It’s an unfortunate fact of freelance life: If you’re not working, you’re not getting paid. Yet at some point in your career, there’s going to be an extended period when you can’t work at full capacity because of personal reasons.
Maybe you’re getting ready to move, expecting to care for an aging parent, or waiting to have a baby. Perhaps you’re dealing with a death in the family but don’t want to press pause on all your work.
When situations like these arise, freelancers tend to have two extreme reactions: Either they keep trying to work like nothing changed, or they drop everything. From personal experience, I know the former usually doesn’t work. My father died several months after I went full-time freelance, and I immediately tried to power through with work. Eventually I reached my breaking point, and one client was furious that I never mentioned my dad’s death until after I was fired.
It was an eye-opening experience, and since then, I’ve learned a lot from other freelancers about how to balance work with important personal moments.
1. Rethink your work flow
Under normal circumstances, you might be able to complete a reported piece in a day. But if you’re anticipating something stressful happening, you’ll want to negotiate longer lead times just in case. If you normally cover breaking news, consider writing profiles or other stories that aren’t as time-sensitive.
I found that scheduling interviews with an erratic schedule was an unnecessary challenge. When planning a move with an uncertain timeline, I picked up an assignment helping a client repurpose existing content instead of pursuing original reporting. I could work on on my own time rather than dealing with the headache of scheduling with others.
2. Focus on existing relationships
Editors who know your work well are often more forgiving about personal crises or extended leaves than new ones, so focusing on existing relationships with editors can help until you get your mojo back.
Freelance writer Clair McLafferty recently used this approach when she experienced three deaths in her family in two months. “[My editors] know my track record and they know that I don’t push things back unless there’s a really good reason,” she said.
When writer Roxanne Hawn was caring for relatives and coping with several deaths, she gave her anchor clients clear notice that she couldn’t work on certain days. Hawn didn’t pitch any one-off assignments and even turned down work outside of her regular gigs for about six months.
In my case, I should have sent a quick just-the-facts email asking for patience as I made funeral arrangements and spent time with family. Save the emotional details for your therapist, but keep your editors informed.
“Your editors are humans too,” McLafferty said. “They know that there’s a need for gentleness during those situations.”
3. Prioritize organization
For situations when you may need to leave at any moment, staying organized is key. Hawn uses a desktop computer at home but keeps all her files on thumb drives so she can work from anywhere. “I’ve written entire magazine articles in the waiting rooms at a hospital,” she said. “The weeks that my mother-in-law was in hospice, I sat on the floor and wrote an entire email marketing campaign.”
I’ve been in similar situations. In fact, I wrote part of this story from the emergency room after my husband threw out his back mid-move.
There are times when it’s best to put away work and be fully present for ourselves and our loved ones, but many of these situations also require a lot of idle waiting, when work could be a welcomed distraction. And if you’re properly organized, work can seem more like a productive escape than a headache.
4. Make time for self-care
During stressful times, your sanity should be a higher priority than chasing down a zillion expert sources.
McLafferty has made peace with a slower pace. “It’s about snuggling with my dogs on the couch, taking myself out on a coffee date, just having time to read or color or write in a journal, and recognizing that professional tasks are, for now, secondary,” she said.
Schedule time for yoga, meditation, coffee with friends, or whatever else you need to stay balanced—and don’t be afraid to tap into your support system.
“Sometimes you need really good friends you can call on who are nearby, who will come and hang out with you at the Starbucks at the hospital lobby for 45 minutes on a given day,” Hawn said.
5. Ramp back up gradually
Give yourself permission to ease back into a full workload.
“When I was grieving, going from zero to full-time again simply wasn’t an option,” said Rebecca L. Weber, a journalist and writing coach who lost several family members in rapid succession a few years ago. “My brain short-circuited a lot.”
When returning to work, Weber started out by attending a conference to look for sources and story ideas. “Usually I would want to make the most of a conference by walking in with assignments in hand,” she said. “This was less pressure. I had some really clunky interviews that day, but I did pitch and sell a couple of stories about people who were there.”
Hopefully you have a financial cushion for times like these, but not everyone can afford to go cold turkey on freelance assignments for an indefinite time period. If you’re really struggling financially and are unable to work, don’t be afraid to apply for a grant from the Writer’s Emergency Assistance Fund. In the end, do whatever you can to keep your finances, and your sanity, intact. Your career will thank you.