Keep calm and carry on? How to freelance through a crisis

Image of a life buoy in a swimming pool

I'm writing this amid the smoking ruins of another shitty year. It's the third in a row - 2020 was bad, 2021 decided to top it, then 2022 laughed, rolled up its sleeves and said 'Hold my beer'.


I don't think many people had a great time in 2020. For me, along with coping with the pandemic, it brought burnout and the realisation that I'd come to the end of the road in a job I loved. I returned to freelance work amid massive uncertainty, then eight months later my 14-year relationship ended and I had to adjust to life as a single parent. I wrote about 2021's challenges briefly here. Then, early in 2022, the floor once again dropped out from under me as my lovely mum suffered the first of two massive strokes that have left her paralysed and completely dependent on carers. Since my separation mum had been a huge support, so alongside the distress of nearly losing her, her illness has had a massive impact. I've lost my main source of childcare and acquired a major new responsibility as my brother lives in Japan so the full impact of supporting her, including managing her care, medication, household and finances, has fallen to me.


There's no safety net for traumatic life events when you work freelance. There is no compassionate leave and no colleagues to take up the slack. The past few years have taught me quite a lot about adversity, resilience and coping strategies, so I thought I'd share some perspectives here. 


1. Look after yourself

I hate the term 'self-care'. It brings to mind an string of meaningless social media quotes from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow with her $1000 scented candles and unspeakable jade eggs. But despite my dislike of the whole industry that has developed around the concept, at its core is a fundamental truth that you, and only you, are responsible for your own wellbeing. When you are overwhelmed with responsibility for other people it's easy to imagine you don't have time to look after yourself, but in reality you can't afford not to. I eventually realised when I became a single parent that I needed to look after myself first in order to care for my daughter, and that's more true than ever now I have caring responsibilities for my mum as well. Self-care looks different for everyone so it's important to understand what works for you. Focus on the basics - food, sleep, time outdoors, exercise - and try to build healthy routines and habits into your day to help you take positive action even if you don't feel like it. There are loads of resources on the internet - for example, Mind have some helpful pointers for looking after your mental health. I have learned that I need to protect time in my schedule for exercise because it's essential for my wellbeing. This means I've had to rethink my work schedule, which connects with my second point about finances and workload.


2. Take control of your finances and workload

I'm often surprised by how many freelancers are scared of dealing with money. Managing your finances is fundamental to self employment and never more so than when life is going wrong. I think there are three elements here. Know how much your business costs to run, know what you need to live on, and have some savings in reserve. The first two help you to price your work and make sure you're charging an appropriate rate to cover your outgoings. They also help you work out a baseline level of income and therefore the minimum amount of work you need to live on if you're suddenly faced with other, inescapable demands on your time. The third enables you to make choices. When I first went freelance I was advised to keep a rainy day fund to cover six months of outgoings in case business was slow or I was unable to work for any reason. That was brilliant advice and I'm glad I took it seriously. If you work freelance and you don't have a rainy day fund, start one as soon as you can. The other great piece of advice I was given was to keep on top of your cashflow. I am a bit obsessed with cashflow but it's an essential part of managing your business. Call me unemotional but one of the first things I did when my partner said he was leaving was get out the spreadsheets. I couldn't deal with the emotional fallout until I'd established that I was able to provide for myself and my child. 


This year, having a rainy day fund and being clear about costs and outgoings meant that I could choose to take some time out this summer to look after myself a bit better, take my daughter on holiday and support my mum. I have had to scale work back significantly to give mum the support she needs - which is having a big impact both in the short and longer term - but financial planning means I know how much work I need to take on, and can choose what to say no to, for the rest of the financial year. If, like me, you're a sole trader and find yourself scaling back on your workload you should also talk to HMRC, either directly or through your accountant if you have one, about reducing payments on account so that you don't end up paying tax on money you're not going to earn. 


