Today I’d like to introduce you to two people who illustrate the difficulty of freelancing with chronic illness (one whom you might already know): Alpha Sarah and Beta Sarah.
Alpha Sarah is a badass writer who made $87K working from her home office last year.
Beta Sarah is a slow, mournful brake-hitter prone to long periods of reflection (and inactivity).
In relation to the business world, I want to be Alpha Sarah 24/7. I want to do amazing work, build amazing programs, and help people all the time.
But often just when I get in a groove (or work a few 6-hour days in a row), Alpha Sarah spins out and Beta Sarah takes the wheel. And the higher, better, faster, and more genius Alpha Sarah is, the darker, lower, sadder, and slower is my Beta version.
The higher, better, faster, and more genius your Alpha version is, the darker, lower, sadder, and slower your Beta version.
For me, Beta Sarah is an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis that leads to lots of other complications like chronic fatigue, infertility, food intolerances, and reactivated Epstein Barr Virus.
Most of the time I resent Beta Sarah, if I’m not actively angry with her. After all, sometimes it feels like if Beta Sarah would shut up for more than a few weeks at a time, Alpha Sarah would probably run a million dollar inspirational speaking circuit by now.
However, there’s a problem: both of these people have a right to exist, and both of these people have a say in my business (and, if I look at them properly, both of these people hold part of the key to work-life balance).
Both your Alpha and your Beta have a right to exist, and both have a say in your business… And, if you manage them properly, both hold part of the key to work-life balance.
It’s a quick fix to say that I should just heal Beta Sarah and get on with the ambitious dreams of world domination. And as much as I wouldn’t turn down a true “cure” or miraculous healing, I think the better part is to accept that life is about balance.
And if you don’t make an effort to combine them into one person (who rests, who works, who laughs, who cries), your freelance business isn’t going to be a blessing in your life, it will be a burden.
Designing Your Business With Struggle In Mind
For me, this post is about chronic illness. For you, this post might be about working with a new baby at home (holler back, Ashley). For everyone, this post is about bringing your ambition to a screeching halt so you can make sure your dinosaur-like footprints are worth following in.
Here are five things I do to make running a business with chronic illness (or whatever’s “holding you back”) less stressful and more awesome:
1. Understand what is happening; don’t make it worse with denial.
When I am having a Hashi’s flare, I feel unmoored. The platform beneath my brain that is Alpha Sarah — the one who keeps the trains running on time — simply drops out, and it’s cookie-crumbs-on-my-face Beta Sarah laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling, wondering if anyone is hiring full-time cube dwellers.
Our emotions and mental state often heavily impact how we experience our struggle.
While the cause of our Beta might be physical, our emotions and mental state often heavily impact how we experience our struggle. Fighting how you feel or denying how you feel will compound the struggle; instead, accept what is happening and welcome it as a timely reminder to take a break and breathe. (For more reading on this topic, I can’t recommend Jessica Flanigan’s The Loving Diet more).
2. Calculate your finances & rest in them.
Every freelancer has a bottom line — the amount you HAVE TO MAKE each month in order to stay afloat. For me, that is $2000. For you, that might be $600 or $6000. It will depend on your family situation, your business, your location, and your expectations.
While finances are often a source of stress, when you’re dealing with a struggle it can be a source of peace and contentment — but only if you act like you believe the math.
Finances can be a source of peace and contentment — but only if you act like you believe the math.
When your Beta has hijacked your headquarters, look to the number you set, achieve than number, and CHILL OUT. Choose to not engage with the “I could make so much more money right now if I just pushed through this…” Decide to honor your bottom line and take the rest you need, because if your Beta says you need it, then you need it.
Side-note: this is the part I struggle with most, because Alpha Sarah is ALWAYS in “What If” mode and trying to make progress on goals like paying off debt. It’s hard to keep reminding myself that the more I respect Beta Sarah, the better Alpha Sarah will perform when she’s around (win-win) rather than a stressed Alpha Sarah investing everything in a 24/7 Thumb War with Beta Sarah.
3. Build systems.
Speaking of on-time trains (trust me, we were), nothing gets it done like processes and systems (outside of corporations, that is). We all have behavioral triggers, so hopefully by now you understand yours.
For me, it’s Make tea, sit down, write. Or, Exercise, shower, dress, write. For you, it might be Sit down, trance music, write, or Pet cat, ice cream, write.
If you don’t have a system, start working on one so that your body can be queued to try its best to do your freelance work at the time you need to do it. (If your Beta won’t let you, then so be it, but having a system gives you the best chance of it). If you need some inspiration, check out all these geniuses who used systems to get work done.
Another game changer for me has been putting time into a prayer life. When I feel Beta Sarah slump sideways and settle in for a marathon Frasier session (instead of chugging away on deadlines), I go to daily mass or prod myself over to the office sofa, grab a rosary, and pray to God to let me get done what I need to get done, or to accept it gracefully if it’s not meant to be.
We’re soft, slippery humans, not robots.
We’re soft, slippery humans, not robots. We don’t have control over our bodies, mental processes, attention span, or babies all the time. Tap into the resources you have to give yourself the best chance of getting the work done, then let go and let God.
