I’ll be the first to admit that managing an often unpredictable workload - alongside a family - can feel a little stressful at times. We’ve all had those days when our to-do list is never ending yet we don’t feel productive, or we’ve tried to be a superhero and taken on way too much with minimal childcare. Throw in a bad night with a teething toddler, and the temptation to give up and binge watch The Housewives of Beverley Hills with a packet of Hobnobs is hard to resist.
So, in this newsletter I wanted to share a few ways that I manage being a parent with an unpredictable workload. I’ll also cover the mistakes I’ve made along the way and how I keep myself on track - whether i’m very busy or very quiet.
NB. As we seem to be slowly moving back towards some form of normality, my advice is based on life out of lockdown.
Break up your workload into manageable chunks
Time management is one of the most important elements of being a freelancer and it can test even the best of us when things get busy. If you have regular clients that you work for each week, it’s helpful to set specific days (even unofficially) to do that work while leaving yourself breathing space for other jobs that might come along. I also like to carve out a few hours each week for business admin like invoices, updating my expenses, replying to non-urgent emails, working on pitches, and marketing my business.
If all your work comes at once and you start to feel overwhelmed, break it down into more manageable chunks, depending on deadlines and priority level. You can then work through one task at a time, rather than flapping over multiple jobs at once. If you get easily distracted, set a timer on your phone and try to work for solid chunks of time - even it’s just for 20 minutes. Simple tools like Self Control also give you the option to lock yourself out of distracting platforms such as Twitter and Gmail. Simply download it as an extension to your Chrome browser and set a time limit on how long you want to be locked out for. Leaving your phone in another room while you work also eliminates notifications constantly battling for your attention.
Try not to take on too much
If, like me, you have a young child and only a few days of childcare (or none at all), it can be difficult to know your limits - especially if you’re expecting to achieve the same amount of work as you did pre-baby.
Before lockdown I really bit off more than I could chew. My son was only going to nursery two days a week which worked well as I slowly returned to work after maternity leave. But after a few months, work started getting busier and before I knew it, I had the workload of a full-time freelancer (but nothing I could rely on, as all my work was ad-hoc). I was reluctant to increase my son’s childcare in case my busyness didn’t last, so I was working rapidly whenever I could - during nap times, in the evening, at the weekend and then sometimes while he played.
It wasn’t sustainable and I got quite a bad virus as a result. It also really wasn’t fair on my son who was becoming increasingly impatient with his mummy being so distracted. I was trying to do too much and burned myself out in the process. I had also learned a valuable lesson: childcare is a lot of work so we shouldn’t think we can do it alongside a busy job, just because we work from home.
So my husband and I agreed that we should increase our childcare now that I was fully back in the swing of things. While it was only one extra day, it allowed me plenty more time to focus and I felt so much better. Deciding on how much help you need is difficult when your work is unpredictable and nurseries/nannies/childminders are so expensive, but keep checking in with yourself and don’t be afraid to adapt and also admit when it’s getting too much.
Staying positive when you have a dry spell
Quieter periods, like the one many of us are in right now, can be difficult to cope with. When I face a lull in work, I try to stay positive and see it as a time to reflect - on the work I’ve been doing, the direction my business is moving in, the client relationships I want to grow (and the ones I should probably cut loose), and how I feel when I’m not working. A list of positives and negatives is always a good place to start.
You can also try and set your mind to those jobs you’ve been meaning to do for a while but haven’t had chance. For example, during lockdown I’ve lost a fair bit of regular work so I had my website redesigned and I launched this newsletter to help grow my business in different ways. Both are milestones I’ve been meaning to reach for a long time and it made me feel great when I’d achieved them.
Keeping a rainy day fund going for dry spells will also eliminate a lot of financial and emotional stress too.
Keep pitching for new work
It’s always good to keep looking forward when working for yourself - even when you’re busy. Think about when your current work is due to end and what you have in the pipeline for the next few months. Planning in this way will ensure you’re continually laying the groundwork for future work – whether that’s pitching to new clients, making new connections, looking at job boards or speaking to recruiters at freelance agencies. It should also help to reduce the amount of quiet periods you have.
Give yourself a review
As a freelancer you obviously don’t get the annual reviews that you have in a permanent position. (You might see this as a good thing - who really cares how Brenda in I.T. rates your communication skills out of 10?) But sometimes it’s good to acknowledge your achievements and when you could have done things better. I keep a folder of good feedback from editors and clients and take a look at it when my confidence needs a boost, while also going over constructive feedback. I also remind myself of new clients and pitches I’ve landed as it can be easy to forget those small everyday wins. No one else is going to do it, so give yourself a big pat on the back every now and then.
Refresh your skills with online courses and webinars
I’ve recently taken quite a few free webinars and paid online courses and they’ve really helped with different areas of my career – including setting up this newsletter. They’ve also helped me stay connected to the freelance community during lockdown and chat with others in my industry about how they’re finding things. Keep an eye out on Eventbrite, The Dots, LinkedIn and Twitter for courses and webinars and make the most of them while they’re available. And don’t forget, paid-for courses can be claimed as an expense against your business.
Don’t forget the importance of rest
Carving out time to take a proper holiday - or just a couple of days off - can be a challenge as a freelancer but it’s so important. In a permanent role, you’d have 25 days or so of holiday a year, and you’d get reminders from HR if you hadn’t taken it all. But who can say as a freelancer that they took that amount of holiday last year? That’s because no one reminds us that we need a break, not to mention that it’s not always that easy when you don’t get paid for it.
As a parent, you also have another full-time job on top of everything and that’s not to be underestimated. So be kind to yourself, enjoy quiet periods without feeling guilty and make time to do things completely unrelated to work that inspire you.
Helpful resources for busy parents
Since launching this newsletter I’ve discovered some great support networks for freelance parents. The first is the Doing it For the Kids Facebook group which is excellent for networking, promoting your business and asking for advice. The second is Fully Booked Mums - also a Facebook group - that acts as a place for freelance and self-employed parents to connect. There’s also lots of opportunity to shout about your services if you’re looking to link up with other businesses. Additionally, Leapers is an organisation that supports the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed and has loads of great resources on its website. Finally, check out Career Curious on Instagram - an inclusive community for women developing their careers in lots of very inspiring ways. Thank you Career Curious for all of your support with this newsletter so far.
Next week’s newsletter is going to be all about regaining your confidence after having a baby, along with a brilliantly insightful interview with award-winning journalist and novelist Saima Mir. We chatted about the reality of freelancing with small children, maternal rage and taking constructive criticism. It’s a goodie so don’t miss it.
Until then take care and have a happy and productive week.
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