The Writer’s Survival Mode

Kelly James-Enger has a rule for never missing a freelance writing deadline: she never, ever, ever accepts more work than she can handle.


So far, that’s seldom been an issue for me. I mean, I stay plenty busy, but most of the mix consists of my own, more flexible projects—books, queries, article ideas, reading (mustn’t forget the reading pile). Not so at the moment. Right now, I’m swamped. I’ve had a steady stream of freelance work this year plus a host of unexpected family-related things, and (like a true freelancer who is dependent on work for bread), darned if I’m going to ask for anyone to cover my freelance projects unless I can’t complete them.

Except that burnout ain’t such a great thing, either.

I like to think of myself as having a “Survival Mode”, where I prioritize resources and tasks and shut off power to all nonessential systems like laundry and cleaning, and even, sometimes, writing, exercise, self-care, and other things important for mental and physical health. It works in the short term, but not on a long-term basis. I am very, very, very happy to report that although I’m still busy, I’m back to writing. It feels like waking up.

All this makes me wonder: what do other freelancers do when life descends and they can’t meet a deadline? Even for the most-organized, it has to happen sometimes.

Has this happened to you? Do you have a “Survival Mode” for times when you feel overwhelmed? Does Survival Mode backfire if it goes on too long?

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know -

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. erica and christy says

    I'm not a freelancer, but I could definitely see this being a problem for me. Sometimes deadlines are a challenge for me to get things done when I'd rather be doing something else, but sometimes they just add to the stress and I feel more shut-down than rejuvinated.

    We saw Kelly at a conference this spring and she has HUGE energy – it made me tired to watch her!

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Erica–I feel the same way. Sometimes a deadline inspires me to do more, but other times it adds so much stress that I have a hard time getting anything done. I guess it's a balance!

    Cool that you got to hear Kelly speak–and too funny about her energy. Maybe *that's* how she gets so much done!