Freelancing Does not Always Mean Work-Life Balance
On freelancing, vocation, digital nomadism, and terminal illness
When you’re a freelancer, time off is a rare luxury.
Especially while you’re trying to rebuild a life from scratch as I am. I work from wherever and strive to do as much as I can to build up momentum and increase my modest earnings.
I have to: The kind of geographical mobility I need comes at a price. I’ve been in Europe since the end of December 2018 so I can be present for my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer.
I don’t have a set schedule nor do I record the hours I put in unless it’s client work but they exceed the standard 40-hour week. By how many hours, I couldn’t tell you nor does it matter much to me.
My work has always been my vocation, it’s also a refuge and what keeps me going in many more ways than one.
This makes me very lucky as the mere act of thinking out loud in print induces random joy.
Perhaps it’s because I lost my writing voice for five years and thought I’d never get it back. Perhaps it’s because I thrive on challenges, an absence of routine, and ever-changing parameters.
In a culture where work is supposed to be laborious and unpleasant, I don’t fit the cliché because no matter how arduous mine gets, it’s always a source of enjoyment.
This makes for work ethics that can come across as extreme to others but don’t feel that way to anyone who loves what they do.
Out of necessity, many freelancers work far more than employees would ever do.
There’s a reason for that: Unless we are on retainers, our pay is commensurate to effort and therefore never guaranteed. In that sense, freelancing is often about survival and many of us start from nothing, with only skills, experience, and ideas rather than investment.
Some of us even venture into brand new professional adventures without knowing the first thing about how a particular industry works. If you’re gritty enough and lucky, it might just pay off.
Curiosity, determination, and the willingness to keep learning can sometimes make up for the absence of experience or skills, which you will naturally acquire as you go along. In almost all cases — pros and rookies — you have to go all in if you intend to get anywhere.
Time is the only resource many freelancers have so we try and maximize it.
Days off are unknown to me. I work weekends, I work on flights, I work on trains, I work the odd night, and I’m never not thinking about topics to write about or coming up with project ideas.
But I didn’t work or think about work yesterday because I made an exception and took the day off. For good measure, I even left my laptop in my backpack.
Because my family and I needed to reconnect. My stepmom caught me up on the last few weeks while Dad went out to get groceries and it quickly became clear he’s at risk of collapse. I can see it for myself and he needs to know he can lean on me and open up as he won’t talk to anyone else.
This is why I’m here, to help my parents navigate the nightmare.
But contrary to what it sounds like, new constraints that force me to work more intelligently so I can be available for my stepmom and my father when needed force improvement rather than let it happen organically.
The more organized you are, the more you can do with your time.
My mind functions by compartmentalizing everything and this is also how I manage to keep the chronic depression that stole five years of my life under control. Although I have found ways to focus at will even under the most trying circumstances, left to my own devices my style remains chaos in fast motion.
There’s always another thing to do, one more idea to jot down, and before you know it you’re in the middle of writing another essay so you might as well finish it.
I can disappear entire days and nights that way and emerge, surprised, that it’s already evening or morning, depending.
For freelancers, time is money; if we need to earn more, we work more.
But freelancing also means having complete control over your schedule: As long as the work gets done on time, how you proceed is up to you. This is why those of us with non-standard lives often turn to it.
Had I had a regular staff job that wasn’t remote-compatible, I’d have had to quit to come back to Europe while figuring out some other way to support myself. Instead, I packed up my laptop and my ideas and brought them with me across the Atlantic.
Taking the odd day off whenever needed is one of the perks of freelancing but it remains theoretical for many of us. And yet, you sometimes have to sacrifice a day’s earnings without hesitation and take time off: presence is priceless.
“It’s so lovely we were able to have dinner together,” Dad told me last night. When I was in Paris earlier this year, I routinely worked through dinnertime and regularly pulled two all-nighters a week.
I did what I had to do so I could fly back in May and it worked but I promised myself I’d do better next time. Back then, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for my parents.
And now is next time, so now I do better.
Because work should fit around life rather than life around work.
Please don’t wait for terminal illness to remind you how to live and enjoy every moment because no amount of money can deflect death.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.