Freelancer stress: how to reduce yours in one week

Whether it’s a snarky email, an incredibly late revision request, or the loss of a client, it often takes just one online interaction to send your freelancer stress levels soaring. An incredibly late revision request was my latest source of contention. It came via a copywriting agency that I work for, more than a calendar month after the client accepted the final text with plenty of praise. While I’m the type of copywriter who understands the need for flexibility, I do also know where the line should be drawn.

A few years ago, my irritation would have extended beyond the initial half-an-hour after reading the email that it encompassed yesterday. The mid-twenties freelance writer who occupied this typing space would have spent the rest of her day brooding. Sure, I would have completed my work for the day, but there also would have been a cloud of anger festering in the background.

A combination of maturity and remaining proactive in using freelancer stress reduction techniques have helped me shape my responses to such incidents. While I can’t promise that you’ll encounter sudden miracles by following my suggestions, you will create a platform of habits that allow you to enjoy an easier life as a freelancer.

Day one: list the sources of freelancer stress that you can cull

Freelancer stress
CC: Djim Loic at Unsplash

As much as you might want to believe it, your clients aren’t the only source of your freelancer stresses. From the way you manage your time to not saying ‘no’ often enough, there are lots of factors to thank here.

When listing your freelancer stress triggers, spend a little while reflecting on the last week and the moments where you’ve felt upset. If there is a client who’s particularly irksome, would it be better to ditch them now? Or, is it more realistic to start looking for work elsewhere and then get rid of them later? In either case, you’re not flouncing. You’re taking a pragmatic approach to shift the way you tackle your work.

Other ways your freelancer stress levels are rising include:

  • Not managing your time well. Are you committing enough hours to meeting your deadlines?
  • Not having the right work-life balance. Seriously, step out of the house from time-to-time.
  • Not seeing people in real life. And no, your kids and spouse do not count. That approach WILL drive you nuts.
  • Not having enough work. Don’t worry, this is something we’ll focus on tomorrow.

According to one study, stress will affect the amount of control you have over your work. It will also lower your performance. Hopefully, you can see how this results in a vicious cycle. When your performance dips, you’re likely to receive more of those snarky emails I mentioned in my introductory paragraph. Then the stress mounts again, leading to even poorer performance still.

After making your list of the things you can cull or adapt, write a plan of action. You should feel a little weight lifting just by creating the plan. To see real long-lasting results, make sure you actually execute it.

Day two: begin upping your marketing game

Freelancer stress
CC: SandraChile at Unsplash

Placing all your eggs into one basket is a habit many of us fall foul of in the freelancing world. For example: In 2014, I had a dream client who was propelling my earnings like nobody had before. I dived into my relationship with them a little blindly, only to watch their business fold in 2015.

While you’ve probably read this repeatedly, you need to constantly ‘hustle’ (cringing at my own use of that word there) to ensure your incoming work remains consistent. Opportunities can and will dry up without warning. Some will disappear altogether.

Acknowledging the fact that your area of freelancing can become tumultuous may seem like a source of stress in itself. However, it is only as unreliable as you allow it to be. When you consistently market yourself and have plenty of baskets for those eggs, you’re unlikely to fall into a position where you’re suddenly without an income.

I mentioned this in my recent post on freelancer burnout: have a handful of clients so that it doesn’t feel as though the world is falling from beneath you if one disappears. Where you find them will depend on your niche. However, your options generally include:

  • Freelancing job boards: For example, Odesk. Yep, you need to spend a little time sifting through the rubbish to find something decent. However, that isn’t as impossible as some freelancers will have you believe.
  • Cold pitching: I don’t do this often, but when I do I will occasionally land an excellent client. Seeing as I don’t do it a lot, here is a guide from someone who does.
  • Specialty job boards: In the freelance writing world, that can mean sites such as ProBlogger.

I suggest spending a little time each day marketing yourself and pitching. While that may seem pointless if you currently have plenty of work, it is a dependable way to find something that’s better paid. Or, a project that’s a  happier fit for your niche. For example, I prefer to stick to medical writing, because that’s where my qualifications are.

