Anyone who works from home knows it’s a special kind of hell. Despite the allure of soft pants and no commute, it can be isolating and dreary. When you’re left to your own devices — literally, just you and your devices — staring at a screen, trying to turn words or graphics or code into dollars, and you don’t know what day it is or when the next check is gonna arrive, it’s all too easy to let your most destructive, self-defeating thoughts take hold, until you spiral out.
Despite these drawbacks, some of us have actively chosen self-employment, preferring the flexibility and autonomy and, in some cases, greater profits, than we could find in a traditional nine-to-five setup. Others ended up in this boat because we work in an industry prone to rampant union-busting and layoffs, and with only so many staff positions to go around, we’ve no other choice but to make our own way.
Cobbling together a livelihood as a freelancer, with no steady salary or worker protections in place, often necessitates taking on side gigs, which can make you feel like you’re never not hustling—and there’s nothing cute or cool about working yourself to death, despite what startups with an interest in glorifying the gig economy would have you believe.
It makes sense that freelancers tend to pick up extra work in their field, or something adjacent to it—for example, journalists will often fact-check or copy edit, while web developers might take on smaller projects, like running Google Adwords campaigns or setting up Google suite for clients. But the downside to these gigs is that they still keep you chained to the computer, failing to provide much of a mental or physical break from your typical day-in, day-out work, and that can prolong your sense of burnout.
Instead, a side gig that gets you out of the house and active can reinvigorate you and break up the monotony of the solitary slog of screen-time. A recent CJR feature gave examples of freelance journalists who have done everything from cleaning houses to coaching boxing to working as sugar babies to help pay the bills and get out of their heads.
These options all come with their own pros and cons, but were all useful to writers learning to earn extra cash without logging more hours staring at a screen and willing words to appear. Below, more reasons why you might want to look for extra income outside of your usual wheelhouse:
Soothe your anxieties (financial and otherwise) with cash
I’ve been freelance for nearly a year after being laid off from my full-time journalist job, and for most of that time, I was hesitant to take on any extra work that wasn’t writing, because I thought it’d be a waste of my time or a sign I wasn’t making the most of my skill-set. But recently, I picked up a gig working coat check at an events venue a few times a month.
There’s something so simple and satisfying about the system of taking coats, matching them to a number, and then returning them to their owners. At the end of an easy evening exchanging parkas and pleasantries with strangers, and catching snippets of live music or comedy, I take home a wad of bills. It’s not a ton of money, but after being accustomed to waiting weeks for checks, I feel rich and giddy to have a little cash in my hands.
Becca Schuh, a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn, thrives on the steady cash flow from her bartending job. “The fact that I can go into work and make $200 or $300 without really exercising my brain is pretty significant to my sense of financial solvency,” she says. “When I get anxious, I have a hard time being productive, so when I can put financial anxiety to the side because I know where my rent is coming from, I can (theoretically) be more productive. It’s also allowed me to pursue creative work that doesn’t pay, or pays poorly, like running a literary journal and interviewing authors.”
Get out of your house and on your feet
“When you get depressed, it’s difficult to stay stuck in your head if you start to move your body,” explains Dr. Megan J. Clary, a clinical psychologist in Brooklyn. “Often, moving around shakes things up a bit by switching your perception.”
For Schuh, working at a bar “with supportive coworkers and a relatively relaxed environment” keeps her “calm and sane in a way that writing certainly does not.” She describes going to work one day, literally mid-panic attack, “and the simple act of walking around the restaurant, taking orders, handing people drinks, reoriented my brain and allowed me to move through anxiety-inducing situations.”
There’s ample research on the link between regular exercise and improved mental health, but studies show that you don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits: any light physical activity, especially if you’re used to sitting all the time, can be enough to put you in a better mood.
It also might have something to do with “behavioural activation,” explains Dr. Doug Mennin, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University. The therapy technique encourages patients to change their environment and seek “positive reinforcers” — people or activities that make them feel better — as a way to overcome depressive symptoms, rather than self-isolating.
“Working in a different kind of industry, you’re going to be exposed to different types of people and that creates variability that makes it more likely that one of the reinforcers or rewards that could help you out of your funk could be present,” he explains.
