I have a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, so I know a lot about freelance anxiety. Having lived experience of anxiety in a lot of forms has taught me some hard lessons. That lived experience has been paired with all manner of things. Therapy, understanding anxiety through evidence-based books and talking to other people with anxiety on a regular basis have all played their part.
This little blog is specific to freelance anxiety – how to manage it, how to challenge it and most importantly – how to take care of it from a lived experience perspective
Please note: Anxiety, freelance or otherwise, can be very difficult to navigate. If you are finding you are dealing with freelance anxiety on an increasing or regular basis, consulting a GP or psychologist is advised.
Weighting in the kitchen
The kitchen is somewhere I often find myself waiting. Waiting for the kettle to boil. Waiting for microwave to finish. Waiting for my partner to get out of the shower for dinner.
So, now I do weighting in the kitchen with a 4KG Y bell I picked up from a sporting goods store.
I’m not talking about busting out 120 dead lifts as you cook dinner. But there is something really soothing about having a kettle or Y bell in close proximity to places where you wait a lot. Lifting out in front, over my head or from the ground has made a huge difference.
So much so, I now have a habit stack going (where I have swapped one bad habit for one good one) where whenever I feel anxious, I pick up the Y bell and do twenty repetitions of two types of exercise. That way, when freelance anxiety starts creeping in about all the things I must do in a day or year, I have something else productive (and endorphin releasing) to focus on.
It isn’t much, but it’s definitely something. And the bonus is if I like it, weightlifting has a proven connection to helping alleviate anxiety that I can build on in the future.
Also, you don’t need an actual weight to do this. I began with a plastic bottle filled with rice. I graduated to the sporting good store when the practice took hold.
Practice small joys
Something the pandemic has taught us all is how important it is to love the spaces we are in. I can see friends who really love their spaces, gardens, local walking trails and local shops. They are forever sharing great street art and signs on their dog walks, sharing the beauty of their interior design or showing off the nature they experience. And considering it looks like we’re in for another bumpy ride, our only renovation this year was to put in a very simple eating nook and a small, upraised garden so I have a place to sit outside for lunch as I work from home.
But you don’t have to be living in a big house, by the beach with hip neighbours to find this kind of joy. In fact, you can start it. Spoon galleries, coffee in new places – heck, my partner and I even had lunch time pizza in our car after one too many rainy days started getting us down at beach carpark.
Some ways you can reduce freelance anxiety through small joys are:
- Organising a short Zoom call with some freelancer friends
- Working out of the local library, a café or coworking joint once a month
- When you find yourself getting stuck, take a walk to clear your head
- Planning sessions over coffee or at somewhere that feels less like work
- Swapping the coffee (which can trigger anxiety or make it worse) for a tea you save for anxious moments such as camomile, peppermint or one with St John’s Wort in it
- Stopping to make a healthy lunch
- Morning meditation
- Buy a café coffee once a week and chat to the barista
- Play hooky on a Friday – or work on a creative project instead of client work
Whatever your idea of a small joy is, embrace it as a preventative measure against freelance anxiety. And as one you can employ to stop the feelings from rising too much.
Know your trigger days
A great way to get a handle on your freelance anxiety is to know when it may be worse on some days over others. That way, you can plan to be kinder, have shorter days or navigate some of the feelings through extra exercise or fun activities.
For me, I know that I am more likely to be prone to freelance anxiety on:
- After holidays
- Days I’m travelling for work
- The day after teaching
- When I am getting to the end of building a course, product or idea
- After delivery of the first client draft
So, I have a bunch of strategies to offset that. I don’t set deadlines or launches for Mondays and avoid meetings then, too. I ease into the week and back to work after holidays. I take the day off after teaching or after I get home from business travel.
Each of these triggers can be mapped in your journal or a calendar so you can see any patterns. Then design the strategies to help reduce the impact and deal with the symptoms.
Challenge the “one shot” mentality
Managing freelance anxiety is about challenging the thoughts that make it even harder. One common source of freelance anxiety I have seen in many freelancers is that idea that they have one shot. And they better make it count.
For example, it often comes out in freelancers who are pivoting their business or launching a new offering. They treat it as though they must dedicate all their time to it, succeed at any cost, and if they don’t, they won’t get a chance like that again.
That’s too much pressure!
Most freelance products and ideas happen incrementally. And they often feel less painful if we’re working on other things (like client work or other projects) at the same time. Nobody writes a book and a week and signs a publisher the next day. Nobody launches a course from out of nowhere and rockets to success.
It requires consistent effort. Even if that effort is ten steps on Monday and sixty-five steps Tuesday.
Take the pressure off your ideas and enjoy them. Tinker with them, play with them, and build something of which you are proud. Not something that is yet another instrument of punishment and freelance anxiety.
Learn. A lot
Coaching has shown me a common time for freelancers to find themselves face anxiety is at the three- or five-year mark.
Anecdotally, it is likely because at the three-year mark, we’ve moved away from that “just trying to get paid here” momentum. And we’ve seen some shitty client behaviours, made a few mistakes, met a few peers and really started to notice the world outside freelance business development.
The five-year freelance anxiety looks more like a combination of things. We’ve usually got to the point where we can do the work we do well, and the challenge is gone. Under normal circumstances, we’d look for a promotion and/or a change of workplace to keep it fresh. Yet in freelancing, you’ve sunk a lot of time and energy into creating your business and getting it to the place you want it to be. So, there’s anxiety around messing with that, even if the boredom is starting to bite.
