Freelancing but struggling with loneliness and mental health issues? Freelance copywriter and author, Sarah Townsend, joins the podcast to chat about the importance of mental health in freelancing, freelancing fundamentals, and how you can live your best freelance life.
Sarah Townsend has been a freelance marketing copywriter for 20+ years and is author of the #1 Amazon bestseller, Survival Skills for Freelancers. As well as using clever copy to help businesses become more successful, she's on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing for freelancers and the small business community through talks, webinars, and interviews.
0:53 MI: Sarah Townsend has been a freelance marketing copywriter for 20 plus years and is author of the number one Amazon bestseller Survival Skills for Freelancers. In addition to using clever copy to help businesses to become more successful, she is on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing for freelancers. She gives us her tips and things about living your best freelance life and why mental health is so important. Hey Sarah, how's it going? Great to have you on today.
1:20 ST: Oh, Hey, lovely to talk to you. Thank you.
1:24 MI: No problem. To kick things off, you're a big advocate for mental health for freelancers, and I couldn't agree more about how important this issue is, especially when you see some of the things that have been going down with high profile athletes like Naomi Osaka speaking out on the issue. Why is this so important to you?
1:41 ST: I think predominantly because as freelancers, we often don't prioritize our mental health. And instead of the idea of having this kind of dream world of freedom and flexibility, which is the thing that pulls us into freelance life in the first place, what we actually end up doing is finding ourselves more stressed, more overwhelmed, and closer to burnout than we did when we were employed. The reason that happens is because we're not very good at setting boundaries. So boundaries are really key in this. I believe. And when you look around the wider world of employment, there are a lot of businesses and companies that are waking up to the importance of mental health and wellbeing for their employees. And they're starting to employ mental health first aiders. They're getting people trained up as mental health support staff you can go to, if you're having a tough time or you're really struggling with things. As freelancers, we don't have the luxury of any of that support. So it's really important that we represent for ourselves as it were in terms of really recognizing the importance of our own mental health and wellbeing and taking active steps to protect that.
2:54 MI: Yeah. I couldn't agree more and I constantly tell people to unplug, and I’m like you have to do those types of things when you start to see the signs so that you're giving yourself a break. Because otherwise you're not even producing your best work or you're not giving yourself the best opportunity to be successful
3:12 ST: Precisely, because as freelancers, we are our business. And if we don't take care of you, you have no business left. It's so vital. It's literally the difference between success and failure in small businesses.
3:27 MI: Taking that a little step further. How can we as freelancers be better about prioritizing mental health and taking the time to unplug when we see the signs?
3:38 ST: I think a lot of it comes down too often, it's not just our clients who are pushing us really hard and driving us to work all the hours, et cetera. Often we go freelance because we have this special skill, this talent that we want to share with the world to help people. And we love what we're doing. So, we often don't want to stop. We get in the zone and we're writing away and we're, oh, I just want to finish this section of this website. Or I just want to finish this project. And we carry on and on while the energy is there. Then before you know it, you actually realize that you've been living on adrenaline and you have nothing left to give. I think it's very difficult to recognize the signs often before they appear or spot the early warning signs because, in my case, that's when I'm at my most energetic and full of energy on the project and doing the work that I love, I'm loving life. I'm loving my job, you know, and then I think, wow, hang on. I've not been prioritizing eating properly. Quite often I'll get to like 3:30 in the afternoon. I'll think uh! I'm having lunch. Quite often when I get really busy, I really have to force myself to take a break for exercise and physical activity every day. I can't stress enough how important that is. It feels like a bit of a paradox because you're like, oh no, I'm too busy for exercise. But actually when you least feel that you've got the time for it, that's when you should really make an effort. Take half an hour out to go for a swim or go for a bike ride, or just have a walk around the block, get some fresh air, get those endorphins and those happy hormones swirling around your body. Then come back to your desk and come back to your laptop and you are fired up, productive, focused, and you feel good about yourself because you built exercise into your day and you've done that physical activity and you’re like, oh, Hey, you know, I can smash the day! Whereas if you neglect exercise, you don't have any of the good hormones. That's when you start to feel that you're a bit of a slave to your laptop and a bit of a slave to your clients, you're not setting boundaries properly. You're not remembering to take time to focus on you and also to focus on your business, which is equally important. And you have to make those things non-negotiables.
