Freelancers & the guilt of not always earning.
I very intentionally did nothing for an hour before writing this. That’s not true, I watched The Vow, because it’s October and ‘tis the season for scary shit. I wanted to write this after an hour away from my desk in the middle of the day, because if I’m going to tell you this is fine, I’d better tell myself, too. I’m a freelance writer, it’s what I’ve wanted to be my whole life, it’s what I should have been from the beginning, but now that I’m here, after over a decade in the startup hustle, I can’t help thinking I have to be “earning” all the time. You know the feeling, you stop to make a cup of coffee, scroll Instagram, close your laptop at a reasonable hour, and in comes the panic—the fear that you’re not doing enough to earn money. It’s a behavior I learned over time that’s difficult—but possible—to unlearn. It’s the idea that if I’m not earning money all day, every day, I’m lazy. Reader: I am not.
I typically wake before sunrise (you do not have to) and start working very early in the morning. This gives me some flexibility to tailor my day to what I need or want to do at any point in time. Others prefer to start their workdays in the afternoon, right around the time I’m wrapping things up. It doesn’t matter how or when you work, when you’re freelance, the whole point is that your day is customized to you. And at first, it can also feel like your day has to be maximized for money.
It is my belief that freelance life has a terrible reputation because if people really knew how possible, and preferable freelancing is to sitting in meetings all day and getting 2% raises once every 12 months (maybe), we’d all be freelance and the very foundations of society would crumble like so many games of Jenga. Freelance life is too well-kept a secret, and I’m very grateful that my life circumstances forced me into this line of work, because my prior training had taught me to fear it so much that I’d never have done it on my own. I’m here now, I’m earning a comfortable freelance living, and I manage to do that without spending every waking hour with my hands on a keyboard.
I want to talk about the guilt of doing nothing, the guilt of not constantly earning. When all you know of the working world is that you should grind yourself down into it, that anything other than exhaustion is laziness, it can be really, really difficult to take a moment for yourself—especially as a freelancer who may not have the comfort of consistent paychecks. I’m not going to tell you how to make more money, but I am going to tell you how to take more breaks. And everything’s going to be okay afterward.
Downtime As Discomfort
I was “raised” in the professional world operating at one of two speeds: On, and off. Being “on” meant operating at max capacity, and making sure everyone around you noticed you were operating at max capacity. (You can’t get credit for working hard unless you look completely depleted, come on now.) Being “off” meant you were a huge slacker, insulting your boss and the very foundations of the company itself if you dared to take a long weekend. Ever stopping meant you were somehow not dedicated enough to your work.
Bosses and structures are really good at making people feel guilty for taking a break. We’re taught to fear downtime, for how it makes us look, and for how visually less-valuable it makes us to those who sign our paychecks. We come to see downtime as a discomfort, because in not working, we’re obviously doing something wrong. We learn this, and over time, it becomes impossible to relax. Not doing anything becomes deeply unsettling. It’s that “there’s some other way I should be spending this time” feeling, forever.
Translate that then to freelance life, where the aversion to downtime is compounded by the pressure of unpredictable paychecks, and it’s really easy to find yourself in a freelance space where taking so much as a coffee break to sit outside for 15 minutes feels like laziness at best, failure at worst. Wasn’t the point of going freelance supposed to be more control of the work we do, and when we do it? So why then is it impossible for me to rest my eyes for 30 minutes and read something for pleasure on a page instead of for profit on a screen? Why is it so hard to do nothing?
Going somewhere for lunch instead of eating some sort of haphazard salad over our computer shouldn’t fill us with guilt. FaceTiming a friend at three in the afternoon shouldn’t fill us with anxiety, we shouldn’t be thinking the entire time “I should get back to work.” And watching an episode of a television show in order to clear our mind or focus on something that isn’t making money, the election, the pandemic, systemic racial injustice, or the impending doom that is the environment for one hour shouldn’t make us feel like we’re terrible people. And yet somehow, the guilt of doing nothing is always there.
I’m not here to tell you about the restorative nature of downtime, I’m confident there’s enough of that at your disposal already. But if you’re struggling with how to actually get good at doing nothing, I think I can be of assistance.
