Accounting software Rounded recently asked me (Rebekah Lambert) as the founder of Freelance Jungle to speak. They’re doing a great series called Freelance Legends to help you be a more successful freelancer.
I chose freelance self-care entitled ‘Protecting your best business asset- you’.
In preparing for the talk with Oliver Garside, I also wrote a massive brain dump of notes on why it’s important to fit your own mask if you are going to be a successful freelancer.
Here that is for your enjoyment and education.
Let’s look at why protecting your best asset is what makes for a successful freelancer
1 in 5 Australians take time off work due to stress. 1 in 2 of us will have a major mental health crisis in our lifetime. It costs an estimated $10.9 billion dollars to the economy in untreated mental health conditions.
Freelancers are not measured within these statistics as a general rule. We often fall through the cracks because there aren’t the established networks and protocols of standard working environments to check on how we are faring.
What we do know is that certain profiles are categorised as high-risk when it comes to stress and related health and mental conditions. Freelancers are in a high-risk category for prolonged stress, acquired mental health conditions and suicidality.
This is our reality because our industry conditions look like this, even when we’re a successful freelancer:
- We have insecure and often transient work
- We overwork ourselves
- Our financial pressures are high through low payment, late payment and poor cashflow
- We’re isolated. The Freelance Jungle was founded to end part of that isolation. Loneliness and disconnection have a dramatic impact on our physical and mental health, our ability to overcome challenges- plus we don’t often know where to go for help when we need it, making asking for it much more difficult than it needs to be
- We don’t have traditional supports. Colleagues, HR, managers, the work counsellor etc- these guys usually monitor our stress and spot major changes in mood in the workplace, but we don’t have this luxury. And it’s incredibly hard to notice these changes, especially if they are happening bit by bit. They creep up on us because we’re living it and don’t see it coming
- Our recent Freelance Jungle State of Australian Freelancing survey showed approximately 16% of us come from toxic work environments or major rejections like redundancy. Recovery strategies are often absent. That means we’re potentially carrying additional stress and trauma into our new business
- And there’s also about 7% of us that choose freelancing because of mental conditions and/or disability, and this increases our risk generally
The impact of industry mythologies
Even the most successful freelancer can get sucked into the myths and misconceptions related to freelancing in Australia.
We overestimate passion’s role in keeping ourselves healthy and stress-free
Passion looks like a positive force, but it actually has the potential to be fairly toxic. Passion is full of blame. Passion says that if we fail on a small or large scale, we must not have wanted it enough. Yet we can’t control all the variables all the time. No one has that level of command over their destiny.
I think too, it leads us to ignore early warning signs.
If we’re entrenched in the notion love is enough, we ignore fatigue, apathy, cynicism, disconnection from the work, our loss of purpose. We think that we feel like that because we’re fighting some battle towards greatness and these are the by-products of how hard we work. When really, they’re the first signs things aren’t healthy and that we’re wearing out.
Passion doesn’t have to fuel your work for you to be a successful freelancer. You can love the shit out of what you do for the sense of accomplishment you get. That’s entirely separate from whether you like or love what you perform to get that sense of satisfaction.
Plus, some people turn their passion into their full-time freelancing gig and regret it because it takes away the joy. Obligation to clients replaces the freedom to create we enjoyed. It takes away the ability to move without fear.
Not everything we create is commercially viable OR needs to be that way to be fulfilling and important.
We normalise negative behaviours and coping mechanisms
It’s humour but freelancers often talk about solving client problems with wine.
To be a successful freelancer, we have to enjoy the appearance of digital success. We feel like we always have to be connected to social media, email and our businesses to survive, meaning we don’t get rest.
We joke about eating a fistful of biscuits or canned corn for lunch, which is unhealthy.
And we’re less likely to promote healthier options like exercise, connecting with nature, having a healthy lunch or drinking water.
It’s not as sexy and hip to have your shit together, health-wise. And we end up paying a long-term price for that with both health and mental health if it continues.
We’re hyper-connected and hyper-competitive
Our clients choose to work with us for a variety of reasons. Usually because we have ability, we’re suited to the personality of the work and/the people requesting it, and we’re reliable.
I think we’ve confused accessibility with reliability.
You don’t have to be always on to be reliable. Reliability is consistency. It’s the client mentally checking off that what you’re doing for them is one less thing they need to worry about.
It also means we don’t have to compete with every other successful freelancer on every social media channel. Or always on email and phone to scoop the pools.
What we need to do is present ourselves in a way that allays the client’s fears.
We won’t do that if we’re overworked or distracted by competitiveness. Or giving so much that we cannot possibly keep the level of customer service up as a long-term strategy.
In service doesn’t mean in servitude
Our clients want end results. They want outcomes. They don’t want submission and boot-licking.
Sometimes, they treat us as though they don’t want opinions or ideas. What they don’t want is additional emotional labour.
Clients want to have confidence in you. They want to know you care about their business as much as they do. What they want to know from you is that you’re hearing what they need and you’re looking for the solution.
Not that you’re going to say yes to things you know won’t work. Or that you’re going to pitch the project your ego wants to do as opposed to get the client the outcome they seek.
To be a successful freelancer, we have to have healthy boundaries.
Viewing your clients as fragile flowers that can’t take feedback is usually our self-doubt talking. You do get ego maniacs from time to time but for the most part, clients want to know the time and money they’re spending is worth it. Viewing your clients as blockages on the road to your great ideas is about your ego, not about them.
