The Freelance Juggling Act: Balancing Work, Family, and the Rest of Life as a Freelancer

By Corinne McKay 

JugglingWhat’s the best and the worst thing about freelancing? It’s all up to you! Whether you work 20 hours a week or 80 hours a week; whether you earn $10,000 or $200,000; whether you finish your deadlines with plenty of buffer time, or whether you miss your deadlines entirely.

As compared with an in-house job, freelancing offers significant benefits in terms of work/life balance; whether your non-work passion is your family, your dogs, travel, yoga, or playing the cello, you can capitalize on the “free” in freelancing in order to pursue things that you love. But in order to do that, you’ll need to have your work life in order; you’ll need to say no to some work and focus on work that you enjoy and are good at. Based on my 12 years of experience as a freelancer, wife, mom, daughter, friend, animal shelter volunteer, outdoor enthusiast, and amateur musician, here are some ways to keep the balls in the air, stay sane, and earn a healthy income.

Own your priorities. A good friend taught me this lesson when I was moaning about how overcommitted I was. Her question, “Who said yes to all these things?” really helped me get some perspective. Work/life balance is all about knowing what your priorities are, communicating them to other people, and staying true to them. For example, I completely preserve weekends as family and friend time, even if one of my A-list clients has a job that requires weekend work. I refuse to overwork myself, because I think that I cannot be what my clients pay me to be—responsive, enthusiastic, creative, detail-oriented—if I am burnt out and sleep deprived. Likewise, my family takes a month off every summer and I don’t work during that time. Does it affect my income? Absolutely. But does it also force me to be more strategic about who I work for, and does it return me to work feeling refreshed? Absolutely.

Focus on the little things. I learned this from a marathon running coach a few years ago, who said “Don’t use lack of time as an excuse to do nothing. I don’t care if you have 5 minutes; do pushups for 5 minutes and you’ll be exhausted.” Use every slice of time that you can: cut 20 minutes from your social media time every day and you can do a yoga podcast before you go to bed, or throw a ball with your kids for 20 minutes. Listen to freelance business podcasts while you wash the dishes; always have a list of quick tasks on your desk so that you can bump one of them off instead of wasting time online. If you’re struggling to fit marketing into your schedule, break your marketing plan into 15-minute tasks and do one every day. Don’t wait for the big block of time that’s never coming.

Pick something to be mediocre at. Many successful freelancers are successful because they’re (we’re!) perfectionists:  people who put 150% effort into every single thing that they do, and if they don’t give 150%, they feel like they’re failing (I learned this from a Michelle Obama speech, so it must be true, or at least it’s true for me!). Being a perpetual 150%’er is a prescription for misery, because you cannot be perfect at everything, all the time. So, pick something that you’re going to just be OK at. For me, it’s my house: my benchmark is that if my house is presentable enough that my friends feel comfortable being in it, that’s good enough. I don’t want my house to be gross, but I also don’t clean it with a toothbrush. Likewise, I am not overly involved in volunteer work at my daughter’s school; I am supportive and I contribute where I can, but I accept that I am not the right person to take on major commitments there.

Don’t let yourself live on auto-pilot. Work/life balance is all about choices, so make sure that you are consciously choosing how you want to live and work, not just letting yourself do whatever work falls into your inbox, or whatever other people ask or tell you to do. If something is draining your time and energy and bringing you no enjoyment, give it the ax! Feel free to share your own work/life balance tips in the comments!

For more on this topic, come to session IC-1, “The Freelance Juggling Act,” on Thursday, November 6 at 11:00 at the upcoming ATA conference! You can also listen to a Speaking of Translation podcast on this topic at

About the author: Corinne McKay has been referred to as “the translator’s coach” and “the guardian angel of freelance translators.” She has over a decade of experience as a French to English translator and her book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator has helped over 6,000 translators launch or grow their freelance businesses. In addition to translating international development, legal and corporate communications texts, Corinne serves on the Board of the American Translators Association, teaches for the University of Chicago translation certificate program and served for four years as President of the Colorado Translators Association. Her blog, Thoughts on Translation, is a lively gathering place for freelance translators from around the world. When not at the computer, Corinne can often be found skiing, biking and hiking in the Rockies with her husband and daughter.

2 thoughts on “The Freelance Juggling Act: Balancing Work, Family, and the Rest of Life as a Freelancer

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