A common question that surfaces not just for runners, but something we can all relate to, is how do you find balance in your work, life and training? People ask me how I’m able to carve out enough time in the day to train and work on creative projects, while running a product-based business and staying on top of my freelance work. The answer is this this: I prioritize these endeavors. I’ve structured my life so that I can engage in more meaningful work and do more of the activities that I really enjoy (ie. training, reading, and writing). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t operate like a robot—but by having the freedom to structure my day, I have more downtime to relax, disengage, and nurture my relationships with friends and family.
When I graduated University in 2011, I moved to Toronto and took a job doing digital ad sales for a year. I hated every second of it—but it did give me enough experience in the field to move onto something else more up my ally. At the time, I wanted to get into marketing, so my next job was a step up. What started as a Marketing Coordinator position quickly developed into a Marketing Manager role at a tech company over the course of a few years—a job I really loved. Once I hit a bit of a ceiling growth-wise, I once again moved onto the next steppingstone—this time at a distribution company as the Marketing Director—which then lead into another move to a different tech company, which I was let go from after a month. After that lovely little bruise to the ego, I took a month off to figure out my next move. I applied to a digital ad agency and worked there for a few years, before finally deciding to leave the comfortable (and somewhat secure) full-time path and take a plunge into the precarious wonders of ‘self-employment’ (woo).
While I was working full-time (for almost 8 years), I was secretly working on developing a new product and company in the background—a start-up in the somewhat random industry of hockey equipment. In my fourth year of University, I came up with an idea for a product that would help hockey players get dressed faster and provide extra-protection in areas left exposed with conventional equipment. I was hoping that this business that I was co-creating with a partner would help launch me into the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship.
Let me be the first to admit, self-employment can be tough when you’re finding your grounding. For me, the first year wasn’t a walk in the park—I scrambled to figure out how I could make sustainable income to cover my expenses. After multiple panic attacks, years of pivoting and a mental breakdown, I finally got into a bit of a groove. My income was on the incline, my freedom was becoming more prevelant, and I finally figured out a way to structure my life in a way that made me feel more happy and fulfilled.
The hard truth is that while I was working the grueling 9-5, I was never able to achieve any sort of balance in my life. My whole life was structured around a full-time job and the bulk of my days were spent helping someone else achieve their goals—leaving me with little time and energy at the end of the day to work on things that truly mattered to me.
I tried to squeeze in my workouts on lunch breaks and work on my start-up an hour or two before I headed to work. To become even more efficient with my time, I started running to work, carrying my laptop, lunch, and a change of clothes in a backpack (which did no favours for my posture).
Many companies nowadays are offering more flexibility to their employees: reduced workload options, flexible working hours, remote working (some forced due to COVID), and even encouraging employees to pursue side hustles and creative pursuits. But back when I was entering the job market and working full-time, engaging in another company that was not the full-time company I was working for was kind of frowned upon. My little secret project became just that: a secret. It created a lot of inner turmoil and conflict and almost made me feel unfaithful to my work—as if I was cheating on my partner.
However, in 2016 after entering and winning some pitch competitions and receiving a bit of funding, I decided to finally hand in my notice. At first my unstructured days and the newfound abundance of time caused me to waste a lot of it. I became a bit lazy with my work and found it difficult to keep myself motivated to grind away at my new business. Jumping to self-employment was definitely a learning curve. What I didn’t realize until later on was that I was actually doing more focused work in less time, which freed up a lot more of my day—an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling.
To fill that time gap, I started to read more and listen to audiobooks on a more regular basis. In late 2016, when I was just a few months into my new self-employed life, I was already getting a bit tired of the monotony of my days. The self-employment life wasn’t all that it was hyped up to be. I was out for a run one morning and listening to a book called the Happiness of Pursuit, which a mentor of mine recommended. It came into my life at just the right time and encouraged me to set a personal challenge outside of work—something to give me more meaning and purpose in my life.
