You didn’t think it would be like this.
You thought freelance life was going to be all beachside living, last minute holidays, business calls from trendy bars, and never having to wear a suit again.
But freelance life can be stressful. People don’t realise the burden of being your own boss. Insecurity and uncertainty become a fact of life. What will your next job be? How much will you earn this month? You deliver a project on time only to be told that the client has changed their mind. You have to redo it all – by the next day. Your flat burns down, your car gets stolen, and your hamster gets seriously ill – but you still have to meet deadlines. You let work slowly creep into your leisure time until you’re no longer sleeping, eating, exercising, socialising, or really having a life at all.
Freelancing should be fun. Or if not fun, at least a marked improvement on your standard 9 to 5. Don’t let stress win. Here’s how to keep misery at bay when shit hits the fan:
1. Stop seeing time as money
When you worked a standard job in an office, it probably went something like this. You arrived – perhaps a little late. You did very little for 8 hours. You left as soon as possible. Once a month, money arrived in your bank account. The connection between paycheck and time and effort spent on work seemed minimal.
But as a freelancer, it’s hard not to be conscious of how much your time is worth. Time is money. Any time wasted is money wasted when you charge people per hour spent on a project.
Psychology studies show that people who see time as money are unhappy. Their non-working hours become simply wasted potential to earn more. In the freelancer mind, free time starts to feel expensive.
How can we escape this mindset?
Firstly, studies have found that billing clients by the hour exacerbates the tendency to see time as money and makes leisure time less enjoyable. So why not bill by the project instead?
And why not outsource the boring stuff to other people? Pay your way out of doing things like laundry or accounts. Buy yourself some extra time.
Finally, try to think of leisure time just as important to your career as learning new professional skills or generating new business. Set boundaries. Consider your free time sacred. Protect it with a sword and shield if you must. Accept that sometimes this means saying no to jobs that arise. Otherwise you’ll burn out and won’t be able to give 100% to your other clients.
When we feel in danger, it triggers a stress response. This ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction is a throwback to the days of hunting, gathering, and large hairy predators. Today, we have the same stress response but far fewer scary predators. So when our train is delayed, baristas mess up our order, or our phone battery dies unexpectedly, the same stress hormones are racing through our bodies as when we were being chased by wild animals. Minus the wild animals themselves. Obviously, this isn’t great for our health.
But we can reduce this stress response through breath control. Controlling our breathing can bring down heart rate and blood pressure and reduce anxiety. Try deep breathing, belly breathing, or check out meditation apps that use breathing as a means of relaxation.
3. Stay in shape
It’s no secret that good physical health means good mental health.
Firstly, exercise. This doesn’t mean you have to sign up to the gym or try some crazy new yoga-pilates-zumba-boxing-fusion class. Instead go for a walk or cycle. Head to your favourite cafe on foot instead of by car. Do a quick YouTube workout before lunch. Freelancing means you can choose your schedule so you can exercise whenever you want.
Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is also key to physical and mental wellbeing. And as a freelancer, you have the freedom in your schedule to be able to cook for yourself and eat properly. On a Sunday, outline meals for the week ahead so you have one less thing to think about later. And try to eat regular meals to maintain steady blood sugar levels; low blood sugar triggers the release of stress hormones.
Finally, we’re sorry to say it, but alcohol. Yeah, yeah, we know. You need that evening glass of wine “just to take the edge off.” But alcohol won’t help you relax in the long term. It’s a depressant. Too much too regularly definitely won’t make you feel better.
4. Spend time outside
Nature chills us out. Science says so. Exposure to green spaces reduces the risk of diseases ranging from type II diabetes to high blood pressure. Being outside also means more exposure to vitamin D, which alleviates our stress responses. Need we say much more?
5. Digital detox
Our devices, with their blue lights and constant stimulus, make it hard for us to sleep. The perpetual distraction makes us restless. Then there’s the anxiety of constantly comparing ourselves to others and their jobs/holiday/wedding/babies. Overall, being online all the time is terrible for our mental health.
Take a digital detox – whether it’s for a week, weekend, or just an evening. Turn your devices off at 7pm and don’t turn them on again until morning. Instead, listen to the radio or read a book. Studies show that reading can reduce stress by up to 68% – even more than listening to music.
6. Spend time with others
Other people can suck, it’s true. But the fact is, being around them makes us healthier. Loneliness increases the stress hormone cortisol while experiments have shown that even just holding someone’s hand reduces our response to a perceived threat. Another fun fact? People perceive a hill to be steeper if they’re standing at the bottom alone – compared to if they have someone else by their side. Cute, right? So if you’re feeling stressed, reaching out to friends is a good place to start.
It’s a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep makes us stressed and being stressed stops us from sleeping. It’s a cruel, cruel world. But you can take steps to sleep better. The Sleep Foundation says that we should try to stick to the same sleep routine everyday, even on the weekends, in order to regulate our body clock. Exercise also helps us sleep – but not too close to bedtime. Avoid alcohol, smoking, and heavy meals in the evenings. And have a wind down period just before bed, reading a book and turning off electronics.
Ok, you’re thinking. That’s great. But what if I’m not stressed enough? What if, instead, I can’t stop procrastinating? How can I stay motivated when there’s no boss breathing down my neck?
- Set simple goals
Make a list of goals you want to achieve by the end of the week. Then divide them into specific daily tasks. Work out how much time each requires and stick to this. Don’t let checking emails take up the entire morning. Don’t let daily tasks roll over to tomorrow. Ticking them off at the end of the day will motivate you to keep going.
- Create a routine
Without the pressure to get into the office on time, you can find yourself still in your pjs, unshowered, at 11am. But research found that morning people are typically more proactive. So get up, do some exercise, enjoy a healthy breakfast, and make sure you’re at your desk at a specific time.
So that the day doesn’t feel too overwhelming, schedule frequent breaks and a set time to clock off. Maybe consider the Pomodoro Technique. Break your day into 25-minute chunks and five-minute breaks. These shorter working intervals create a sense of urgency. You work extra hard during that time knowing that the timer is ticking.
- Create a working space
Having a tidy and pleasing space to work is important. It doesn’t have to be the same place every day. But wherever you choose should be calm, uncluttered, and with natural light to boost your mood. Avoid distractions. Can you really work in a cafe where you fancy the barista? Exactly. Put your phone on silent – or maybe even put it another room. And do you really need the internet? Try turning off the wifi see how much you can accomplish without it.
- Find inspiration
Get out and about. Schedule a day off half way through the week to go to a gallery or a yoga class. Seeing people and the world will inspire you and encourage new ideas and creativity.
- Finally, make a list of reasons why freelancing is so great
We’ll help you get started:
- You’re your own boss. Oh, the power!
- You can work from anywhere. Anywhere.
- You choose your workload. Less is more. Always.
- You choose your clients. If one of them is annoying you, drop them after the project.
- You choose your schedule. If you don’t want to work Wednesdays, we can’t make you. Fancy a spontaneous Thursday morning spa session? Go for it.
Cora Harrison, September 2019