4. Be unbelievably amazing with deadlines & only work for people who are human, too.
This step won’t help you if you need relief now, but if you’re just starting out, I want to emphasize the incredible value of being a stickler about deadlines and reliability and carefully screening your clients. That’s the only way to keep your business going when you’re sick, pregnant, or whatever.
Because I’ve spent two years being religious about deadlines (and being available, trustworthy, and over-communicating about assignments), I feel very confident that I am not destroying my business every time I ask for an extension or let someone know I need to reschedule. It’s also by working with friendly, reasonable, and kind-hearted people that I can do this.
If you work for someone and they think you’re a commodity, they might fire you the first time you have to push back a deadline. This is not normal or healthy.
If you work for someone and they think you’re a commodity, they might fire you the first time you have to push back a deadline. This is not normal or healthy. (Of course, if you push back a deadline when they’ve over-communicated to you how important it is and you had plenty of time to do it in advance…. that’s your bad and you need to make it up to them or pay someone to cover you).
Being responsible and traditional about work values will give you a lot more flexibility about time when your Beta throws a surprise office party on you.
5. Wave & smile as the ship goes by.
Ambition is hard to fight on the Internet. Every week, if not every day, at least five nail-polished, outfit-wearing, latte-swigging promos pop up in my Twitter feed or come through my inbox.
Some days, this causes me genuine excitement or feelings of camaraderie (like Gina Horkey’s amazing 30-day freelance writing course). Some days, this causes me jealousy and a panicked, sinking feeling that I’ve missed the boat, my life is not on track, and there’s no way to catch up.
I’ve come to understand that attending that pity party is a choice, and how I react tends to relate to whether Beta Sarah or Alpha Sarah is at the wheel. (Alpha Sarah always RSVPs No, Beta Sarah always RSVPs Yes).
Attending that pity party is a choice. RSVP No.
Besides being an opportunity to support your community, other people being successful has nothing to do with you. It does not reflect on your relative worth or value, and it takes away none of your potential accomplishments.
Without succumbing to the pity party, you’ve got to wave at all those ships passing by you. You’re freelancing with chronic illness and you’re on your own path. The only way you’ll complete what you’re here to complete is if you take the good, delete the bad, and focus on what you can do today. And you know what? That’s how people who ship get so much done!
6. Find the upside (because there is an upside).
This isn’t meant to be a corny line like “appreciate your children, even when they make you crazy,” (even though you should totally appreciate your children even when they make you crazy). Instead, this is meant to pass along some wisdom from my (long deceased) spiritual director, CS Lewis, in the book of his letters called Yours, Jack:
“Every disability conceals a vocation, if we only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity into glorious gain.'”
Here’s the thing: Reality takes the form that you approach it with. If you treat your struggle like a burden that is ruining your life, it will always be a burden that is ruining your life (and your life will be, you know, ruined). But if you work at it, it is possible to change your mental and emotional approach to a disease, situation, challenge, struggle, disability, and turn it into a bolded bullet point on the pro column.
Now, this is an advanced lesson that I haven’t perfectly mastered yet, but I am actively working on it every day. Here are a few of the things I am working on
- My autoimmune disease that limits my working hours and causes some lifestyle restrictions (food intolerances, tiredness, general brain fog) has been an opportunity to achieve an incredible awareness about my body and my life. It has also forced me to get tons done in very little time.
- My corporate intolerance (AKA being laid off and not wanting to go back) has been an opportunity to empower myself (and others through this site) to run a freelance writing business.
For you, maybe your baby makes you inhumanly efficient when you used to waste time on Facebook for your entire workday. Or your “can’t shake it”-laziness makes projects take half the time because you wait to start until the deadline is a couple of hours away. These “struggles” can become a major asset to you if you will acknowledge them and build a process around them that takes the stress away.
In your business, this can take the form of Less Accounting’s Allan Branch’s amazing advice to shape anything you think of as negative into a positive story about your services. In Allan’s example, he encouraged me to take my avoidance of business phone calls and turn it into a pro of working with me:
Instead of “I shy away from calls, they make me nervous” its… “I’m able to return email with questions and task very fast because I’m an inbox ninja. Phone calls are a great way to get to know someone but to communicate effectively it’s usually easier just to send me an email. That way I have a written record of your task/question and it funnels into my tasks more efficiently.”
This work starts on the inside, by accepting your limitations and seeing what you can do to turn them into a positive so that you feel confident and strong about your business.
Your situation will always be unique from everyone else’s, but that also means that your solution (and glorious gain) will be unique from everyone else’s, too. In the biz, we call that a competitive advantage.
After all, your situation will always be unique from everyone else’s, but that also means that your solution (and glorious gain) will be unique from everyone else’s, too. In the biz, we call that a competitive advantage.
Is the Freelancing With Chronic Illness Struggle Real for You?
I’d love to hear what other freelancers are struggling with at home, be it mental illness, chronic illness, life changes, new babies, or just general malaise. We’re in this together, so consider this a networking invitation to your Beta!