Much like the cull from Day One, the aim here isn’t to suddenly find yourself brimming with clients. But, if you make consistent efforts on the marketing frontier, two things will happen:

  • You’ll (hopefully) feel accomplished for making such efforts and will feel a sense of ease at having brought yourself closer to better earnings.
  • You’ll remove yourself from the trap where you blindly succumb to the idea that your current clients will keep you afloat. This then reduces freelancer stress further down the line.

Of course, there’s always the risk that you’ll feel a sense of sadness at rejection. Accepting that you’re not to everyone’s taste (especially in the earlier days of freelancing) will take you far here.

Day three: introduce yourself to the wonderful world of mindfulness

Freelancer stress
CC: Lesley Juarez at Unsplash

At the moment, I am reading a book called The Gate of Tears. It isn’t the easiest book to digest, but it does introduce the idea that we shouldn’t be trying to mask or banish our negative emotions as soon as they arise.

I was drawn to the book while listening to Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast. Even if you’re not interested in mindfulness, please try it. The breadth of the individuals who feature on there will possibly reassure you that it’s a technique that can work for (almost) everyone.

Today’s mindfulness practices don’t have to be steeped in Buddhism. There are plenty of secular forms out there, which don’t focus on the spiritual aspects. Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness isn’t a practice where you sit and absolve yourself of all thoughts. Nor are you always reaching for enlightenment. Instead, you’re developing a greater awareness of all your emotional states, improving your stress-reduction techniques, and learning to respond to situations rather than react.

If you’re yet to try mindfulness or you’ve dabbled in the past, download an app. Amongst my favourites, you can try:

Each one allows you to choose short sessions. That’s another myth that’s worth busting: mindfulness meditation doesn’t require hours of daily devotion. In fact, while listening to one podcast episode I heard Dr. Amishi Jah suggest that 12-minutes is the sweet spot for each session.

The evidence that mindfulness meditation can lower your blood pressure and ease your brain’s active thoughts stems back to 1975. If you try it and you find that you’re sat there feeling shocked at how frantic your brain is, good. That, apparently, is a sign that you’re doing something right.

After trying it for the first day, make a pact with yourself to incorporate it into your daily routine. Personally, I’ve found that 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening allows me to reduce stress ahead of the day and then ease myself into sleep. However, that discovery came with experimentation. Tinker with the practice a little to find your own sweet spot.

Day four: analyse your current sleep habits to reduce freelancer stress levels

Freelancer stress
CC: Matthew Henry at Unsplash

Now, on that note: sleep is king. Just like content is (apparently) king in the copywriting world. Or queen, empress…however you want to pitch it.

Yesterday, I wrote about an Oxford University study that suggested how screen time has a minimal effect on the way children sleep. It left me thinking about sleep more than I usually do. So I decided to perform a sleep audit.

Despite being a person who LOVES her sleep and a person who also LOVES to preach about how we aren’t getting enough, my sleep audit revealed that I’m not striking the right balance. At best, I manage between six and seven hours per night. Ideally, seven should be my minimum and my past experience tells me that eight is my ideal.

When we don’t sleep, we’re more likely to overeat, our responses slow down, and we’re less productive. Feeling distracted is something that then comes easily to us. In many ways, living in a constant state of sleep deprivation is the cognitive equivalent of existing in a cloud of mild drunkenness.

So I’d like to encourage you to perform your own sleep audit. Think about how much sleep you’re getting each night, ideally over a one-week period. Then, look at the following:

  • How close to bedtime do you drink caffeine and/or alcohol? Alcohol messes with the neurotransmitters that promote restful sleep. Even if you are sleeping well after a glass of wine, you’re not achieving the same benefits as you do with normal sleep. Additionally, caffeine has a long half-life. Stop drinking it six hours before bedtime.
  • What time are you going to bed vs what time do you need to rise? If you have kids, getting out of bed early is almost a given. Is there something you could do to get to bed earlier?
  • Is there anything distracting you as you fall asleep? If so, how can you adjust that? From blackout blinds for external lights to writing down anxious thoughts before you walk into your bedroom, find ways to ditch these distractions before your eyes close.
  • Are you sleeping later at the weekend? If so, although a lie in is nice, you’re treating yourself to a bout of mini jet lag. Resist the urge to hit snooze on your days off and stick to a routine.

