This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The term “gig economy” popped up like “millennial”: without our consent and pervasively, by way of headlines informing us about this cool new thing young people are doing, which also happened to be killing the industry, media but also every industry, because that's another thing millennials are known for. As of last August, more than one third of all workers participate in the gig economy. I am one of them.
Previously in my career, I always played it safe by locking down solid, hired employment, my inner voice/insecurity whispering, So, listen… love you, girl. But, real talk? You don’t have any… skills. Just get them to pay you and do whatever they say. So, after graduating college in 2012, I latched onto whichever employer would trade the most solidified hours for cash. As is common when it comes to media jobs, each I held was short-lived, the longest stretch being a year and a half. Sometimes I quit; once they said they’d hired me, but I never received their offer email; one time, I was laid off. If you’re in a room with five people who have worked in media (or maybe even in any field at all), it’s likely that at least one of them has had their employer pivot away from them recently.
After the summer of 2017, the last time this happened to me, I found myself with a wide-open schedule and a list of tasks to accomplish. The steady severance checks were still hitting, so it would be the perfect time to regroup and line up enough freelance work to hopefully float me until I got my bearings. In the meantime, I would launch all the personal art projects (podcasts! zines! long-term serious ideas that would one day be monetised!) I had thought up while busy at my dumb day jobs. But my motivation and follow-through were on separate footing, and I found it difficult to scrounge up enough energy to overthrow my defeatist attitude, which grew stronger by my taking layoffs personally. Not only was I learning how to live on my own schedule (which takes a lot of practice), I was still decompressing from it all: shaking off the stress of years without a vacation, and of spending each workweek in fear-based spirals about being fired with or without good reason.
When I did get work done, I didn't feel like talking about it. I craved privacy. When people asked what I was up to, my answers varied tonally, switching between "I just discovered Vanderpump, and let me tell you: WOW," and, "Working on a writing project," in the latter case keeping things vague while also reassuring whomever I was speaking with that I was still a productive worker. Sometimes, I was just casual: "You know...freelancing." Looking back, I have no idea what I did all day.
I do know that I was working diligently and hard at my writing project, but on my own schedule and terms. I fell into research holes, beginning by checking the news and blogs. They’d hyperlink out to background information, and from there, I would shoot down some rabbit hole or other that then bloomed into a longer fixation: the week I was obsessed with the production of the atomic bomb, the week I only wanted to think about sitcom structure, the week the historical documentaries got so sad that my friends had to intervene.
Because my subjects were of my own choosing, I forgot where killing time stopped and work began. Is reading the entirety of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces an excuse to avoid work, or is necessary for every working writer? Or Vanderpump a modern retelling of a Greek tragedy with Shakespearean archetypes in a contemporary setting, or utter garbage I can't tear myself away from? I had no sense of when I was on or off the clock.
I’ve always operated at the intersection of rigorous and lazy, falling into the depths of obsessively working on what I want to while avoiding anything I don’t: dishes, laundry, most errands, cooking, leaving the house when it's below 40 degrees; basically anything that's "a whole to-do" beyond drinking coffee, reading, and/or writing. Picture my brain this way: Weeds grow in cracks; stray dogs circle. Things become unkempt. This was a piece of why I threw caution into the wind and started waking up around noon and falling asleep after 3 AM. I couldn’t see any problem with this: Look, lady: I am freelance. I am young-ish still, fresh-faced enough, and in possession of fleeting energy, all of which means I might even look back on this time as the prime of my life . What does it matter if I have a wildly different schedule than everyone else? And it doesn't for everyone, but did for me. I never bothered to make plans with anyone because I thought, I'm always free—what does it matter if we lock down a time? I never went out at night because I could just go during the day, and I never went out during the day because “I would go out later.” I thought planning nothing would allow me to do everything, but in fact I just did nothing.
The decisions I made were based on whatever fleeting idea I felt like running after in a given moment. It reminds me of the time when I quit a corporate job and wore ratty T-shirts every day just because I didn't have to comply with a dress code anymore. I was still basing my life around the things around me that felt fleeting, like using up a gift card before the expiration date or sucking up all the opportunity I had to sleep late or stay up before my parents got home and the party was over. With normal workplace rules suspended, I didn’t replace that structure of living with anything that my survival depended on, like regular meals or sleeping enough—even drinking water fell by the wayside. I spent the whole day in pajamas, and eventually switched to a XXXL tie-dye hoodie that I wore like a dress, but which came off more like Homer Simpson's floral muumuu that he never took off: inappropriate no matter the setting. I was still running on the excitement of being my own boss (or: riding out a layoff severance package).
