Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

How do you know when you’re too sick to work? Seems easy enough to figure out, right? We’re all adults. We know when we’re sick. But for freelancers, that’s a tougher question than it seems.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I suffer from a chronic illness. It reared its ugly head over the weekend. No one had sent me a question for this week, so I figured I’d use my own life experience to write this week’s post.

We all get sick. The serious things—pneumonia, bronchitis, certain types of flu—leave us too ill to get out of bed. They’re not the problem to the freelancer. The milder illnesses are.

When you work for someone else, it’s easy to know when to go into work. If you had one of those cushy jobs with paid sick leave and paid vacation, chances are you took more sick days than you needed. If you were feeling a little off, and you had the paid time coming to you, you took the day and stayed home. Even seasonal allergies might have warranted a little paid “me” time.

If you had a by-the-hour job without those benefits, you took as little time off as possible. At my last waitressing job, the boss actually had rules about when not to come to work. (If you’re contagious, she’d say, you must stay home.) People who work by the hour usually need the money. They come to work when they can barely walk because they don’t dare lose the hours.

Freelancing is closer to the by-the-hour job, but it’s not quite the same. When you freelance, you get paid for piece work. In other words, the more things you finish, the more you get paid.

You finish more things if you put in more hours.

Seems obvious, right? But most people aren’t used to being their own boss. Most people are too lenient with themselves. They lose entire days to headaches or the sniffles because they’re not feeling “up to par.”  Days, even weeks, go by while the freelancer waits to feel better.

Here’s an ugly truth: When you work at home, you have no colleagues to distract you. You’re constantly assessing how you feel, and always coming up short.

That’s right. You’ll probably feel worse day to day when you work at home. Some of it is the solitude. Some of it is the lack of exercise. Some of it is the lack of fresh air.

When you go to a job away from home, you have to walk outside and drive somewhere. When I started freelancing, I’d stay in the house for days on end. It took me a while to realize that a walk around the block was often enough to make me feel energetic and healthy.

So…how do you know if you’re too sick to work?

It’s simple. Imagine the toughest boss you ever worked for. Then imagine telling him (and my toughest boss was a man) that you can’t come into work today because…and fill in the reason here.

If you can’t imagine yourself telling Tough Boss that reason, then you go to work.

It goes like this: Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I have a temperature of 102 and I’m heading to the doctor this afternoon.

Fine, good. My old Tough Boss would have let me out for that.

But imagine this one: Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I’m feeling sluggish.


Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night.


Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I’m not thinking as clearly as I usually do.

One or two of those with the Tough Boss I’d had (back in 1980—this dude really lives in my memory) and I would’ve been fired. Fast.

A friend once told me that people who work at corporate jobs aren’t productive every moment of every day. They talk to their colleagues on company time. They daydream. They do make-work to look busy. This friend was a corporate manager who estimated that a good 40% of the time, his employees weren’t working at their peak.

On the days they came in feeling “sluggish” or “tired,” they probably got less done.

When you work for someone else, you get used to days like that. You know you won’t get fired (unless you have other problems with job performance). Your employer knew that was part of the deal when he decided to hire employees in his business. Every self employed person knows that the hardest worker in the company is always the boss.

On those days when you would go into work with a mild cold or allergies, you get what you could done. Sometimes, you got brownie points just for showing up and keeping your desk warm.

I was so used to working for myself that when I got my single full-time job back in 1984, I caused a huge stir in the office. I worked as an editorial assistant in a textbook publishing house. I got my day’s assignments and usually finished them within the first hour of my eight-hour shift.

The other editorial assistants pulled me aside after a week of that and told me to slow down because I was making them look bad. I didn’t get it. I figured I was there to work, so I worked. I could have done the work of all the editorial assistants and filled up my day. But that wasn’t the corporate structure. So I did my hour’s worth of work, and spent the remaining seven hours reading the books the company published. My boss promised to promote me if someone in editorial quit. Which no one had for nearly two years. After four months of that, I left the job because I was horribly, unbelievably bored.

(Years later, I got a great part-time job as a secretary for a forensic psychologist. He looked at my resume and said, “My biggest concern about you is that you’re used to working for yourself. I’m hiring you to sit and answer phones. I’m afraid you might get bored.”  I told him about my experience at the textbook publisher and we both laughed about it. Then he agreed that I could write or read at my desk when he had nothing for me to do. Needless to say, that was the best day job I ever had.)

If you had one of those jobs that let you slack off with regularity, then freelancing is going to be a big shock for you. I’ll deal with this phenomenon more in a later essay. But unless you modify your behavior right now, you’ll be one of those freelancers who gets nothing done for days on end, especially in spring allergy season or when the baby keeps you up all night.