If you’re a reader of my blog, you’ll know the story, but for those that are new here, I’ll give you a mini history. I set a goal to run 10k/day in the month of January 2017, and after completing the challenge, I felt a rush I’ve never felt before. It gave me an insatiable craving to do something else, something bigger. “The next goal”, I told my mom on a call one day, “is to try and break a world record by running 70 consecutive half marathons.” The #RUN70 Challenge changed my life forever and there would have been no way in hell that I would have been able to carve out the time to run a half marathon every day for months if I was working a full-time gig.
I have to preface that I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from working full-time, although it might seem like that’s the point I’m trying to make (join me!). However, that’s not the case—I’m not privy to everyone’s situation and working full-time can suit someone’s lifestyle perfectly and be extremely fulfilling. However, in this post, I wanted to share how I’ve been able to navigate self-employment in a way that allows me to earn a good income, but also have flexibility in my work, time and interests. I’m going to discuss my approach to work/life balance, how I’ve set up both passive and active income streams, and how keeping overhead low can lead to a more flexible and enjoyable life.
Flexibility > Income
Having flexibility in my day is much more important to me than earning a crazy high income. I want to be able to structure my day how I want and not be tied to conventional “working hours.” I get to prioritize work and activities that are important to me like writing, training and creative projects.
I get to capitalize on my prime productive hours when tackling my passion projects, which isn’t in line with most full-time workdays. I prefer to work early in the morning, which allows me to read, meditate and set the tone for the day. I write from 7:00am – 9:00am, train from ~9:00 -11:00am and start my freelance and business work in the afternoons. This schedule varies each day (sometimes I need to prioritize freelance work earlier if there’s more pressing deliverables), but for the most part, I’m in the driver’s seat when it comes to determining when and what I work on throughout the day.
Flexibility allows me to engage in deep, focused work (like writing this blog post) and I end up working less hours in the day overall. When I worked full-time, a good chunk of my day was wasted in seemingly pointless meetings, chatting away with co-workers, and watching the time tick down until I could leave and work on something I actually cared about. Now that I’m self-employed, when I check off the main work tasks I’ve set for the day, I can spend the rest of my time reading, relaxing, enjoying the outdoors/going for a hike, or anything else I feel like doing.
When I left my full-time job, my income took a big hit for the first few years—a sacrifice and trade-off you’ll most likely have to consider if you’re taking the leap into entrepreneurial life. But since then, I’ve been able to more than double my income. I would be remiss without mentioning that my income varies each month—it’s certainly less stable than a full-time job, but I’ve tried to mitigate risk by diversifying my income streams.
While the self-employment life certainly isn’t for everyone (some people want the structure and security that a full-time job offers), it can certainly allow for more freedom to pursue other goals.
Passive and Active Income Streams
My income consists of both passive and active streams. Passive is commonly thought of as an income stream that requires little to no effort—the money just rolls in while you sleep. Let’s get real, passive income is everyone’s dream. However, what isn’t as ubiquitous is the fact that passive income streams take a lot of work to set up. Even if you create a passive income stream, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to make enough income to cover your expenses. Examples of passive income streams include royalties on book sales, online courses (pre-recorded video lessons), ad revenue on your website/ blog, or affiliate income. These streams take significant upfront time and effort to build, but once established, you do have the potential to make quite a bit of income without grinding away day in and day out. However, from my personal experience, nothing is really passive. I haven’t been able to just create one income stream that’s going to provide sustainable income to cover my expenses over the long term. While some of the streams I’ve created can provide some income in the short term, they decrease significantly or die off altogether over time. They also require time to upkeep.
Here’s some of my top passive income streams:
Writing on medium has certainly been the most lucrative to-date. Medium is a blogging and publishing platform—kind of like a social media network, but for writers. Medium launched their Partner Program where anyone that is a paying member of the platform (~$6/mo) has the potential to earn income from their writing. I’m not just talking prolific authors or writers—this applies to anyone that just wants to write (including amateurs like myself).
