Why Successful Freelancers Must Make Time for Self-Care

Why Successful Freelancers Must Make Time for Self-Care

When I first started freelancing, I burned out with alarming regularity.

In those early days, I was working part-time at a desk job, part-time as a waitress, and picking up an increasing number of freelance clients as I built my business.

The way I took breaks was by running as hard as I could into my own mental wall until I was too exhausted to work anymore. Then my body shut me down by getting sick.

It took more of these mental meltdowns then I’d like to admit to get me to think about adding regular self-care into my life.

But eventually, I got the message.

At this point in my life, self-care and time management are becoming an obsession as I realize taking care of myself lets me get more done while living a more-balanced life.

Self-care: Because your writing brain needs to breathe

It’s been months since I’ve had a major meltdown, but I still have a lot to learn. That’s why I called Ken Scholes.

Scholes is a writer with whom I’ve taken several classes. He wears a lot of creative hats as an award-winning fantasy author, musician, consultant, and father. Throughout his creative endeavors and all the curveballs life has thrown his way, Scholes’s commitment to self-care has always really struck a chord with me.

While for years I’ve viewed taking care of my own needs as a secondary to getting the work done, Scholes told me adamantly over coffee that working on your own issues come first.

“[Authors and writing instructors] Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith told me at a workshop once that if you want to fix the problems in your writing life, you need to address the problems in your personal life,” he said. “The part of me that tells stories is the same part of me that solves complex problems. You can’t write a detective novel about solving a murder when you’ve got a murder to solve in your living room.”

Time is one of the most precious resources any of us have. And that feeling of time scarcity is what had led me to slot self-care firmly on the bottom of my list of priorities.

How could I possibly waste time going for a walk, reading a novel, or — heaven forbid — goofing off when there was so much work to be done?

But wasn’t my refusal to take time for myself just creating time-consuming health problems, not to mention stifling my writing?

How should we, as writers, create a foundational practice of self-care?

First, understand that writing requires mental and physical space

I can tell when I’m rushing through a project, whether on a piece of fiction or an assignment for  a client.

My prose and ideas will seem shallow. Uninspired. Not only that, but my satisfaction with my work takes a hit because I know I could be doing better.

Writing is hard mental work, and it requires a certain amount of space to be done well, said Scholes. “Going for a walk is writing,” he said. “Doing the dishes is writing. Sitting and talking with another writer about self-care is writing. It’s not just creating words, it’s creating the space in your head for story to emerge, that Goldilocks belt where life sparks up. It’s way more than typing words because you have no words to type if you have not lived any life.”

For Scholes, that means both a mental space free from distraction, and also a physical space free from clutter. “If you have a clutter you’re living in, then everything becomes urgent and you can’t find anything important,” he said. “Reducing clutter becomes a part of that self-care.”

Schedule time for play

Procrastination expert Neil Fiore suggests in his book The Now Habit that people who schedule playtime are more likely not to procrastinate on their work projects than people who never let themselves enjoy fun until after the work is finished.

But for writers, scheduling play isn’t just about avoiding procrastination. It’s about keeping your mind fresh and limber so you can come to your creative work productively.

Before you fill in the time blocks in your workweek, schedule treats for yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as half hour to watch an episode of your favorite TV show, or walk around the block — or as generous as an afternoon spent at the movie theater or out hiking.

Scholes sometimes finds his own creativity by staging photo shoots with his extensive collection of Batman figures in his daughters’ dollhouse while they’re at school. “There’s a little four-year old inside of me that needs to be turned loose,” he said. “He’s the one that comes up with awesome stories to tell.”

Manage your priorities, both in work and in life

The Eisenhower Method of time management (championed by Stephen Covey in his book, First Things First) categorizes tasks into a 2×2 matrix based on whether they are urgent/not urgent and important/unimportant.

Most of the time, self-care doesn’t fall into the urgent category, which is why it can easily fall to the wayside in the face of “urgent” deadlines and emails.

But it is important. And if you don’t practice regular self-care, it will become an urgent matter quickly (like I learned over and over again when I first started freelancing). Making sure you’re eating right, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough exercise may not seem urgent, but those things are fundamentally important to your work.

Scholes has established his own set of priorities, and eschews certain tasks or traps that get in the way of his work.

Along with the usual culprits like email and social media, Scholes also drastically cut down on travel time. He lives in a small town about a 45-minute drive from Portland, Oregon, but instead of driving into town to see friends, he now invites them out to visit him.

At the top of his hierarchy? Nurturing his relationships. “People come first regardless of where I am in a book or a deadline,” Scholes said. “If my kids need me, if my friends need me, if my tribe needs me, then people are always more important than work for me.”

Over the past few years, I’ve learned that creating space to work, exercising, practicing self-reflection, and spending time with family are all crucial parts of my self-care as a writer.

When I notice I’m starting to shirk these priorities because of client deadlines and overwork, I know I need to shift something in my life to accommodate what I value.

As counter-intuitive as it seems, taking time for myself has made me a better — and more productive — freelancer and novelist.

What about you? Do you have specific self-care practices? How have they changed over the years? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Filed Under: Craft
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14 comments

  • Having worked in ministry before I started my own business as a freelance editor and retreat presenter, I learned long ago that if I don’t guard my personal time, no one else will do it for me. There will always be clients who would be glad to fill all your time if you let them, and there will always be colleagues foolish enough to let all their own time be filled who will lay a guilt trip on you (or outcompete you for professional opportunities) if you try to maintain a sensible balance.

