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On well-being as a freelancer

Running a business as the sole owner, representative, writer, editor, designer, strategist, marketing lead, HR official, legal team, accountant, and administrator sounds about as hectic as this sentence reads. My day may begin at a reasonable hour but it certainly doesn’t end. These are the thorns that protect the roses. The roses in question being my capacity to run a reliable and Agile system so I can chip away at multiple projects throughout the sprint. My previous post about project management may have made TFQ sound like an all-terrain beast of a small business, but the reality sets in pretty quickly. This post is about how I was forced to pull the brakes on the business because of a bug.

So, I was unwell for three-quarters of May. Imagine your body feeling sick and fatigued to the point where you have to phone a Real Adult (TM) and ask them to reassure you that you won’t die. And then think about all the correspondence that piling up in your inbox. And then mentally triage all the urgent work backlog. And then remember to eat, hydrate, and rest without raising your blood pressure because you’re still thinking about the work piling up. And then you check your messages and see 48 texts from clients. And then try not to cry about feeling like you ran back-to-back marathons without water breaks. And then suppress the overwhelming urge to scream. And then fall asleep because your body can’t afford to fight two battles at the same time.

(Ma’am have you tried turning it off and on again?)

Yeah, I may have had COVID-19 - or is it COVID-22 now? - and then contracted a secondary infection. Recovering from this has taken me three whole weeks. I’ve essentially missed 75% of May, and I’m still adding “Rest + Vitamin C” to my to-do list because I don’t feel healthy. Not fully.

Now, as far as advice goes I can recommend that you take a break for your body before your body takes one for you.

Initially, the anxiety and frustration were so overwhelming I couldn’t find my way out of it. I was spiralling. No amount of meditation, pranayama*, or even prayer was helping. I felt like there was nothing to anchor me other than my willpower. And that will, that drive to interact with people, work with energy, and build up TFQ was… gone.

And then I remembered, I was spiralling. Spirals can go up or down, so why shouldn’t I also work that way? After all, my life’s guiding philosophy is that one progresses in spirals. And now, the only way out was up.

Isolate what’s annoying me, understand why it’s annoying me, and then figure out a sustainable way to fix it.

So this is what I did to recover:

One: Retain the brain:

I worked a few hours every day and completed a maximum of three tasks in that time. I set myself up for predictable, consistent success so my brain could recognise the old pathways to dopamine releases.

This works every time I find myself in a slump. Patience with yourself as you heal is as important as motivating yourself to work when you are healthy.

Two: Tell the truth.

First, I told my clients the truth about my health and the measures I was taking to recover. I apologised for the delays and asked for time to heal. Their support and presence are what TFQ thrives on, so it was vital to be upfront about how things fared internally. And second, I was honest with myself that I’ve stressed my body out about things outside my control, and that I need to think about ways to handle this recurring problem while I recovered.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that “In the long-run, prioritisation beats efficiency.”

I never knew how to implement this bit of advice because I was always On. There was not much Off time and I was ignoring the signs of burnout to my own detriment. But during my recovery time, I could finally think.

In order to be efficient, I had to rethink what I consider important. Again, James was back with a banger:

Before you ask, "What should I do today?"

Ask yourself, "What should I remove today?"

Create the space you need to succeed.

- James Clear

I had to remember to communicate with myself with a kinder mental tone and bring myself to acknowledge that the need to control everything stems from the chaos within. It was difficult to do this at first, because it felt fake - like, why would I talk to myself like I’m fragile? But this process was a bit like falling asleep: you have to close your eyes and pretend that you’re asleep so you can actually sleep.

So I began to remove the things I worried about over which I had no control. Things like ESKOM’s load shedding, the weather, people’s opinions of me, being made redundant, death, the threat of national financial collapse, a tsunami coming over the mountain, earthquakes - the list seemed endless, but I got through it. Now, I could clearly see - and feel more confident about - the thing I could absolutely control: my response to these.

And day by day I see improvements in how I face these flitting thoughts about universal collapse. I don’t ignore them or cram them back into the void they came from, but rather acknowledge them with mindful honesty and ask myself if I can realistically stop them from happening. If the answer is No - which it usually is - then I remind myself to cross each bridge as I come to it.

Three: Identify stress factors and build healthy responses, i.e., workplace health begins with you.

Sometimes, work takes over my life so much that I find myself texting people back “before I forget”. But why do I catch myself replying to work texts at 22:30 when I’m supposed to be in bed? Why do I do it while I’m spending time with loved ones?

I set myself up for predictable, consistent success so my brain could recognise the old pathways to dopamine releases.

At times like these, I’m grateful for having practiced identifying my stress factors. The smallest things would set me off and I’d feel miserable for the rest of the day. Things like:

  • my cellphone always vibrating on the table when texts came through —> fixed that problem by turning the vibration off completely. It saved me so much pressure to look at my phone and be anxious about why clients were texting so much in the group.

  • WhatsApp as the primary communication platform for work. —> I flagged this as an issue and am still working out how to get everyone to switch over to Slack. Separation of church and state etc.

  • Working from home all the time —> Not much I could do with this one, really. But it does feel good to sometimes work in the lounge…?

  • Unwashed dishes, unwatered plants, an unmade bed, and an overburdened laundry basket —> I asked for help. And a reliable division of domestic labour was achieved. This is still an ongoing process because everyone works similar hours at home, but the asking for help bit is the important part. I’ve been advised that those undone things aren’t important in the grand scheme of things, but call me a boarding school kid because I still think an unmade bed is poor form.

I can recommend that you take a break for your body before your body takes one for you.

The small things add up to a big, often unreasonable response, so I make an effort to nip irritations in the bud. Isolate what’s annoying me, understand why it’s annoying me, and then figure out a sustainable way to fix it.

I hope this helps. I hope you are taking the time to take a turn about the home office between meetings. I hope you have colleagues and clients who understand that you're human. And I hope you have people in your life who will bring you soup and make you smile on the off days.


*breathing exercises in yoga

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