How to make the most of a shitty day as a freelancer

Yesterday was one of those days that combine all the worst things about being a freelancer.

It was the first work day back after a long holiday weekend, and the week before had been achingly slow. (Late August is a notorious work slump for most industries. People go on vacation, soaking up the end of summer, and those who are still on the clock tend to sink into a Facebook-animal-video-induced haze.)

I mostly stuck around home all weekend, cleaning, cooking, trying to save a little dough since the first of the month is always a tricky financial moment — the mortgage and some auto-pay bills clear all at once, leaving me strapped for a few days until some client checks start rolling in. And nothing rolls in on a holiday weekend.

I eagerly awaited Tuesday, hoping everyone would burst back onto the scene with new work assignments and lightning-fast bank transfers of all their invoice payments.

Wrong.

The day dawned rainy and gray, forcing me to cancel the one thing I had on the calendar (a walk through the dog park with my friend and fellow freelancer — something that would have provided a healthy dose of commiseration and connection).

Instead, I sat in my usual spot on the couch, hitting refresh on my email and feeling the wheels of anxiety start to creak and spin.

I sent a few emails. I read some articles online. I scrolled through my Twitter feed; everyone else seemed to be sharing tips on how to become a towering success; posting links to their latest articles, speaking engagements, and achievements; moving and shaking; making things happen.

My sense of estrangement and unworthiness ballooned.

I needed the green light from myriad different clients and editors before I could move forward with anything on my plate, and they’d all gone silent.

Maybe they’re all on a fun-filled retreat together, I thought, lauding each other’s many accomplishments and toasting their regular paychecks, while I take another pointless lap around the kitchen butcher block like a zoo animal.

Finally, at least, here comes the mailman, hopefully bearing checks. He comes and goes, leaving only my IRA statement, which projects my annual income after retirement at $161.

I started a fellowship application and abandoned it part way through, deferring to the criticism of the selection committee in my head. I started a yoga video on YouTube, but quit after twenty minutes. I started to reflect on how often I start things that I don’t finish, but I veered away from the realization before deciding what to do about it.

They say when in doubt, move your body. Having a dog to take long walks with has saved my freelancing ass from going totally crazy countless times now. The rain had finally let up and the sun was peeking out. I suited Wabi up and we set off on our three-mile loop.

About a mile in, it occurred to me that I could reframe the day.

True, there was zero external progress or productivity. But days like this, as tough as they are, are actually part of why I signed up for this lifestyle.

Because this is when the soul work happens. That deep, uncomfortable soul work that requires just the right mix of boredom, hunger, stymied ambition, and restless indecision. Days that are drenched in that big, hairy question of who you are and what you want and if you’re at all worthy and capable of getting it — and nothing to do but sit in it.

Nothing…to…do…but…sit…in…it.

When I can’t produce or progress, my whole mind itches. I need some work to do, some goals I can achieve, some validation, some money.

And it’s all waaaaaaay over there: communication, validation, compensation. Forward motion.

But I am always, first and foremost, a writer. Even when I’m not writing. Writing requires noticing. And here was a whole day in which I had nothing else to do but notice things: my discomfort with stillness, the way social media really makes me feel, my resistance to completing challenging tasks, the way my mind unclenches when my body is in motion.

It looked like a day with no work. But it was really just a day of invisible work. A day of soul work, body work, spirit and mind work. The kind of work that gets neglected when things are jamming and time is racing by.

We are our own projects, after all. Not our side hustles, not our progress toward a goal, not anything we create or produce. Just us, ourselves. That’s the main gig, y’all. That’s what we’re really here for.

Sometimes it’s the hardest, most frustrating days that remind us of that and give us the space we need to do the R&D, the beta-testing, and the pivoting we need to do to grow.

Today is already better, not because I did yoga with a friend, heard from some clients, and got some checks (though all are true, amen and hallelujah). But because I sat in that discomfort long enough yesterday to learn its shape and flavor, and today I had the satisfaction of describing it.

Sometimes the task is simply to let things spin and settle, and try to observe and describe the whir.

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