When the unthinkable happens and giving up work isn’t an option

Sometimes life throws you a curveball and the unthinkable happens: a family member is struck with a long-term illness and you suddenly have to take on the role of carer. Caring for a loved one can be physically and emotionally draining and as time-consuming as looking after a baby, but often with none of the happy milestones marking a transition from one phase to another. Not only does caring take huge bites out of your available work time, it often does not put you in the frame of mind to focus when you finally do manage to sit down at your desk.

Giving up work entirely is not always a financially viable option for the family. In my case, I’ve had no choice but to cut down on my hours and learn to work smarter. Although my earnings have dropped by about 20% in the past two years I’ve been a carer, I reckon the time I spend translating, on admin and other work-related matters is 50% less. I now very rarely work in the evenings or at weekends and I certainly don’t always work a full day either during the week. My aim is to get back to the same level of earnings without increasing the number of my working hours. In this post I’d like to share a few of the ways I’ve managed to ensure that the unthinkable didn’t turn into a financial disaster for my family.

Cut down on unnecessary spending. As a family, we went through our standing orders and direct debits and stopped quite a few. We looked at our insurance policies and switched to cheaper options providing the same level of cover. Next for the chop is our TV package and we all changed mobile phones at Christmas to good deals. We also try to shop smarter in general by not going crazy in the supermarket, checking prices and making better choices. Bringing your outgoings down lessens the burden of having to earn, which helps to reduce the pressure on you, making you feel less stressed.

Stop spending so much time on social media. Some of you may have noticed that I don’t manage to blog/tweet/share quite as much as I used to. I don’t want to give up social media altogether as it is a way of staying in touch and staving off isolation when you are mostly tied to the home. But not being online so much is definitely a good way of finding time you thought you didn’t have to work more. I now rarely comment on LinkedIn forums and I have removed myself from several Facebook groups.

Use a Smartphone. Now that mobiles are more like mini computers than phones, they’re essential for keeping in touch with clients when you’re out and about. Despite my efforts to cut down on the emails I receive, a considerable number still pour into my inbox daily. Using my phone to sort through them means I’ll have more time for work when I get to my desk. And despite what I said above about social media, having Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and WordPress (for my blog) on my phone helps me stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues and keep abreast of translation news.

Get a CAT tool. I was translating with one before anyway, but given that Wordfast, which I’ve used for ages, seems to have become Wordslow since I switched to the latest Windows and Microsoft Office software, I’ve now bought memoQ. Unfortunately, this means I’ll have to spend time I really don’t have learning how to use this CAT properly, but I’m hoping future time gains will more than compensate. Another reason for changing my CAT is that I want to try Slate Desktop (again in the hope that it will enable me to work more efficiently) and it doesn’t work in Wordfast. Recent results with memoQ are promising, but I’ll be blogging about that at a later date.

Dictate your translations. I’ve been using Dragon NaturallySpeaking for a while and it really does speed up the translation process once you get over that initial hurdle of feeling awkward saying everything out loud. DNS used in combination with Wordfast and the new Office software constantly made everything crash. I’ve not experienced any of these annoying problems with memoQ so far.

Choose your translation/revision jobs wisely. Easy to say and I don’t always get my analysis stage right. When you have limited time available to work and you need to maximise your earnings as far as possible, you have to assess job offers carefully and reject any that might pose complications (formatting, terminology, difficulty level, clunky style, etc.) or you could miss your deadline.

Don’t get too booked up. Caring can be unpredictable and sometimes eat up substantial amounts of the time you were planning to allocate to work. If you leave some room in your schedule, you can catch up later. Being particular about the jobs you accept and rejecting anything with a tight deadline might mean you end up saying “no” far more often than you used to. Some days I reject everything I’m offered and then have no work at all, but this is preferable to letting a client down or putting myself in a pressurised situation when home life is stressful enough.

Inform your client when things go wrong. If you find that you cannot make the deadline, you need to tell your client as soon as possible. I’ve been working with some of my clients for well over a decade and I told them about my situation when circumstances beyond my control ate into my buffer and I knew it was impossible to complete on time. Obviously, not everyone is going to be so understanding, which is why it’s important to

Work for the right clients. I am not actively seeking any direct clients at the moment as I know I don’t have time to take care of all their requirements. I also steer clear of agencies with tight turnarounds, strict deadlines and a tendency to dock your pay if you deliver late.

