If you walk around social media long enough, you’ll get the feeling that unless you are looking to crack the six-figure income barrier, build your own products and start hiring contractors, you’re failing as a freelancer. The desire not to do all the things, work all the hours, make all the money and have the Instagram to prove it is a counter-intuitive position to adopt. Especially in a world measured in the money made, followers gathered, and posts created.
Yet, the dominance of how big your freelancing journey has to be is increasingly looking like a marketing push to me. To be honest, if you’re going to sell stuff about how great it is to scale, you will of course be highlighting how much that scale has brought you. So, of course there’s a little bias in the narrative about what is success in freelancing.
There’s no denying money is a helpful part of the equation. We all want to have the money to live the life we want. And we want to be able to pick the work that gives us accomplishment and meaning.
But that doesn’t actually mean you have to scale. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you have to work Monday to Friday. Or big slabs of the year.
Beyond that, there are plenty of freelancers that are making good scratch but are freaking miserable.
So, how do you know if scaling down in freelancing might be what you need to do? Here are some signs to look out for. And the odd remedy along the way.
You have lost sight of your original motivations
It’s true that some freelancers get into this to prove themselves to the world, become a celebrity and make a massive income. However, the last time we asked about this during the Freelance Jungle survey, their number was less than 6%. Give a freelancer a couple of years of following who is successful at business and freelancing however and you’ll see most are pulling out all the stops to mirror their idols.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. It gives you a blueprint of what to do and goals to check off. You have a tribe alongside you kicking the same goals to cheer you on.
But usually, it means most have lost sight of their true freelance ambition. Such as studying, being there for their kids, travelling, proper worklife balance, disability management, focussing on creative work, creating start-ups and more.
And the more disconnected from your own motivations you become, the more rudderless and dissatisfied you become.
Check in with your motivations regularly. You made a choice to put your bum on the line. Why? Was it to work on more creative projects on the side? See more of your kids growing up? Manage your disability or mental health better? Recover from a toxic workplace? Prove a point to yourself? Take on extra studies? Look after someone who needed you? Travel?
Whatever the motivation, once you rediscover it, you can define how much freelance work is required to ensure that other more important goal is met.
You’re not enjoying it
How do you know if you are no longer enjoying your freelancing journey? Well, there are a few warning signs that you can look out for:
- It’s become “just another job”
- You struggle to find nice things to say about your clients and/or projects
- Procrastination has become a big barrier to enjoying your day
- You can’t remember the last time you faced a challenge or got to be curious and explore the work
- The work itself lacks the ability to satisfy you
- Your feelings towards your business have become apathetic, indifferent or even resentful
- You’ve stopped marketing because you want to avoid or even fear the clients it will attract
- You feel relieved when you are sick and can’t work
Even if you’re not burnt out yet, it can be difficult to shake these sorts of feelings once they start to appear.
Consider whether scaling down your freelance workload is a good option here. Scaling down in freelancing doesn’t necessarily mean the hours you work. It may simply mean scaling down client projects or contact hours to study new things, practice new techniques, build products, create sidelines or pivot entirely. If the nature of your freelance business is such that you have the space to upskill, pivot or redirect certain aspects of it, now is the time to investigate that. Before you lose interest entirely. You can successfully reconnect with your freelance business without a major change if you take the time out to iterate it effectively to suit your needs.
You are spending to make yourself feel good
One of the greatest signs that any worker is unhappy with their working life is when their spending expands to match the money coming in. Debt can also be a significant part of it.
You don’t have to live with all your money locked up for some mythical rainy day. But it is important to recognise that if you are treating yourself to nights out, new toys and things you don’t really need on a regular basis, you could be over-compensating for the emotions you feel.
Pro tip: A good test is to take note of what you spend for a month. Then, check out how much value you got out of that expenditure. If you are seeing repeated spending that has a very short shelf life in terms of practical usefulness, you may find it’s time to scale down and scale back that spending.
You drink to relieve the stress of the workload and clients
Freelance culture is really attracted to the idea of having a few drinks and forgetting about our client woes. On occasion, this is not such a problem. The odd wine and chat won’t hurt.
However, there are a few little early warning signs about our relationship with work and alcohol usage we should consider as signs it’s time to cut back. These include:
- You can’t talk about the problems you have with a client or your business without a drink in your hand
- To work on certain projects or with certain people, you reward yourself with a drink while you do it
- It’s become OK to sneak a glass of wine in at lunch to “take the edge off”
- You attend freelance networking and other business events for the permission to drink
- You are the one buying other freelancers more and more drinks to keep them going when you meet up
- You hang out with freelancers not necessarily because you enjoy them per se but because they can keep up with your drinking
- You’ve noticed the number of times you work with a hangover has increased
- A hangover induced sick day feels like the only day you can stop the whirr and purr of obligation in your mind
- You find it hard to complete certain creative or business tasks without alcohol in your system
- You switch off from what is bothering you rather than challenge where the feelings are coming from
If you are struggling with your relationship with alcohol in any way, there is a bunch of help available. Traditional AA programs can help. You can also try behaviour modification and low drinking programs (rather than complete abstinence) through Hello Sunday Morning and and the regional and rural specific, Sober in the Country.
It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing sort of relationship between your freelancing and your alcohol consumption.
