How to enjoy work when you’re busy (or when you’re super overwhelmed, or any time)

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THIS IS HOW IT FEELS.

So this post from entrepreneur Sarah Von Bargen is everything you need to know about creating a good place for your brain while freelancing.

Her original post is called “How to enjoy work (even when you’re busy + kind of overwhelmed)” but I feel like that title barely scratches the surface. It should be more like “How to enjoy work when you are hyperventilating because you have five deadlines to hit in the next 12 hours and your computer keeps crashing and you hate everyone and everything.” Because that seems to be what freelancing is like—either you have nothing to do or you have ten million things to do and they’re all due at the same time.

Sarah’s post has 8 tips for enjoying work even when you are so busy you feel like your brain is leaking out your ears. I’m excerpting it here with some of my own additions.

Sarah says: 
1. SCHEDULE INTENTIONAL, RESTORATIVE BREAKS – EVEN IF THEY’RE TINY
Open your Google calendar, find a 20-minute window, and literally type “TAKE A BREAK, DUDE.” Set a reminder on your phone or computer and when that alarm goes off take an actual break.

Rachel says:
Yup. It sometimes feels impossible to step away for even 10 minutes but it’s so important to try. You know what else makes for an amazing break? A quick workout. It’ll get your mind off your project (sometimes sparking amazing ideas in the meantime) AND give you an awesome endorphin boost. You don’t have to make this a huge thing. Go for a jog around the block or put on an online workout. (There are lots of Youtube channels for this, like this one, and I also talk about a bunch of different options in The Healthy Freelancer, the book).

Sarah says:
2. KEEP A ‘SMILE FILE’
Every time you get a kind email from a blog reader/client/customer, move it into a folder that you’ve specifically designated for these glowing missives.Reference all these kind, glowing words when you’re feeling run down and unsure of why you’re working so hard.

Rachel says:
Seriously this works! Mine is called “Yay me” because “smile file” sounds like a strange procedure you’d have done at the dentist, but same diff.

Sarah says:
3. READ GLORIOUS, ESCAPIST FICTION

Spoiler alert: GRE study guides and social media marketing plans don’t make for very good bedtime reading and they certainly don’t give you and your brain an opportunity to recharge.

Rachel says:
It doesn’t have to be glorious and escapist (though I am partial to ridiculous sword-and-sorcery stuff). It definitely shouldn’t be more “work stuff” though. Read a magazine, read your favorite non-work blog, read a comic book.

Sarah says:
4. MAKE YOUR WORKSPACE + WORK EXPERIENCE AS LOVELY AS POSSIBLE

Rachel says:
When I built my standing desk (which is fodder for another post, I think) I wanted it to feel as light and airy as possible so I painted it a bright shiny white. Guess what color dirt shows up best on? Still, it’s my fault – I could spend five minutes every few days to wipe it down but I haven’t, and it’s showing in my mood (honestly).

Also, we are doing some deep cleaning in the same room where my desk is. And you know how when you’re cleaning sometimes you pick an object up and go, Hmm, this doesn’t belong here on the floor, but I’m not sure where it does belong, so I’ll just put it on the nearest flat surface? (No? Maybe that’s just me?) At any rate you guys my desk was literally covered in garbage until ten minutes ago when I got so fed up I just chucked everything in a box. And let me tell you, having a gross desk is NOT conducive to keeping your sanity. So…don’t be like me.

Sarah says:
5. MAKE YOURSELF AS PHYSICALLY COMFORTABLE AS POSSIBLE

Rachel says:
Ergonomics, yo. Lots of tips in The Healthy Freelancer or just read what Sarah has to say.

Sarah says:
6. EAT HEALTHY, DELICIOUS, ATTRACTIVE MEALS – NOT AT YOUR DESK

Rachel says:
Here’s a pasta dish you can make once on the weekend and have for a couple days (or more) in a row.

Sarah says:
7. TAKE YOUR WORK DAY SERIOUSLY

Ferociously guard the boundaries between work and play.

Rachel says:
Work when it’s time to work, but when you’re off work, be off. That doesn’t mean you have to work 9-5. If you work better at midnight, so be it, but set your “office hours” and stick to them.

Also, there are some days when you have to work late to meet a deadline, and that’s fine. But if you can, treat your working late like real work, which it is. You might think it would be less painful to “just finish a few things” on the couch while your significant other/kids/housemates watch TV, but it’s just a reminder that they’re having fun and you’re not (plus the distration will make you take longer). Go to your desk, close the door if you have one, and hunker down and get that ish done.