Maximise concentration when working. I often listen to music especially put together to improve brain power when I need to free my mind and knuckle down. I’m currently paying for Focus@Will, although you’ll find lots of playlists to aid concentration on Spotify for free. See the Music and Background Sounds category of the Other Links of Interest page for other resources.

Learn to work in smaller chunks. I’ve always preferred to translate for long stretches at a time and felt it wasn’t worthwhile to settle down to work unless I had at least an hour available. Now I’m having to change that mindset to make use of any chunks of time, even 15 minutes, just to power on and get things done. This works for translating, but is no good for revising/editing my own and others’ translations when I need a much longer uninterrupted period to concentrate properly.

Have a shorter to-do list. I got the idea of a three-item to do-list from Elisabeth Hippe-Heisler’s blog. Just trying to achieve three things per day rather than writing a long list of tasks that I would find impossible to achieve is far more calming and satisfying when I manage to tick them off.

Build a support network. Combining caregiving with earning a living can make it difficult to meet up with friends and colleagues, as social and translation events often clash with caring duties or work. I’m always grateful when a family member or friend offers to help because I need breaks to recharge my batteries. As freelancers, it’s especially important to take advantage of any opportunities to stave off isolation. If I can’t get out to see people, I can always invite them to visit me instead.

Look after yourself. This is probably the tip I’m worst at, but I have been putting in more of an effort recently. I dress in clothes that make me feel good about myself and always wear some jewellery and perfume. I’m also trying to spend more time exercising, relaxing and eating more healthily. I won’t be any good to anyone if I become unwell too and cannot look after my family or do any work.

Please feel free to share your own experiences and ideas for working smarter in the comments. I’d be grateful, however, if colleagues who do know the details of my situation refrained from mentioning them here or elsewhere on social media. Thank you.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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This post was published in the ATA Chronicle in January 2018 and won the best article category in the 2018 ProZ.com Community Choice Awards.

ProZ.com community choice awards 2018

Best article (translation)

22 thoughts on “When the unthinkable happens and giving up work isn’t an option

  1. So sorry to hear this, Nikki – it puts my recent power cut woes into perspective! I very much agree with many of your points, especially Dragon and using CAT tools, and definitely picking your work carefully. And much better to work for clients whose work you know inside out and can complete fairly straightforwardly, although this is often easier said than done. I also find it helpful to have a couple of colleagues in an informal network so that if you’re struggling you can pass work between you – or even just let off steam over Skype or on the ‘phone. Having a good rant can often take the pressure off, after all, even if the pile of work remains the same…

    I find that online shopping is a huge boon when you’re stretched too: I usually do an online shop once a fortnight, but had stopped recently as my store of choice, Waitrose, had stopped stocking the only dog food that my elder dog can manage (faulty pharynx, so she struggles with anything too claggy or dry food). I ended up wasting so much time physically going to the supermarket, so it was a huge relief to try a new online source (Ocado, this time) this week and even nicer to get £20 off and free delivery for a year on signing up. I even received a voucher by e-mail today as my shop had been £2.60 more expensive than it would have been in Tesco, so they gave me a voucher towards next time’s shop – win-win! I suppose much depends how close you are to your local supermarkets, but in my case, I can make much better use of the time than trailing around the shops…

    Wishing you all the best and bon courage!


    1. Hi Claire, thanks for your comment. I would pass on a job to colleagues if it was for a direct client, but otherwise I let the agency decide what they want to do. In most cases a small extension to the deadline is enough for me to get the job done. I often find that doing the job myself takes less time than getting someone else to do it and then answering all their questions when it’s least convenient to do so.
      Shopping for me here in Bournemouth is not complicated as I pass many shops on the school run and actually enjoy popping in and seeing what’s on the shelves as it’s a change of scene. I do order my dog food online though as it’s special pet greyhound food you cannot find in any shop anyway. I get it from Dodson and Horrell.


  2. So sorry to hear of your family worries, that must be very stressful. Some really excellent tips and I hope you get on well with MemoQ.


  3. I’m really sorry to hear your family is going through a hard time, Nikki! A few years ago, as the primary caregiver for my terminally ill mom, I got to know how difficult it can get, esp. when you are the breadwinner at home. I did manage to continue working, even if only in the afternoons, when I got some help with looking after my mom, but I ended up totally drained of energy both physically and emotionally. Your tips are nothing short of excellent. Try to get all the help you can. People around you may not know how to help, or may not want to offer unsolicited help. Take care, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nikki, I’m sorry to hear about your family member and well done for staying strong and managing to juggle translating with caring at such a difficult time. It’s not on the same level, but my sister is partially sighted with a 1 year old and often needs help leaving the house or running errands, so I’m sometimes quite firm in turning down work in favour of spending time with my family, if I feel comfortable about my earnings for the month. The hard part is not feeling guilty, but as someone said on Twitter the other day, people always regret not spending more time with their loved ones (and never regret not working more).

