It’s been an incredibly busy season for me this last while. Whenever people ask me how I’m doing and I tell them that, they inevitably say, “Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
As a freelancer, yes – it is, generally. But there’s a difference between a good level of humming along with lots on the go and working until 2.30 in the morning because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. And my busy has been tilted towards the not-so-good kind this last while.
After a decade of working to article deadlines and six years as a full-time freelancer, I have become much better at managing my time, learning how much I can take on, and saying “no” to unreasonable projects / clients (or even wonderful projects that I just don’t have capacity to do at the time). I mostly stick to my limits. This protects me from burnout and ensures I am able to deliver on time and meet the client brief.
Sometimes, however, life doesn’t play along with my planned production schedule. There are so many reasons that this can happen – many out of my control. There have been a few of these sorts of mini-dramas during this latest busy season:
- People stood me up for interviews on the eve of my story deadline.
- A client moved the goalposts on a seriously big project, but the deadline stayed the same.
- There were some changes in roles and responsibilities at a charity I work with, and we had to spend
some lots of time sorting through the ensuing new processes.
- I somehow managed to get shin splints in my left leg (???) and had to find time to fit in a good few hours of physio during the work week.
- There was a bunch of complex financial admin that I needed to sort out in-person by a specific date.
- I took on a project in a field I’ve never worked in before, and underestimated how much time it would take me to research and understand the subject matter.
None of these things was a big deal on its own. But, Murphy being a jerk, they all happened together, along with a slew of rush jobs and personal challenges. And it was not fun. There were lots of 16-hour days and working weekends. In fact, I have injured the tendon in my right hand from spending so many hours typing. I must be the only person I know who has contracting a typing injury. It’s a little bit ridiculous.
Check out my keyboard in the pic and you’ll see it is
being worked to death well used! I put keyboard decals on the keys three weeks ago because the letters had worn off. As you can see, the stickers haven’t lasted too well either.
Now that things have slowed down to a less frenzied level of madness, I’m looking back at this crazy time to see what I can learn from it. There are a few things I could have done better, and there are also the good things that got me through this period, which I want to reflect on and try to do more of when life gets overwhelming again.
Here they are, to remind me, and in the hopes that they might help you too:
Behaviours that don’t help when work is too much:
- Panicking. It just makes things even scarier than they are. Next time, I’m going to try to panic less, pray more and breathe deeply. Panicking actually makes me less productive because my mind gets stuck running through the “what ifs” instead of the “what nexts”.
- Being a martyr. I come from a line of strong, stoic people. That means I want to be strong and stoic too. I don’t like to admit when I am struggling. Instead of asking for help, I have a tendency to just push myself harder, which is fine until I get sick (this almost always happens when I am super stressed). I need to learn to ask for help earlier. And that there is no shame in asking for help. Or making things a little easier for myself. A good example: I asked a client if we could do a Skype meeting instead of me having to drive through to his office, which saved me an hour in traffic. He didn’t mind at all, so I think that might be the way we do meetings from now on.
Strategies that do help during tough work times:
- Leaning on a good support system. I have the most wonderful family and friends. I enjoy helping them whenever I can, and sometimes I forget that they feel the same way about me. My husband was a star while I was frantic with work. He did the shopping and quite a bit of the cooking (we usually cook together), and although he didn’t enjoy not being able to have much “us” time, he kept reminding me that he understood, which really helped. My folks also listened patiently to a few tearful meltdowns and gave me space to work in peace at their home over a long weekend, which meant I could forget about cleaning, meals and chores, and just get on with it. Sometimes I feel like I have to have it all worked out, and I appreciate the people in my life who love me when that’s clearly not the case. Hanging out with them is so important. As a freelancer in South Africa, I also lean on the wonderful Southern African Freelancers’ Association, Safrea. The members have helped on countless occasions with finding last-minute interviewees, putting an end to scope creep and generally staying semi-sane.
- Finding people who’ve faced (and overcome) similar challenges. I took a break the one day, smack in the middle of project mayhem, to have lunch with a friend who also freelances, even though it really didn’t feel like there was time for it. It turned out to be the best way I could have spent that hour and a half! I left feeling refreshed and calm, having spoken honestly to someone who understands the challenges I deal with and has faced them herself. Chatting to someone who has come through the same issues helps me to believe that I will get out on the other side when I’m not sure I can make it. And it’s also helpful to hear how other people deal with the same challenges – there is much to be learned from others’ survival strategies.
- Tapping into faith. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my dry seasons of faith tend to overlap with my seasons of feeling overwhelmed in life. When I feel like there’s not even enough time to pray – that’s when I most need to pray! I feel like I need to have this tattooed on my right hand (the one with the injured tendon from typing, which would be apt). Even if I didn’t believe in God, I think the act of slowing down, breathing and focusing, and then articulating my feeling, need or thought (that’s sort of how I like to pray) would be helpful. The fact that I believe my prayers are heard and answered obviously brings a whole new level to this, but even if you don’t believe, you might just find trying to pray is beneficial.
- Fighting tunnel vision. It’s easy for a big project or a tough period to take over. I call this “eating my life”, which is what certain projects have done before. They seem so big and impossible that I struggle to think about anything else. In the long term, however, they probably won’t matter that much. I try to remember this so that I don’t waste my best energy stressing about something that’s not going to be hugely significant in the overall context of my life. I’ve found that I have to be intentional about this, which means reminding myself about what is important, especially when I’m under pressure. Will this matter in a year? No? Then I’m not letting it eat my life now!
I’d love to hear what gets you through tough work times, or if any of these notes above helps you during a mad period. Leave me a comment or drop me a mail.