Finally, Sarah says:
8. REMIND YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE WORKING SO HARD

Create a visual reminder of your goals and aspirations. Maybe you’re working this hard so you can afford a three-week vacation in Thailand. Maybe you’re putting your kids through college. Maybe you want your name on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Whatever the goal, find a related photo or image and make it your screensaver, or frame it and hang it next to your desk!

Rachel says:
Maybe it’s not even something that big. Maybe a huge project dropped into your lap and you felt like you simply couldn’t turn down the job. Last year, a surprise, urgent project (it’s always urgent, right?) appeared right before Thanksgiving, and it was looking likely that I would have to work if not on Thanksgiving proper, then certainly on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afterward–time I had planned to spend with loved ones. Immediately as soon as I booked the gig, I booked a reservation for the following week at a fancy restaurant I’d been dying to try. Then, as the job dragged on, I could at least comfort myself with thinking about how delicious that food was going to be.
Can you try something similar? Book a massage for the day after you hit your deadline, or put a book by a beloved author or a fancy kitchen gadget in your Amazon cart and pull the trigger when you know a big project is about to end? It doesn’t have to be a big, expensive thing, but such small treats can work wonders for your mental state.

What do you do when it’s crunch time, and how do you stay upbeat?

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Stop. Eat Lunch.

(Look, it’s a woman laughing alone with salad!)

Lunch today was a baked sweet potato and a PB&J, so not the most healthy, but I did at least attempt to eat it away from my desk. And science says that’s a good thing.

Basically–and you already know this–taking a break makes you more creative and reduces stress, and eating a balanced lunch powers up your brain.

If you have colleagues to eat with (which is not always true of us freelancers), the social interaction can also help advance your career, Kimberly Elsbach, professor of management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis, told the Washington Post. An official business lunch doesn’t count as a mentally recharging break, she says, but talking casually with a co-worker does, and can be an effective way to network at the same time. Should you try this as a freelancer, it’s a great way to learn what clients in your area are hiring and get tips from other pros.

How much ‘should’ you work as a freelancer?

A couple of years ago a freelance friend of mine sent me a link to a blog post where another freelancer had outlined her typical schedule for the day. I can’t find that post now so I’m recreating this basically from memory, but bear with me — I promise this will be relevant.

The freelancer’s schedule was demanding, in a way, but also very flexible to this person’s specific needs. So while she got up fairly early and checked her email, she would then take an hour-long break to cook a big healthy breakfast and walk her significant other to the train station. Then she’d do some more work for an hour or so, and take a long lunch. The afternoon was more work time broken up by a generous workout, and she stopped working around 4pm to do errands and cook dinner. She’d meet her husband on his way back from work to get more walking in, they’d have a nice leisurely dinner, and then they’d finish out their night with chores around the house and a little more emailing for this freelancer.

My friend sent me this schedule and asked what I thought of it. I looked at the long walks, the leisurely cooking, and the 4pm quitting time. I thought of the clients I was juggling, the seemingly neverending stream of non-billable work that still has to get done, like answering emails, sending invoices, and organizing papers. And I said, “There’s no way I could do that.”

My friend said, “I agree. She’s working SO MUCH.”

So, what I had thought was “not at nearly enough time to get anything done” was my friend’s idea of working nonstop. And let’s be clear here—in some ways, the things you accomplish are not at all related to how much time you put in. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just talking about hours worked.

This told me two things. One: everyone has a different idea of how much they ‘should’ work. Two: My friend was having a lot more fun than I was.

But mostly, it’s a reminder that what works for one person is not what works for another. I kind of like the idea of working (roughly) 9-5, Monday through Friday, with (short) breaks for exercise and lunch. I don’t take an hour for lunch and I don’t quit at 4, but I also try not to check my email before or after work hours.

Other people might want to only work in the mornings, and spend time volunteering or taking care of family members in the afternoons. Others may sleep late and work until 8 or 9 at night. Whatever works for you. There’s a myth, I think, that the person who works the most is going to be the most successful freelancer. But I’m not sure that’s true.

There’s also the concept of an internal set point. There are lots of ways to calculate your rate as a freelancer but in general you probably have a decent idea of how much money you need to get you through the month feeling OK. That number may be a squishy range, but you probably have a general idea of what it is.

