What to do when it's all too much
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If there was a word for my working year so far, it would probably be: ‘overwhelming’. It’s a constant struggle to balance my workload, aiming for the sweet spot between ‘enough work to not worry about money’ and ‘not so much work that I feel like I’m dying’. I’ve definitely noticed a personal pattern during goal setting in Out Of Office’s monthly accountability chats: I’m either full of crazy ambitions, or craving a dark room. And I’m not alone in that.
“Overwhelm is definitely something I’ve experienced,” says Jenny Stallard, a writer who offers coaching and workshops, and founder of Freelance Feels, a newsletter and podcast. “I think it can be a bit of an addiction — when I broke my ankle recently I was immediately planning what I could get done from hospital! Sometimes I know I shouldn’t do anything on a particular day, because I know deep down that overwhelm is waiting to come and tap me on the back.”
While the precarious nature of self-employment probably leaves us more vulnerable than other people to overwhelm, there’s no denying that we can often be our own worst enemies. “Often we know when we say yes to something, or write another thing on a to do list, that we shouldn’t,” says Jenny. “It’s like starting to turn a tap — it’s dripping, and we know the sink is going to fill up. We can hear it dripping, but we still say to ourselves: ‘it will be alright.’”
But there are some concrete methods for reassessing your workload and pushing towards that oh-so-elusive work/life balance. “It’s definitely something we can work to improve. It’s about stepping back and looking at what you’re asking yourself to do,” advises Jenny. “Ask yourself: what would a boss say to take off my list today?”
Avoiding overwhelm in the first place
If you can spot overwhelm looming over the horizon, now is the time to nip it in the bud.
“Quite a bit of it is time management, and the most important element of that is saying when to stop work for the day. Pick a time, and say ‘I’m going to work until 5’. Then stop — that marks the end of the day, like in a traditional job,” says Jenny. “To help do this, I tell myself: ‘tomorrow will always be there’. That works for me.”
A further element of this time gate-keeping is letting other people know your plans. “Be clear about your hours and boundaries. If it's a trusted client, you could say you won't be on email after 6pm, but you'll be back in the morning,” says Jenny. “Or set an out of office, saying: ‘I’ve clocked off for the evening and won’t be reading emails until X time tomorrow’.
“Actually, an out of office message can work really hard for you, as you can add details such as: ‘If you’re interested in my work, here’s a link to my newsletter/website.’” Win/win.
Finally, don’t forget that work should only make up a percentage of your day. “Exercise is great but it needs to be part of your daily plan, or you’re unlikely to do it. I put nice things on my list too (I use brightly coloured pens so they stand out when I glance at it during the day) like going to my local lido,” says Jenny.
I’ve previously talked about my ‘three things’ list, which helps me in a similar way and a few of you got in touch to say you’ve adopted the method too!
If you’re already overwhelmed
It’s definitely easier for me to implement healthy behaviours pre-overwhelm, so I appreciate that when you’re in the thick of it, it’s a matter of essentials only.
If the world has turned upside down and you’re feeling cross-eyed looking at your to-do list, it’s time to create some breathing space. “Get away from all your screens, including your phone, even if it’s just standing on your front doorstep for a few minutes,” says Jenny.
Or, even better, reach out: “Connect with a freelance friend, someone who just gets it, and send them a message,” says Jenny. “Employed friends don’t always understand, or feel you have this amazing flexibility, but a fellow freelancer will get it. Mine tend to be people I’ve previously worked with, who I message to say: ‘I’m having a bit of a day of it…’
“You could start a Whatsapp group with several of you, or there are lots of great groups online, such as Freelance Heroes.”
Find some other ways to deal with work day loneliness here
“The main thing is that I want to reassure everyone that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed,” says Jenny. “It can look like everyone is coping, but no one is 100% managing.”
Something to keep in mind the next time you feel like weeping into your coffee cup!
The next monthly accountability chat is on Friday 27th at 11am, and all readers are welcome to try their first one for free. It’s a safe space to talk about the weird world of being your own boss, as well as an opportunity to set some goals for September. Hit reply if you’d like to come along.
I’ll be taking Bank Holiday Monday off, but will return on 6th September, in time to celebrate ONE YEAR of Out Of Office!
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