No matter how dedicated you are, the reality is that there will be days when you feel sick, but not sick enough to stay home (from that imaginary Tough Boss). How do you do your best work when that happens?

Well, you don’t. You figure out what tasks you can do. I’m writing this piece two days earlier than I planned because today, I’m surviving on Advil and caffeine.

I’m not thinking clearly enough to write fiction. So I’m doing tasks that I find easier than fiction writing. And yes, writing non-fiction is easier than fiction, at least for me. (Besides, I can always clean this essay up later if I don’t like what I’ve done.)

I’ve been feeling punk for three days now. I’ve photocopied contracts, put together files for a project that I’m working on with a publisher in Virginia, did research on the next story I’m writing, and cleaned up my office.

I know the pattern of my chronic condition, so I know that in a day or two, I’ll be back up to my normal level of energy. Why waste my good days on tasks I can do when I’m not feeling up to par? I’m planning ahead by doing some of this work before it’s due.

This is exactly what you would have done at your day job if you were feeling a little under the weather, but you still managed to show up. You’d have done the things you’d been putting off, things that required less effort than your daily tasks.

Just think of Tough Boss. Make your excuses out loud, and see if they’ll fly with him. If they won’t, then go to your office. Do what you can.

You’ll be happy that you did.

“Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

17 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness

  1. I love this thing. Hopefully I can sell something soon so I can pitch money in the kitty.

    I’d add two things: One is that down-time to illness shouldn’t be fun, with one caveat. If I get sick, I’ll stick my butt in bed, take my medicine, sleep, whatever, until I’m healthy again. Yes, it’s boring. That’s kind of the point. Part of this is making sure that sick-time isn’t a cheap vacation. Most of it is that, if I’m overwhelmed by an illness like the flu, I try to put all of my energy into beating that illness, rather than attempting to work through it.

    The caveat here is if I’m depressed, getting out and having fun is the cure.

    The other thing I’d add is to have your BS meter on when writing while sick. I’m sure you guys can write well while ill., but I can’t, especially with a fever. Crap isn’t productivity, and if that’s all I’m capable of writing, I’d rather devote that time and energy to getting well. Again, this is my personal experience, not necessarily advice.

    Oh heck, three things: if you have a partner, keep him/her on board with your health needs, especially for food and exercise. Their bodies are different than yours, and (speaking from experience) they are likely to do what makes them feel good, even if they intellectually know it’s bad for you. It sucks to be a health nazi, but sometimes that’s the only way to avoid unhealthy food.

  2. I suffer from multiple chronic conditions and this has been the year from hell. As soon as one condition goes into remission another flares. I’ve been to so many doctors and have had so many invasive procedures this year that I’ve stopped counting. I miss a lot of work. I used up all of my paid sick time. And I worked from home while doing it! (When I call in sick I am not permitted to work from home, but the work must get done, so I work from home – while my company charges my sick or vacation bank. I’ve run out of both, so now I won’t get paid. If I can just make it to the end of the year, both will be replenished and maybe I’ll feel better too.) Regarding the comment about seasonal allergies – I found that offensive. I have “seasonal allergies” and asthma. The combination can be lethal. It’s not a joke. It was serious enough this summer that I was required to submit to a bronchoscopy examination. While I was under general anesthesia a pulmonologist put a scope into my bronchial tubes and took photos and biopsy samples. Please don’t judge people just because YOU may not think they are sick. If I cannot get enough air to get to the car, I cannot get to work.

    1. Understand completely, Barb, and didn’t mean to offend. I have severe allergies as well–mostly to perfume–and if I don’t clear a room where someone is wearing perfume immediately, I’m on the way to the hospital. But most people who claim “seasonal allergies” often have the sniffles throughout the allergy season. I’ve never heard anyone with major seasonal allergies call them anything other than severe allergies, so my bad. I was referring to people who use the sniffles or mild congestion as a reason not to work–not anything that could hospitalize you. Clearly, that’s serious and deserves care.

      I hope your health situation moderates and you can get some rest from the health issues.

  3. Hi Kris,
    Many thanks for this guide. It moves me that you’re writing for the people who may leap/be forced into freelance work now.

    My main question about freelancing is, how do you know when you’ve done enough?
    I could always write more, market more, sell more. So I’m glad you addressed balance in the priorities section. But as a writer/doctor/mother, it seems like I can never write as much as X or send as many queries as Y, which is frustrating. Maybe this is more a question about self-direction, guilt and jealousy. I appreciate any insights you have.

    P.S. My son has said, “I’m mad at your writing, Mommy. Don’t write.” Sigh. I try to write when he’s asleep, but I do sneak it in when he’s awake so I can sleep. And he sometimes helps me glue stamps or labels on queries. But it’s an imperfect balance.

