Freelance Writers: 3 Tips for Taking Your Life Back


Freelance writing is a great career. You have a lot of freedom you wouldn't have in other lines of work. But with that freedom often comes mental overdrive. Sometimes we work too hard. I think it has to do with the "feast or famine" mentality of freelancing. When work is coming in, we might feel like we should say "yes" to everything offered, because we never know when the work load will dry up again for a while.

I made that mistake earlier this year. To be honest, I still occasionally do (I'm just more conscious of it, and I compensate for it). It seemed like clients were swarming around with project after project. That's a good feeling. It's when you get to pick and choose. My choice at the time was to focus more on regular monthly contracts. But to keep myself from relying too heavily on those few larger contracts, I would still work in projects from repeat clients when they came along, even if it meant working late.

I still do that. I just go about it differently. I have my monthlies and I have a few repeats who come back on and off, but not regularly. What I did to start cutting down dealt with new clients. Basically, I won't take any. Well, I'll take a new client on referral sometimes. Sure new clients would be great, but I can't do everything for everyone.

I've tweaked my policies and work schedule a lot this year in an effort to find the best work / life balance. I found what works for me, and I'd like to see other freelancers do the same. A full work schedule, but without burning yourself out -- that's the life folks. To help you do that if you haven't already, I want to share three tips that got me there:

Say "No."

  1. You absolutely cannot be afraid to turn down work. I understand that some people worry if they turn someone down, they'll lose money. But what's money without your sanity?
  2. You should be earning what you need or want to earn as a freelance writer during your normal business hours. If you feel like you have to overwork yourself by cramming in extra projects all the time, then you screwed up somewhere in setting your rates. Start over.Fill your schedule, and then say "thanks, but no thanks" when more work comes around if it's going to put you into workaholic mode.
  3. Don't get me wrong. You can work late occasionally. Every now and then a good client might need a rush job and you know you can take care of it for them. Just don't make a habit of it.

Compensate Yourself.

  1. When you work late, what you're really doing is stealing time away from your personal life and personal responsibilities (yes, R&R is a responsibility -- you have to take care of yourself!). Don't steal. Borrow.
  2. I love the concept of borrowing my own time, and I do it frequently. For example, I don't get a lot of big time blocks to work on my book. But I get more done when I have them. So tonight I'm going to work late, taking care of any client work I had scheduled for Friday. That way I can take Friday "off" (I'll still check emails and such, but that's about it) to work on my personal project -- my book.
  3. I love to do this on Sundays and Thursdays. I hate Monday mornings. So now I ease myself into just about every week by clearing up at least some of Monday's workload early (usually Sunday night when if I didn't do the work, all I'd be doing is thinking about how much I'm dreading the following morning anyway). I also like an easy Friday.
  4. Here's what I might do:
  5. Sunday night, I'll clear up 2 hours worth of work from Monday's schedule. Then I have a choice on Monday. I can either sleep in and start work 2 hours later, or I can start at my usual time but quit two hours earlier than usual (I tend to prefer the latter). The trick is sticking to that. It can be tempting to still work those two hours on Monday. But no. No, no, no! That becomes your personal time on Monday. You traded fair and square. No givesies backsies.

Set Your Own Schedule

  1. This has been the best thing I've ever done for my writing career. I started getting up at 4am. Yuck, right? I'm not your typical morning person. I hate getting up early. But boy do I love knowing that I'm officially done work at noon if I want to be! I've slipped a bit lately to be honest, and my work has suffered for it (not the work itself, but how long it takes me to get from one project to the next).
  2. I work best in the early morning hours when it's dead quiet, the air is cool, and my brain's just starting to fire up. On a typical day I start work at 5 and finish at noon. Only 7 hours? Yep. I still take lunch at 12, so just consider the eighth hour my lunch break. When I used to work a more typical schedule, I often found myself working through lunch. Not anymore. Now when noon comes, it's "my time."
  3. I made that change because I'm completely unproductive in the afternoons 99% of the time. I don't want to be there. I get easily distracted. I just can't focus. So fine. I decided I wouldn't force myself to be there in the afternoon anymore! Since making the change, I get about twice as much done during a work day. You got it - twice as much done (which equals more pay) but without having to work into my personal hours.
  4. Your schedule may or may not be the same as mine, but try to find that ideal for yourself. The more focused you are, the better your work will be. You'll also procrastinate less (let's face it, if we don't want to be there, we probably aren't putting our all into getting the work done at that moment). After noon, I get to spend more time on my blogs, my book, my other sites, workouts, shopping, errands, watching TV or a movie, or just doing whatever I feel like doing. I literally have 8 hours of "me time" on weekdays. I never had that before. Don't ask me where the hell it went, but I feel like I found free time!

That's where the post stemmed from actually. I lost that free time over the last couple of weeks. I had a few large projects coming together all at once, and I let it overwhelm me. I worked late a few days early on. That meant I didn't get to bed on time, which in turn meant I didn't get up at 4 the following mornings. That screwed up my work schedule, and put me back into working through the afternoons.

Blah. That's how I felt. This week I've been getting back on track, and I feel better than ever. Yep, I'm working through the afternoon today. But I'm doing it on trade -- tomorrow's my time for my book. I almost lost sight of how good it feels -- that flexibility and freedom and why I choose to do this type of work in the first place. Never lose sight of that, and never let your work overrun your life. Remember, if you're going to burn yourself out, you may as well go back to working in a box.

cubicle stress

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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14 thoughts on “Freelance Writers: 3 Tips for Taking Your Life Back”

  1. I’m really glad you posted on this. I’m pretty much the same way, to be honest. I have been slipping lately, but I’ve looked more at my time as a solid block to carve up and work whenever I feel like it. My eventual goal is a four-day workweek but in the meantime, based on my awful summer sleeping habits, I’m sort of on a six-day workweek with very little work on each day.

