Many writers tell me they wish they could find even one client. But today, I want to talk about the other side of the coin: how freelancers can avoid burnout.
Once you get rolling in freelance writing and word starts getting around about your talents, you can quickly find yourself overbooked, overworked, and exhausted.
I recently had a chat with freelance writer Alyssa Ast about this on my Facebook chat — she was getting overloaded, and her personal passion writing projects were sitting idle. She’s got a passel of young kids to care for, too.
And she was nearing her breaking point.
A tale of overwork
Here’s Alyssa’s story:
“Basically, things have taken off, which has left me working 16 hour days — and I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up.
“I’ve cut all of the small fish and narrowed it down to three well-paying clients– two full-time contracts and a part-time one. I don’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket [and cut down to one client], as the main breadwinner. We NEED my income.
“I refuse to outsource, because I don’t trust anyone to produce the quality I expect or my clients expect. I thought cutting out the small clients would help more than it has. I’ve scheduled everything out to a T, but as soon as I start to get my head above water, I get slammed again.
“How can I keep my sanity without losing my income? I am open to just about anything at this point.”
This is a good problem to have — you’re in demand! But we all need a personal life, too, and some downtime.
How can you turn this around and stop being an overworked freelancer? Here are my tips:
1. Charge existing clients more
Tell all your clients that your rates are going up in 30 days, and drop the clients who won’t go for the raise. With luck, you now have less work to do, but a similar amount of money coming in.
2. Drop your lowest payer
If everybody goes for that and you still have too much workload, figure out who is worth the least to you. Check your stats from an hourly-rate point of view, and an annual-revenue perspective.
Somebody’s got to go — those two stats should tell you who. As soon as you have that breathing room, often, you’ll find a way to land a better client.
3. Get better clients
It’s possible that your entire client base is at inappropriately low rates. That’s a common overwork scenario.
In that case, you need to start marketing — yes, even though you’re super-busy. You need to learn to qualify better prospects, and how to do effective marketing that gets you hired by them.
If you have a lot of small, one-off clients, you will earn better in less time if you can find bigger clients with more ongoing work. That cuts your admin and marketing time relative to your billable hours.
4. Get referrals
The first question I always ask writers who want better pay is, “Have you let all your current and former clients know you’d appreciate their referrals?” I rarely hear a “yes.”
If you’re busy and overworked, this is a request that takes but a moment to make, and can often bring you new and better clients. (Remember, there’s no reason that new client needs to know how much you were paid at the old one.)
Once you’ve got some referrals, you’ll have more choices on who to drop and who to keep, and should be able to more easily get your rate to where you can work less.
5. Consider the agency model
If you’ve really got enough work for two or three people, you could consider going to the agency model. This wasn’t for Alyssa, and there are many risks to being an agency — flaky writers whose quality of work doesn’t equal yours, for instance. But it could be a way to reduce your workload while enabling you to continue growing your income.
As an agency, you’d have even more bandwidth to take on clients. It could allow you to more easily service bigger clients who might be overwhelming you as a solo writer.
6. Outsource other tasks
How much time do you spend vacuuming, doing laundry, transcribing interviews, running errands, doing software updates on the laptop? I thought so.
If you’re leery of the idea of outsourcing any of your writing assignments, consider what else you could outsource at an affordable rate that might free up your time. You might be able to do the same amount of work and not feel overworked, if you could reduce your load of other chores.
7. Set better boundaries
Sometimes, the overwork is about writers’ own failure to set office hours. You let work creep into every corner of your time, even vacations.
If you’ve got boundary-pushing clients who want to IM you on the weekends or at 10 p.m. and expect an immediate response, you might want to replace them. Set business hours, let your clients know what they are…and then, do not respond outside your set hours.
You may discover you can get the same amount of work done in less time, once you refuse to be available in the off hours. Nothing concentrates the mind — and cuts the Facebook doodling, or checking email for the 5th time today — like the news that the computer must go off for the night in an hour.
8. Reduce expenses
If you have to overwork in order to pay your bills, maybe you could take a look at the expense side of things. Do you use that cable TV subscription? Do you need a cell phone, really? Are you paying for services you might trade someone for, say, babysitting?
Write down everything you spend for a month. Every dime. And then look at how much value you get from each of those costs — and cut accordingly.
9. Learn to say ‘no.’
When you’ve been a starving freelancer, and then things start to hit, it’s hard to turn down work. You continue to worry that you’ll hit a drought.
So, you say ‘yes’ to every client who approaches you — even if they’re not a fit for your goals, or don’t pay what you want. I know writers who’ll turn their schedule upside down to fit in a $100 press-release or resume, from a client who’s unlikely to give them anything further.
It’s also easy to get inappropriately attached to clients who don’t pay you that well, and feel a weird sort of misplaced loyalty to sticking with them. Simply put, don’t.
This is your life you’re trying to reclaim here. Writers move on all the time. You can do this. Give them adequate notice, refer them another writer if you can, and then move on.
10. Ask yourself — is it workaholism?
If none of these other points are resonating for you, it may be time to look at a bigger issue: whether you might be addicted to work.
Overwork can be a way to avoid dealing with other problems in our lives — the abusive spouse we should leave, the friendships you’ve neglected, the workouts you dread but desperately need for your health, the disrespectful teen you can’t seem to reach.
When your writing business is humming along, it can be more enjoyable — in the short run — to spend all your time meeting writing deadlines, instead of working on the tough personal-life areas where you feel like a failure. But eventually, that leads to even more unhappiness and personal problems.
Remember, there is always more writing work you could do, and income you could earn — but you’ll only go around once. It’s up to you to keep it in balance.
Most of us started freelancing for the freedom. Don’t let this turn into another kind of round-the-clock work bondage that’s even worse than a day job.