    1. Good question, Melissa. I’ll deal with it in a later post, but I’ll let folks here talk about it in the comments now. Do remember that you can never see how hard anyone else works or what their life is really like. Just your impressions of what it’s like, which are probably not even close to complete. Imho, the most important thing is family (as you saw from the introduction). Everything else should revolve around that. Do what you can. But be satisfied with it? I don’t know any writer who is satisfied with anything. I think it may be the personality type who is attracted to the job.

  4. I may not be a freelance writer yet, but as a self-employed writer/consultant I can totally relate to this post. A few years back I had to go in for major surgery and I remember well discussing the impact of the surgery with the surgeon. “You’ll be off for eight weeks,” he said.

    My response was to virtually fall on the floor and say “But I’m self-employed!”

    He gave me this slow smile and then shook his head. “I’n that case you’ll be off work two weeks.”

    In fact I was back to work for limited periods within 5 days. Two of those days were in the hospital. When you depend on yourself, not an employer, there are no excuses unless you’re almost dead.

    I still wouldn’t trade it in.

  5. I think another consideration here is the notion of writing as a career. Nose-to-the-grindstone is a good habit to develop early, so you don’t fritter away the hours, especially if you are part-timing and don’t have all that many. But it’s also important to realize that the line between healthy discipline and obsessiveness can be a thin one — if you have to drag yourself from your sickbed to keep your every-day-rain-or-shine record intact, you could do more harm than good. If you are in it for the long haul, you have to make allowances.

    Unlike Kris, I’m happy putting in six or seven hours a day, five days a week, and taking the weekends off, just like a Real Job™. I’m not as productive as she is. (Then again, I don’t know of anybody else who is as productive as she is, either.) Even so, I’ve managed a couple books a years for thirty years, plus assorted other projects.

    Different strokes.

    When I was young and spry, I could sit and do fifteen pages, day in, day out, and at the sprint to the finish, double that.

    Even with an ergonomic keyboard in my lap, a good chair, and a big screen with sharp and an easy to read onscreen font, I can’t do that any more — my hands won’t put up with it. Since I plan on writing until I keel over, I realized that trying to keep up that pace was not a good long-term strategy.

    Writers are not notoriously long-lived. Symphony conductors are, they get a lot more exercise.

    Working through a cold with sneezing and sniffling is doable. You can prop up a sprained ankle, or wrenched knee, but if a day in bed is warranted, take it. Tough Boss is a good concept; Nasty Tough a Boss? Life is too short. Find a better one …

  6. Hmm. That raises the other half of the equation: when you’re a freelancer, how do you take a vacation? When you are your own toughest boss, and you’re pushing to produce more stuff so you can get paid, and so on … how do you justify even a single day off when “I could be editing that novel to get it out the door” or whatever?

  7. Very timely post for me, as I lost most of this week’s productivity to the nastiest bout of stomach flu I’ve had in years, if not ever. At a certain point you just have to give up and sleep, and figure you’ll make up the lost time this weekend — and next. And perhaps the one after that. Sometimes I really miss those paid sick days…! Thanks for the wisdom.

  8. Great tips, dear. Ever thought of writing an e-book and selling it? Though your free tips are pretty cool already though. I was sick a couple of weeks ago and surprisingly I did a pretty good job still. The solitude is what I like with working from home, I find I can concentrate better.

  9. Great post and I completely understand. thanks for sharing. When you are ill and having trouble working, ironically is when we add one more thing to our plate– a blog. Hope you will join us during National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week. have you heard of Rosalind Joff, – great blog!

  10. I’m my own Tough Boss, and when there’s work to be done, can be something of a slave driver…

    But I’ve been under the weather for the past two days as well, and am putting the time to good use excavating the top of my desk, doing some background reading I needed to do for an upcoming project, and following-up on slow reviews from a couple of other clients. As you say, doing the mundane tasks that my current energy level will allow me to do productively without pushing things too much and making myself really sick.

    I’ve learned (the hard way) that all you can do is all you can do, and you need to know what your limitations are. And that when you push beyond a certain point, you just end up having to fix it later on. I’m very lucky that my Tough Boss has (for the most part) figured out how to work with those limits.

  11. As a fulltime freelance writer and editor and novelist, I can attest to the truth of this. I’ve had sick days that kept me from working, but they usually involved vomiting and/or diarrhea. And as reluctant as I am to admit it, I’ve done work from the couch with a laptop when I needed to stay within sprinting distance of the bathroom because I had deadlines.

    It sucks, but I wouldn’t trade it. This year I got slammed with an upper respiratory flu and I knew the best thing to do was just sleep it off for a day–truth is, sometimes a day sleeping can give you more productivity later by getting over the damned thing earlier.

    But I’m a much Tougher Boss on myself than anybody else I’ve ever had.

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