I didn’t start my freelance career on my own terms.
Whenever you hear me say that it’s best to transition slowly into freelancing and build a client base before you make any kinda jumps or leaps, that’s me talking in hindsight. I ended up in a do-or-die situation with my freelance business, meaning after I was laid off I either had to make it work or I’d go back to employment.
That was enough of an issue on its own but I had one other thing weighing me down…burnout. I had it and I had it bad.
I could tell you about the time I collapsed coming up the stairs to work one Wednesday afternoon or how I’d come to despise every day of the week (not just Mondays or Sundays), but by the time I was considering freelancing, those things didn’t matter. I wasn’t even going into an office anymore.
I was however, sitting in a place where I was relieved to be out of a job I felt chained to (because “good job”) but also facing a future of self-employment that I really wished I was better prepared for — while I’d been working on business ideas and writing on the side for years, my side income was nowhere near what it needed to be to survive. That meant that I was dealing with the two-headed problem of building a new career and healing from burnout at the same time.
At the time, it felt like there wasn’t any real way out.
If I took another job to give myself some more time to launch my freelance business, I risked burning the little emotional energy and will I had left on another employer. On the other hand, I knew that every day I took as downtime to heal was a financial drain, not to mention time burnt that I knew I was already short on.
At 34, I was acutely aware that the drive that feels infinite in your 20s isn’t as plentiful as you get older. I knew I had to use it, and my money carefully so I set some priorities around both healing and business growth and laid down some deadlines.
1 Month to Rest
One of the most important advantages I had after my layoff was about 4 months of severance pay.
I knew though, that I couldn’t just burn it all on that trip to Samoa I’d promised myself (I didn’t have the cushion of parents or massive savings to fall back on if that break didn’t pay off) so I decided to make a compromise: I gave myself 1 month to do absolutely nothing — no job searching, no website building, no research for my freelance business. I would just enjoy living as if I were on paid vacation and heal at least enough to give myself a fighting chance of starting a business that would be more than a footnote in my life.
Looking back, this was critical.
If I hadn’t given myself that time…if I had, in a panic, simply jumped into setting up my life as a freelancer, I doubt I would have had it in me to produce the kind of work that would lay the foundation of my new career.
6 Months to Chill
Nobody really knows whether freelancing will work for them. It’s something you figure out as you go.
This was something I knew even as a baby freelancer, so I gave myself 6 months to decide whether or not this new life would be a viable option for me. I figured that would give me enough room to get some decent perspective, but also wouldn’t completely sink my career if I needed to step back into employment.
What I didn’t do during that half a year though, was break my neck.
I’d heard story after story of freelancers working 8, 10, 12- hour days to keep the money coming in and I refused to be that person. I’d seen enough entrepreneurs in my life who were owned by their businesses and there was simply no way…on this Earth…I was going to end up more stressed than I was as an employee with the added insecurity of entrepreneurship on top…so I made a decision about what my business would look like.
I decided I eventually wanted to be able to make my old salary working only half time. They say you should start the way you want to finish, so knowing how prone I am to continuous work, I decided that even in the first, 6 trial months, I’d only work half time. Some days I worked more than 4 hours, some less, but I wanted to make sure I was only putting about 20 hours a week into my business.
Looking back, this helped me set a rhythm for myself that would be essential in finding the balance of income and peace. It also forced me to focus on getting out of low-paying gigs ASAP — if I was going to see whether I could survive as a freelancer in just 6 months I didn’t have time to waste in content mills and low-dollar Upwork gigs.
1 Year of Distance
I had to face an ugly truth in that first 6 months — and that was that the absolute fastest way for me to get my income up would be to piggy back off my employment background. I had 10 years’ experience in a very narrow field and knew that I could pick up clients there pretty easily. Problem was, when I tried to even prospect for contacts, I would get ill.
The simple act of searching for email addresses had me feeling defeated and hopeless…basically, the old symptoms of burnout crept right back in.
I’d learned not to ignore my emotions (or physical reactions), so I put all that down. I wouldn’t even consider touching on my old field for a full year. I genuinely needed time to heal so I gave it to myself.
Looking back, I’m more than glad I did, because when I did started taking on clients in my field again, it took a lot to manage it emotionally. That year allowed me to get re-acquainted with myself as a worker absent the weight of a job that eroded my soul, so that when I went back to my employed niche, I could see the unhealthy and disproportionate stress responses I was having (they weren’t gone, at all) and address them the way I needed to. That year gave me the space to learn how to navigate myself and my clients.
Of course, never returning to my employed niche was always an option (I’d put a tech twist on my industry that was serving me well), but financial benefits aside, as a freelancer, I’ve found that I’ve been able to get much deeper into refining my skills with clients that connect to my old life than with “lighter” gigs. One day, I might leave it behind completely, but for now, it’s teaching me lessons that I don’t’ think I could learn anywhere else.
If your freelance life should bring you anything, it’s more peace. Make sure to give yourself space where you can and where you need it most…your business will thank you.