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Striking balance between work and life no easy task

By Bruce Shutan

The life of a freelance writer means constantly redrawing that proverbial line in the sand separating work from play.

Nowhere was this issue more visible than during a panel discussion — on the business of freelance writing — that I had the pleasure of speaking at during SPJ’s 2005 National Convention in October.

I won’t soon forget what a fellow panelist had to say on the matter. Jill Miller Zimon, a Cleveland-based freelance writer whose Web site features a tongue-in-cheek reference to her figure having “expanded and contracted with three children,” told attendees that she made a pact with her family — capping weekly hours to avoid becoming a delinquent wife or mother. Good for her, I thought, before inserting foot in mouth.

The faux pas: making a passing reference to my own situation later on in the session, which was that as a single man I was “unencumbered” by children, and therefore, could work unlimited hours without having to answer for workaholic behavior. My seemingly innocent observation (and diction gaffe) triggered a few groans from working parents. Then I was forced to fess up about having been married a few times and damn near faced a lynch mob. I’m exaggerating, of course, but learned an important lesson just the same.

Work-life balance is a serious matter not only for freelancers but all journalists.

Look no further than a Poynter Institute survey of 750 industry practitioners, which cited missed vacations as a problem. It may be just one aspect of this issue, but there’s no telling what sort of impact such an imbalance might have on our bodies, hearts and minds.

The problem runs deep in a society that places a high premium on getting things done faster than ever before. A 2005 survey of more than 1,000 wage and salaried employees by the Families and Work Institute in 2005, Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, found that 30 percent of Americans are chronically overworked, while 54 percent have felt overwhelmed by how much work was on their plate.

So what are we to do? Try slowing down, for God’s sake. And by all means, learn to stop and smell the coffee (or is it grande vanilla latte these days?).

Jeff Wuorio, a freelance writer and author based in Gorham, Maine, has several common-sense suggestions for greater work-life balance that his busy colleagues never should underestimate. They include a commitment not to overbook, prioritize ruthlessly (my favorite of the batch), learn how to say no, organize, use technology but don’t overdo it and just know whatever you’re doing won’t always be perfect.

On the Freelance Writing Success Web site (, copywriter and author Nick Usborne also weighed in on the topic by noting that while a carpet commute may seem like a dream job, it poses major challenges.

“It can be hard to stay focused on your work,” he wrote, “and it can get lonely.”

His four-pack of rules: Set yourself a schedule, find yourself a place to work, educate your family about work cycle and interruptions and know when to stop working.

Amen, brother. I couldn’t have said it any better.

Some of my own two cents include the importance of a steady exercise regimen, which a recent two-month meditation class taught me is critical for maintaining a healthy mind, and carving out enough time for fun things like hobbies or networking through professional organizations such as SPJ. Jack Nicholson wasn’t kidding when his demented character in The Shining repeatedly typed how “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another helpful rule of thumb is to know about proper ergonomics, including workstation design, and taking plenty of little breaks from your computer. If you’re planning to be around for a while as a freelance writer or journalist, then striking the right balance will help avoid a debilitating or potentially career-ending repetitive motion injury. Remember that this is a writing marathon — not a sprint to the finish line.

Bruce Shutan is an L.A.-based freelance writer who has been covering the American workplace for 21 of his 23 years in journalism. He can be reached at


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