There’s an idea in writing, especially freelancing and journalism, that you’re never on holiday. You’re always working, all the time.
Which can sound nice, or deeply terrifying, depending on your world view.
For far too long, I was the sort of writer who said yes to everything, no matter what it was or the consequences of saying yes, in hopes that it’d lead to something better.
Eventually, it did. I made some amazing friends and contacts, and all of that is wonderful. I’m lucky as hell. But I also nearly burned myself out trying to make everyone happy all of the time.
Pro tip: you can’t make everyone happy. When you stop trying to do the impossible, you free up a hell of a lot of time and energy.
Burn out is a problem for everyone, but if you’ve got physical or mental illness on your plate as well? Burn out can impact that, which then takes even longer to deal with. And suddenly, you’re so much further behind, which triggers more anxiety and stress- it’s a horrible, vicious circle.
And that’s where I was at points this year. Not many, because I’m finally learning those lessons, but still more than I’d like. So one of my big plans for 2016 is working on minimising those issues.
In the lead up to 2016, I’m working my way through Leonie Dawson‘s Create Your Shining Year workbooks with a friend and biz buddy, and one of the glaringly huge life lessons we’re taking from it is this: as small business owners, we are our businesses. Our lack of organisation and survival strategies is like kicking our business in the junk throughout the year, and wondering why it’s doubled over on the floor, crying and swearing.
Those survival strategies are important when you are your business (and if you’re freelancing? You are your business). It’s been a hard lesson to learn this year, because both my biz buddy and I have been downed will illnesses, though my issues pale into insignificance. I bounced back quickly enough that there were a few bad moments, but not too many. The biz buddy? Not so much. Essentially, she’s starting from scratch next year, because our businesses fail when our bodies can’t do the work. Burning myself out on jobs that aren’t even making me happy? Probably not my best idea ever.
So these are the plans in place to hopefully lessen the damage of anxiety and illness on my work next year:
I have officially reached the point where I have to focus on the business side of all of this.
Business isn’t my thing. Numbers make me panicky, and more often than not I need someone to sit me down and explain things to me to be able to understand them. Some books are useful, but the really dry, lingo-heavy ones are as useful as trying to teach your cat to play poker (which I also suck at, by the way). YouTube is my friend. So is Lynda, which has a bunch of educational videos and tutorials. Taking a little time each day to hone my skills and deal with my business weaknesses is only going to make life easier in the long term.
Stop Thinking Short Term.
If I had gotten my butt into gear and started learning before I needed to, I’d be far less stressed right now. Business know-how has moved from ‘theoretically useful’ to ‘pretty vital’ quickly. Thinking longer term also means being able to be more focused in your approach to things, rather than just bouncing around, hoping something will eventually work.
No, really. Just because I have no control over when writing work comes in doesn’t mean that I can’t be organised. It’s going to take some research and tweaking, but there are ways to streamline a lot of the things I’m going to have to be doing more often next year. So finding out the hacks to make life easier has to be a priority.
Making plans- not just saying ‘I want X to happen’ but figuring out what steps to take and when, is also high on the to-do list.
Just Say Nay.
The first few times, it hurts to do it. It’s scary to think that you’re turning down an opportunity when there are seventy kabillion people out there waiting to snatch it up- and what if it’s that golden moment for you? Your one true chance at success?
It’s not. Having a good relationship with an editor is more important than always saying yes. Being reliable is important, but the biggest issue with reliability is getting over the fear or saying no. It’s better to say no up front than cancel at the last second.
If it’s an unpaid event that bores you, costs more than you feel it’s worth to attend, or doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re getting something out of it, say no, and free yourself up for the more suitable jobs for you.
‘You Time’ is NOT Optional.
In 2016 I’m aiming for one day a week without freelancing. Which is scary, because I haven’t fully ditched the idea that I need to say yes to everything. But time away reduces stress, helps keep me inspired, and lets me remember that I have family and friends who love me and want to spend time with me. It means I need to be more productive, have better time management, and I’ll have to say no from time to time, but that’s not exactly the end of the world.
Your #1 Priority is Not Your Writing
Surprised? I was. If I’m a freelance writer, surely my focus should be on writing. But before that, it’s gotta be on me. Am I eating, drinking, and sleeping enough? Am I avoiding muscle strain? Exercising daily? Taking regular screen breaks? (Currently, not so much). All of those are easy to manage without taking up a lot of time, and long term, they’ll all help me to do a better job.
During highly stressful periods of work, I’ve skipped meals and lived off coffee. Which can’t keep happening. But knowing it’s a habit, the least I can do is add a multivitamin to my day so if I screw up, I’m still getting some nutritional value.
Mental Health Plans are Your Friend.
This can be about visiting your GP and organising an official one, but having a plan for dealing with your anxiety or mental health issues saves so much time. It’s things like having an exit strategy if you need one, or finding ways to psych yourself up for, or calm yourself down after a big event. If you need a day to yourself after a multiple day event, block it out on your calendar and say no to anything that crops up.
This is where I’ve fallen on my ass in previous years. Because I’d be offered a job, and I’d jump in and do it. I’d promise myself I’d take the next day off, but it never happened. So I’d be running on empty until I got sick. Not great.
If you’re spending time with the same people regularly, consider being honest with at least one or two of them about social anxiety issues. Part of the reason I’m open about my anxiety issues on here is that I know some of the writers I’m friends with read this, so the more open I am, the easier it is to say, ‘sorry, I need to walk away for a few minutes’ without feeling like the worst person in the world. Having people know feels scary at first, but it’s staggering how often people will nod along and share their own issues, and how they deal with them.
Everyone has issues, so mostly, people are empathetic and happy to let you run off and hyperventilate in the bathroom if that’s what you need to do. And if you have sudden onset anxiety? Consider code words. It’s easier to say ‘Poughkeepsie*’ and walk away than ‘I’m about to have a panic attack and need to leave now’.
* Poughkeepsie, for what it’s worth, was a code word on Supernatural that meant ‘drop everything and run’.
Progress, Not Perfection.
This is one I struggle with a lot. I want to be perfect straight from the get go. I want to be confident in what I do, because learning as I go feels far more vulnerable than I’d like. But realistically, I’m going to screw up. I’m going to fall back into bad habits from time to time, because humans do that.
One of the ways I’m going to start focusing on the joys of making progress is by celebrating smaller milestones. I’m terrible at finishing something, and then jumping into the next project or job without giving myself a moment to breathe and celebrate what I’ve achieved. This was a big life lesson from life coach Anna Kunnecke: taking time and celebrating what you achieve in a day builds motivation. You stop going into your next job with the sort of jittery fear that you’re behind schedule. You start moving forward excited to achieve more, and celebrate more. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to live. Am I great at it yet? Not really. But when I actually do it, I realise how right Anna is about it being more motivating than blind panic.
And the last, and most important one:
None of us have to figure everything out on our own, and the world is surprisingly full of people who know about things we have no clue about, and are beyond happy to share what they know. Utilise that resource.
I’ve mentioned a couple of life coaches here, and they can be helpful if you want someone who can cut through your internal BS. If you’re thinking about working with one, read their blog for a while, and see if their style suits you. Alternately, get some friends together and start an accountability circle (like what Peter M. Ball has done over on his blog), or join one of the thousands of FB groups out there.
I’ve got quite a few people I can turn to for advice, and I need to start doing that. I am surrounded by lovely and brilliant folk who understand things that baffle me, so my big goal is to front up and say when I don’t understand something, and ask for more information. It seems so much better than trying to remember to Google something later.
Anyone else have tips for taking the stress out of freelancing next year?