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

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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: 
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:
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:

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:

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:

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

Sarah says:

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:

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:

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?


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.