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At 25 years old, I became a six-figure translator. I had been working on my freelance business since I was 19, and now I felt like the world was at my feet.
I couldn’t care less about the 12-hour work days, the few days off, the nights spent in front of my laptop. I HAD MADE IT. Or so I thought…
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Why would I ‘quiet quit’ my freelancing?
Fast forward 5 years.
I am 30, recently got out of a long term relationship, my dad just gave me a health scare and every time I work for more than 30 consecutive minutes, I feel like throwing up. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time I accept I am burned out.
How did all this happen?!
Looking backwards, I can see three main issues in my attitude to freelancing. These contributed to my early success, but were not sustainable and ended up backfiring in the long run.
I had too many clients
Some time in year 3 of my freelancing journey, I lost my biggest client. 60% of my income depended on them… till they disappeared.
The day I realized they were gone, I learned a valuable business lesson – you shouldn’t depend on any single client. Unfortunately, though, I took this lesson a bit too far. 3 years later, I had 20+ clients. 4 or 5 were regulars, others only sent a job every two or three weeks, and some were even more sporadic.
Have you ever tried to manage 20 clients alone? Let me tell you, it’s not fun. I should have considered there is a hidden cost of having too many clients. But I didn’t, and I paid the cost dearly.
I never declined projects
You see, I come from a lower middle class family in Italy. My family was not poor, but we always had to be a bit careful about how we handled our money.
Coming from this background, I had a very hard time turning down projects that paid more than $25 per hour. ‘My mum has to work for two hours for the same amount, and I can do it in twenty minutes sitting on the sofa’ I always thought. So I accepted every job I felt able to complete.
When clients notice that you always say yes to their projects, they love you. You soon become their first choice, which means they send even more projects. It was not unusual for me to be juggling 7 or 8 projects at the same time. It was madness.
I niched down too hard
Don’t get me wrong – finding a niche is key for your success as a freelancer. And I wanted to succeed, so I found myself one – I translated financial contents, more specifically Forex-related contents.
Was I interested in Forex? Not that much, but it was ok. Plus, once you have a solid understanding of your niche (and the terminology that comes with it, in my case), something interesting happens.
If your rate goes up 30% because you are an expert and your productivity doubles because you have to do very little research, suddenly every project in that niche becomes extremely profitable.
Before you realize it, you’ve built yourself a golden cage – you are making a ton of money, but your job is doing exactly the same thing, every single day, over and over again.
That was exactly the situation I was in when my mind decided to shut down to work.
How I “quiet quit” as a freelancer (what NOT to do)
It sounds weird to even think about it – in practice, how can you quiet quit a freelance job?
Here are the steps I took.
I took my avg email response time from 15 minutes to 4 to 12 hours
I had even written it on my CV – my average response time was 15 minutes. Clients love when you are quick to answer them, and they were used to me always being ON.
When I couldn’t do it anymore, I simply stopped. I was used to check my emails regularly and I continued to do so. I saw the emails. I just didn’t answer.
I sent very short replies
I had always been friendly with my clients. I had worked with some of them for years, so I ended up knowing them a little bit.
As I struggled to answer emails, my replies became quite short. ‘Ok’. ‘Received, thanks’. ‘I confirm’. The difference was quite noticeable.
I turned down projects that made me less than $100
You know those very small projects that you actually hate, but you still take them because the client is a good client? I stopped taking them.
I had always struggled to impose a minimum fee. So I imposed my own minimum acceptable project.
I started to miss deadlines
I respected my deadlines religiously for 10+ years, and then I found out nothing happened if I delivered a bit late.
I was never significantly late, but I was rarely on time. One hour here, a couple there. I was struggling to do the work, and I kept procrastinating for days. Time never seemed to be enough.
I ghosted all the clients I didn’t like
This one is pretty embarrassing. I had a number of clients that I didn’t like, for one reason or another.
I should have tried to fix our cooperation or fired them much earlier. I didn’t do either, I simply ghosted them.
I didn’t reply to ANY new client inquiry that came my way
Over the years, I had built a good online presence, plus I constantly had some referrals from past clients (before I burned out, I was actually pretty good).
Before all of this happened, I received a couple of inquiries per month, and overall I was gaining 3 to 4 recurring clients per year, while losing maybe 1 or 2.
For one whole year, I didn’t reply to anyone who contacted me. A couple of them could have been amazing clients, but I couldn’t even entertain the thought. I was too tired of my current jobs to even think about new clients.
I didn’t do any admin work, any invoice, nothing
If you are struggling to do the actual work, everything that is not absolutely necessary gets put on hold. As I had saved some money in the past, I simply started to burn through it.
By the time I managed to recover from burnout, I had to send invoices for a whole year’s worth of work. That was a very low point.
Dealing with the consequences – the good ones
Going from 10-hour work days to 3-hour work days in the span of a couple of months was not a shock for me. It was a huge relief.