6:22 MI (voiceover): A New York Times article cited a CDC study showing how stressed out young adults have become. And this is even more critical for freelancers. Freelancers have to manage and cope with a number of different stresses and have to be able to handle a bunch of different things, not only in terms of the work that they do, but also with the business of the business. Sometimes for a lot of new freelancers it is the first time they're really doing this. So it's even more critical that you find ways to really help balance that and to help give yourself the best chance to be the most productive that you can be.
7:05 ST: And if you don't, that's when you start to get left behind and really struggling to keep up as it were.
7:14 MI: Yeah. You just hit it at some of the challenges that may prevent freelancers. Can you talk a little bit more and in your opinion what are some of the key challenges that you've seen that prevent freelancers from prioritizing mental health, the way they do with their clients?
7:29 ST: I think there's an element. Well, first of all, a couple of things that I've already touched on. We often let our clients become our bosses rather than working on this level playing field where your clients and you are working with this feeling of mutual trust and respect. Understand what your terms are and what your working hours are and what you will and won't do. So it's equally important, if not more so to know what you won't do. Will you not work on the weekend? Will he not answer the phone at 10 o'clock at night? These things are all really important. And when you can get super clear on these things with your clients, then you're in a win-win situation because you've set out your terms. You can then feel like, okay, I don't have this ongoing pressure that, oh my God, I've got to be checking my emails every five minutes and that's putting you off task constantly. Your clients know what to expect; you've managed those expectations and when they know what you will and won't do, they are far less likely to chase you for things like, oh, when can I expect from that piece of work? Because you've already outlined it. You already told them At this stage, you've paid your deposit. I booked you in for next week and it's going to take 10 days to get that piece of work back to you. If you can be super clear on those terms and those processes. I think a lot of freelancers forget that they're actually running a business and they're not just a freelancer. It's important that you recognize that you have to build these strategies and processes and things that sort of sound dull, but they are what protects you. They are like the foundations around which you build your business. So when you can be really clear, then that stops your clients being bosses. When you set boundaries for yourself. For example, when you know that you need to finish work at six every day, you maybe started a little bit later or perhaps you're someone who starts really early and likes to finish early, like four o'clock. If you can have something in your life that is some sort of a ritual or some routine that you do so that you know when time is over, it sort of breaks your state. So you've gone from this is work Sarah, to this is home Sarah, everything can merge into one so easily, when we’re working for ourselves.
