How to Keep Freelancing When Life Throws You a Curveball
How to Keep Freelancing When Life Throws You a Curveball

Sometimes life tosses a shopping cart’s worth of lemons your way. Your roof could start leaking in the middle of winter. Your marriage might hit a rough patch. You or a loved one might get a difficult medical diagnosis.

When you work for yourself and life doesn’t go according to plan, you don’t have the luxury of fobbing your projects onto a colleague. Not if you still want to get paid.

Freelancing through personal crisis has been the story of my life this past year, since my late husband was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Hopefully you won’t find yourself facing any emergencies of your own in the near or distant future. But if you do, here’s how you can stay (relatively) sane and meet your deadlines while taking care of the wildfire raging at home.

Tell clients what’s happening

Freelancers have a tendency to play superhero rather than admit we have personal lives. We think if we don’t deliver A+ work every time, we’re easily replaceable. But if the tumult in your life promises to last several weeks or months, it’s best to come clean with long-standing clients.

If you’ve earned your clients’ trust and admiration, they should understand when an emergency arises. They may be able to grant extensions, assign projects with longer lead times or shuffle resources so that someone else on the team can pitch in. Of course, you can’t play the crisis card too long. You do need to do the work you’re assigned, and you need to do it well and in as timely a manner as possible if you want to keep the client.

Adjust your work schedule

Last year, my husband’s cancer treatments took up a big chunk of my workweek. On days when he felt too sick for anything but Netflix, I added his share of the errands, cooking and cleaning to my to-do list.

Naturally I had to rejigger how and when I worked. This meant writing in much smaller chunks — an hour here, two hours there. It also meant I had the most time to work in the afternoons or evenings while my husband rested. Normally I’m a morning person who gets the bulk of her work done by early afternoon. But, like the stay-at-home parent who gets the most done while their toddler naps, I adjusted accordingly. And you can, too.

Rethink the type of projects you accept

Although reducing your workload may be necessary, whether it’s for two weeks or six months, adjusting the nature of the work you take on may also make sense during a crisis.

For me, this meant trading in lengthy, research-intensive articles and whitepapers for short blog posts and articles I could write in a day. Besides requiring less mental stamina, these assignments fit the narrower windows I had for work last year. For you or another freelancer, rethinking your workload might mean choosing to chip away at one big project over time so you don’t have to continually drum up new work during a trying period.

Cushion your deadlines

If it’s due Friday, tell yourself you’ll have it done Wednesday, or even Tuesday. Dealing with an ongoing personal crisis means more unforeseen tasks and appointments likely will crop up during the workweek. One emergency meeting with your lawyer or monster bill you need to sort out with your insurance company can set you back half a day. Better to build extra time into your due dates so projects stay on schedule and clients stay happy.

Use tools to focus

Working solo is hard enough without the personal distractions. (We already have the internet vying for our attention!) To stay on track and ensure I didn’t miss my daily work window, I planned each day down to 15-minute increments. Free online calendars like Google Calendar and Cozi make this easy to do.

I also used Tomato Timer, a tool that employs the Pomodoro Technique of working for 25 minutes, then taking a short break and repeating the sequence as many times as needed for sustained focus and energy. And of course tools like Freedom and Cold Turkey are essential for those of us who need help blocking our online vices (Facebook, anyone?) during specific times so we can concentrate without distraction.

Take work on the go

Last year I got almost as much writing done in hospital lounges as I did at my office. Besides helping me keep up with deadlines, it gave me something other than my personal troubles to focus on.

Always bring along some work to airports, hospitals and doctor’s offices. Put client contacts on your phone, tablet or laptop. Keep a tote bag packed with your equipment and in-progress projects so they’re easy to grab at a moment’s notice. And if you’re not already syncing all your digital files to the cloud, it’s time to start. Fifteen minutes to kill in a waiting room is 15 minutes you could spend returning client messages, reviewing contracts or proofreading your work.

Outsource what you can

If you’ve been doing your own transcription, invoicing or taxes, farm it out to a professional. Hire someone to clean your house or walk your dog. Sign up for a meal delivery service. Anything you can do to lighten your personal or professional load will relieve stress and enable you to keep working as efficiently as possible.

I realize a personal crisis is not the ideal time to spend additional money, but an emergency is what your savings or credit line is for. If neither is an option, ask friends and family for help. A couple casseroles a week and clean laundry can go a long way.

Take care of yourself. When my husband started cancer treatments, I quickly learned that if I didn’t make getting enough rest, eating right, exercising and decompressing a priority, I’d come down with whatever bug was floating around. Getting sick is the last thing you need during a high-stress situation. It will only make keeping up with work harder. Treat self-care like it’s your job. It’s the best way to stay on top of your personal life and your business during extra-stressful times.

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Michelle Goodman

Guest writer Michelle Goodman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Seattle. Her books — The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life — offer an irreverent twist on the traditional career guide. She specializes in writing about work, entrepreneurship and career change.

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