Another five-year freelance anxiety contributor seems to be how people have aged. For the parents that got into this to be there for their kids, five years is a long time. A baby is at school. A kid in infants is readying for high school. It’s the beginning of teenager life through to potentially leaving home. That means the primary reason many freelancers start their business might not call the shots as much anymore.
One way to defeat these feelings of “where to next?” is through learning. Freelancers who undertake certificates, courses, PhD’s or even learn new software and techniques for their existing business seem to hit the freelance anxiety walls a little less hard.
So, if you are finding that the challenge has waned and/or your kids or clients are needing you less, spending time exploring new concepts and ideas while learning new things can help.
Don’t overthink – do
When you are anxious, it’s as though every idea has equal weight. They all compete for completion. You pick one and then find half an hour in, you’ve lost confidence that you’ve made the right choice.
As twee as it sounds, the choice is act is the right choice.
While I advocate for planning as a means of reducing freelance anxiety, I also know that planning can and does interview with courage. And sustained progress.
If you are finding that you really can’t do what is in front of you – and you’ve tried, and it is hurting more than it helps – stop. Assess whether the mental punishment will have greater impacts if you indulge it.
Consider whether swapping to another task, one that gives you greater confidence, might be a better idea.
Avoiding what you need to do is not a good pattern to get into. But neither is making every bit of work feel like loathsome homework.
I often find allowing myself to do something that is short yet with a sense of accomplishment that isn’t the days most pressing task can help reassure me. And I find once I gain that reassurance, it’s much easier to do another task and another.
This is why I believe we have to recognise that we can be in service to our clients without being in servitude. And that treating every day and every task as something you can’t stand is always going to increase the length and breadth of freelance anxiety.
Avoid the back of the class
Here’s a little secret for anyone who gets the negative “ugh, you can’t do that- it’s silly!” voice accompanying freelance anxiety.
Don’t be around people who speak like that. And don’t be that person about others.
Brains are like caves with echoes. Those moments you listen to someone be mean about someone else or those times you indulge the mean girls’ vibes yourself will come back to haunt you.
Make a conscious decision to avoid the back of the class, snickering. That way, you don’t increase other people’s freelance anxiety or your own in the process.
One thing I noticed when I worked for other people is that I always lived close enough to work to walk to and from home. Instead of catching the train or bus, I saved money and spent time outdoors while moving.
I lost that habit when I started freelancing. I had nowhere to walk to. Or so I thought.
Now, I have realised the error of my ways.
I follow the Bruce Campbell way of doing things. He was asked how he lost weight and had to look younger for ‘The Fall of Sam Axe’ spin off to Burn Notice. He was playing a navy seal many years his junior.
Bruce Campbell (who you might know if you are a horror fan like me) is a B-Grade action fan who is really cool. He strikes me as fairly unpretentious.
He started walking in his backyard and “ate most brightly coloured vegetables.”
His backyard were the foothills of some mountains. He got up, walked as far as he could, turned around and came back down. And then did it again the next day. And the next.
My backyard consists of two beaches stretched over ten kilometres, an art trail and a big fat lake. But even when I lived in other places, I could have challenged myself with urban hills, massive parks or reaching far away suburbs.
Whatever exercise excites you, make it a part of your preventative strategy with freelance anxiety. Walk, run or cycle on the scary days.
Do the good hard thing
Anxiety likes to shrink things. It shrinks your capabilities, the worlds in which you can roam, the amount of people you can meet or deal with in one sitting. It shrinks the hours you can sleep, the activities you can do without triggers, and the things you can attempt.
It’s why it’s important to actively push back. Not to the point where you hurt yourself. But still, a pushing of those walls.
Anxiety is like a virulent ivy vine. Once you let it grow over something, it reaches for more. It doesn’t stop until it’s blanketed a whole lot of stuff. It’s always reaching for more.
Freelance anxiety is the same. The more you give into it, the more it will take.
So, if you are finding it increasingly to shake feelings of anxiety, get help. Talk about it with people that you can trust. Create space for a counsellor or psychologist in your schedule. And always remember to do the good hard thing, because that’s what anxiety targets the most.
It will make you doubt if you can be at the desk that morning. So, try it anyway and then make an informed decision about whether today is or isn’t a mental health day.
The walk, gym session or exercise class you know is usually good for you is commonly on the chopping block. Ignore the anxiety and front up anyway. Worst comes to worst, you can cut it short and go home.
Make the lunch, the first move or the phone calls you dread. Treat it like an exercise in backing yourself and learning when is and isn’t the right moment to push on through.
And be compassionate about it.
Too many freelancers say really gross things to themselves in the name of moving forward. But you can’t inspire yourself to find the courage needed to face freelance anxiety if you are insulting yourself, putting your efforts down, dismissing your great ideas or yelling at yourself for not being good enough.
That’s exactly what anxiety wants you to do. Giving into that fear and that doubt helps it grow. Instead, be kind to you and give yourself the space you need to find your own rhythm.
Because you are utterly worth it.
Need extra help with freelance anxiety? Give lifeline a call on 13 11 14, talk to your GP and build a mental health strategy. Check out the self-care section of the blog. And see me for some coaching to reduce the freelance specific stress.