10:18 MI (voiceover): As a freelancer, no matter what sort of work from home or remote style that you decide upon, hybrid or not, it's important that you really get the most out of that workplace. According to a Stanford study conducted on 16,000 employees over nine months of remote work, general employee productivity is up 13% while working remotely. Now I'm not going to give you the whole spiel about why I believe in working remote or why I think it's a good work solution. It works best for me. What I will say is that there has been a lot of correlation to working remotely and having better productivity. And as a freelancer, it is very important to find whatever that best fit is for you, whether it is a hybrid approach or I want to work in some sort of office or I work from my home office, whatever that style is. Find something that works for you, and try and mix it up a little bit, find different ways because that really helps find that balance and find that place where you can really get the most out of your workday. A few last thoughts before we end this section on self care and mental health, I want to leave you all with some mental health tips and how you can find some pretty simple ways to help maintain and take care of yourself while working remotely or not working remotely however you choose to work. One, try to keep a normal routine, whatever that is, and maybe your normal is to just mix it up. Whatever that normal routine is for you try to stick to that day in and day out. Try to get outside or even work outside if it's not too distracting. Sunshine, fresh air, working wherever you can outside for a short period of time are all great ways to keep balanced, to keep your mood up, to keep your productivity high. Make sure. And believe me, I'm a big culprit of this to take your weekends or days off and give yourself that unplug time. I can't stress enough how important unplugging is to your overall mental state and making sure you don't get so bogged down with clients and appointments and all the various things that you have to do day in and day out. I want to give one last plug on the community aspect because we talk a lot about how one of the downfalls sometimes in freelancing is that we don't get to have that sense of community that we get at the workplace. So two ways that you can really help yourself. One, commit to some sort of weekly meeting to connect. It doesn't have to be a coworker, but a friend, family member. Just find some way to talk about things that aren't work-related as part of your work day. And if things are getting too overwhelming, I want to make sure that everyone knows. Please find ways to talk to your friends, get professional help whatever it may be. One resource that I think is absolutely awesome is Talkspace. It is a great place. If you haven't gone, go check out the website. If you're feeling anything, you know your body better than anyone. Don’t ignore it, get help, talk about it. Try to be as healthy as possible. It's really important so that you can get the most out of your workday, be your best self, and that you can excel in that freelance life.
14:07 MI: I completely agree with everything you've said and very well said. I do want to talk a little bit about your book which is an Amazon bestseller. For those of you who aren't aware, it's called Survival Skills for Freelancers. Talk about the inspiration behind the book and its core message to freelancers.
14:28 ST: Oh, okay. So I started my freelance career when I was a 20 something year old woman. And I had become a mum, and I was being a parent for the first time and being a business owner for the first time. I didn't know I was a business owner. I thought I was just a freelancer, but I knew nothing about running a business. When you start out, you don't know what you don't know. So you can't ask people, you can't go for advice. I didn't know anybody who was freelance to begin with. There was no social media back then. So there was no kind of community that I could lean on and get the support and the advice and the reassurance that I needed. So I also found that at the time, all the books that I read to help me start a business, all felt like they were aimed at this middle-aged man in a suit, which could not have been further from me. I had this agency background and I'd worked in marketing and I felt like I was kind of young and cool, but I just couldn't find anything that felt like it spoke to me. So, at the start of last year, I sat down to write a book that would do just that. It would share my 20 plus years of experience as a freelancer, the highs and lows, all the mistakes that I've made along the way so that I can empower others to become successful, but a lot more quickly, and with fewer mistakes than I made. Basically cutting your path to success, giving you the shortcut. And what I wanted to do was bust what I see as being the eight myths of self-employment things like going solo doesn't mean going it alone. And that's why community and connection is so very important. So, I bust the eight myths and I wanted to provide a book that felt like advice from a trusted friend or a mentor or somebody that has been there and done it and yeah, got the scars to prove it.
16:40 MI: That's so awesome. Well, for the listeners out there, I highly encourage you to read the book. I don't want to spoil the book too much. I know you mentioned some of the myths, right? So give me maybe your top tip for getting freelance right.
