Growing up, I hated not being busy. I felt like if I didn’t have a jam-packed schedule I was just being lazy. This mentality continued in my adult life. With the structure of a 9-5, I was able to keep my schedule clean with plenty of time off, but once I entered the world of freelance writing I picked back up my old habits. Besides writing multiple stories per week, I also waitressed, resulting in 60 hour workweeks. Why? Because that’s what successful, self-starting New Yorkers do, right? Wrong. Here, I talk about how taking a step back led to meaningful success.
Americans have a “the busier, the better” mentality and it’s not healthy. “Short-term stress is good, it will get you through a deadline, get you pumped before a big event, and ready your body to survive,” explains Dr. Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track. “But over long periods of time it simply exhausts your body and mind, breaking down your immunity and your cognitive skills like attention and memory.” As a 2015 Harvard Business Review article states, “Keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”
Recently, I came to this realization when I quit my side job to focus completely on freelance work and find more balance in my life. This new-found free time led to my current boom in work that I’m passionate about. As rewarding as this is now, it didn’t happen overnight. Here are a few lessons I picked up along the way to help me get to where I am – happy and balanced.
I learned how to analyze my worth
As a freelance writer, you learn how to analyze each assignment to figure out what’s worth your time. I don’t just mean by pay either, although that is part of it. You have to think about other reasons an article might be worth your time, such as exposure or your passion for the topic you’d be writing about. Each time I get a new assignment, I have to weigh all these against one another and decide if I should take it on, or let it go. It’s rewarding to get to the point in a freelance career where you feel comfortable enough to turn down assignments.
I learned to say no
One of my biggest issues has always been saying no. Sound familiar? I used to take on any project that was asked of me, and let them stack them up. I learned that saying no doesn’t equate to laziness, it just means that it’s not worth your time. And I’m finally OK admitting that. I recognized that my time is precious and I had to stop treating it otherwise. Saying no and letting go of daunting tasks allowed me to use my time wisely.
I discovered the significance of my off-the-clock time
As a small town girl wanting to make it in the big city, I always thought the most important thing would be my career and a social life would be fluff. This mentality was so clearly misguided.
Having drinks with girlfriends or dinner with my boyfriend takes away from that feeling of work chaos, because it’s fun and by choice. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to my work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve unintentionally ironed out stories through conversations or gotten ideas from discussions and debates. I realized this “time off” is just as important as the time I spend on my laptop, researching story angles.
This also goes for alone downtime. It’s during a day in the park or while cooking in silence that I let my mind wander, coming up with ideas I wouldn’t have discovered if I let outside stimulants distract me.
Dr. Seppälä points out, “Some of the most inventive people in our society have claimed that their game-changing insights arose out of daydreaming or irrelevant and mindless tasks.” She tells the story of famed inventor Nikola Tesla. When he had gotten sick on a trip, he took walks with a friend to help him recover. It was while watching a sunset on one of these walks that led Tesla to develop modern day’s alternating current electrical mechanism.
“Simply put, creativity arises when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle,” explains Dr. Seppälä. “It’s the proverbial AH-A moment in the shower – when you finally come up with a solution you’ve been looking for.”
I reexamined what success meant to me
Yes, writing is my job. I write to get paid, published and to create a name for myself, but I also write because I love it. When I was filling up my schedule with small assignments and side jobs, I was losing sight of why I went freelance.
I was looking at everything as a paycheck, but I didn’t become a freelancer because of the money. I became a freelancer so I could focus on my writing and discovering my voice. When I was rushing through stories the day of deadline, I wasn’t becoming a better writer. I was making the same mistakes and billing clients for them.
Quantity may come from a busy schedule, but quality comes from picking and choosing, saying no, friends and free time.
We want to know, how do you define success?