How Writers Can Stay Productive Even During Sick Days

So far this year, I've had one normal work day. One. Just a day after returning to work from my holiday break, I needed a sick day. That turned into a "sick week." And it's now going on week two.

Surprisingly though, those sick days have still been productive days. I launched several new features here on this site. I published several blog posts on various sites I own. I installed and customized a new theme on my business site. And I completed plenty of other smaller projects in a fairly long to-do list.

The key? I stayed away from business emails, and I was officially off in terms of working with clients.

Why was this key? It meant my schedule in no way revolved around anyone else. If I wanted to work for ten minutes, I could. If I wanted to work on something for hours and I felt up to it, I did. And if I wanted to say "to Hell with it" and climb back in bed for the day, I could do that too. It also meant I wasn't putting out client work when I was far from 100%. That wouldn't have been good for anyone involved.

By all means, if you feel too sick to do anything, take off completely. Your health should be your top priority. But if you have even a little bit of energy, there are many things you can do to make sure you stay productive, or at least don't fall too far behind, when you take sick time as a writer.

Here are some specific ideas for work you can do, even when you're not feeling well.

Catch up on some reading.

Read blogs. Read books. Read magazines you plan to query. As a writer, you can never read too much. And this is something you can do even if you're confined to bed while you recover.

Catch up with your network.

When you're on a normal work schedule, you probably try to limit the time you spend on things like email and social media. You have to if you want to work more productively and maximize your billable time. But if you're taking a sick day, why not spend some time reading updates from your colleagues and prospects? Read their blogs. Review your Twitter network. Find new people to follow and purge people who are no longer active in your social networks.

Work on your own blog posts.

When you aren't focused on client projects, you can turn your attention to your own blog. Even if you don't feel up to publishing something during your down time, you can use some of that time to come up with new blog post ideas or outline some of those ideas to put you in a better position when you get back to work.


Even if you don't want to write at all while you're recovering, why not brainstorm new ideas that will put you on a better path when you get back to work? For example, you might brainstorm article ideas to pitch to magazines. You could brainstorm guest post ideas for blogs. You can brainstorm around any project you plan to pursue -- a book, a new marketing strategy for your freelance services, a new professional website, or anything else important to you.

Focus on the administrative side of your business.

There are always things you can quietly do on the back end of your business, even if you're publicly taking time off. Clean out your spam boxes in your email or blog comments. Review your website analytics. Go over your finances for the month. Make adjustments to your work schedule for when you return to work fully. Organize your work space.

You certainly don't have to work when you're ill. I'm a big believer in taking plenty of time off when you really need it. But if you have a minor illness or you're on medications that leave you just a bit too drowsy to focus on client projects, that doesn't mean you have to lose all of that work time if you don't want to. There are plenty of ways you can keep your productivity up while you still allow plenty of time to rest and recover.

Do you ever take these kinds of semi-sick days, where you're off as far as client work goes, but you still focus on some work behind the scenes? If so, what do you like to do with your time to stay professionally active when you're sick? Share your ideas and stories in the comments.

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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.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

17 thoughts on “How Writers Can Stay Productive Even During Sick Days”

  1. Great post! This is one of the reasons I want to move towards self employment – the idea that if you are sick, you can make the time to really take care of yourself. These are all great things to do in the downtime if you’re up to it, but I think also a great list of things to remember to take time for even during the ‘regular’ weeks.

    • Absolutely Robyn. On both counts. 🙂 One thing I didn’t mention in the post is what to do if you’re in the middle of a project with a tight deadline. So I should add that, in those cases, we have a few options as freelancers:

      1. Tough it out and finish the project.
      2. Request a deadline extension (I’ve never had a client refuse this if I’ve been ill, but obviously it depends on your client).
      3. Subcontract the rest of the work to a trusted colleague.

      And of course it’s important to factor a certain amount of sick time (just like vacation time) into the rates we charge. If we forget to do that, sick time becomes unpaid time off, and that’s something I’m sure many freelancers would prefer to avoid.

  2. My mom was in the hospital because she fell and suffered short-term memory loss and cracked her left knee replaces. She’s now home. This means since I work-from-home and can pack up the laptop, I need to help take care of her while my sister is at work. I won’t lie. It’s stressful for the both of us. She’s independent, and so am I. Plus, I’m trying to run my business and write while taking care of her. It’s interesting how roles reverse when you get older. Maybe I’ll write about it. :0)

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your mom’s accident! I hope she’s doing much better now, and I’m sure that despite the stress she appreciates all you’re doing for her.