What I wanted didn't even matter anymore—it was just what I could get away with before I suspected that “real adulthood,” the kind where you’re well-moisturised, wearing tailored clothes, and, most of all, productive would set in. Instead of feeling liberated, my mood dipped. I felt my spirit dry up. With it went my attention span: I could barely sit still, even though all I could really do was loaf around. My life was self-involved puttering. Sometimes I would go for long walks just to get out of myself, listen to music or a podcast, but without further human interaction, it didn't much help matters except for a brief change of scenery. Operating on a gonzo sleep schedule ate at my ability to feel connected to the world: I woke up when the neighbourhood kids were on their way home from school, and I finally hit my pillow when I heard the birds sing. I eventually pushed my bedtime to 5 AM, even though I usually realised hours before that I was tired, and that staying up served no purpose—I didn't even want to. I did it anyway, waking up later and later the days after, when I felt the consequences like a hangover: a heart-shattering, haggard ennui.
After a few months, I felt out of step. Mostly, I wasn't getting enough sleep because my erratic schedule didn't allow for enough deep sleep, so I was irritated and cranky no matter what. If I did have a meeting or an event to go to, I was either too tired from just waking up from a pregame nap, or too cranky from being up for days. I felt alternatively overstimulated or oppressively lonely, going between parties where I had nothing to say because my life was chaos and days of minimal human contact that only revolved around different ways to drink coffee. I wasn't helping anyone as a writer, worker, friend, daughter, or sister. I was just taking up space and killing time. I had no guiding light. I needed structure.
This was the first time I’d ever wanted it. I grew up thinking that the systems of civilisation—time, habits, hygiene—were arbitrary, suggested rules—drinking eight glasses of water a day, eating vegetables, doing homework—but no one ever really needed to follow them. As I got older, I adopted personal codes of conduct that I religiously followed for ethical reasons, but they were all, like, Don't drink bottled water, avoid certain products, tread lightly in the world so your footprint is small. It was almost penance for taking up space in a world where human extinction is within arm's reach—and still focused on my own impact on the external world around me, rather than my own wellness. (I mean, I still bathed regularly. I just thought it was dumb.)
I had heard it before: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But just because I understood that as a motto for narcs and losers doesn’t mean I should live my life around it. (Like, I've spent most of my life evading advice, rules of thumb, maxims, mottos, and knowing phrases of all kinds, so why start now?) What has worked, at least so far, is finally considering my actions in terms of my well-being and self—and how they affect others. My NO PARENTS, NO RULES phase was an experiment in structure and the lack thereof, and how much space that lack can take up. I learned what's important to me.
Namely: I couldn't be of any use to myself or others without maintaining basic homeostasis. I felt useless because I wasn't doing anything, or nothing of much use. I started waking up at the same time every day, hoping that it would make me fall asleep at the same hour, or have just a little bit more of a sleep schedule. I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner whether I was hungry or not to at least maintain blood sugar and daily structure. I used to-do lists and calendars, blocking out specific times for specific activities so my days had pillars to start building from. I did “morning pages,” the routine of three daily pages of meditative writing popularised in The Artist's Way. All of these are corny things I would have otherwise rolled my eyes at, as if it was still sixth grade and it was uncool to get good grades—and I did them. Most important, every morning I changed into real clothes and left the house to do work and leave behind my self-imposed exile. To help with that last part, I also checked my email and actually responded, making sure to have human contact beyond text threads and group chats.
The whole phase was a lesson in finding the difference between what I want and need, and about the bare-minimum routine that keeps my head above water. When I woke up in the morning, even if I didn't know what I was going to do, I was awake, together, and ready. Sometimes, it sucked. There didn't seem like there was any reason to do these boring, red-tape tasks. But, like snowflakes in an avalanche, shirking small tasks added up to chaos and confusion, so I learned to just get it done. Just get out of bed, drink the coffee, write the morning pages, eat something—anything—get showered and dressed and out the door, and put one foot in front of the other. Don't think too far ahead, and don't think about the past, whether it be five minutes or five years ago. Basically, get out of your own head and your own way.
The rituals and routines I fell into aren't based on an employee handbook anymore, but they still need to exist. Holding myself accountable has become nearly the most important aspect since, the most dangerous questions being, I've been so good—don't I deserve a break? and, Well, who will notice if I slack off just a little bit? Once I got into the swing of eating regularly, weekly laundry duty, actually having a clean house, and sleeping a solid seven hours, none of if felt useless—or like the adult-world fake responsibilities I previously held to be off-limits. They felt like the errands I needed to take care of in order to make a life I wanted to keep living.