I was recently interviewed for Adobe's 99u.com - a website aimed at helping creative freelancers navigate the ins and outs of their industry. I was asked about the guilt we sometimes feel when we have time off, and while it was particularly about freelancers or business owners, it applies to all of us and our sense of workplace wellbeing. When we're surrounded by the "busy-is-better" mentality, it can be hard to justify time off but that can be a slippery slope to exhausting overtime, reduced job satisfaction, and eventually total burnout. Here's what I had to say, and some tips on how to alleviate it:
Why do we experience this guilt?
The guilt that comes with freelancing is often not actually ours. It's a product of the socially understood and accepted norm of what work "is", that being a 9-5 (or longer!) Monday to Friday schedule where you work for someone else or within an organisations parameters. To operate outside of that can be alienating and that often brings with it feelings of guilt. The common work narrative is one of too stressed, too busy, not enough time, long hours, internal politics, and lack of work/life balance, so for a freelancer to have the ability to take time off reinforces a separation from peers and resulting feelings of guilt. The truth is, there is no "one way" to work, and many people envy the experience of freelancers when it comes to flexible time. I encourage clients to flip their feelings of guilt into feelings of gratitude. I encourage them through techniques such as writing, mindful breathing, or meditation to take a moment of appreciative stillness in the time they do take off. I also encourage self-compassion to begin viewing this time as vitally important to their wellbeing.
Why is avoiding burnout so important?
Burnout is a epidemic in the modern workforce, and has many knock on effects both physical, mental and emotional. It can lead to anxiety and depression, migraine headaches, lowered immunity, and a host of other illnesses due to our adrenals being taxed. It also affects our sleep, confidence, and relationships, so it's important we begin to view it as more than just "a phase of stress" as it permeates every aspect of our lives both personal and professional. In terms of performance and productivity, our best work is certainly not produced when we are burnt out, which again impacts not just our own sense of confidence in our abilities, but also the clients and collaborators we are working with.
Any guidelines or strategies as to tricks freelancers can use to help them manage their time and feel better about how they spend their time?
- Remind yourself that you are not "just" a freelancer, you are also the CEO of yourself! To operate as a freelancers means you are not always going to be "on the tools" as you have many other operational tasks to complete. Once you accept and understand that, spending your time in different areas becomes more natural.
- Respond not react: notice how your mind and body react when you receive emails, quote inquiries, requests for amends, etc - if you spring into hustle-mode in order to reply immediately or bend over backwards to fit more work in - STOP. Ask yourself "what is the impact of this not being addressed right now?" You'll often find that people can wait. It is not ALL urgent.
- Use your email auto-replies to notify people of your time/schedule. You get to choose when you are available, that's the beauty of freelancing!
- Plan your day: as freelancers we can often get distracted or take advantage of the fluidity in our schedule but it has to be a balance. Stick to your planned tasks and meetings as you would in any other job. Your flexibility is a bonus not a business plan.
- Try working in 90 minute blocks: some research shows this is the optimal time for our brain to focus on one task before it needs a break. Once you become comfortable with regular "mini-breaks" then taking larger portions of time off won't feel so jarring.
- Be kind to yourself! You chose the freelancer life for a number of reasons and the ability to work on your own time was probably one of them, so celebrate what you are creating for yourself!
What's the connection between self-doubt and freelancer guilt?
If we're not working all the time, we must not be good enough! This is a product of the "busy is best" mentality. Working on our own as freelancers also removes one layer of camaraderie, validation and support from peers and co-workers, which leaves more room to doubt ourselves.
People often get a lot of their personal identity from their work. So if someone's not working 'round the clock, they feel like a let-down. Is this a healthy mindset? If not, how do you combat it?
There is a difference between valuing the quality of our work, and defining our value as a human being BY our work. As creatives, I feel it's important to remember that it's the essence of creativity that is our identity, not the work itself. If we work around the clock we risk burnout and falling out of love with our work. Both are detrimental to a healthy flow of creative expression which is much more of a let down in the end!
- Play with a form of creative expression that isn't tied to work in a monetary or client service sense - purely for you and the joy of creating
- Notice when you are choosing work over family, friends, health, wellness and ask yourself WHY? It will illuminate what work is costing you in life experience.
- Remember you are more than your job. There is more to life than ticking boxes, getting the next client, and reaching the next level of income.
- Come back to why you are a creative by listing the FEELINGS it gives you. Getting in touch with the emotional benefits of your creativity will make it very clear when you are working from a place of "freelancer guilt" versus "freelancer glory!"