Auditing your sleep and making changes won’t produce instant results, but over a period of a few weeks, you’ll see the benefits start to slowly creep in.

Day five: start adding exercise to the mix

Freelancer stress
CC: Bruno Nascimento

Yup, exercise was always going to feature in this post at some stage. As we live in an age of information that’s easy to access, I’ll go ahead and assume that you already know about the happy hormone benefits. Exercising to reduce freelancer stress also achieves:

  • When you exercise, you’re making your HPA-Axis less active. Why is that important? Because an overactive HPA-Axis elevates anxiety levels, resulting in more freelancer stress. If you’re going hard and heavy on the work front, I promise that finding time for exercise is going to make squeezing everything in easier. When you feel less anxious, you’re more productive and less likely to become distracted.
  • You’ll boost your energy levels and reduce fatigue. Yes, that sounds a little paradoxical seeing as you’re also burning away energy. As WebMD states, working out gets the powerhouses in your cells (the mitochondria) to work harder. It has the potential to increase energy by 20% and decrease fatigue by 65%. When you have more energy for your work and less fatigue sending you into a pit of despair, managing the load on your plate becomes easier.
  • Exercise also boosts your self-confidence. The reasons for this are multifactorial, but as you can see from this post at Goal Setting Guide, they can include better self-image, a sense of accomplishment after regularly committing to it, and physically feeling stronger. I’m willing to bet that once you feel more confident, you’ll have an easier time managing challenges and hitting freelance work goals.

Before I dive into discussing the one major barrier to exercise, I promise I won’t get all preachy. I won’t get all preachy, because it was only recently that I made a regular commitment myself, so I essentially have no right to climb on a soapbox.

Now, for the major barrier: motivation. From convincing yourself that you don’t have enough time to feeling as though you’re too tired, your ability to self-motivate will come under the guise of lots of different reasons. The most irritating thing about this is that motivation isn’t going to call you. You’re going to have to force yourself on it for that to happen (that sounded WAY creepier than I intended).

If you’re thinking of excuses, try writing them down and finding ways around them. For example, if you’re a freelancer but you must work within certain hours as-per your contract, can you get up earlier and exercise? You don’t have to go to the gym or even outside for a run, not when YouTube has thousands of free videos for you to try.

Or, if you’re feeling tired, it’s worth knowing that you CAN exercise while tired. There’s a significant difference between being tired and so genuinely fatigued that you’re a danger to yourself. If you’re worrying about poor form, try something simple or ease yourself in with beginners yoga or Pilates.

If the thought of exercising simply bores you, mix it up a little. I’m currently without a car, so I can’t stick to my usual routine. However, I do vary classes (HIIT, Pilates, kettlebells) so that I can avoid feeling bored. And, admittedly, I’m almost never excited to go. But once I’m a few minutes in, I’m pleased that I made myself do it.

Day six: create a list of self-care activities

Freelancer stress
CC: RawPixel at Unsplash

I know that self-care is one of those terms that a lot of people cringe at. It’s often seen as indulgent, especially when you’re meant to be smashing those freelancing goals.

Rather than seeing self-care as indulgent, view it as putting your own oxygen mask on first. I never understood the logic behind every airline’s instructions until I worked as a flight attendant myself. As part of my training, I was taught about the different periods of useful consciousness you’ll benefit from if a decompression happens mid-flight.

Periods of useful consciousness are the moments or seconds you’ll remain conscious while still being able to care for yourself and those around you. When you’re at some of the lower ends of commercial altitude, your period of useful consciousness lasts for 20 minutes. If you’re flying between 36,000 to 40,000 feet, that can drop to as little as 20 seconds. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fit an airline oxygen mask, but that 20 seconds could soon disappear if you’re trying to put someone else’s on first.

Life often feels like it’s constantly decompressing. Therefore, self-care should be used as a prophylactic measure for stress and a response. None of us will escape stress entirely. Our brains are wired to look for it, even when there’s very little wrong. Some of us look harder than others, but if you’re ready to claim you’re entirely at peace and go throughout every day without a single concern flying into your mind, I might be ready to call you a liar.