Proof & Practice
Knowing that you can do nothing and everything is going to be okay is a learned skill. In my opinion, there are two ways to teach yourself that you are allowed to do nothing, or take a break, or take a vacation and still manage to pay your bills and be a functioning member of society. In my opinion you can actually do far more than just pay your bills, you can earn an abundant living too, but let’s work on one thing at a time. Let’s start with doing a little more nothing. The first way is proof, and the second way is practice.
The easiest way I’ve found to teach myself how to do nothing is by remembering that no matter what, I’ve always managed to “make it.” There have been immensely tough financial and professional struggles that terrified me, things that made me feel like a horrible fate was coming for me, and that my life would always be shit. Spoiler: My life is not shit.
We don’t really debrief with ourselves very often. We don’t come out of tough times and really evaluate why they happened, or how proud we are of ourselves for getting through. Instead we’re typically just so relieved that whatever we presumed to be “the worst” is over. But we’re allowed to acknowledge that through the ups and downs of life, we’ve survived. We’re still here. We are at home, at desk, or on a phone, reading Medium right now. Things are okay, and we have proof in the fact that we made it all the way here today being okay. The world didn’t end in the time it took you to read this. And it won’t end if you extend your break today a little further still. Remember all you’ve accomplished, and all the ways you’ve taken care of yourself in the past—however large or small. Let the truth of those triumphs remind you it’s possible to just exist, and be okay, rather than letting the possibility of future shortcomings be your only guide.
Second, practice. Practice doing nothing, and then soak in further proof that this practice session didn’t result in your demise. Any size practice you’re comfortable with, just do it—just do nothing. While you’re doing nothing, ask yourself how you feel. Ask yourself to let go and feel okay a little bit more each time. Ask yourself what you need right now, what will support you more: is it 30 minutes of stretching or 30 minutes of client work after you’ve already done five hours of client work today? Sometimes it is harder to pull back than to push through. Acknowledge that, know it’s okay, and practice taking breaks.
If this is difficult, ask yourself what’s really happening while you’re not working. What is actually the detriment to your income generation? You let ten emails enter your inbox without immediate response, what happened? Did the world end, or did you just respond to them later, or even the next day?What were the actual negative consequences of that? You set a boundary and didn’t respond to the client who emailed you at 11pm until business hours the next morning. Did you lose out on an opportunity with the client, or gain an understanding between you and someone you’ve chosen to work with that you are not available at all hours—unless the client is paying extra for that? And if you did lose an opportunity with the client, is that client worth giving up your boundaries for? Is that even someone you want to be working with?
There is already so much proof in all you’ve accomplished in your professional life already. It’s okay to debrief with ourselves, to take an accounting of all we’ve ever accomplished, and let that serve as proof that we can do this—we can work and live and take care ourselves. We can support ourselves financially and mentally. There is room enough in the workday for it all.
The last thing I’ll mention is permission. Typical professional structures are build on all sorts of approvals. Approval in the form of praise, raises, promotions, etc., but also literally approval, in that you can’t take a vacation without the signature of someone else, despite being a fully functioning adult human being. So it’s not strange that in freelance life we might feel like we’re waiting for someone to “okay” our downtime. If it feels like you’re waiting for permission, give it to yourself.
Proof and practice will help you. As you start to see that taking breaks doesn’t directly correlate with failure, maybe even exactly the opposite, it will be easier to give yourself permission to breathe because you know things are going to be okay, and you practice reiterating that to yourself all the time. We become freelance so that we are the ones in charge, so that we no longer need permission for anything. I hope the freedom of that supports you in giving yourself permission to pause.
You don’t always have to hustle. Exhausting yourself doesn’t make you more worthy or capable of earning a living than anyone else in the world. Quite the opposite. As freelancers, there’s no one to cover for us, no one to jump in when we’re feeling burned out or in need of rest. Taking care of ourselves, always, should be a priority, vital to the success of our business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a cup of tea and drink it while petting the cat. And everything’s going to be fine.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.