Freelance Hell: Three Tips To Avoid Burnout

What I want most in the world is to be transparent, everywhere and at all times.

It’s that desire that every creative shares, whether they’re working at their craft for dollars and cents or if they’re creating for creation’s sake: to be seen for who we really are.

The number one reason we don’t share, those of us who are part of that first group, is that we don’t want to get in trouble with our clients. We don’t want to get fired. We don’t want to get a bad reputation in business. We don’t want to lose a referral. We don’t want to offend.

But sometimes, for an artist, expression needs to come before those considerations. And I must express my present truth, even if it gets me in trouble, because I will have a complete mental breakdown if I don’t get this out, and then I won’t be any good for anyone.

Outside of titles and roles, who I really am is someone who is overwhelmed most days, and have been not for simply days or weeks, but months. Months now. I am in Freelance Hell, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

What is Freelance Hell? Simply, it’s when a self-employed individual has too much work than they can handle, too much work that ONLY they can handle, and not enough money coming in to pay their bills.

Getting out of here is simple, though certainly not easy: I need to finish what I agreed to finish. That’s part of what makes it hell. There is no quick fix: because there’s no liquid money floating around my account, I can’t pay someone to help me out of it. The only way out is to work what I’ve got.

As a cautionary tale, however, I share with you the three decisions I made that led here, and offer you three tips that I strongly suggest you follow if you’re to avoid your own personal Freelance Hell.

1. Underpricing My Services

Fish are mostly unaware of the water in which they swim. Similarly, many new freelances are blind to the true value of their services. I was no different in the beginning, and as a result, I priced myself as much as 50% below the market worth of my ghostwriting and editing services, according to the Writer’s Market Guide of the year. I employed “Wal-Mart” thinking in my pricing: I needed clients fast and decided to beat my competitors on price, rather than quality.

As such, rather than taking on one or two higher paying clients, I took on multiple lower paying ones.

What I didn’t count on was the labour-intensive nature of the work I was hired to do. This is why freelances charge the equivalent of a monthly salary of a 9 to 5 professional job: they’re often devoting the same types of hours in a given week to fulfilling one project as they would if they were driving into an office gig from Monday to Friday. In ghostwriting especially, the time pressure can impact the quality and timeliness of the work involved. And when I took on multiple such projects, the time requirements multiplied.

By underpricing myself, I’ve essentially turned myself into a slave to my one-on-one clients, who expect – and rightly deserve – top quality work, on time, and in full.

TIP#1: CHARGE YOUR WORTH.

Re-read the last three words. Burn them into your unconscious. Surrender to it, no matter what anyone else says.

Price yourself according to your worth and needs. Refer to indexes like the Writer’s Market (available in most bookstores in the Reference section) to find out what the average price for your service is currently, and decide where you stand in relation to the average. Understand what your monthly expenses are, and factor them into your price, plus an extra amount for profit so you’re not just “getting by”.

Afterwards, stick to your guns. Don’t be afraid to turn down leads who balk at your price: if they don’t see the value, then you don’t want to work with them anyway, because their doubts will dog your process at every step until completion.

2. No Alternate Source of Consistent Income

The reason I needed clients quickly was that I decided to, as Tony Robbins put it, “burn the boats”: I quit my day job to take the leap into full-time ghostwriting and editing. I did not save up much of an emergency fund, and as such, I had to get work fast.

Because I was running against the clock, it simply increased the pressure on me to find new work. That caused me to take on more for less.

TIP#2: DO NOT QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!

I cannot stress this enough. If you do need the time freed up to do quality work, go work part-time somewhere, and do this before the work piles up to such a degree that you won’t have the hours free to work part-time. It will relieve the pressure, even if it’s minimum wage: at least you’ll have something coming in.

And I get it: right now, there’s some poor schmuck reading this who’s no longer content to be an drone for some shitty company, and all he or she wants to do is follow bliss towards this lifestyle.

Worse than being a 9 to 5 drone is no longer loving what you do some days because you’re not able to pay your electric bill with it. Meditate on that for a moment.

Stay where you are, take on one client, and devote 2-4 hours outside of your day job to give them the best possible work that you can muster. Then, if you love what you do and got great reviews from your early clients, keep working until you’ve replaced all of your office wages with freelance wages. Then, and only then, do you leave your job.

3. Lack of Clarity and Patience

Before making this leap into full-time freelancing, I did not develop a business plan. I did not assess my needs and wants. I didn’t even test it out on one project to see if it was something I truly wanted to do. Instead, I just went for it. The result…well, you get the picture.

In truth, I’ve discovered, in actually doing it, that as a full-time, singular profession, book ghostwriting is not for me. Editing isn’t even completely for me, though there are aspects about it I love. What I love about my field is making the connections, helping other writers and editors find work. I love developing ideas and building a team to fulfill on a project. I love coaching authors to succeed. I love the creative and people aspect of writing and publishing, not the labour. Whatever that work is worth, I will gladly accept those dollars and cents.

What I’m clear on now is that I would prefer personal rather than paid blogging and creative writing. Now my mission, rather than simply finishing what I’ve started, is to disentangle and liberate my writing from the awful, heavy responsibility of paying my bills. If I write a bestselling book that sells millions of copies, so be it.

By mid-2016, my goal is to return to the creative writing that I started with, the creative writing that I miss so dearly.

TIP #3: GET CLEAR ON WHAT YOU WANT.

Are you sure you want to make a living doing this thing that you love? Are you sure you want to evolve your hobby into a profession? If so, create a business plan. Talk to people who know this arena better than you do if you’re not sure. Find other freelance professionals who have made it and interview them, find out how their journeys have been.

And get really clear: what do you value? Do you want easy money? If so, freelancing is not the way to go. Are you more motivated to get away from a shitty job rather than moving towards freelancing? If so, reconsider taking the leap until you can truly become “pro” freelance and not “anti” job.

You don’t need to become a saint or attain nirvana before you make your move, but before you burn your boats, you should put a little thought into whether or not this is an island worth taking.

Follow Tip 3, and you’ll avoid Freelance Hell altogether.

Do not mistake what I am saying, boys and girls. I am responsible for my choices that led me here. I’m not blaming any external seminar, motivational video, coach, or other source for my decision to “follow my bliss”. Nor am I blaming myself too much, either, however: we’ve got too many mixed messages out there for creatives that love to tell them to take the leap, but say precious little about what happens afterwards. Use both your heart and your brain when mapping out a creative living.

And if you’re already in Freelance Hell, seeing yourself in what I’ve described, you have my empathy. Feel free to reach out to me at jaberdeen@rogers.com with your story. Let’s support each other, because the way out of hell is one step, one day, at a time. I know I will get out of here, and that you will, too.

And on that note, I must go back to work.

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