Your family doesn’t know you
One of the most popular reasons for freelancers to begin their journey is their children. Workplace inflexibility can make it tough to be a parent. Presenteeism and the hours can create all sorts of conflicts with looking after kids. From sick days to missing sports carnivals and major events, more and more parents (especially women) are realising that Australian workplaces lack the compassion and flexibility that makes for great parenting conditions.
Yet even though workplace inflexibility and being there for your children ranks consistently in the top three motivations for Australian freelancers, many parents find themselves increasingly stuck between being the parent during the day and freelancing at night. Or they find they are repeating the same hours or more with work, creating another form of incompatibility with parenting and freelancing.
If you are too tired to function, both your children and your work can suffer. It’s about recognising that with a change in roles (on either side) there has to be some kinds of changes made. That might mean scaling down in freelancing to support your children when they are small, during difficult times of their life, and/or if disability or mental health are factors. It may also mean scaling down simply because you’d like less stress, more enjoyment and greater connection.
Parents are raising the next generation as health, well-adjusted individuals who respect community and family in equal measure. Shouldn’t we treat that with the respect it deserves and not judge or place undue pressure on that process?
You bore the socks of non-freelancers
If you are finding that you’ve become so pro the freelance lifestyle, you sound like a religious door knocker, please take a breath.
Often, this kind of zest for freelancing isn’t powered by the desire to share the amazing secret to a happy life you have discovered. Most of the time, this desire to convert people to our belief systems (no matter what they are) is a means of shoring up our own. We’re sub-consciously tapping into the “safety in numbers” phenomenon that proves to us that a choice is a good one by the number of people that have made it, too.
And even if you aren’t looking to make sure you are indeed in the biggest, strongest work herd, all work talk is boring. It’s a sign of a one-dimensional life where not much else is happening.
If we’re living rounded, productive and content lives, we’re able to swing around a wide variety of conversational vines. Usually because our lives also have a wide range of interests and entertainments keeping us socially, mentally, physically and mentally engaged.
Everyone needs a hobby outside their money maker. Especially ones that help us sustain creativity and our physical health. If you haven’t got a creative hobby and a movement or exercise related activity that gives you joy, keep digging until you do. Even if that means scaling down in freelancing hours to accommodate one.
Your mental health is suffering
If you are getting to the stage that you feel continuously stressed, depressed or anxious with your working life, it doesn’t matter what kind of job that is, it has to change.
Freelancing sounds great on paper. But there are so many ways it can start to negatively impact your mental health. The constant grind of work can be difficult to navigate. It can also be incredibly draining to have to reset with every client and start essentially from scratch over and over again. Variety is a great thing – but the variety of moods and approaches and levels of professionalism you encounter in your clients can be incredibly taxing.
A lot of freelancing is about being able to cope with inconsistent, hard knock work across a variety of different personalities. And even the most Teflon freelancer can start feeling the affects after a while.
Put your mental health first. It is the bedrock of your freelancing business because it protects your best asset – you! Plan your days and weeks to support yourself for success. And check in with your mental health on a regularly basis. Plan things like exercise, catching up with people who care about you, and having down time as part of a health timetable. Exercise your boundaries and get comfortable with saying no. Commit to proper sleep and nutrition. And allow yourself to be free from obligation once and a while! If you find yourself feeling depressed, stressed or anxious, talk to a counsellor or psychologist. And always work in such a way that allows you proper time away from the desk and demands of others – even if that means scaling down in freelancing. A great first step can be to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and talk about what is causing you stress.
Because you can
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into freelancing to make a six-figure income, get my face on a magazine and be booked until my head exploded. I got into it because I wanted to be able to work on creative projects like writing and art without sacrificing in terms of lifestyle.
Now, I work three days a week with my terms at the centre of how I do things. I am producing loads of art. I walk thirty kilometres of beach a week. I live in a house by the beach with a partner I love and in a city I adore. My clients are interesting, respectful and game-changing. Writing is pouring out of me like baby vomit. And the most annoying thing about my day is whether or not my dogs snore too loudly.
That hasn’t happened because I have all the money or built all the things. It’s because I decided that staring at the ocean for an hour a day as I shuffle myself up the sand in a little yellow house was my idea of a great way to live. I also knew with several disabilities to manage that working all the time and living in Sydney wasn’t an intelligent long-term strategy for me.
What’s your version of this? What would you like to achieve that makes you feel content, productive and applied? But also- dare I say it – happy?
Run yourself through this series of questions and see:
- Are you feeling the right amount of challenge with the work that you do?
- Are there sidelines, projects, creative practice, studies etc you’d like more time for?
- How connected to your work do you feel?
- Are the personal and work aspects of your life well-balanced?
- Are you asking yourself to work more hours than you can manage well?
- Could you lower your expenses through making lifestyle choices?
- Do you feel as though you are spending or drinking to make your working life feel less stressful?
- How do you feel when you greet another Monday?
- What would you change about your working life if given the opportunity?
- What was your original motivation for starting to freelance?
- How has that motivation changed?
- Would you prefer to work less?
- Are you spending time with people who make you value money, prestige or work more than you otherwise would? Why?
- Do you want to scale back your freelance business but find yourself concerned about what others might think or say?
The wonderful thing is if you scale down your freelance business, you can experiment if this is a workable solution without making any rash moves. And to be honest, you don’t even need to tell anyone who isn’t directly impacted by your financial input.
Personally, working with the end-of-life scene has taught me that nobody gives a crap about their Google ranking or how much money they earned. We want to know we’re loved, that we can remember our lives fondly, have the money to take the financial pressure off our families and live without regret.