      That’s certainly a great post topic. There must be other freelancers dealing with similar situations of being both a caregiver and business owner and trying to balance those things. 🙂

  3. That is a great topic, Amandah. My hubby and BILs have been juggling the care of their mom and their business for a few years now and it’s no picnic! I know a lot of folks are in a similar situation and many have no support or anywhere to turn. Having been on this journey for a while now, I’d just suggest that you be sure to capture your thoughts while you’re in the midst – good thing you have your laptop handy!

  4. Great advice Jenn.

    Sometimes I don’t get enough sleep, which has a similar effect as being sick: I don’t have enough brain power to do many of my work projects at a professional level.

    That’s when I do many of the things you suggest here. Eventually I take a nap and clear the fog from my brain.

    • Naps are fabulous tools. I took around a 2-hr nap this afternoon, still trying to make up for a lack of sleep over the last week. It’s amazing how big of an effect sleep can have on us, even if we’re just “off” for a day or two.

  5. A timely post, Jen! I’m in the middle of some flu bug–as well as my oldest is battling the same disease and home from school all week (and did I mention that my kids are home on a 4-day weekend due to Martin Luther King’s b-day? I haven’t had a normal week either in 2014)! Unfortunately, this is my busy time and I’m fielding client emails and working on projects with deadlines this week. Fortunately, my hubby is a good proofreader and he reads my work before I send it out to my clients. I did have to push up one deadline this week.

    It’s hard for me to let clients know that I’m sick. I think it’s a pride thing. For me, it’s a downer to be sick because I still need to work whereas when my husband is sick he has sick days that he can take and sleep off the illness. I also know that in my niche, I can’t tack on extra fees–I’m literally teaching my niche about content writing and they’re very hesitant about the fees that I charge as it is. I think, when it comes to fees, it depends on your niche as well as your locale. I know what my clients can handle–and I’m okay with that–but it also means that I need to take it on the cuff when I’m ill. Not fun, but it is what it is. Thanks, Jen!

    • In that situation you have two options (that I can think of at least):

      1. Set money aside during your working periods so you can cover expenses if you have to take time off unexpectedly. This is a good idea in any freelance business.

      2. Consider tweaking your targeting. You don’t have to change niches to earn more. But you might be able to find better-paying clients within your niche. For example, rather than working exclusively with landscapers or lawn care companies, you might pitch your services to larger companies (such as lawn equipment manufacturers, seed companies, area nurseries, or any companies those lawn care folks might do business with). Not only could that open you up to higher-paying clients, but by working with even locally-known suppliers and brands you convey greater value to the primary client group you’re targeting. Even just a few of these higher-paying clients could mean the difference between being able to take time off and having to work when you’re sick. Remember, when it comes to rates, it’s not just about meeting basic living expenses. Rates should cover any time off you want to reserve throughout the year. If you want to recalculate what you need in order to account for those things, I encourage you to check out our freelance rate calculator (click the link there for the advanced version).

      I’m sorry to hear you’re sick now too. Things seem to be going around like crazy right now! I hope you and your oldest are able to fit in plenty of rest. You deserve it. Feel better! 🙂

  6. Duh, I forgot to ask these questions–I beginning to feel overwhelmed managing my business–especially since my work has been slow the past few month and I’m in the marketing mode. On the good side, I’m getting a lot of people knocking on my virtual door, so I’m hoping that I’ll be busy starting next month.

    These are my questions:
    1. How do I manage the growth of my business?
    2. How do I keep control over my time? I still want to be part-time because I have children at home–yet, this feels like a full-time job–especially now that I’m reading on how to be a better content marketer. Thus, I feel like my business has starts and stops. Sometimes, I’m super-busy and other times it gets really slow. Granted, I’ve only been a content writer for a year, but I felt that I had more control when I wrote for trades and my local media b/c of deadlines. And as a content writer, I feel that my business is controlling me.
    3. And how do I keep my big picture in mind while tending the details of where my business is at right now?

    4. Shoot, I do have one more question: When is it time to hire a business/personal coach?

    Thanks for any help that you can give!

    ~Wendy K.

    • Wendy, I know I emailed you privately about this. But just so other readers don’t think I’m leaving you hanging on your questions, I plan to answer them in a separate blog post instead of here. I suspect the answers will run a bit long for a comment, and the questions are general enough that I don’t want others with similar questions to miss them.

  7. Great practical advice Jennifer. These tips can also work if you happen to have less work than usual.

    Reading is my favorite thing to do when I can’t do anything else. There’s always something new I want to read, and I normally don’t get as much time to spend reading as I’d like to.

  8. I hear from a lot of people that writing is easy, but for me it’s awfully hard. My creativity gets shut off when I’m distracted, too. Luckily (?) for me, when I get sick it’s usually the curled-up-in-a-ball-on-the-bathroom-floor type, which is pretty rare.


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