Getting started on Medium is easy; you just sign up for an account and can start writing and publishing stories right away. Here’s a few great articles on How to Get Started on Medium and How to Start Writing on Medium.
I’ve been writing on Medium irregularly since 2017 and since then, have published ~48 posts. I submitted my first story to the Medium Partner Program in February 2020 and made a whopping $0.07. Well actually it was $0.07 USD so I actually made $0.08 CAD with today’s exchange rate.
While this number is laughably terrible, it gave me a bit of a weird rush and got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, I can actually earn some extra income here. This was actually the first time I made money from my writing since I started blogging back in 2017. Yes, you’ve done the math correctly—4 years of writing with a total return of $0.07. Just call me a literary wizard.
While I did spend some time reading up on Medium—how to make money, what publications to submit to, how to grow a following, and so on—I can chalk up some of my early success making money to sheer luck. Funny enough, when I shared some of the articles that did so well on Medium to Instagram and to my personal blog, I only got a fraction of visits and engagement. Actually, not even a fraction…more like 1%.
My first successful story was on my One Year Body Transformation article, which I submitted to the Medium publication Better Humans. Medium’s Partner Program breaks down how much you make per day, so when I woke-up the next morning after going live with the article, I was shocked to see that I had made $4.77. My first thought was “wow, a 6,700% increase from my $0.07 earnings in February.” Second thought: HOLY SHIT, I CAN NOW AFFORD A STARBUCKS COFFEE. I was ecstatic.
But things didn’t end there. The next day, I made $17 which, over the span of several days, kept growing. All in all, this one article has generated $2,062 USD to-date over the course of a few months:
I started publishing more posts regularly, but most of them only made a few dollars here and there. Until I published a post on What I Eat to Build Muscle and Lose Fat, which became an even bigger hit than my first viral article.
So you could say that these articles were passive—I did continue to make money after the blog post was published, but they did require a lot of work up front. Those blog posts took me at least 8 hours a piece to write and edit.
To-date, the stream has pretty much died off entirely (I made $0.14 yesterday from this particular post). In order to continue earning any sort of “passive” income through Medium, I’ll need to keep writing and publishing. I’ve seen the most success by submitting through publications with larger readership and by submitting longer form articles (>2,000 words). A few more have earned over $1,000 since then, some in the hundreds, and many only around $20 over their lifetime. Indeed, writing on Medium is precarious, but also fun.
My Product-Based Business: Oneiric
I debated putting my start-up here as passive, because it certainly didn’t start out that way. My business partner and I worked on the business for several years without taking a single penny. As we continue to build and grow the company, we are starting to shift to a more automated and systemized business model—minimizing the hands-on work we need to do. Our revenue continues to grow year-over-year with minimal investment in marketing (we only spend a few hundred dollars a month).
However, I must stipulate that the investment in this venture was immense. The start-up costs of developing our product, incorporating, filing for a provisional utility patent ($20-25k), other professional fees, plus the numerous other expenses that come with a business, overall makes this a riskier venture. The goal is to turn Oneiric into a lifestyle business and I look at it as an investment and another way to diversify my income streams. Obviously with COVID and the absence of a hockey season, this put a bit of a dent in our plans, but we’re well on our way to making this investment worthwhile for both of us, financially speaking.
After going back and forth for a while, I finally decided to put some ads up on my website last summer. I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to interfere with the reader’s experience. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to read an article and getting hit in the face with those large, flashy interstitials ads.
I decided to start with a few less intrusive ads (728×90) to test the waters a bit. I know more testing can be done, but I wanted to limit my ad inventory for now. I honestly don’t get enough website visitors to make this a viable stream for me yet, but as my traffic continues to grow, this could be a lucrative option. I’ve only made a few hundred dollars from ads (not even enough to cover my yearly WordPress subscription fees), but it’s something I’m going to continue to optimize and tweak. There’s a lot of testing to be done with different ad size combinations and layouts that can help improve the click-through-rate.