Mostly, it’s about a lack of trust. That you need to work on building more rapport. When you have healthy boundaries, you’re saying to someone, “I’ll look after me so I can look after you, too”.
Early burn out signs in a successful freelancer
Being on the road to burn out usually fits into one of three categories:
- You’re experiencing an occupational mismatch. This is when you start to feel the freelance work you do is ineffectual or meaningless. The spectrum is wide and continues to grow, swallowing the tasks that used to be enjoyable through to those that may not have had a spark but weren’t offensive. You may feel as though you’re having an existential crisis about your purpose in life. Or you may know what you want to do but feel like it’s out of reach. Most of the time, you feel as though your creative energy doesn’t have an appropriate outlet because you feel unable to make space for it because of competing demands.
- External influences are hampering your progress. Here, devoting energy to thorny people and problems of their making may be taking its toll. You could be dealing with stakeholders and working partners that keep changing the goal posts. Their lack of direction may feel contagious. You may start to feel as though you are being asked to do things that don’t make sense. Or perhaps you’re being exposed to toxic relationships where bullying, humiliation and/or negativity are a regular feature. It may also be structural issues such as working in fields where the aims are lofty, but the resources are low, leading to systemic industry issues that make you feel as though you are robbed of your power.
- You’ve fanned the flames of individual burn out. This is when negative self-talk rules the roost and nobbles you from the inside. Its hallmarks include self-criticism, perfectionism and neuroticism. You’re highly aroused by situations that involve stress or strain and find it difficult to lower the temperature back to safe levels. Over time, it brings self-doubt and a genuine inability to connect with the work. It could potentially manifest as a loss of working identity through being unable to connect positively with your freelance self-image. You seem to attract negative people and situations that continually affirm these feelings. You feel it’s highly unlikely you will be a successful freelancer and will continue to find evidence to prove it to yourself.
Burn out warning signs
If you want to be good to yourself, you have to know yourself. That includes looking at the mental, emotional and physical warning signs your body will give you when things are going wrong.
Here are some of the warning signs freelancers should look for:
- You wake up tired, even after going to bed early
- You find it difficult to stay present in the moment
- You are wrestling a high-volume workload that often spills into overtime
- You question if you are moving fast enough with your business
- You worry your contemporaries are leaving you behind
- You feel as though you’ve lost control over the work you do
- The work you do is repetitive and doesn’t invite creativity
- It takes you longer to psych yourself up to do the work than it used to
- Procrastination is a big feature of your workday
- Small tasks, especially repetitive ones, such as admin frustrate you
- You have started to dread communication and feedback
- You’ve begun to shy away from interactions
- Interruptions when working seem to have more impact than they used to
- You can no longer tell if your work is of an agreed standard
- You appear to be repeating the same challenges over and over again
Practical steps you can take to reduce stress and burn out
Ask any successful freelancer and they will tell you the key to managing anything is to have a plan. Stress reduction and burn out prevention is no different.
Here are some of the practical steps you can take:
Know the difference between self-soothing behaviours and self-care
Self-soothing is the wine glass at the end of the day, bubble baths, TV binges to block out thoughts and so on.
Self-care is promoting good practices. In a general context, that’s good quality food, sleep, exercise, valuing what you have and practicing gratitude for that, connecting with family, friends and wider community, getting out from under obligation, allowing yourself to play, and so on.
The most successful freelancers not only have boundaries, they exercise them.
This means saying no to work and situations you are not suited to. Writing your terms and conditions and then enforcing them.
Not overbooking yourself or taking on work that you’re not capable of. Or taking on work that bores you to tears and you avoid doing until the last minute.
Work has to have the right amount of challenge to it- not so hard you feel as though you’ve bitten off way more than you can safely chew but not so easy you don’t care if you complete it.
Stay away from comparing, gossip, cynics and in-fighting
We know this is a hard-knock career. We don’t need to have people within the gates making us feel incapable or less than what we are. Drama is a luxury a busy, successful freelancer cannot afford.
Freelancers have enough challenges with getting paid, managing difficult clients, getting respect from family and friends, being recognised by the government, finding work and staying competitive. We don’t need to fight each other too.
We’re all stitching a patch of a very large patchwork quilt of a siloed and fragmented industry. I think we’re all still running single race mentality. And that needs to change. If we’re going to get support for ourselves, we have to look for support from each other first and foremost.
Start your day with play
Freelancers do a lot of stuff for other people. We have to practice doing stuff for ourselves, too. We have to nurture our creativity and find ways to challenge ourselves to grow.
That’s where play time becomes essential.
Play with new equipment or software. Learn a new technique. Create your marketing. Create something you don’t intend anyone to see. If you play first, if you are tired, it gives you the opportunity to boost energy and feel better about the work you need to do later.
Treat it like an opportunity to stay connected to the work while also building capability and confidence.
Make connecting for self-care a priority
In business, we’re meant to be big and brave and tough. But that’s not realistic. We need to look after ourselves. And that means seeking help when we need it. Heck, even before we need it.
Make time to have time to connect.
Want more resources to protect your best business asset?
Check out the following resources-
Anxiety toolkit by Alice Moyle
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Beyond Blue has small business assets
Lifeline is available on 13 11 14
Sign up for updates on my burn out toolkit “How to keep working when you’re dying on the inside” now.