When you’re trying to hustle as hard as you can, it can be hard to switch off. But whilst you’re all about the grind, it’s important not to let freelance life grind you down. Here’s how to look after yourself, and your growing portfolio.
Freelancing is amazing, until it isn’t. According to recent figures, there are upwards of 4.8 million freelancers across the UK, meaning there are just under five million people with varying degrees of insight into the magic and mayhem of BYOB. (FYI, that’s ‘being your own boss’, not ‘bring your own bottle’ – although some might argue the two are vaguely entwined.)
The reality is that when you’re working entirely for yourself – booking jobs, managing finances, handling the ‘brand’ and so on – it can feel difficult to employ the same degree of kindness and empathy you’d show towards colleagues. Whether it’s refusing to take a sick day when you’re struggling with a throat infection or sending pitches from the side of the pool while you’re on holiday (yup, guilty), it’s tough to give yourself permission to switch off when you feel like you should constantly be giving and doing more. You need to pay bills, you need to secure that next job, you need to keep yourself current. Hustle, hustle, hustle. It can be exhausting – and completely counter-productive to being your best you.
“We fear that if we have a day off or slow down, opportunities will be lost or missed out on, or work will dry up,” says Chloe Brotheridge, anxiety expert and author of Brave New Girl (Michael Joseph, £12.99). “But we’ve forgotten an important fact; rest is productive. I remind my clients ‘you need rest to be at your best’ – our brains work better when we’re relaxed. When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, the frontal cortex – the rational, clear-thinking part of the brain – shuts down and the amygdala takes over. We’re less able to focus, make decisions and think rationally when we’re stressed. It makes business sense for us to take time to relax and our brains function all the better for it.”
Learning to switch-off might feel alien at first, and is a habit that needs to be honed over time rather than something you can expect to feel comfortable doing instantly. Having a quiet evening where you don’t update your website/research prospective clients/see what your network is up to (delete as appropriate) might feel very odd at first. But you’ll get there.
“Learning to work at a reasonable time and spend my evenings relaxing rather than working took a while,” admits illustrator Emma Block. “When you’re your own boss and work from home most of the time, it’s very easy to keep going without a break. It’s taken me time but now I’m pretty disciplined at downing tools at a certain time each day and then steering clear of my desk until the next morning.”
It’s all about finding the work-life balance that works best for you. Take Keith McNiven, founder of Right Path Fitness, who works six or seven days each week and has found an on-off pattern that suits him. “I can rarely have full days off but I’m adamant about having longer breaks throughout the day,” he says. “On a typical day, I’ll work from 6am until noon and then take a few hours off to eat and walk my dogs. Then I’ll head back to the studio for an evening session.”
Self-care is at the heart of our need to hit ‘pause’ on work; of course, your health is your wealth and all that but fundamentally, you can’t expect to work hard, constantly, without feeling burnt-out. “You’re the most important resource in your business,” says Chloe. “If you burn out, you have nothing.”
A slew of physical symptoms including dizziness so severe she couldn’t walk led to Maggie Giele being diagnosed with burn-out in the first 18 months of her launching her online business. It took time for her to recover fully – four months, to be precise. “If I tried to do something even slightly taxing – like creating content for my website – I would get immediate headaches,” she recalls. “I had to totally stop and learn how to listen to my body. We’re fed a constant diet of #hustle when you biologically need space and time to be creative so that your subconscious can process all the information you’re taking in. That’s why we get our best ideas in the shower!”
Emma agrees that learning to understand the signs from your body is crucial – when she needs to take a break, she struggles to concentrate and has headaches. “Stretch, move, rest. Don’t let work and life bleed into each other too much. When you’re at your desk working, be focused on what you’re doing and try to avoid distractions. When you’re resting, try to avoid work-related tasks sneaking in – and don’t answer emails when you’re in bed! It’s definitely better to properly work, and then properly relax, rather than let the two overlap and get mixed up.” (In fact, Emma recently shared her advice for getting the work-life balance just right – take a look here.)
Maggie’s experience with burn-out inspired her to create a popular video series about tackling burn-out and the can’t-drop-the-ball approach so many of us struggle with. “It’s tough because a lot of people believe the more hours they put into work, the more success they can expect,” she says. “Social media allows us to see the absolute highlights and success stories of others. Most people don’t share selfies of themselves crying from stress or frustration, but they do share their Bali infinity pool photos! If you’re constantly getting the message about everyone else’s success, you end up feeling like a failure… and putting in more hours seems like an easy way to hit those successes, too.”
As well as the pressure you (possibly) apply to yourself, there’s also expectation from clients – if you set the bar at a certain level from the word ‘go’, they’ll expect that same level of availability and delivery throughout. Whilst replying to an email in a few moments at 9pm might not feel like a big deal, it gives the impression you’re available around the clock. Swerve it. “In those early conversations with clients, simply stating your working hours and when you are and are not available is key,” says Tania Diggory, founder of Calmer (which aims to help entrepreneurs keep their mental wellbeing in check). “Setting healthy boundaries for yourself from the beginning and giving yourself time out will replenish your energy levels, help you to de-stress and nurture your overall wellbeing.”
Consider this: when you give yourself time off, not only are you being at your best for yourself, but also for others around you. This includes your clients. Taking time to reflect is an essential part of the freelance journey, however in our digitally switched-on world, we can often get drawn in by the multiple distractions around us and lose sight of this.”
THREE WAYS TO UP YOUR SELF-CARE TODAY!
A balanced diet, regular exercise (in whatever form) and – sigh – avoiding those 10pm email checks are all no-brainer ways to help keep yourself feeling great. But what else do the pros suggest?
#1 Step away from the computer screen
“I aim to take a few minutes every hour to myself and when I open my own studio next month and have team members on-site, I’ll encourage them to do the same,” says Keith. “Research has shown that taking 5 to 15 minutes every few hours away from your desk (or whatever space you’re working in) improves productivity. Companies are increasingly accepting this and moving away from time sheets and strict scheduled breaks, because workers are much happier when they have a level of freedom. It can also help creativity; sometimes, when you feel stuck, your brain needs to engage with something else.”
#2 Reflect on your freelancer journey
Tania suggests giving consideration to your freelancing experiences. “Understanding the factors that led to certain decisions will enable you to increase the reaction speed of your business, as well as reduce your stress levels,” she explains. “Ask yourself these questions on a regular basis: How do I feel? What seems to be working well and which areas may need improving? How might I go about that and who may be able to help me?”
#3 Take some time to breathe
“I start and end my day with 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation,” reveals Chloe. “It helps me to let go of the day, is deeply restful and in the evening particularly, gives me the energy to enjoy the rest of the night.”