(In a nice way, of course. I’m not mean.)

The type of self-care activities you can use to prevent and respond to freelancer stress will vary according to who you are and how you’re feeling. However, to prevent that statement from being overly vague, it’s a good idea to write a list of 10 (or more) into the notes section of your phone.

Vary the self-care activities so that they range from the things you can do almost instantly to the ones that require more effort. For example, mine could include:

  1. Reading a book (Usually, I have two on the go at the same time. One that’s entertaining and one that’s informative).
  2. Cooking something amazing (Unless cooking is your idea of hell. In which case, just order or microwave something that’s tasty).
  3. Meditation or yoga (Even when they don’t feel fun, they are helping. I promise).
  4. Gardening (Even though I am spectacularly bad at it at times, I enjoy it).
  5. Get to a forest or a beach (This one is about spending time outdoors).
  6. Create a playlist featuring your guilty pleasures and listen to it (Mine currently includes the Spice Girls, and yeah I am hoping to see them during their reunion tour).
  7. Spa day (Now we’re into the territory of needing to plan).
  8. Head to a hotel and order room service (Sure, more planning, but it feels amazing to shut yourself away and indulge).
  9. Do your hair and makeup (A bouncy blow dry can work wonders. So does red lipstick).
  10. Start a collection or begin scrapbooking (Recently, my collection has included wines on the Decanter top picks list for Aldi and Lidl…)

I tried to write those off the top of my head. Each one comes with its own benefits. Glancing through them, I’m pretty sure they’ll all generate a little dopamine boost too. Dopamine is Queen when it comes to learning and productivity, which is why the smaller acts of self-care should feature in your day-to-day life.

Obviously, you can’t go to a spa every day. But, you can try the smaller things, such as reading or gardening. Grab a quiet 15 minutes and make that activity your full focus. In many ways, self-care could also mean dedicating time to your hobbies.

By caring for yourself, you lower your stress levels. Just like when you put your own oxygen mask on first, this allows you to treat yourself with more compassion, become more productive, and care for those who depend on you.

Day seven: create a morning plan that ensures you start every day the right way

Freelancer stress
CC: Toa Heftiba at Unsplash

I sort of fell into this little discovery, even though it makes perfect sense. A lot of us are starting our mornings using approaches that prime us for a downward spiral. For example, checking your inbox and finding a snarky email. Or, heading to Facebook and stalking that bitchy thread that popped up on your feed last night.

Like the sleep audit, take a look at your morning routine audit and see how it’s working out for you. I’ve discussed this in a previous post; there’s no one set way to start your day that will work for everyone. However, there are certain activities we should all ditch.

Some of the habits I’ve previously found to be useless include:

  • Checking my emails immediately. It isn’t always the case that I’ll end up feeling irritated by the contents, but it happens sometimes.
  • Heading for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. This became particularly irritating during the rise of mid-level marketing.
  • Cursing the hour I woke up at. Of course it’s shit when you occasionally wake two hours before your ideal rising time and realise that could mean sleep deprivation. Rather than feeling irritated, either try to go back to sleep or start your day without letting it cast a shadow.
  • Panicking over what the day will bring. Usually, this was nothing major, but why panic when you could write a list of proactive ways to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of you?
  • Opening WhatsApp group chats. When are they ever useful?

After identifying the habits you can ditch, think about what makes you feel good and whether you can start your morning doing it. For some, this is exercise. For others, it’s bedroom activities. I like the whole yoga, meditation, food, and then blogging thing. Fitting them into my morning helps me feel more positive, which then reduces freelancer stress.

Although my seven-day plan isn’t a miracle cure, it is a good way to rejig your routine. After that rejigging, continue using each change as time goes on. While nobody can promise that they’ll completely eliminate your stress, you can reduce it significantly.

A small honesty note: This post, like many others, does contain the occasional affiliate link. I never link in a promotional manner. Instead, I link to the products I have found useful in the past while making a little extra money on the side.

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