I stared wide-eyed at my computer screen, frozen with disbelief. $306,055.05. That was the total revenue number I saw at the top of my profit and loss statement at the end of 2021.
Without a doubt, it was the biggest financial year my freelance writing business had ever had—both in total revenue and in net profit (which was right around $175,000 before taxes and retirement savings).
After a quick moment to pat myself on the back, I found myself facing the question that plagues every business owner: So…what’s next?
I knew what my plan was for the next few months: A three-month maternity leave to welcome my second son (so that high-earning year definitely came in handy to self-fund my own leave).
But what about after that? Should I start offering new services? Should I continue building a team of subcontractors to help with the work? Should I spin this into my own full-fledged content agency?
Traditional wisdom and hustle-obsessed posts on LinkedIn would nudge me in the direction of chasing more. More clients. More credibility. More projects. More money.
And yet, I’m doing the exact opposite. After my highest-earning year ever, I’m intentionally scaling back.
Blame it on burnout, the pandemic, or becoming a mom (or all of the above), but I’m craving more time and less stress. That nagging need for better balance started about a year ago, when I accidentally skipped completing a family art project for my son’s daycare. It remained forgotten on our kitchen counter because I was too swamped with work to sit down with him. I decided then and there to cut Fridays out of my workweeks.
That change helped me feel like my schedule was more aligned with my priorities. But, after adding another kiddo into the mix, I still felt strapped for time—even with my three-day weekend. So, I’ve taken things a step further. I’m saying goodbye to the long hours and working weekends that built my business and only working Monday through Wednesday for the foreseeable future.
In some ways, it was an easy decision. It felt like the perfect way to get the best of both worlds. In other ways, it was a change I wrestled with, especially when so much of my identity is wrapped up in what I do for a living. Stepping back to part-time felt like admitting that I had failed miserably at “having it all.”
But, despite the challenges, the decision has taught me quite a few valuable lessons about growth, priorities, and that coveted work-life balance everybody is trying so hard to achieve.
Lesson #1: balance takes constant commitment
It often seems like work-life balance is a puzzle to be put together. A code to be cracked. As if it’s something that you figure out once, and after that, you can reap the rewards of a life that’s perfectly proportional.
That’s not the case for me. I’ve set a hard boundary of working only three days per week, but my responsibilities don’t magically fit inside of that container. Holding that line requires constant choice, commitment, and even sacrifice.
That’s the flip side of work-life balance that gets far less attention. Many people talk about what they’ve gained (and of course, there’s plenty of that), but it’s rare that they talk about what they’ve lost.
When I first scaled back my workweek, it meant parting ways with a retainer client I had worked with for over six years. That client made up about 20% of my income, but the nature of the work didn’t fit with my reduced working hours. I’d love to say that ending that arrangement felt like a symbolic rebirth of my business and a reset of my priorities, but the brutal truth is that it felt…well, terrifying.
I summoned my courage and did it anyway. That was the start of a series of tough (but necessary) decisions to make my ideal schedule a reality. Since then, I’ve turned down clients that were a great fit for me. Projects I was excited about. Paychecks that would’ve been meaningful. There are speaking opportunities I can’t accept, initiatives I can’t take part in, and ideas I can’t pursue—all because they simply don’t fit within the limitations I’ve set.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. I know that I’ve won more than I’ve lost. I have more time, more energy, and more patience (which was admittedly in short supply when I felt constantly burdened by an unreasonable workload). But the relentless trade-offs have shown me that work-life balance isn’t actually a finish line to be crossed—it’s the marathon itself.
Lesson #2: I’m OK with a ‘middle ground’ business
So much business advice feels so… well, extreme.
You hear from people who boast about their unshakeable commitment to their companies and careers. They’re working 80-hour weeks and sleeping on their office floor, all in the hopes that their bank statements will someday look like lottery winnings.
And then you hear from the people on the other side of the spectrum. They had some sort of awakening, left high-powered careers, and now are living from a converted Sprinter van as they bounce between national parks.
And here I am, somewhere in the middle. The business (and income) I’ve worked so hard to build is still important to me, but it’s not going to consume all of my time, energy, and attention. That doesn’t mean I have a desire to leave it all behind either.
I’d love to say that I’m perfectly content hanging out between those two extremes, but it’s actually quite counterintuitive and inspires a hefty amount of restlessness for me.
To combat those anxious and itchy feelings, I set a goal: I want to earn somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 each month. Now, I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all of the projects I book for each month and, when I’ve reached my income goal, I stop accepting work. It’s a simple approach that helps me avoid overextending myself as a result of the, “Well…I might need the money…” trap.
I’ve found solidarity with many other business owners who are occupying my same middle ground. And I’ve come to embrace that, despite what clickbait would have us believe, it’s totally possible (and more than okay!) to run a moderately successful business—without it monopolizing my entire life.
Lesson #3: people aren’t paying much attention to my schedule
This thought was on repeat inside my head as I debated cutting back my workweek: But what if somebody—gasp!—emails me when I’m not there?
It feels so ridiculous to write out, but I can’t blame myself for feeling that way.
The constant connectedness of our world has often inspired a sense of allegiance to my inbox. Over the years, I’ve felt the need to be readily accessible and able to immediately jump on whatever red-alert-three-alarm-this-is-not-a-test emergency that might, potentially, maybe land on my desk (in eight years, I have yet to experience a real “blog post emergency,” by the way).
I tossed and turned over how I’d still be able to serve my clients if I was only signed on three days each week. Would they resent me? Would they opt for somebody else who could be reached at all hours?
Here’s what actually happened: I cut my workweek back to three days and nobody even noticed.
Yep. You read that right. I explicitly told a few clients about my new schedule when we needed to set up meetings. But, not a single soul has picked up on my adjusted workweek on their own. Or if they did? They certainly didn’t care enough to say something.
I fit my workload within my restrictions and respond to messages when I’m reasonably able to, and so far, we’re all alive to tell the tale.
When it comes to that sense of urgency most of us feel saddled with, it’s easy to point the finger at other people’s demands and expectations. But, it’s worth looking in the mirror. In my case, a lot of the pressure was self-imposed.
Lesson #4: I can’t always measure success by the numbers
As a business owner, “success” has always felt tough to wrap my arms around. After all, there are no defined career paths, promotions, performance reviews, and lofty company targets handed down from on high.
That means that numbers have often been the indicator I’ve used to review how the business is doing. Is revenue ahead of what it was last month? Last quarter? Last year? I’m on the right track. If not? I’d send pitches, pursue new work, and pack my schedule and workload to the brim.
I learned to love the quantifiable—and it’s that black-and-white perspective that would have me believe that 2021 was my most “successful” year in business.
And yes, it was my highest-earning year, but looking back, it wasn’t my most successful. In fact, I feel far more “successful” this year.
I’m being more selective than I’ve ever been about what clients and projects I take on. I’m thinking strategically about the next steps in my business and making sure they’re aligned with my priorities. I’m taking time for things I enjoy that don’t have a paycheck attached to them. My kids and I potted some flowers and are caring for them. We take weekly trips to the library or playground. I’m trying out new recipes and started reading again.
Will I earn as much as I did last year? Nope. Probably not even close.
But at the end of the day, it’s all the other stuff that feels way more like “success”—even if the number on my profit and loss statement is smaller.