All of a sudden, I had a lot of free time and I could spend it however I wanted.
So I did something I had been postponing for too long – I sought new challenges in other areas of my life.
Eating healthier and losing weight
I had always been a bit chubby, but the weight had slowly crept up over the years… I was now officially fat and determined to change it.
As a freelancer, if you ever want to start a diet, you have a crucial advantage over anybody else – you can eat (and cook) all of your meals at home. I invested one hour per day to cook my own meals, and WOW it worked.
Thanks to a combination of dieting and exercising, I lost 50 pounds in one year. Even better, I changed my eating habits for good. It’s been two years, and I haven’t gained the weight back.
This had a tremendous impact on my productivity as well. I no longer feel bloated and sleepy after lunch, so I can be productive in the afternoon as well. Which in turn means I can stop working at 6PM at the latest, instead of procrastinating and doing the actual work at 10PM.
Finally making the most of location independence
When I started to work as a translator, I dreamed of one day becoming a digital nomad. I never did, and I wouldn’t start now for a number of reasons. For years, though, I had found excuses not to make the most of location independence.
At a certain point of the year, I discovered the idea of mini retirements – two to twelve months breaks from work to recharge and recover from burnout, or simply enjoy life.
The destination only needs to fulfill two requirements – it has to be a place you really want to visit, and it has to be relatively cheap so you don’t burn too quickly through your savings.
I couldn’t start a mini retirement back then, but being in love with the idea, I did the closest thing I could think of – a 2 week staycation in Lisbon. I chose Lisbon because it’s beautiful, the cost of living is low, and I had already been there twice and loved it.
The result? 2 months later, I started to slowly phase back into work. My staycation was incredibly reinvigorating, and something I should have done years earlier.
Going to therapy
As often happens, I was not just struggling with one area of my life. Everything seemed to be going upside down.
My answer to this was therapy. Once a week, whatever happened, however ‘busy’ I seemed to appear. Even when it seemed I was going round and round in circles.
Therapy helped me to understand why I did some of the things I did. What was the underlying reason why I accepted all the projects that came my way? Was there a power play between me and some of my clients? Was I using my job as an excuse to avoid doing other things?
The answer to these questions is irrelevant here. Getting to a point where you can ask yourself these questions isn’t.
Starting an exercise routine
Probably it was just an excuse, but I always thought I couldn’t go to the gym during ‘business hours’. What if a client emails me while I’m out of office? How can I justify being unavailable at 3PM?
Well, it’s easy – you just do it. The way I see it, there are two options:
- You answer all emails just before leaving, and then first time once you come back
- You leave and set an autoresponder for two hours
If you choose weight lifting, answering emails during your rest intervals is also an option, but one I wouldn’t recommend. I prefer not to be distracted by work while I’m doing something else.
And if you are like I was before starting to hit the gym, and have always looked down on people who spend a lot of time in the gym, I’ll leave you with a quote:
“It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord” – Socrates, not Schwarzenegger
Dealing with the consequences – the bad one
And finally, the numbers. In a short year, I ghosted/lost 60% of my clients and 50% of my income.
BOOM, I said it.
Had someone told me 5 years earlier, I would have said it wasn’t possible. I cared too much about my freelance business, I could never allow something like this to happen. And there lies one of the keys – I cared too much about my freelance business, and too little about myself. I was building a money-making machine, but paying a dear price for it.
In hindsight, I think burning out was inevitable. But as bitter a pill it was to swallow, it taught me something far more precious than the money I didn’t make.
Phasing back into work
Surprisingly enough, my best clients decided to stick with me. We never discussed the situation openly, but the change was too clear for them not to notice. Some were incredibly supportive, in a subtle way that I appreciated.
One year after I unconsciously decided to quiet quit, I was ready to phase back.
The time I spent healing helped me to realize a few things. Believe it or not, I love my job. I love languages, and I have always been a reader – translation just comes natural to me.
What I hated was the environment I had built for myself, and I work hard every day not to go back to my die hard habits.
I no longer reply to emails within 15 minutes. I can not be glued to my screen all day long. I don’t work weekends and I don’t work later than 6PM. EVER. This cost me a couple of projects… and I discovered I am perfectly fine with that.
I am slowly phasing back into areas I had abandoned because they didn’t pay as well as my financial translation gigs – video game localization and transcreation. They still don’t pay as well as finance, and they probably never will. But they keep me sane, and that is worth more than a few extra cents per word.
Lastly, I discovered the immense pleasure of having a lot of free time, and decided I wanted to protect it. Today, I no longer make 6 figures from translation. But I mostly work 3-hour days, and I started two new businesses. 4 months ago I opened my short term rental, and last month I started a blog about translation. The road to 100k in a sustainable way has just (re)started.
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