  2. My goal is to get my “work” writing done in 4 to 5 hours each day of the week so that I have the rest of the day and weekends to work on my own writing. I think gaining this control starts with finding clients that are willing to pay you what you are worth ;).

  3. You posted this just in time. I’ve been down the rabbit hole for about the last three weeks now. I took on two new clients with big projects on top of the regulars that already kept me hopping, and I’m just plain tuckered out.

    I think I’m going to try the “Jennifer Mattern Schedule (C).” 😀 I am a morning person, even though I haven’t been acting like it lately by getting up at 9. Then, at noon, my body thinks the day is half gone when really I’ve only been working for a few hours. I hope it works, because something has got to give here.

    Good post!

  4. Thanks for posting this, i have just started freelancing and was so excited to get paid i took on everything i could find, i was absolutely snowed, with a full time job as well and a baby, I was working til three am, getting up with the baby at 5. It has been awful, after a month, my daughter was transformed into a whinging, clingy baby, my restaurant business has suffered, my personal life is non-existent, and my partner is resentful. I also haven’t eaten properly, or taken proper care of myself and feel like I’m going insane. I’m now saying stop, taking this advice and starting all over again, managing and organising my time. Thanks for the wake up, will let you know how it goes.

  5. Great piece! This past weekend I refused to work on any freelance projects and just enjoyed my family. It was so hard, but I felt so refreshed Monday morning!

  6. Sometimes it’s better to say “not now but later” instead of “no”. That gives the client a choice – work with you but accept a later deadline or go somewhere else. Just saying “no” guarantees that you won’t get the work. Even if the client does go somewhere else, this approach makes it look like you’re in demand which is good for your morale and your clients’ perception of you. It’s the same thing as choosing to go into a busy restaurant and accept a wait instead of going into a completely empty one where the owner is standing by the door looking nervous.

    • Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you’re regularly busy, promising you’ll do the work later isn’t always realistic (and leaves the client hoping for an opening that may not come). Only offer to do something later if you can give the client a specific timeline where you can schedule them in. Saying “no” doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the work (or more work later). I regularly turn down people outright because I won’t have openings in the foreseeable future. I’ve had some wait and try me again months later for the same thing, and others who hired someone else and still came back wanting to work with me. I don’t believe in giving clients a false sense of anything, so if they can’t be worked in in the foreseeable future, it’s just a “no.” It does exactly the same thing you mention – I’ve had very little difference between the two methods.

  7. This is inspiring – I’ve just shared it on my Google Reader page because I think it is really important to get time for yourself.

    It is a constant struggle in some ways, but since I started setting hours and getting up earlier I do get more done. The other bonus is that the stress levels come way down too!

    This has inspired me to make more changes. I now stop work at noon and have half an hour on the exercise bike – regardless of whether I am halfway through an article or not. And it has now become a very welcome habit.

    What will my next habit be, I wonder? Great post.

    • I try to get on the bike at 4-ish, so I can be done, clean, dressed, and coffee-in-hand to start work by 5. I hate working out, so the perk of that for me is that it’s done early and I don’t have to think about it again. It also works as a nice wake-up combo. 🙂 I wish I had the drive to get back on an noon for a while. It might help me push through those “lazy afternoons” a bit more, especially when I want to use them for my own writing projects after work. Might have to give it a try again soon. 🙂

  8. Man, did I need to read this post!

    I hit burnout fairly regularly. With me, it’s usually feast or famine, meaning I’m in a dry spell or everybody wants their stuff at the same time. By the time midnight rolls around, I’m still trying to work but my eyes and brain are totally fried. The result? It takes me twice as long and I usually feel that my work suffers somewhat, as well.

    Not only that but I have no life away from the computer, thanks to the slip into workaholism that seemed to happen without my even noticing. It makes a deep rut that I’m consciously working on to change.

    Thanks for this post, Jenn. It helps.

  9. I’m still relatively new to freelancing, so I could be wrong in this, but I do agree with Matthew’s statement to not outright say now, but “possibly later”.

    This is my rationale: 1) As I am new to this, the type of project may be new to me (eg, a new niche, etc.) – therefore, accepting that gig at some point may open up other opportunities, 2) If it is a potentially good client (everyone has their own parameters, but for me they pay on time and they have work within a certain niche) – it may be an opportunity to get an additional client for those “famine” times, and 3) If you are busy all the time, perhaps it is time to increase your rates? Suggest a higher rate.

    So for myself, I will be honest and say that I am busy for X weeks, etc., and could possibly fit in thier project, could they tell me about it first? If it is very interesting and they are willing to meet my rate — why not give them a try later on?

    Anyway, my response may be different because I am at a different point in my freelance career.

  10. Thanks Jennifer! This post is like some divine message hitting me like a speeding meteor crashing down the Earth. Wow! Totally blasted! So, I will take your words into heart and have a time for me, myself, and I.

  11. Ok, I know I’m late on this, but I followed this link from another post here. I love this. This is what I should have been doing this morning at 4am when I couldn’t sleep because my husband was snoring. Instead, I watched Law & Order reruns on Netflix until I feel back asleep at 7AM and didn’t wake up until 10AM. By that point I was already behind and, let’s face it, we all know that I’m not gonna get anything done after 3PM. I don’t know if I can do the 4AM thing every week day, but it can’t hurt to try it out. I can mold it to my own preferences after a week.


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