Get Busy

26 05 2009

Before I left my job as a newspaper reporter three years ago, I drafted a list in a little spiral notebook. The list contained all the things I would do with myself if I took the leap into freelance writing. It said:

  • join a women’s soccer league
  • more time for piano
  • work out more often
  • read more books
  • take a knitting class

One thing is glaringly absent from that list: professional goals. That’s because I had none, or to be exact, I’d set the bar so low that it wasn’t even worth noting. All I wanted was to get published in one or two national magazines or newspapers. In my first year as a freelancer, I managed that much, plus I got my start in public radio.

At the time I drafted the list, I wasn’t even sure I was going to leave my job. It was sort of an exercise in what-ifs. And if that list were a checklist, with the exception of the knitting class, I’d have checked off every one of those items by now. (Mom taught me to knit later. Turns out I’m not much of a knitter. I can’t sit still long enough to really work at it).

Now I’m back where I started. Lately, things have shifted so that I’m again wishing I had a little more time for nonwork-related pursuits. There’s a Jenga-like stack of books piling up on my nightstand. It was two weeks before I had time to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall (fortunately no late fees with Netflix). And we’re ordering in more because I barely have time to cook. Why? Because I’m busy. Very busy. It was a given that as a freelance writer, you’d experience ebbs and flows, ups and downs, periods when you’d have work followed by the inevitable dry spell.

And God knows I had them.

I didn’t do well with the lulls. I’d feel depressed and unmotivated, so it was a vicious cycle. The less motivated you are, the less you seek out new work. And so you find yourself in a perpetual funk.

But since 2009 kicked off, work hasn’t slowed down. That’s a good thing. I changed up my game plan. Here’s what works for staying busy:

Plan ahead: Always think ahead to the time when you won’t be swamped with assignments. Set aside some time every week to pitch at least one new assignment for the future. There’s a chance you might end up with overlapping deadlines, but so what? When work comes fast and furious, embrace it. You’ll become better at managing your time and dealing with pressure.

Give encores: In my first two years as a freelancer, I made the  mistake of working with a media outlet once, and never pitching them again. And it wasn’t because of any bad experience like waiting three months to be paid or anything like that.  I was just ready to conquer the next frontier, so I didn’t give repeat performances. BIG mistake. Cultivate those relationships. If they liked your work, they’ll probably hire you again and again. But if you disappear off the radar, you likely won’t have that option if you pitch them an idea a year later.

Network: So you’d sooner die than have to peel off another one of those “Hello My Name Is” stickers and stand around doing something weird with your ams. Get over it. You will hate the idea of networking. You will hate the energy drain that comes when you’re getting ready to network, searching out directions to your networking event, deciding what shoes to wear to your networking place. You’ll stress out wondering if you’ll know anyone there, or whether you have spinach stuck between your teeth. But most times, you’ll find it’s worth it. You will either walk out with a story idea, or a great contact. The new antisocial you might even find (gasp) a friend. Bottom line is that you’ll dread going, but on the way home, you’ll be covered in afterglow.



18 05 2009

Let’s just call today an unproductive day. Called a few sources, arranged another interview, played phone tag with someone I’ve been trying to reach for weeks now. Here’s one solid thing: I was home for the air conditioning guys, who were making their second visit in a week’s time (Take two on the repair they didn’t quite make last time. )

And I went to the gym.

Like I said, unproductive.

But I wonder how this day measures up to a typical day in an office. There were days like this in the newsroom, when sources weren’t calling back, I wasn’t making headway on any stories, and the clock just seemed to tick-tick-tick away.

Of course, when you’re freelancing, you don’t have the same distractions to numb you from your day of non-work, namely a group of ready colleagues who shared your poor work habits. There’s the watercooler, the coffee machine, the vending machine, the fax machine–and at every turn there are…people. On my way back from one of these mini-excursions, I’d glimpse someone’s monitor, this one shopping for shoes, that one checking the Yankees team roster.

There are still distractions galore as a freelancer (no, not Oprah). There’s the dog that needs to be fed or walked or trained to sit on command. There are those red lentils on the counter I’ve sworn for weeks I’d make into a soup, but haven’t because red lentils are just intimidating, OK? And there are videos online–good God almighty are there videos– the little deer who slides in through the doggie door and the continuing saga of Jon and Kate Plus 8 and Jon’s sweet revenge on Kate and her little snide remarks and utter contempt, and his eye rolls. You’re not fooling anyone, you two.

See what I mean? The Web is toxic. But I did take the dog out for a long walk. I did make time for myself to go to the gym. And it was the first day of crisp, bright sunshine after what seemed like weeks of heavy downpours and thunderstorms. That’s right, I enjoyed it. Isn’t that the beauty of a freelance life? I’d say this is one of the great payoffs.