    Your tips are great! There are also programs and apps that block certain websites for a set amount of time, if you find yourself automatically checking Facebook and Twitter (as I do!).

    Do take care of yourself, and all the best to you and your family. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. You are so right and I’ve read that before too. We will regret time that we didn’t spend with our loved ones when we were slaving away instead. Before the family illness I was probably working too much anyway. Glad you like the tips. I may have to think about a social media blocking app. Best wishes to you and your family too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I know it took a lot to write this post, Nikki, because simply admitting that one has to cut down on the volume of work done is hard. I know: been there, done that. ALL strength to you as you soldier on, brave one!
    Fortunately for me, I suppose, my circumstances have changed, and I no longer have the heavy burden of caring. Even in my bereavement, I have to record the absolute glee I now have in shutting down my computer at night and going straight to bed without doing another thing!
    One thing you did not mention as a tip to carers: learn to be less protective over the person you are caring for and delegate as much as possible. This goes hand in hand with making the extra effort to get as much help from the national health service, social workers and charitable organisations, if any.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Nikki,

    I’m sorry to hear of your unfortunate circumstances.

    I loved your post! It’s extremely useful not only for people who have to care for someone but for anyone really, and here I want to point out one of your sentences you mentioned in the comments, “Before the family illness I was probably working too much anyway.” This! And I am sure “working” did not necessarily mean “productive,” but actually spending long hours in front of the computer. Sometimes we “work” for 9, 10 hours but “produce” for not more than 4.

    And the same holds true for how much we spend. There is always room for some cut-downs.

    Now please do me a favor and do not forget about caring for yourself, ok? As you said, “I won’t be any good to anyone if I become unwell too and cannot look after my family or do any work.”

    Sending good vibrations your way so you can juggle everything the best way, and so that everything turns out the best possible way. And thank you for taking the time to write to us about your experience so that we can also learn from it.

    You are a hero!

    All the best,


    Liked by 2 people

  7. Nikki, thanks for this encouraging posting. It reminds me of my own story which is ‘unthinkable in quadruplicate’ and still I managed till now. If one would hear my story one would simply not believe it, a 1 in 50-100 million case, so I’m not posting it here. It is good to see that there are others out there who can handle tough situations sprung on them unexpectedly without any cause to blame on themselves.
    Giving up is no option indeed. One only gets one chance at life.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nikki, excellent post. Let ys know how you get on with MemoQ. Do take care of yourself, even if it is one less job per week. If you don’t have time to take care of yourself know, you will have to take time when you are sick later. Best of luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dear Nikki, thank you for sharing your experience. What you are describing is very close to what I lived last year when our baby girl needed special care and extra time. I have also had to cut down my hours and adapt, and would have loved reading this article back then. However, it lasted only about 18 months, and she is doing better now, while I undestand your situation is long-term. I am sending good vibes your way, and pray that your family stays strong and close-knit.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Nikki, I just went though a similar situation. My mother was in and out of the hospital, which implied a lot of traveling for me since I live in another country, not to mention spending long hours at the hospital. I lost 60% of my income, and by the time she passed away, I was thoroughly exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically. Taking care of yourself is very important, recovery is neither fast nor easy. I am still working on it. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Nikki,

    I’m so sorry to hear of the curve ball you’ve been thrown.

    All of the above ideas are great, so I’ll just share a couple of things I learned during the extended hospital stay of a family member, while keeping the business going:

    1) Use a portable monitor as a second screen. It’s fabulous! I own an ASUS MB168B 15.6″ USB Portable Monitor and it is a lifesaver for all kinds of situations when I travel or work away from the office. You may also be able to use an iPad as an extra screen, when lights are dim and hardcopies are unreadable.
    2) Get a mobile modem from your cell provider (mine now offers a duplicate sim card for free mobile modem) or learn to tether your smartphone.
    3) Be sure to have extra chargers and power packs for your cell phone, etc. as well as a lightweight extension cord, in case that power outlets are in short supply.

    I’d love to hear if anyone else can enlighten me about recent developments.

    Liked by 1 person

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