    The key is to be certain in your own mind and heart that you are worthy of self-care, no matter what subtle or not-so-subtle messages you may get from others. Set your own boundaries, and push back (as politely but firmly as possible) when others attempt to violate them, then accept the fact that there will sometimes be consequences for it. Maybe if you don’t answer that email that comes in the middle of the night until business hours the next day, you’ll lose a sale. But if you put yourself at the constant beck and call of the entire world, then you WILL burn out, and will be no good to anyone.

    As someone who has presented many retreats in the course of my work, I know how important it is for people to take time away from their work. (And no, when you give retreats for a living, presenting a retreat does not count as going on retreat yourself.) When I worked for a church, I made sure that my contract specified time off to go on retreat as a separate benefit in addition to vacation time.

    Now that I am self-employed, I make sure to accept only deadlines that allow me time to recharge my batteries. This article reminds me that I do need to schedule a retreat!

    If you don’t know of any retreats in your area that would meet your needs, it’s worth talking to other writers and freelancers, who probably have a similar need, and consider pooling your resources to plan your own retreat. I have a page of retreat planning tips on my website for people who’ve never organized such an event before. It’s worth doing! You’ll benefit both personally and professionally.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    “Enhancing Spiritual Communication”
    epiclesisconsulting.com
    epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Thank you, Trish. I just started reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and last night read the section about understanding that you’re worthy of guarding your time. (Blog post definitely coming there.)

      I’m going to check out your retreat-planning resources – I have a solo one planned for September, but I love the idea of planning one for other writers.

      • I’ve got one that’s PERFECT for writers! It’s especially good for those who write fiction, but I find that even the most pragmatic essayist is really doing factual storytelling. When you visit my website, check out the page on “Truth in Fiction: A Retreat for Storytellers.” If you can get a group together, I think you’d really enjoy it. I give prices for up to a weekend, but writers may want something longer, and I’m always open to customization.

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Karen Ingle says:

    This is such an important reminder! Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned the hard way. I have to admit that even though I believe in a sovereign God, I have a hard time leaving my universe in His keeping while I take a day of rest. Go figure. I’m clearly a recovering control freak. Your post gave me a timely nudge.

  • Elke Feuer says:

    The best advice my bff gave me after having my first child was to make time for myself. She’d learn the hard lesson of giving all her time to her child and job that she had nothing left for herself and burned out emotionally and physical as a parent and employee. I took this advice to heart and always made sure to carve out me time.

    Since I started writing full-time, I’ve struggled to find the right balance as my alone time used to be going to the spa or my writing time at the coffee shop. The spa is now a luxury, and my writing time is technically my day job so it’s been an adjustment for my family and what working from home really means.

  • Shubha das says:

    Another great article I have seen. Thanks a lot.

  • Marla says:

    This is something I am struggling with as I am starting the transition from my full-time job to freelancing. Balancing the writing work with being a mother and wife and the day job has left me exhausted, and feeling guilty for taking time to read a novel or exercising instead of writing or pitching. I do love the idea that taking time for yourself is part of the writing process, and will try to keep that in mind as I schedule my days.

  • Amina says:

    My mum calls ‘Self Care ‘ as ‘ Me Time’. She was the first to introduce it to me. Me-time was something unique to me, atleast an hour in a day where I did my favourite activity of my hearts desire being away from rest of the world. Being carefree from this world.

    Your article on Self-care is apt on. I am glad I stumbled upon this article.

    Everyone of us will definitely come to a standstill at certain point in time. Encorporating self care makes us stronger,happier and more focused in life.

  • Kit Walker says:

    Trish, my thanks to you for the article and its reminder that personal time is not something to be ashamed of taking. As I am looking for a new teaching position and am taking up freelance writing as an alternative to actively working in the education profession (if I can’t find employment in this economy) I do find that I tend to take more personal time than I should. This article was definitely needed to teach me that I will have to find the appropriate balance from the start.

    Thank you for writing this.
    Kit

  • Meg Dowell says:

    I came across this while trying to come up with some ideas for a blog post – thank you. I really needed this reminder today. I somehow have fallen into the routine of working 7 days a week freelance writing, which obviously is not a good idea (oops). Hoping to restructure my schedule to better take care of myself and stay healthy. Your words really lifted me up this morning, I appreciate it!

  • Sokuzan says:

    A suggestion for writers or for anyone feeling blocked. First don’t write. Then exercise and stretch an awareness that is free from the thought process. Sit down, hold very still without being rigid and observe what moves. Do this with all senses open including the eyes everyday for a hour. Look at a wall. Don’t do the math, don’t add or subtract or divide anything to or with, what arises. Give it a year or two. Make writing second priority for a while.

    Sokuzan

  • Sarah Gilbert says:

    For a while, seemed like every time I sat down at pc, the neighbors wanted me to do what they wanted. What I wanted wasn’t important cause it wasn’t what they wanted. I quickly developed an “oh well” attitude and went on with my writing. Over time they have realized some things and we are friends.
    It all made me feel like what I wanted to do wasn’t important. Only to me. That got me going and has kept me going. Now I’m in the process of taking the bull by the horns and working toward doing a most thrilling and important thing!

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