As I write this, my inbox is empty. Which, in any other context, would be great, right? We’re all striving for Inbox Zero.
But when you’re a freelancer, Inbox Zero is not a good thing. It means work is scarce. Editors aren’t replying to your emails. You’re not getting requests to pitch. Nobody wants to work with you. And your critical negative thoughts spiral downward from there. Your writing isn’t very good. You should probably give up. You feel worthless. Unskilled. Talentless. Maybe even invisible.
It’s the freelancing slump, and when it hits, it hits hard.
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you’re all too familiar with the highs and lows of this business, and you know how low the lows can go. Sure, the highs are high, but they’re fleeting, too. You celebrate your win, then immediately move on to the next milestone. It’s human nature to overlook the good and focus on the bad, and freelancing will test the limits of your human nature. It’s an emotional whirlwind.
The emotional side of freelancing
We don’t talk about the emotional side of freelancing nearly as much as we do the business side of things. There are dozens of articles on How I Make Six Figures As a Freelancer! or How I Earn 10K A Month As A Freelancer! But a big part of freelancing successfully — getting to the stage where you’re able to bring in that level of cash flow — is learning how to manage the emotional side of freelancing. After all, it’s hard to negotiate higher rates when you feel worthless. It’s hard to keep pitching stories when you feel invisible. It’s hard not to want to give up entirely and go back to the full-time grind (and in some cases, that really is the best option). It’s hard to do your best work when you feel like your work isn’t landing with anyone.
I’ve been dealing with the highs and lows of freelancing for years, and during the lows, I usually call a friend and complain like it’s the end of the world. “I can’t do this anymore,” I’ll say. “This isn’t sustainable.” I start to make plans for a new career, unsure of what to do next. Then, eventually, I’ll get a nibble from an editor, publication, or client, and I immediately forget how bad the slump was. I get over it quickly and ride the high while it lasts. But once I’m back in the inevitable slump, the cycle repeats. I call a friend and complain like it’s the end of the world again. Apparently, this is sustainable. But it doesn’t seem healthy.
The role of validation
“You go through the slump every year,” a friend said recently. “It will be fine.” But the slump doesn’t feel fine when you’re in it. And even though you logically understand everything will probably work out okay because you’ve been doing this for ages and it always works out okay, you struggle to convince your emotions of it. The problem with the freelancing slump, aside from the self-loathing, is that it’s damn near impossible to get any work done while you’re down there. Why bother writing, pitching, searching for gigs, working on your book, or networking when you’re not getting validation that those efforts are working? It feels like you’re wasting your time.
I’ve done a lot of work and therapy to get over the self-loathing part of the slump. Most of the time, I can see it objectively: The freelancing slump is inevitable and it doesn’t mean my writing is terrible or that I’m terrible or that there’s some “DO NOT WORK WITH” list that has my name on it. But objectively, I know that it’s a struggle to feel motivated when I’m not getting any external validation (and, you know, I’m worried about paying the bills). Some writers seem able to separate their ability to get shit done with their need for validation, but I don’t think I’ll ever be one of them. My ego is part of who I am, and who I am is human.
Staying motivated through a freelancing slump
So the question becomes: How do I make my ego feel validated so that I can do my best work? And how do I deal with the financial stress of not knowing what my income will look like from month-to-month? It’s something I’m still trying to hack, but I’ve found a few things to be helpful:
- Helping other people. This reminds you that you have purpose and you have something to offer. During one of my first freelancing slumps, I started volunteering at a library.
- Working on something else. Validation isn’t about a pat on the back, it’s about seeing the results of your actions. And if that’s not happening with your freelancing, it might help to work on some other results-driven task. Sometimes simply cleaning the house puts me in a productive mood, which then makes it easier to motivate myself to write.
- Having a business emergency fund. It took me years to actually do this, but having a lump sum of savings in my business account for slow months has been crucial to my mental health. I still worry about money, but not nearly as much as I did early on in my career. It makes the slump a lot more bearable.
- Reading. Often enough, I get inspired when I’m reading, and that serves as better motivation than external validation.
Some writers use the slump to lean into self-care. They rest, recuperate, relax. That’s also a great — and many times necessary — option. But during my freelancing peaks, when I’m busy and struggling to find time to work on my book or other projects, I always kick myself thinking, “Dammit, I should have taken advantage of that slump!”
When you’re in the slump, worrying about money is bad enough, and sometimes it just makes sense to go back to the old 9-to-5 and freelance on the side — there are some major advantages to doing so, which screenwriter Brian Koppelman talks about in this video. If you’re committed to making it through the slump, however, and continuing your career as a freelancer, managing your mental health and productivity will be an ongoing challenge. What’s helped maybe more than anything is having a community of writers that know exactly how this feels and can ruminate with you and offer emotional support.
Sometimes it just helps to know you’re not alone.