Adding a Part-Time Freelance Job—While Avoiding Burnout

By Sara Polsky October 25th, 2022

In nearly 15 years as a professional writer and editor, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for only nine months—entirely by choice.

While many freelancers aspire to make their entire income from freelance work, I’ve found that freelancing works best for me as an add-on to my full-time job as the executive editor at a non-profit—not a replacement for it. This allows me to stretch different creative muscles, explore new types of work, and collaborate with new people without needing to change jobs frequently.

But when I started looking for advice on navigating part-time freelancing, most of what I came across was geared toward those who freelance full-time or hope to do so. I’ve found that being a part-time freelancer requires a different understanding of one’s time and priorities—but that it offers some unexpected freedoms alongside all of the juggling.

Figure out how much (and what kind of) time you have

For most part-time freelancers, the biggest constraint is time. On top of a 40+ hour work week, even a tiny amount of additional freelance work can feel like it takes up every spare corner of your calendar.

Part-time freelancer Jessica Dailey, a former colleague of mine who now takes on freelance writing assignments alongside her staff job, commits to about 15 hours of freelance work each month. “It doesn’t seem like a lot [on paper],” she said. “But it always feels like a struggle to fit it in.”

Over months of trial and error, I’ve figured out that I can take on between 20 and 40 hours of freelance work per month, depending on how busy I am at my full-time job and in other areas of my life. I work backward from there—knowing, for example, that I have one client who asks for a minimum of 10 hours of work per month—to figure out how many new projects I can accept.

When I hit the limit I’ve set for a given month, I know it’s time to start saying no or asking potential clients whether a project is flexible on its deadline. Otherwise, I’m setting out on a quick path to burnout.

As a part-time freelancer, I have to think about how much time I have and what kind of time.

As a part-time freelancer, I have to think about how much time I have and what kind of time. Since I work another job during standard business hours, I can’t take on projects involving many client meetings or interviews. Sometimes, the deadlines of my regular job make it impossible for me to complete projects with tight turnaround times.

So, I tend to accept projects that are more research- versus reporting-based, as well as ones that allow for longer lead times. While this can sometimes feel like a constraint—I miss the unexpected discoveries and connections that can happen while reporting a story—it’s also led me to new kinds of work.

Understand why you freelance—and choose projects accordingly

Part-time freelancing allows you to explore tasks and topics and build skills outside those you use for your full-time job. In addition to reporting and writing, my freelance projects involve everything from teaching about the constructionist approach to learning and reading college admissions applications to editing book-length manuscripts—none of which are tasks I’ve ever been hired to do full-time.

I haven’t always approached part-time freelancing this way. Early in my career, I freelanced primarily for extra income or because I wanted bylines from particular publications. My freelance assignments looked a lot like the work I did full-time.

But as I started paying more attention to which projects lit me up and which felt like a grind, I realized I was most excited about opportunities to explore other professional paths and learn new skills, while projects that duplicated my full-time duties often left me depleted. Sometimes, the skills I’ve built through freelancing find their way into my full-time role—for instance, early on in my career, my experiences writing and revising a novel led me to a job editing longform features. But today, that’s rarely my goal.

Dailey, whose current staff job focuses on branded content, freelances partly to keep writing and maintain her credibility as a journalist, even though her day-to-day role consists primarily of editing and producing content. “It exercises a different part of my brain,” she said. “Plus, I love interviewing people—and it’s still just enjoyable to be published.”

Keep it sustainable

Adding an extra 15, 30, or 40 hours of freelance work each month to a full-time workload, even if those freelance projects are engaging, can be a shortcut to burnout. One of the keys to continuing to freelance alongside full-time roles has been figuring out what triggers those negative feelings.

Keeping my freelance career sustainable has also meant learning to pace myself.

I make sure I choose projects that are unlikely to lead to burnout—in my case, this means taking on projects that offer new challenges, variety, and a schedule that allows me to work in chunks rather than requiring work every day. Other part-time freelancers have different strategies. The majority of the assignments Dailey takes, for example, are ones that editors bring to her, which means she can remove pitching from her to-do list.

Keeping my freelance career sustainable has also meant learning to pace myself. I’ve found that the most significant number of projects tend to come my way in fall and spring, and that those projects are often ones I want to take on—even if it pushes me right up to my 40-hour-a-month limit.

In exchange, if January, February, and the summer are quieter, I no longer scramble to fill the gap with other work. Instead, I take time to recharge, knowing that there are different seasons of great work ahead.

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