3. Be honest

When you work freelance it's incredibly difficult to be honest with clients when things are going wrong. I think there's a justifiable fear of seeming less than competent or as if you might not be able to cope, and nobody wants to be in a position where a client might lose confidence in our ability to deliver. So we all want to seem like we're on top of everything and often act like the proverbial swan, serene and calm on the surface while paddling like hell underneath. But if paddling turns to flailing, chances are our clients will notice anyway and it's far better to be straight with people about the issues you're facing and give them a chance to be supportive. I don't mean oversharing the epic saga of your relationship breakdown or family problems, but just giving people the basics and explaining why you might need a bit of leeway with deadlines or extra time on an assignment can make a big difference. Of course this depends on your relationships with the people you're working with, but we are all human and in my experience clients have been hugely sympathetic to the impact of traumatic life events. Many people will have dealt with something similar themselves. I am not naturally given to sharing personal information so it's been revelatory to me how generous people have been when I did finally tell them what was happening. In most cases they have done their best to be accommodating and I've had people sharing their own stories of overcoming challenges together with some great recommendations for books, podcasts and strategies that have really helped. 


4. Ask for help

Once you've opened up to people about what you're dealing with, you can start to ask for help. I'll be honest: I really struggle with this. I was brought up in a family where self-sufficiency was prized and asking for help was almost a sign of failure so it doesn't come naturally to me at all. I've learned to do this because I didn't have a choice - it was either admit I needed help or let people and projects down - but it's been an unexpectedly positive experience. I've learned that people are more than willing to be supportive and that showing some vulnerability can help you build stronger working relationships. I am enormously grateful to the people who have supported me this year, both in work and in life. Unusual Projects, Ugly Studios and project manager Simon Burger were brilliant when I started to fall apart in the middle of a heavily time-pressured gallery development. Stephen Allen picked up some half-written gallery content and made sense of it with positivity and goodwill. Ali Bodley and Tracy Craggs have proved themselves not only excellent freelancers but brilliant friends. Ruth Singer continued being fabulous. And my daughter's dad has stepped up his parenting efforts to enable me to have time out when I needed it. I've even managed a couple of weekends away, to Portugal in the spring and Lithuania in October, both of which enabled a much-needed recharge.


5. Reflect on what you've learned

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's assertion that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' is vastly overused, though there is academic evidence to suggest that overcoming adveristy does help build resilience and makes you better able to work through challenges in future. I think there's a better chance of this happening if you're able to reflect and think through what you've learned, which of the strategies you've adopted have helped, and which habits no longer serve you. All of this sounds very introspective but knowing yourself better is key to being able to work through crises and create meaningful change. Of the strategies I've written about in this blog, my biggest realisation over the past couple of years has been that looking after myself is not a selfish option. It's necessary if I'm to stand a chance of looking after other people. I'm also learning to say no more often. Again, this has been born out of necessity, but the past few years have really taught me to put work into perspective and realise what really matters in life.  


6. Focus on what you've achieved in spite of everything

I did a planning workshop before the holidays with coach Sarah Fox in which we started by thinking back over 2022 and what we'd achieved. My main impression of the year is of massive anxiety and stress, but when I went back through my diary I realised how much I've actually managed to pull off. 


- I wrote a 10-year strategy for Bradford Museums and Galleries, followed by a successful bid to Arts Council resulting in them becoming a National Portfolio Organisation for the first time

- I researched and wrote a Heritage Fund Activity Plan for the National Holocaust Centre & Museum that enabled them to secure a grant of over £700,000

- Severn Trent's Wonderful World of Water exhibition at Carsington Water opened on time with some of the best feedback I've ever had from a client

- I completed a consultation and strategy for Hull Museums with Ali Bodley focusing on revising the learning and interpretation at Wilbeforce House to better reflect contemporary issues

- I finished evaluation reports for the National Trust at Wentworth Castle Gardens, St George's Hall in Bradford, and Manchester Art Gallery 

- I supported training and development events at Manchester Museum and Platt Hall 

- I continued to work on the evaluation of Eureka! Science + Discovery which will pick up pace over the next six months.


It's quite instructive to realise that, even when it felt like everything was falling apart, I've still managed to deliver work that I'm proud of. 


I hardly dare have any hopes or expectations for 2023. I just want it to be a bit less shitty than the previous three years!  But even if it isn't, I am better able to cope with adversity than I was before. I'd love to know how other freelancers have coped when life goes sideways. Do get in touch on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email me here



Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash