How I finally achieved self-care as a freelancer

Back when I was part of the 9 to 5, I landed a full-time contract role as a staff writer for a large insurance company. Alongside our in-house crew of writers and editors, we hired an outside freelancer to contribute to the website.

During conference calls, the freelancer would dial in after a sunbathing session in her backyard, or on her way to a leisurely afternoon of yoga and meditation. My editor, who seemed perpetually frazzled and stressed, would joke about how the freelancer had perfected the whole work-life balance thing.

And when I took the leap to full-time freelancing later that same year, I imagined that I, too, would enjoy work-life balance. I could hear my father’s voice when he once told me that I should strive to slide my days into three perfectly even pieces: 8 hours spent working, 8 hours spent resting and on leisurely activities, and 8 hours sleeping. I thought things would fall perfectly in place.

If only.

The reality? For the first few years of freelancing, I struggled with cycles of burnout, anxiety, and depression from overworking. Feast and famine was the real deal. I was a mess. I would go to bed at 2 in the morning, pushing myself to meet deadlines, then get up at 4 am to do it all over again. I crammed frozen dinners into my face when I had a chance.

Some days I was incapacitated by fear. My fears ballooned into catastrophic proportions: fear that the work might one day run out, which would spiral into deep debt. I’d be left penniless and on the street. As a result, I was prone to saying “yes” to every assignment that came my way, and I took on more than I could reasonably handle.

It might seem obvious, but we don’t magically morph into this perfectly adjusted, well-balanced being once we become self-employed. Your habits, proclivities, and nature move with you. So if you’re prone to pushing yourself toward exhaustion, you likely will continue to do so when you work for yourself.

Self-care isn’t necessarily about treating yourself to lavish spa days and massages — that’s pampering. It boils down to having the discipline and guts to say “no” and making your needs a priority.

And while it’s an important part of one’s general well-being, it wasn’t until my third year freelancing that I actively worked on self-care. I’m proud to say that my self-care in the past year has improved significantly. Here’s what I did to achieve greater self-care as a freelancer.

Set reasonable income goals

Because I keep my expenses relatively low, and the cost of my lifestyle hasn’t ballooned alongside my boost in income (aka lifestyle inflation) over the years, I don’t need to make a ton of money to be comfortable. In turn, there’s no point in pushing myself in an unhealthy manner to meet unnecessarily high income goals.

Once I hit a certain number each month or each year, I can lay off some of that pressure. It’s freeing to know that I can front-load my work, then take significant time off should I choose to.

Only commit to what you can handle

In my early days of freelancing, I had a tough time gauging the scope of a project and how long an assignment would take. A few months into freelancing, I recall saying “yes” to two major projects. Having had little experience, I had no idea how long each of these projects would take.

In turn, I overcommitted and overextended myself. A low point was when my family went on a weekend vacation, and I was sitting in the hotel lobby cranking away on my laptop. It was a far cry from the constructs of a #freelancelife utopia.

After tracking the time spent on different aspects of an assignment, I now have a far better idea of how much I can reasonably tackle in a given day, week, or month.

Save a robust safety net

My first year, three of my main clients dropped within the first week. The good news was that I had a robust emergency fund to tap into while I hunted for more clients.

You’ve probably heard — ad nauseam — that you should ideally have between three to six months of basic living expenses tucked away for emergencies. As a solopreneur, the more you can save, the better. I aim to save for a cushion during my more lucrative months. Should the work run out and I need to find more clients, I can rely on my emergency fund to cover my expenses in the interim.

Besides a robust emergency fund, I’ve found it important to set funds aside for business-related expenses. This can be used to cover the costs of running your solopreneurship — insurance, utilities, and to pay contractors.

Outsource what you can

First, think about your particular “zone of genius.” What are you known for, and why do clients hire you? Besides my wordsmithing abilities, it that’s I’m able to come up with story ideas that fit into the content objectives and needs of a client.

While I can’t outsource my writing or ideation, I’ve been able to hire talented, qualified folks to help with proofreading and research. Instead of transcribing interviews myself, I send them to an online transcription service. The money I spend on outsourcing means more time that I can spend either focusing on my zone of genius, on my personal projects, or just resting and enjoying life.

Set firm self-care rules

I’m quite embarrassed that I needed to implement some very basic self-care rules: That I would eat breakfast before delving into my workload, and only work between 6 in the morning and 9 at night. I know, it sounds insane that I had such a large window for working, but it was an improvement from working around the clock.

As a longtime practicing Zen Buddhist, I started to practice mindfulness exercises, such as quick body check-ins, and short sayings before and after I start my day. What’s more, I do a gratitude exercise to show appreciation for the opportunities that have come my way.

Say yes to less

These days, I set a weekday morning aside to volunteer. I also make time to go to yoga and water aerobics.

It’s not always easy, as there is always something to work on. At the same time, consistently having the opportunity to do more work has given me the confidence to do less. As a personal finance writer, I’ve found that there are plenty of editorial opportunities.

I’ve learned to be a little less anxious about money. I’m also a lot better about saying no to work that doesn’t excite me, that isn’t competitive with my current rates, or isn’t in sync with my bigger-picture goals. It can still be a challenge, especially with scarcity mentality and chatter about a recession looming on the horizon. But now, I know that saying yes to more than I can reasonably handle will only lead to burnout, and in turn, make me hate life.

See a mental health professional

Going to see a therapist helped me identify unhealthy cycles in my work habits, and taught me how anxiety played into my self-care issues. Over time, I learned to lower my stress and anxiety thresholds and set better boundaries with myself.

I know that mental health care can be costly. I was fortunate to find professional help through a counseling center that offered sliding sale rates. I’ve also heard friends and colleagues recommend affordable mental health collectives and providers. If your insurance doesn’t cover mental health care, I suggest researching and exploring all the potential options to find something that fits your budget.

Make the most of working for yourself

Being your own boss can make some elements of self-care more challenging, but there are benefits.

While the feast and famine cycles can certainly lead to burnout, you also don’t need to get permission to rest and recharge. No one will reprimand you for taking a longer lunch, luxuriating in a midday bath, or taking an afternoon off if you’re nearing burnout. My advice for achieving self-care as a self-employed person? Take full advantage of having a more flexible schedule.

It’s worthwhile work

After ignoring it for too long, I learned the hard way that self-care isn’t a frivolous investment. It’s hard work. And while it can be quite a challenge to check off all the items on your “self-care list,” setting boundaries and taking care of yourself is an integral part of your job as a self-employed person.

While it’s definitely still a work in progress, I’ve come a long way. And let’s be honest: When I’m on my deathbed, I won’t be regretting the fact that I didn’t take on that extra assignment. But I will regret it if I don’t take time for my own projects, spend time with those who matter the most to me, and have fun every so often.


Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based money writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Business Insider, and GOOD Magazine. She is currently studying to be a financial coach (AFC®) to help artists and freelancers with their money. In her free time she blogs at heyfreelancer.com

Hi there! This post exists to offer you (hopefully) useful information but it cannot take the place of personalized professional advice. Please consult a qualified expert if you have questions about your business. Also, Azlo doesn’t endorse any third-party sites that are linked here.

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