And if you’re on track to make that number, you may find yourself, as my mom says, “farting around” a little more. Maybe you’re spending a little more time on Facebook or sleeping a little more or spending more time daydreaming or thinking up new ideas for your business. If you’re not on track, your internal accountant is lighting a fire under your butt to get you to hustle. So of course money will affect how much you work. But beyond that, if you want to only work a few hours a day and spend the rest of your time cooking tiny meals for hamsters or catching up on Netflix, you do you. If it makes you happy and you’re making a dollar amount you can live with, you’re winning.

What’s your best self-care ritual?

I’ve been reading that rituals are important for happiness and productivity. It doesn’t even matter what the rituals are as long as they’re yours…and in fact this post says that the #1 ritual you should do every day is have more rituals.

In other words,

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So you’re having a bad day. Maybe freelancing is really getting you down. You’re stuck in a rut, you’ve got a client that drives you crazy, you’re working 12 hour days, whatever it is. It’s important to take time to care for yourself.

Me, I like to work out. It doesn’t really matter what it is; I’m slowly getting back into running after a knee injury, but I also enjoy lifting weights and just dancing around the living room with some good music on. Exercise releases so many good hormones and has so many positive effects on your mood it’s basically a no brainer. I guess you could argue that the act of lacing up my shoes, putting on headphones and picking out the best music is kind of a ritual. I’m going to think of it that way next time and see if it makes me run faster or farther.

Other things that might be rituals:

-Having a nice snack. Eating an entire bag of crispy wonton strips isn’t a ritual (not that I’ve ever done this) but getting out a nice plate and napkin, pouring yourself a glass of (sparkling?) water, and having something healthy that will make you feel good about yourself for the rest of the day certainly can be.

-Leaving work behind at a certain hour and putting on your favorite music or TV show as a reward is totally a ritual. Just giving up and flopping on the couch with Netflix is likely to make you feel sluggish and worse about a bad day, but again, it’s all in how you frame it. If you think to yourself: I worked hard today and am rewarding myself with this episode of Gotham , you’re more likely to get positive benefits from the show.

How do you take care of yourself especially after a long day freelancing?

You’re more productive and creative when you’re happy, so smile!

According to science, when you keep a positive attitude, you’re more likely to have great things happen to you at work.

Science has even quantified this likelihood: Studies say that positivity means you’re 31% more productive, you’re 40% more likely to receive a promotion, you have 23% fewer health-related effects from stress, and your creativity rates triple.

Now, these exact numbers seem pretty dubious to me but suffice it to say that being happy is good for your work.

Can you actually make yourself be happy, though? Slapping on a fake smile (or as countless moms used to suggest, holding a pencil between your teeth) does actually work a little. Other ideas: pinpoint the problem (having a concrete reason for your unhappiness gives you something to work on), think of three things you’re grateful for, and take one single concrete action, whether it’s making a phone call you’ve been putting off or choosing a healthier lunch. This can set off a positive “mental avalanche” to get you unstuck.

Also, if you can, get outside, if even for 10 minutes. The fresh air and change of scenery does wonders for your mood.

(h/t Harvard Business Review)

 

On working: Sometimes less really is more.

Sometimes it feels great to have worked your butt off for eight or ten hours straight. Sometimes (most of the time) it totally feels like crap.

The good news is that “effort” doesn’t really matter.

Via 99u:

It’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off. Yet any writer, designer or web developer will tell you it’s the two focused hours that pay most—both in terms of money and fulfillment.

And in fact, in the 2013 book Daily Rituals, which looked at the work routines of 161 writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, and more, almost nobody reported spending more than four or five hours a day on their primary tasks.

The takeaway: Sometimes more is not more. Or as 99u’s Oliver Burkeman says, “Remember that tiring yourself out—or scheduling every minute of your day with work—isn’t a reliable indicator of a day well spent. Or to put it more cheerfully: The path to creative fulfillment might take a lot less effort than you think.”

Everything is Awful and I’m Not Okay: a self-care checklist

This image has been going viral lately and while it is not, not, NOT a cure-all, especially for serious depression, I think part of the reason it’s going viral is because sometimes we forget about the basics of self-care, and they can make a huge difference. As the original creator said, this stuff is “the low-hanging fruit that can clog our ability to cope with everything else, so that we can tackle the hard stuff.”

As freelancers, even if we’re not depressed depressed, keeping these self-care reminders around for days that you just can’t get anything done–or conversely, days that are so hectic that you never leave your desk–can do wonders for your mental state.