16:56 ST: Yeah, every time I do a podcast, I get asked this question every time. I'm like, which one should I pick today? It's really difficult because it took me a fair while to narrow down what I thought those eight were going to be. So to actually pick one is like being asked to choose a favorite child. I think something that is really important is accepting that you can't do it all. And actually trying to do everything for your business. And I'm talking sales, marketing, admin, accounts, IT. Trying to be all the people and wear all the hats is the fast train to burn out. We've talked a little bit about burnout already, having the confidence to recognize the things that you do in an average day, an average week as a freelancer. What does that look like? Tasks that you repeatedly do within your business that (a) are not your special skill. So then, they are not the things that you love doing, they're not the things you get paid for, they’re not your top skill, and they’re not the things you enjoy. For example, take accounts - who other than accountants like doing accounts? That's a perfect thing to outsource. Those tasks that don't make you money, you don't enjoy, and that's not the reason why you went freelance in the first place. So if you could take a piece of paper and write down the tasks that you do in a week that are not your profitable activity, anything that you're not getting paid for doing. You can highlight those tasks and see, probably for starters you’ll be shocked at just how many things there are that you hadn't realized you were doing day to day. But if you go through that list and you rank everything, like one to five, five is the things that you really hate doing, are consuming and you don't enjoy and don't make you money. The things that score the highest, are the things that you need to look to outsource the quickest. And then when you outsource, you're creating this bit of a virtuous circle, because you're starting to build up this trusted team of people who are all working for your business success, and they're all there to help you. They've got the expertise that you don't have, and it also frees you up all this additional time to focus on the work that you enjoy to try to get more of that and therefore earn more money. By the end of the week, when you find you've gone from doing 50% of what you get paid for and what you love, and then 50% of the other stuff that comes along with running a business that you didn't even know you were going to have to do. You actually find yourself doing closer to a hundred percent of your special skill that makes you money. The thing that you love doing. You get to the end of the week and you're like, oh, I've had a great week, I've worked for some brilliant clients, I've done my best work and your clients are delighted with the work that you've done. You get to the end of the project and your clients will be happy to write you a testimonial. And they'll also be happy to refer you to other like-minded people. So the more you can outsource, the more it frees you up the time and the headspace to get more enjoyment from self-employment because you're doing more of what you love.
20:33 MI (voiceover): Don't get so bogged down in the day-to-day and all the tedious tactical things that you forget to make time to pursue the projects that are near and dear to your heart. Pursuing freelance projects is so important for every freelancer out there to make sure that you are creating a stream of revenue pursuing the projects that you love. There's no one that can convince me that this is not good for all freelancers. I know we have bills, we have expenses. You've got to hit whatever that daily, weekly revenue is for you, but find ways that you can get out there and talk to the people that you are really excited to talk about and find ways to really work on those types of projects. It's as simple as how you would think about any new business and applying that to your new business cycle. Whatever your process might be, believe me, we are most productive and happiest when we're working on projects that get us excited and motivated.
21:38 MI: I agree, it's hard to find the time to focus on the things that you want to do. And when you're running a business, you get so caught up in having to do all these other things that sometimes it takes you away from the things that you're really passionate about, that you really want to do.
22:00 ST: Yeah, and don't get me wrong. Sometimes there might be something, for example, if you're doing your own social media management, you might want to learn a new tool, like Canva so that you can create great graphics for your social media or other platforms are available. If that’s something that you want to do then that's great. You know, go ahead because actually learning new skills and developing as an individual is part of what takes your business to the next level anyway. But it's the things that you really don't enjoy and you know that you're not good at. Get the experts to do those things for you. That’s myth 2 of the book and that's one of the really important things.
22:50 MI: So, talking through, I know we touched on some of the challenges. Talk a little bit about some of the traps you find freelancers fall into frequently.
22:59 ST: Yeah. Good question. I guess it comes back to that thing of letting our clients be our bosses. When you are employed and you have just one boss, that's okay. But we go freelance because we love the idea of being our own boss. And particularly if you're like me and you're a bit of a perfectionist control freak, you love the idea of being in charge, but then if you're not careful, if you're not doing the things that we've talked about earlier on with. Getting really clear on your terms and your processes and really communicating the value that you add to your clients. Then you can easily find that you have five clients, instead of having one boss, you've got five bosses because all your clients are telling you when they expect you to work. And you know, we’ll WhatsApp you in the evening and we expect you to reply. That’s not what self-employment is all about, you need to be able to set the terms. And when you can get clear on that, then that's where the value lies. You don’t want to have multiple bosses. You want to remember you are in charge. You're the boss. And you can actually have more fun and fulfillment as a freelancer when you remember those things. Other traps, I think going down the hustle route, it's not about the hustle, it's not about this form of glorifying. Oh my God. You know, it's a bank holiday weekend or I can't afford to take time off. I'm working the whole weekend, including the bank holiday. I don't want to be doing that. I want to be in business for myself because I want to make good money doing a fulfilling job, helping people out and being able to supplement my lifestyle. I don't want my entire life to be my job. So try to avoid getting sucked into that bravado of, yeah, God, I'm so busy. I can't afford to do exercise. I can't afford to get up away from my desk and stretch out every hour. You know, really important stuff because nobody can sit and focus for seven days a week, 10 hours a day, whatever it is, how can you possibly do your best work? If you're not taking time to unplug, you're not recharging. You're not doing the things that feed your soul. You're not taking breaks and getting a different four walls around you, you know, going out and looking at the trees and looking at the sky and you can't possibly do your best work. So I think that's a big trap feeling like you have to brag about how busy you are.