Getting your traffic into the hundreds of thousands is where some real money can be made. Steve Palvina is a prime example of a blogger that saw a lot of success from Google AdSense (and this was back in 2005). He no longer serves ads on his site as he moved to different income sources that better aligned with his values (ie. online courses), but it’s a good case example of how lucrative ad revenue can be if you can drive enough traffic to your site.
This was another income stream that was iffy for me. Affiliate income has kind of a bad reputation and I can see why. There’s so much spammy shit out there with affiliate links: people throwing links for 25% off the latest tummy tee, miracle hair growth gummies or vegan, keto, gluten-free, cotton candy (it’s a real thing, look it up).
I was hesitant to even include this source as an income stream because I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal that I’m pretty sure I fit the bill as one of these spammers (haha). In an effort to save face, I want to caveat that I’m not quite as in-your-face with this, but I do still use affiliate links in a subtle way
From time-to-time, I do write-ups on my blog on running shoe reviews—not because I want to earn affiliate commissions, but because I genuinely enjoy writing about the technical details and my experience with different types of running shoes—one of the many things I geek out on. Even if the post isn’t so favourable for a particular shoe model, I still link to the shoes in case anyone wants to learn more. I always caveat that even if this shoe doesn’t work for me, it may work for you.
My train of thought is that since I’ve already completed the review and published it on my blog, I might as well add an affiliate link in case anyone wants to check out the shoes or purchase them. After that, I went back and reviewed all of my previous gear posts and signed up for an affiliate program with Awin (which typically pays 5-10% commissions on sales when people click on your link). For smaller ticket items, this might not be the most reliable source of revenue, but if you review larger items (ie. cameras, sport watches, etc.), this could be a legitimate stream and people have made quite a bit of money here. Amazon also has an affiliate program called Amazon Associates where you can earn commissions on any products they carry.
One thing to note is that I would never write a blog post just to receive affiliate income. I also don’t add fluff to my posts and push features that I don’t really believe in. I hate to throw around this buzzword, but authenticity is sincerely my core value when it comes to writing and creative work—I would never compromise that to earn a few extra dollars.
The last income stream that I’ve setup are my investment accounts, which I just started contributing to more frequently over the last few years (once I finally finished paying off my student loan). In addition to my regular TFSA and RRSP contributions, I also use a self-directed investment account called Questrade.
Right now, I have a portfolio of only bonds and index funds and learned how to do trades myself to minimize fees (trade commissions are just a few cents). I started my portfolio at 70% stocks and 30% bonds, but recently shifted to 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Since I started investing, I’ve generated a return of about ~12% overall. While I don’t have a big enough principle to be able to sustain my expenses (not even close), if I keep contributing regularly, I can benefit from compound interest over time and eventually (hopefully) be able to cover some of my expenses in the future.
Active Income Streams
While passive income does require some work, active income is all work. You exchange your time for money. You need to be actively involved in the work in order to receive income. I also have a few active income streams, but the streams that earn me the most are my freelance work in digital marketing and paid content creation.
The only way I was able to sustain myself consistently over the years and really deal with the volatility of income from my start-up was working with clients in the digital marketing space. I’ve accumulated 10 years of experience working in the paid search and paid social space and admittedly feel quite proficient in this area.
Becoming a Google Certified Partner, taking Cardinal Path Training in Google Ads and Google Analytics, and working both client-side and at an agency has given me a motley crew of experiences to take on different types of projects (big and small). I’m not trying to publish my cover letter here, but rather, share the exact steps I took to gain knowledge and skills in an area that has turned out to be quite lucrative for me.