There are lots of arguments for the respective benefits to freelancing versus full-time employment. It still seems like there are more freelancers every year, and fewer people get to choose. And in any case, one of the notable downsides of freelancing is the marked lack of stability.
Exercise your creativity
For some remote workers, the active side gig provides an opportunity for creative control that’s absent from their main income source. That’s the case for Brian Pennington, a freelance web developer by day, and a DJ by night. “I get to choose the next song without running it by anyone and even when I’m organising an event with another DJ, I’m doing it as an equal partner in the decision making, not as a service rendered to a client whose happiness comes first and foremost,” he says.
“It’s helpful to be able to have things [that matter to you] outside of your job, and if you’re a freelancer, it can often give you a chance to find some purpose in other areas and not just be bogged down thinking, ‘my home is my work, my work is my home and I can’t get away from it,’” says Clary.
That helped writer Marian Bull, who first got into ceramics (which she now sells) because her therapist told her she needed something in her life that “wasn’t directly or even tangentially related to [her] job” as a freelance journalist. She started taking classes once a week, and eventually, “something clicked and I became obsessed with it,” she says. As a bonus, spending time in the studio “gave me a respite from the cabin fever I often got from being alone in my apartment with my computer all the time.”
Much to my surprise and my roommates’ consternation, I have somehow managed to work from home for an entire year. There are a lot of upsides to leading a laissez-faire life of couch-writing. I never have to commute, which is a true blessing, considering how often all the New York City subways experience system wide meltdowns during rush hour. I rarely put on real pants. I can make doctor’s appointments in the middle of the day, or at least I could if I had health insurance that covered a doctor’s appointment.
Connect with your community
For Bridey Heing, substitute teaching in her local school district provides a welcome switch-up to her typical sedentary day-to-day as a freelance culture writer in Washington D.C. Not only does it “allow [her] to feel like part of the community in a way that can be difficult for someone working at home all the time,” the schedule is pretty manageable and the pay decent enough to make it worth her while.
“As a side gig, being done by around 3:30 every day I go and having at least an hour of free time during the work day are both huge bonuses that make it sustainable, rather than burning me out at the expense of my writing career,” she says.
And a little fresh air can do wonders. During grad school, Heather Simon juggled creative writing and translation assignments with a part-time job as a designer for a test prep company, working remotely in her cramped living room in her East Village apartment, and attending classes at night. Simon’s salvation during those screen-heavy days was her job selling meat for Flying Pigs Farm every Saturday at the Union Square Farmer’s Market.
“I loved it because I was outside, I was lifting shit around, I was talking to people, I was cold, I was not sitting staring at things,” she says. “I would get texts but my hands were too frozen to respond.” An added bonus: Simon got all her grocery shopping done for the week ahead at the market, and at a vendor discount.
Literally get your hands dirty
In addition to getting out of the apartment, Bull also liked that she “couldn’t really be on my phone while at the ceramics studio, since I was working with my hands, and my hands were covered in wet dirt,” she says.
Keeping your hands busy can have the effect of engaging your mind, too. “If we’re talking about mindfulness practices of being in life, especially if you’re writing or at a computer, you’re very disconnected from your body,” explains Clary. Instead, finding a job that’s “sensory-oriented”, and that forces you to “pay more attention to your physicality” can make you “more connected to experiencing things, and more engaged with the whole self,” she says.
When Jesse Marion Bowley first moved to New York City, she supported her freelance career in graphic design and web development with a part-time job at a butcher shop, and found it invigorating. “More mental and physical focus (using sharp knives quickly curbs the mind wandering) and a forced break from screentime helped me feel less anxious and sleep better,” she says.
Learning a new skill or engaging in a new activity is also helpful because “variation is important for people’s experiences. If you’re doing the same thing, you’re not cognitively challenging yourself enough,” explains Mennin. “We know that new contexts produce new learning and that [can] improve cognitive performance.”
Plus, there’s a satisfaction in working with your hands that you don’t get with more intangible work: you can literally hold onto the finished product, and that can give you a much-needed confidence boost. “I think one of the exciting parts was that, unlike with writing, I could actively see and measure myself getting better with ceramics,” says Bull.
Bowley feels similarly about charting her progress as a butcher. “After college, most of the learning you do in your field is so gradual it can be difficult to see. But when you start from scratch and do something completely new, it’s incredibly motivating to see such massive leaps of improvement.”