I told the client I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt scared because I knew I was getting rid of a chunck of my income, but I also knew I needed to create a better balance. Pretty soon, my workflow got better.

I also picked up a job where I had to write a daily article. This allowed me to focus a lot better. I found that my workaholic tendencies were caused by a lack of focus, especially on slow days. This job didn’t allow me to have any slow days.

Now that I have created better balance in my life, my workflow has gotten better. I have more work, it is better paying and I like what I do.

What is your life like now?

I’ve focused myself on having a life outside of work. I put in a solid five hours of work per day, unless I have a huge deadline. If I want to take a vacation, I rearrange my schedule and get my assignments done before I leave. When I leave my house, I leave my computer at home.

I find that the more I get out, the more work I have. I think it is because I am more focused.

What advice can you give to freelance writers trying to find balance in their lives?

Get out of the house. You have to leave work behind. It is so easy to be consumed with work all the time; it is always staring at you. If you physically leave it behind and know that there is something on your calendar, it allows you to create that space in your brain between work and home.

Create office hours. You’d do this if you were working in an office somewhere. Give yourself a time to go. I even have a time where I turn my phone on and off.

Give yourself some downtime after work. For example, I have a television show that I watch at 5:30 p.m. everyday. It allows me time to decompress.

Don’t panic if you miss out on an assignment. There is more to life.

Be realistic in your goals. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a six-figure writer. It always seemed like if you weren’t striving for that goal, there was something wrong with you. Instead, I put my work and life into perspective. I know that six fugures would be nice, but it not necessary for my lifestyle. Figuring out a realistic income goal for yourself will allow you to be less stressed.

Stephanie Dickinson

It’s been 14 years since Stephanie Dickinson began her freelance writing career. A Toronto native, Dickinson writes stories on pop culture, music and food for a variety of publications and is also a contributing editor for The Writer and author of The 30-Second Commute: A Non-Fiction Comedy About Writing & Working From Home.

What was your life like when you began freelance writing?

It took me a couple years to figure out how to be my own boss and schedule things on my own. I would often stay up working until 2 a.m. I found myself working non-stop.

Have you been able to strike a balance between work and your personal life?

I term balance is percarious; I like to say simplify. And, yes, I am better at simplifying now. I know what I can take on and try to schedule work accordingly. That said, deadlines still happen over the weekend. I do feel much more on track in terms of time spent on work than the way I did in the beginning of my writing career.

Now, I try to leave a good portion of my evenings free. I will try not to work until late at night. I’ve done this by writing things down. I write down what I need to do the day before and that really helps.

What advice can you give to freelance writers trying to find balance in their lives?

Believe in yourself. I am by no means the best writer in the world, but I do the best job I can with the time I have. Be passionate about your writing and trust that your passion will take you to your next job.

Have an open mind. If you are not comfortable working at home, get an outside office.

Michelle Taute

In 2001, Michelle Taute stopped working as a staff magazine writer and began a career as a freelance writer. She didn’t have any clients at the beginning, so she started off by working 20 hours a week at a temp job and 20 hours a week on her writing business. Pretty soon, she began freelancing full time. Today, she writes about design for publications such as Better Homes and Gardens, USA Weekend and Natural Home.

Why do some freelance writers have a hard time balancing their work and home life?

A lot of writers have the fear that if you turn down a project, no one is ever going to give you another assignment. Or if you say no, that client won’t come back. These fears are unfounded. It can actually be good to turn down an assignment. Saying no tells a client that you have other clients; it raises your stake a bit. It may even inspire them to come to you ahead of time if they know you are harder to book.

How do you strike a balance?

To make myself less afraid to say no to projects, I spent a few years living seriously below my means to stockpile savings. These days, I usually work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and I take an hour for lunch. I also rent a desk at a co-working space. This has been a total lifesaver for me. I get more done there in four hours a day than I used to in seven or eight hours at home.

It also helps to have two or three core clients. I intentionally pursue clients who I know will have regular, ongoing needs for writers--and send work to me every month or quarter if they're happy with my efforts. This means I spend very little time sending out cold queries. Instead, I focus a great deal on relationship building and networking.

A couple years ago, I began incorporating six weeks of vacation into my business plan. I check my email on vacation for emergencies.

What advice can you give to freelance writers trying to find balance in their lives?

Know your limits. What can you accomplish in a 40-hour workweek? If you say yes to a project and you know it is over your limit, know that you will work extra hours.

Think about why you are taking on work. Is it because you are worried about not making enough money? Figure out what is the minumum you need to make and write it down. Figure out how many billable hours you need to meet your desired revenue goal.

And, finally, I think it helps to know how you define success for yourself. Sometimes I do what is called the “nursing home” test with myself. As in, when I am old and gray and living in a nursing home, will I wish I’d taken on an extra copywriting project or made time for a long weekend camping trip with my friends?

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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.