25:44 MI: Yeah, I think we all run into it from time to time. So with the last remaining bit of time here, I wanted you to talk to people who maybe are considering a path in freelance or are just starting out some of the freelance fundamentals so to speak. If you're packing a bag and you need to have three things in that bag and you're just starting out. What are those things that you really need to become a freelancer and be successful at freelancing?
26:11 ST: This is such a good question. And it's so difficult to answer because there are so many things and I'm going to be really cheeky. I'm going to say freelance fundamental number one, and I'm not saying this because it makes me money because I make about six pounds on a copy and believe me, I'm not going to even get a McDonald's for that. I think when I started off with writing my book, I was a little naive because I just wanted to write a book to help people. I didn't have an expensive course to sell on the back of it. I just wanted other people to be able to learn from my experience and the experience of a hundred other freelancers, who I spoke to in the process. So invest in a copy of Survival Skills for Freelancers first and foremost. It’s really difficult to choose specific things. And this is why it's such a great question. I would say, it really helps to have a cash reserve set up. Have some savings behind you, particularly if you're in employment now and you're thinking of going freelance. Really important to siphon off savings as an emergency fund. Partly because it can take ages to get paid. We know this because we've been doing it for years, but when you're first setting out, you almost think, okay, I've had a conversation with somebody who's a potential client. You don't realize sometimes it can take two months, two years, even for that client, that original conversation to actually turn into a paying client. It takes time. When you've got that fund behind you, ideally three to six months' living expenses as a minimum, it takes the pressure off. Because there's nothing worse than feeling desperate for work because people sense it and it doesn't go down well. It's far nicer and far more enjoyable when you actually feel like, okay, I like the sound of this job. I feel like this is really a good fit with my business and my skill set. And I'd love to help this client out with this problem. So, if you've got that cash behind you, that gives you the freedom and the flexibility to say no to the work that's not right for you and also keeps you covered when you have cashflow difficulty. So I would say the book, some cash, I'd also say resilience. It's not something you're gonna exactly put in a bag. Is it? But let's be honest. When you put yourself in the firing line as a freelancer, you are up for potentially a fair amount of rejection. I say in the book, when I first asked people on Twitter, what you needed in other people's opinions, what do you need to be a successful freelancer, had a lot of people saying thick skin. Now I'm not thick-skinned at all and really sensitive. And people were like you'll get over it. But no, this is just me. It's just how I am but I am resilient. I've learned how to deal with the knocks and the inevitable rejection and to just make peace with it and to say, okay, there's a piece of work that you were hoping to get it went to someone else, but actually half the time, it's just a sign that it's not right for you. And that something will quickly come along to replace it that is a much better fit for your experience and the sort of work that you want to be doing. You know, it's one of those meant to be things. So if you can learn how to be resilient, again, something that I talk about in the book. Four different strategies on how to become more resilient. The good news about resilience is that it's something that you learn. It's like a muscle, that bounce back ability that you can work on and you can grow. It's not something you either have, or you don't have, it's not something you're born with or you're not born with. So that's the good news.
