I really shouldn’t be writing this. I’m on deadline for two press releases, an annual report and a grant proposal. None of these are freelance assignments but, rather, obligations to the two employers that pay my bills.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time I had a single part-time job, was landing freelance assignments for real magazines and even getting paid to podcast. Then a daughter was born, bringing with her the need for a good insurance plan. A job opportunity arose that gave our finances some much-needed stability. We bought a house. Another daughter arrived. Suddenly I had three jobs, two kids, a couple of mortgages and this insistent urge to keep writing.
I just couldn’t let the dream die. So I learned to juggle.
Even when you’re doing it right, juggling means that something is always hurtling along on whatever trajectory you’ve last sent it. Unsupervised. Waiting to be intercepted on its way back down. It took awhile, but I’ve learned how to make that catch and keep my finances afloat, my bosses happy with my performance, and freelancing in the mix.
To rip-off Stephen Colbert, “I Am Insanely Oversubscribed, and So Can You!” Or, to point you to a more credible source, Sarah Webb (bio) has all the details of being a “jill of all trades” in her excellent chapter of our excellent book – “The Diversity of Science Writing.”
Here are some tips for perfecting the art of juggling.
Set deadlines for everything
Even if you’re a born organizer (which I am not), it is alarmingly easy to drop the ball when you’re juggling jobs. I now set deadlines on everything that’s due, from a conference call, to a feature article, to a measly little follow-up e-mail. I tried giant desk calendars, Gmail’s built-in “task list,” and an online organizational tool called Workflowy, until I finally found Asana, a free online program that lets you create different projects and a list of tasks for each. I assign myself tasks and give them all “due dates,” then Asana sends daily e-mail reminders of what I should be up to. Outsourcing my inner nag lets me concentrate on the task at hand and not worry that there’s something I’m forgetting.
Don’t tune in but do drop out
My various employers never remember which days are set aside for what job and constantly try to get in touch with me as soon as something requiring my attention surfaces. The result is hundreds of unread e-mails in my inbox and constant calls on my cell phone. There is a strong urge to respond to these immediately, but that just fans the flames. Sometimes I have to (gasp!) close my web browser, turn off my phone and focus on the task at hand. I can always check in with the boss at the end of the day. Of course my tasks often require the Internet and its unlimited possibilities for distraction, which is why I’ve slowly built up resistance to the urge to head off in unproductive directions. Luckily there are some nice little apps that help reinforce that skill, ranging from a friendly nudge to a stern taskmaster.
Finding part time jobs with lulls is crucial for effective job juggling. Programs I run for one organization occur in late spring and summer, while my university gig revolves around the academic calendar. I work for both year round, but the important deadlines for each hammer me at different times. If an upcoming task conflicts with my usual schedule, I can switch my days around to accommodate. Even better, working from home part-time means sometimes I get to do other important things like schedule interviews with sources, walk my daughter to preschool and even have lunch with my family every now and then.
Lower your expectations
I got paid to write exactly one freelance assignment last year. My New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to double that output. This means I’m able to still technically call myself a freelancer while providing for my family. The reason this doesn’t drive me crazy is that life’s not short. This is just a stage that’s bound to pass and, I dare to dream, someday I’ll make it back to a single part-time job and a whole half of the week with nothing to do but write. In fact, I’ll soon be posting some details on my attempt to keep my toes in freelancing. For now, it’s back to the paying gigs.