When you’re freelancing, it often feels like you’re either running around like mad trying to get work or you’re trying to keep yourself buckled into the hot seat writing all the work you managed to find. The ebb and flow is pretty rough on a person, there’s no doubt. Burnout is for real and can completely ruin lives.
There’s another danger that we as a culture fail to address. Maybe this is because “Protestant Work Ethic” or maybe we just don’t like to talk about things that are unpleasant, but we’re talking about this today.
The Japanese call it “karoshi,” which translates to “death from overwork.”
Work/Life Balance and Freelancing
We’ve visited the concept of work/life balance when you’re freelancing more than once, but that was before I knew that karoshi was a thing. I read the linked article above and I see myself in a lot of it. Of course, it’s not corporate culture forcing me to work all the time, it’s trying to stay ahead of the bills and the ever growing pile of work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that so many businesses trust me with their words. That they want *MY* voice to be the one that represents them is truly humbling. But I also feel like I could, at any given moment, start dancing on that line between overwork and karoshi.
Let’s look at the cases highlighted in the The Guardian:
Miwa Sado, 31. Death by heart failure. In the month leading up to her death, she logged 159 overtime hours and only took off two days. Breaking that down, she worked four 80-hour weeks, with only two days to recuperate.
Matsuri Takahashi, 24. Death by suicide. For months before her death, Matsuri regularly put in 100 or more hours of overtime. She tried to vent some of the stress from it by posting on social media in the weeks before her death. Her messages got dark weeks before her death, saying things like “I want to die” and “I’m physically and mentally shattered.”
And though Japan is working on changing the circumstances that cause karoshi, this will remain a problem among freelancers. Freelancers aren’t driven by corporate culture because it’s really a corporate culture of one (or maybe a few if you’re part of a team), we’re driven by a mix of fear, greed and desire.
The Three Deadly Sins of Freelancing
If you want to get to the bottom of your overwork problem, there’s almost always a root in at least one of the three deadly sins of freelancing. Trust me on this. Fear, Greed and Desire are great until they aren’t. They’re awesome until you approach karoshi.
Sin The First: Fear. No matter where you are in your freelancing career, Fear will still be a driving force. You remember the lean times and fuck all if you’re gonna go back to living on Ramen and mushrooms from your bath mat. Fear can be used for motivation and often is, but when it turns into a sneaky anxiety spiral, you’ll trip your fight or flight reaction. Do you freeze? Do you go like mad and act like a person possessed? DO YOU GIVE YOURSELF A HEART ATTACK? Karoshi.
Sin The Second: Greed. I will be the first person to tell you that greed is one of my strongest motivator. Oh man, so much. I want to not only take in more work year over year, but to spend more money year over year. We can’t all be perfect. White chocolate Twix don’t grow on trees, you know. Greed will getcha, though. Every so often you’ll have several of your projects converge and the result is that you wish you were dead. It’s juggling client requests without making excuses for not being done on time. It’s when you can’t go on, but you must. That’s karoshi waiting to happen right there.
Sin The Third: Desire. Desire and greed might sound like the same thing, but they’re not, ok? Desire is more about accomplishing things, where greed is about amounting riches and objects. For me, Desire is really about a longing for approval. Clients like what I write, I get that little buzz. Clients don’t like my work and I turn into a quivering pile of snot. No joke. I desire your approval, so please approve of me. Because freelancing is so much a hamster wheel, long time clients often won’t comment on content because it meets their expectations, which just makes people like me run harder on that little wheel to make them love us again. Karoshi, my friends.
If you find yourself practicing one or more of these Deadly Sins, you have time to change. You can change your trajectory, but it all starts by recognizing what’s up.
Elvis Won’t Be the Only One Who Died on His Throne
I used to think the worst place to be found dead would be perched on the toilet, but nowadays, I think I’d rather be found dead there than at my desk.
First, my desk is always severely cluttered, so God knows if you could even get me out of the house without tangling in a shitload of cords. Secondly, dying in the bathroom means that I at least managed to get up and walk around a bit.
Karoshi. It’s for real. It’s killing writers, don’t let it get you. I like you. You read my ish and don’t complain when I use phrases like “hairy box turtle whore” and “moist jelly bean.”