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Confessions of an Obsessed
How do you balance your writing career and family without becoming a work-a-holic?
This rather innocent sounding question is posed in the Submission Guidelines for this very magazine. Undoubtedly, this is an issue all of us, as freelancers, have faced (or will face) during our career. As predominately self-employed people, we all know that we cannot take time off without surrendering pay. Conversely, if we never stop working, we put ourselves in danger of burning out or losing contact with our loved ones.
Clearly, it's a double-edged sword. So how does one maintain a working balance between their writing career and their family and friends?
I didn't. For a time, I had failed in that aspect. I became a work-a-holic. My career consumed me, and my family suffered as a result. I lost touch with them, seeing them only a few times a day while ravenously gulping down meals so I could get back to work.
But I have managed to change my ways. I was able to become a more balanced person. I learned not to constantly obsess about work--to let it go and enjoy my time off and the time I get to spend with my family. This is my story.
Last year, I was in my third year as the Baseball Editor for a prominent online publication. I was employed on a freelance, telecommuting basis, but I was responsible for many of the same duties a staff editor would have. I had to write biweekly articles, I had to write a weekly e-mail newsletter, maintain a discussion forum, and keep an up-to-date list of links to other notable baseball Web sites.
At the time, I really enjoyed the work. I was writing about a topic near and dear to my heart, and getting paid rather handsomely for it. I had been writing a new article every week--a little above and beyond my duties, but nothing out of hand. I managed my discussion forums once or twice a day, but it never took long since few people used them. In all, the work took me between 15-20 hours a week.
Then it all began to fall apart. A competing sports Web site eliminated their discussion forums, and some of their users found mine. Word of mouth spread like wildfire, and before I knew it, the forum went from 200-300 page views per week to more than 4,000 per day!
Of course, that meant that my one or two daily sessions managing the forum took much longer, but I didn't mind. All I could think about was how successful the Web site was getting, not to mention the extra per-click commission I was earning!
One or two daily trips into the forum quickly turned into three to five, as I tried harder and harder to keep readers constantly interested while also dealing with a growing number of petty squabbles and inflammatory content. To help promote the rest of the site, I would often write two, three, or as many as four articles per week and post links to them on the bulletin board for the users to read.
Also, with the forums thriving so, I introduced a second weekly newsletter solely to promote the discussions within. I even started taking requests for new topics for link pages, and was completing one just about every week. Then I began other new features--a letters column, a "Game of the Week" feature, a collection of statistics and baseball records.
The work that once took no more than 20 hours per week to complete was now constantly taking 70-80 hours of my time every week. It was all I could think about. Even when I wasn't actively working on an article, I would worry that I should be. Even when I wasn't policing the bulletin boards, I wondered if someone was acting up or writing inappropriate content. I couldn't enjoy anything because I was literally always worried about the Web site. There were many a sleepless night I got out of bed at 2 or 3 a.m. to check on things.
Even after the percentage commission I received for each click went down, I didn't stop. I kept saying I would slow down, that I would cut back to working on the page part time. But I couldn't. I kept worrying. I hired volunteer assistants to help monitor the forum, thinking that would help. It didn't, though--despite their presence, and despite the great work they did, and despite my promises to lay off and let them handle things, I kept coming back again and again and again. I kept writing three or four articles a week. I kept producing two e-mail newsletters each week. I kept working 70-80 hours a week and I kept obsessing about my work even when I wasn't actively doing it.
So when did I finally realize I had a problem? It happened on the evening Friday, September 14, 2001. I wont' bore you with all the details, but something had happened on the Web site, and I felt it needed to be remedied immediately. After all, I simply could not allow something like this to go unchecked, even for a moment. The articles, the forum, everything had to be perfect. Constantly perfect. Nothing else was acceptable.
I started working at 11 p.m., despite the fact that I needed to be awake at 5 a.m. to fulfill a promise I had made to a family member. The task was about halfway complete when I turned to look at a nearby clock, which read 2 a.m. That was when it finally dawned on me how out of control my obsession with work had gotten.
"What are you doing?" I asked myself. I was putting my need to be the ideal editor with the ideal Web site ahead of my own needs and the promise I had made to my family. I was sacrificing everything else that was good around me because of this obsession I had. Being a Baseball Editor had become the only important thing in my life. My family, my interests, even my own health and well-being had taken a backseat to my desire to be successful in the business. Finally, I came to an all-important realization, 'It isn't worth it.' I needed to stop. But to stop, I needed help.
Help came in the form of the book, "Get a Life Without Sacrificing Your Career," by Dianna Booher. Booher's book is a collection of short chapters that describes a potential problem in maintaining work-life balance, then provides some solutions as well as two or three questions to help you determine whether or not the topic is a problem for you.
Booher's advice was invaluable to me as a recovering work-a-holic. Her words taught me how to stop defining myself solely as a writer, how to focus more on productivity and less on perfectionism, and how to establish guidelines to separate home life from the working life. Other things I learned from her? Learn to say no, start planning pleasurable activities into your schedule, and to make changes if you aren't happy with your life.
So I have. I no longer work as the Baseball Editor for this Web site and have since turned my attention to other, more pleasurable writing projects. On most days, I work no later than 2 p.m., following that with quality time with my family or participating in personal activities I enjoy. I make sure to take at least one day a week off. I've even managed to lighten up, focusing on writing well instead of writing flawlessly. The end result is that I now look at a much more relaxed, focused, and content person in the mirror every day.
Freelance writing is a stressful business, no doubt. We all want to achieve success in this business, or else we probably wouldn't be doing it. I crossed the line, though, and became obsessed with it. After reading this article, stop and evaluate your life. Are you making the same mistakes I did? Do you wish you had more time to spend with loved ones, or doing other activities you enjoy? Are you happy with the way you're balancing work and life? If the answer is no, pick up a copy of Booher's book for some practical advice on how to change your way.
Chuck Bednar is an Ohio-based freelance writer and editor. He is the author of three sports-related books, as well as a former sports correspondent with daily newspapers in Ohio and West Virginia. Bednar has also served as a business columnist, book reviewer, and trivia writer. You can visit him online at http://sports.bednar.com