If you're a freelancer, no doubt you've felt the toll it's taken on your health. A freelancer or anyone who's self-employed for that matter ends up working longer days on average than those who are traditionally-employed. Between chasing down leads, voice or video calls, self-promotion, updating websites, replying to emails, sending invoices, updating records, posting to social media accounts and the actual work, today's designers and freelancers spend most of their day sitting at a desk. Knowing how to counter-balance work with other activities can prevent a meltdown. Today's article is about how to prevent what you love doing from taking a toll on your health and well-being.
There are three major tactics I used to bring about a serious change in my lifestyle while freelancing full-time. I'm convinced they'll work as well for you as they did for me.
2. Set Boundaries
Relaxing is easier said than done. It's not like we're born with an on/off switch (wouldn't that be nice?). When you are self-employed, there are always things to be done. Unfortunately, I tend to get bombarded by thoughts, ideas, inspiration or stress when lying in bed trying to sleep. We'll address this below.
Throughout the day, it can be tough to relax when you're unable to line up clients or gigs and the feeling of desperation sinks its venomous fangs into your soft, vulnerable skin. And how frustrating is it when you're working at an admirable clip, uninterrupted by the daily office distractions and nobody seems to be returning your calls or emails?
As one who likes to plan out everything, it's taken me longer than I expected to get used to the uncertainty of being a freelancer. I knew it was part of the package, but damn, it can be rough. Learning how to relax when I don't have control over every situation has allowed me to avoid burnout and meltdown. Here's how I deal with the above scenarios.
Action items to help you relax
- Keep one of these moleskine notebooks at your bedside and jot down ideas that you come across when trying to sleep. Once you write something down, it's recorded. Give yourself permission to let the ideas go. They'll be there in the morning.
- Listen to or read fiction for 30-60 minutes before bed. Giving your mind a pleasing place to go when you're trying to drift off will make sleep come easier. I recommend any of John Grisham's top-rated novels or something in the adventure genre.
- Instead of thinking about the negative consequences of not landing a client, keep your momentum up by considering and pursuing different and larger clients. You're not going to land everyone you pitch, so be thinking of the next 2 or 3 clients. Remain two steps ahead of the game.
- Remember that your clients likely deal with more moving targets than you do in a given day. Whether they're a business owner or work in a corporate environment, there's a chance they have a job to do besides working with or responding to you.
- Take a break. We can't be on all the time, so kick back and shut your eyes for 5 minutes. Take deep breaths and do some stretches.
- Go for a walk. It's great when you're frustrated or stumped. Some of history's most prolific authors, painters, designers, creators have all taken walking very seriously.
Setting boundaries will help give you a sense of control. Being in control of a situation does wonders for your confidence and happiness. When you set boundaries you define when and how things will and won't happen. The first thing to come to mind when setting boundaries is work schedule. When I began freelancing, I was working a full-time job and then I took on two clients. I was working from 8 am to 5 pm for my day job, then 7 pm to 3 am for my freelance clients and sleeping from 3:30 am to 7am before having to repeat the cycle. Obviously this wasn't sustainable. I was also surrendering my weekends to freelance work.
When you work from home, it's often difficult to separate work life from personal life. A change of space helps make that mental switch. We behave differently at work, school and home. If you can't change your physical boundaries, you need to rely on different boundaries such as time. This is where scheduling can help.
Boundaries can also be set when looking at different technologies and actions. It's easy for the self-employed to become a slave to their smart phone. Checking their social media accounts, keeping a pulse on 'fans', blogs, industry trends and the worst... email, all lead to compulsive phone use. I realized that I was checking my phone during inappropriate times like during meal time and dates, watching movies and shows, while driving and when being spoken to.
When our work is also our livelihood, it's easy to justify 'working' around the clock. Let me tell you that it's not necessary and that if sustained, you'll become an unhappy person and likely unpleasant to be around. Let's look at how you can set boundaries to keep your work from taking over your life.
Action items to help you set boundaries
- Get yourself a quality planner that you like. Here's what I use and swear by. Start scheduling all your activities by the hour. Don't ignore the time limits you give yourself to complete a task. You can always pick up where you left off tomorrow.
- Schedule time for trial and error, especially when quoting clients on new projects. I used to tell a client it would only take a few hours to do a project. I forgot to account for the times in which things didn't go 'according to plan', which is much more often than we'd like to admit.
- Don't work on the weekend. Or at least schedule one or two days off each week. Each person is different, but depriving yourself of time off or time away from work will eventually wear you down and make you enjoy your work less. It took me months to learn this. I do my best work when coming off of a break. I'll bet you're the same.
- Decide on when it's acceptable and unacceptable to engage with your mobile device. I didn't realize how rude I was when I didn't set boundaries when looking at my phone. Every day I'm trying to make sure I'm not dividing my attention between something important and my phone. My phone can always wait. Life can not.
If you're like me, you spend much of your waking day sitting. Sitting in a car, at a desk, in a waiting room or a meeting room, at a table or on a couch. Without getting carried away, I'll say that too much sitting can and will likely lead to chronic health problems. I'll let you Google it. When I began freelancing and consulting full-time, I had not set boundaries. I was sitting 12-14 hours a day. Every day. I've now scaled that back to about 8 hours a day, but will soon be investing in a convertible standing desk and the ultimate goal is fewer than 3 hours of sitting a day.
To make things worse, I sustained an injury that lead to two injured discs in my lower back. This put me in a state that made sitting painful and the doctors I saw told me to stop exercising. I became even more miserable and spent money I wasn't ready to on doctor visits, x-rays, MRIs, chiropractors, orthopedic specialists and physical therapist visits.
Almost a year after my injury, I'm about 85% healed. I'm stronger, happier, leaner and healthier. I'm this way because I trusted my gut and started exercising 4 days a week. I wasn't seeing the results I wanted from the doctors I visited, so I began exercising. I never miss a workout and each workout is about 2 hours long. I do primarily weight training and HIIT (high intensity interval training) for cardio. The direct effect of my exercise routine is that I'm no longer in pain. For others, exercise will lead to losing unwanted weight or body fat, improving energy levels, happiness and self-confidence. What can you do about it?
Action items to help you exercise
- Start by scheduling time to exercise. If it's not a priority of yours and it's not added to your schedule, it won't happen.
- Start small. Depending on your current level of fitness, you may want to start by walking. I know people who have lost over 20 lbs. simply by walking. Buy a Fitbitor Nike Fuel and use them to keep you accountable.
- Schedule fun activities. Maybe you'd rather boulder, go to a parkour gym, ride a bicycle, play soccer or practice yoga. These fun activities will all help counteract the time you spend sitting.
- Try exercising in the morning. Many of the world's most successful professionals exercise first-thing in the morning. You can read about the benefits elsewhere, but let's just say this one's a game-changer.
- Join your local gym. Once you have a membership, you've paid. For me, it's a motivator to get in there as often as I can. The chemicals released to the brain during a workout alone is enough to make my day better.
- Only work for 45 minutes at a time. Get up and take a break for 3 minutes. Do some push ups and walk around. Then get back to work. Keep taking breaks every 45 minutes.
Freelancing is no walk in the park. You need to work on your business not just in your business. By making conscious decisions about how you work and when you don't, you can avoid feeling out of control and burning out. Start by getting a planner you'll use every day and begin making some healthy habits. If you can focus on relaxing, setting boundaries and exercising, your quality of life, physical fitness and business will improve.