30:15 MI: Yeah, I think those are three great things and I would agree with all of them. Those are definitely important skills to have. You did touch a little bit on flexibility, which we haven't talked too much about today. And I think it's something very important. It's one of my personal favorite benefits about being a freelancer and having flexibility in so many different ways. Talk a little bit about what are some of the biggest benefits to being a freelancer again, for people who may be on edge or just starting out and why they want to go down this road.
30:51 ST: I think it comes back to that freelance is a myth, you know, we’re out there for this idea of freedom and flexibility. I think in a lot of cases, people think, oh, I'm just going to be a lady who lunches. I'm going to take my laptop, go and work in a cafe somewhere. And after going and doing pilates in the morning and that kind of thing. And when it works, it's brilliant because sometimes I feel like that is my lifestyle. I'll get up in the morning, I'll read for half an hour and then I'll start work. I'll go and take a break and do exercise for an hour. And that puts me back on track. I'm going with a force because I've had my exercise and I'm feeling good. I've got my endorphins. We talked about this earlier. So, when you can build this lifestyle that fits in with the things that you're passionate about and not just the work. You get to do the work you love, you get to help people in the process using your special skill, but you also if you're a parent, you also get to be a parent and never miss the sports day. You never miss a school play. You never miss an award ceremony. Everything that's important for your kids and your family. It's important for you to be there. Maybe you've got elderly parents and you need to spend some time caring for them. Maybe you just love getting out for long dog walks every day. It's that freedom, the flexibility, and the idea of doing the thing that we love, making good money for doing that thing and working where, when and how you like. And when it works, it works brilliantly. And that's why the boundaries that I talk about in the book are so important because that's where we get lost. We love this idea. We have this idea we cherish. This is what we want, and then we lose sight of it and it gets away from us. With the boundaries and the balance, you can bring that back. And that's the lifestyle that you can have.
32:57 MI: Yeah, well said. What's next for you this year? Outside of the book. What's on the roadmap?
33:04 ST: Oh, gosh, this is a weird thing for me because I honestly thought I would just write a book and go back to my day job. But now I have clients contacting me and going like - Are you still doing copywriting? Because I saw that you're doing this mentoring scheme. And I saw that you've done this presentation, and I've just seen that you've done 50 podcasts in a year or whatever. I wasn't prepared for all this stuff that would come on the back of this. Especially as a self-published author. I'm quite proud as an indie author to have achieved everything that I've achieved. And that's not something I say easily. I'm not someone who easily goes yeah, well done me, pat on the back. I'm just not that person. I'm always like right onto the next thing, but actually I love doing the podcast chats, because it enables me to reach a completely new audience with the message about well-being and mental health and why it is so important. So the more people I can help do that, the better. I'm doing workshops now on the Mindset for Success. And I've got a couple of webinars that I do fairly regularly, quite often for university students, which is important for me because my kids are 22 and 18. So university aged kids and if I can make a difference to the next generation, that for me is phenomenal. Really important. And then of course, on top of that, I'm doing the copywriting, but I've had to learn to say no a lot more than I ever used to because I have less time to do the copywriting now. I only take on the projects that I am really interested in taking on.
34:44 MI: Yeah. I was going to say that's a nice thing to have, like freedom to be able to go after the work that you really want to do.
34:52 ST: Absolutely. It's like the biggest privilege. Isn't it?
34:56 MI: It really is. I mean, that's the goal, right? Well, where can listeners find you?
35:04 ST: I'm quite active on social media. You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Probably the easiest way if you want to look me up is to go to survivalskillsforfreelancers.com. That is the website for the book. So that will take you through to more information on the book, links to my social media, links to my copywriting website, and also how to buy the book on Amazon.
35:31 MI: Amazing. Well, if you haven't read it, please do. And go find you on social media. It was a pleasure having you on today. Really enjoyed chatting with you about all things freelance and again, love the book and everyone out there, please read it.
35:47 ST: Amazing, absolute pleasure to talk to you today. Thanks Megan.
35: 49 MI: No problem.