My freelance work makes up the bulk of my overall income (~80% most months) and has been the main catalyst in helping me achieve my scheduling freedom and flexibility. I now get to choose the types of clients and projects I work on, which allows me to work with some pretty amazing people and really cool companies. I also outsource some services to other colleagues and get to work with a team of people who are proficient and skilled in what they do. My freelance work gives me that social component of my work life that I also crave—I get to do face-to-face meetings with clients and also internally with my team meetings. It’s a win-win.
On occasion, I’ll collaborate with brands to do paid campaigns on social media. Similar to affiliate links, I only work with brands I believe in and products I actually use and enjoy. I’ve said no to many opportunities because they don’t fit with my own personal brand and don’t see it being useful to the running community that I’m part of. If a product is something I like and would genuinely recommend to others (paid or not paid), then it’s a win-win opportunity for the brand, myself, and my audience (if they find value in it).
Keeping Overhead Low
To mitigate the precarious nature of freelance work and provide yet another shield (or protective barrier) against my flexibility and time, I keep my overhead low. In other words, I keep my monthly expenses to a minimum.
There was as time in my life when I was living in Toronto, paying ridiculous costs for rent, car insurance, my phone, student loan payments etc., and racking up all the additional expenses that come with the cost of living in the city. I used to joke that every time I left my house, I’d lose a $50 bill. Ahh city life.
It felt like I was working just to sustain my lifestyle and expenses. Vicki Robins, author of Your Money or Your Life, sums this up beautifully:
Money is something you trade your life energy for. You sell your time for money. It doesn’t matter that Ned over there sells his time for a hundred dollars and you sell yours for twenty dollars an hour. Ned’s money is irrelevant to you. The only real asset you have is your time. The hours of your life.
After years of living in a state of constant anxiety about my expenses, I decided to make some cuts. Some significant cuts. I sold my car and rented out my condo’s storage locker. I stopped buying the latest iPhone model. In fact, after smashing my phone screen I decided to “downgrade” to an iPhone 6S.
I’ve been wearing some of the same clothes for years. As I write this, I’m sitting in my sweats that have at least 3 visible holes in them. I’m not trying to promote looking like a disheveled person, but I’m simply trying to explain that clothes and material possessions are of little importance to me. If you love clothes, jewelry, cars, whatever, then that’s you prerogative—no judgement here. In fact, I think we should all spend money on things that enhance our life and bring us joy—in whatever form that might be.
But for me, and I’m sure lots of others can relate to this, what brings me joy are experiences: travel, organized races, a nice meal out with my family or friends, books, running shoes, courses, and meditation. I like to spend my money (or in Vicki’s words “my life energy”) on meaningful experiences that create lasting memories. I don’t experience any buyer’s remorse there.
This perspective has made me happier. I do still buy luxuries: I just dropped a pretty penny on laser hair removal, I buy expensive protein powders and bars, and splurge on some nice little self-care goodies from Mac and Sephora, but for the most part, I try to limit these and invest my money elsewhere.
Lowering my fixed expenses has helped free me from the “financial scarcity” mindset, and has brought more abundance in time, money, and meaningful work for myself.
Overall, the more income streams I create and the lower I can keep my expenses, the more flexibility I can have in my day. I want to live my life now, not in the future. While not all my work is glamorous, I definitely enjoy my life so much more than when I was working for someone else. I had the self-awareness to realize it wasn’t the right fit for me. At this point (now 5 years into self-employment), I don’t see myself ever going back to the full-time life.
I encourage you to list off what’s really important to you. What do you really value in life? How can you do more of that and make that a constant in your everyday?
A combination of active and passive incomes streams combined with lowering my overhead gave me the main thing I wanted out of life: freedom and flexibility.
Work hours are our life energy. So, I’ll end this post with this question to ponder: Where do you want to put your life energy?
Welcome to the club Emily, Rick here..from Instagram. I’ve been a freelancer for over 16 years and I love it. But keep in mind I worked in Banking for over 26 years until I realized I wanted more freedom and I wanted to challenge myself. What started as a one man operation has grown to 4 employees. 🙂