Freelancing and the Mythical Work/Life Balance

When you tell people you freelance, the response (unless they’re other freelancers) is usually an airy ‘oh, that must be nice.’ They visualise you setting your own schedule, working in your pajamas, having lots of free time, getting to travel, and having a very easy, laid-back kind of job that allows you to create your own boundaries and enforce them, working as much and as little as you want to. Some of these things are true, but not that last one.

As a freelancer, I do get to decide when I wake up, what I work on in a given day, and what order I do my work in. Often, I do indeed work in my pajamas, because I’m at home, and they’re comfortable, and I don’t feel like getting dressed. Freelancing at this stage in my career allows me to turn down work I’m not interested in so I can focus on things I’m passionate about, although that wasn’t always the case, and I do indeed do some work-related traveling, sometimes to interesting places.

But this is where the reality starts to diverge from the myth of freelancing. Do I have free time? No. The first thing I do when I wake up is usually rolling over in bed to check my email on my phone in case something urgent has come up. I eat breakfast over the computer, catching up on the last night’s news, pitching stories, and setting up my schedule for the day. Sometimes that schedule gets totally disordered because a last minute project comes in, or some edits I have been waiting on finally arrive, or the cat gets bloody diarrhea and I have to shift everything around to take her to the vet.

And it doesn’t stop. All day long, I work. I say to friends sometimes that ‘if I’m awake, I’m working,’ and they laugh in a kind of nervous way, but what they don’t realise is that it’s true. With rare exceptions, if I’m awake, I’m doing something for work. All those books I read? Those are all for work; they’re research, they are things I will review, they are things I read to keep up with genres and writers I follow. I enjoy reading them, and I’m lucky to have work I enjoy, but I don’t read for fun. I don’t watch film and television for fun either. That, too, is for research and work.

Everything I do is wound back into work, even something as innocuous as getting dinner at a restaurant in San Francisco. It’s very, very rare for me to have true days off, which is why I scoff at the idea of a work/life balance for myself. What life? I have no life, unless I’m sleeping, in which case I can’t really be said to be ‘enjoying life.’ Every experience, everything I do, every move I make, is work-related, and I treasure very much the few moments I get to carve out as time exclusively for myself, time that isn’t for research or public consumption; my game nights with friends, baking parties to make cookies with people I love.

These experiences are common to a lot of young freelancers, all of us scrabbling to make a living and really struggling with the concept of a work/life balance. Many, like me, feel like we’re constantly at work, and have lives structured around instant availability and rapid response. Part of that is a consequence of the work climate we inhabit, where the internet demands fast turnaround and action rather than more thoughtful, considered work that can be paced out over time.

Part of it is also the financial pressures of freelancing today, in a climate where people are severely underpaid for their work and the cost of living is rising. I have to write more to survive than freelancers did ten years ago, and freelancers in ten years will likely be working even harder. People I know who are more established or who have part-time gigs with publications that pay fairly well are often shocked when I talk about how much I and other young freelancers work; we are a generation of constant workers for low return, living on the fringe of nonexistent savings accounts and desperate grasps for more stable income.

So when I see freelancing mythologised as some kind of noble profession, or something for lazy people, I can’t help but burn a bit. It’s not more or less noble than any other profession; it just is, and it’s important work in that freelancers can often bring things to light that it wouldn’t emerge otherwise, but the same can be said of some other professions too. Creating an idea of us as noble also reinforces the notion that we should be willing to sacrifice for the cause, and we should be happy with poor working conditions and exploitation because we’re doing something larger and more important—these same attitudes explain why people are expected to perform unpaid labour for social movements, or contribute their time and energy to other activities that they should rightly be compensated for.

And freelancing is not for lazy people. There is nothing lazy about this work, which requires a constant hustle, aggressive sales capabilities, the willingness to push and promote and market yourself. You need to stick feet in doors and get aggressive and network and hassle editors, because if you don’t, you won’t be eating in the following month. It’s not for the faint of heart, which is why a lot of people drop out of freelancing very quickly; this speaks not to their failure as human beings, or to their abilities, but to the significant obstacles that lie in the path of success for freelancers.

So no, freelancing isn’t easy, and people should stop making the assumption that it is.