On managing (self) stress. And self care.
There are a lot of struggles that aren’t talked about much when running your own business, from client expectations, to crazy timelines, to unpaid invoices, to cash flow. There are countless factors that can add to stress.
I unfortunately learned about stress early on. In my case I call it self-stress, but everyone experience stress in their own ways. It happened the day I graduated from grad school. While I’d defended my thesis a couple months earlier, I no longer had the “crutch” of being a student to keep me from fully having to be part of the real world.
While I didn’t necessarily feel scared or extra nervous about this change, my subconscious clearly did. By the end of the day, I had a horrible migraine, and stiff neck that lasted for days. I remember spending the end of my graduation day—after a wonderful lunch—laid out on the couch in the apartment my parents were staying in. From that moment on, I’ve been very aware of taking care of myself.
It was during the time of graduation that I was also transitioning to freelancing. I was in my 30s, and already had both full-time and freelance work under my belt, but this was going to be at a different level. I needed to make enough to pay for my life in Paris. While I was living in an apartment as small as they come, this was still intimidating. Not only was I starting a business, but a couple months later, I ended up having to put together a business plan, because not only was my livelihood dependent on my success, but so was my paperwork to stay in France.
One of the hardest things about running your own business is knowing when to step back or hit pause. When things get stressful it can be tempting to feel like you need to put in more time. If you’re anything like me, you add another layer of self-inflicted guilt for not doing more. Yes, sometimes it is the client putting pressure on, but more often I’m the one putting the thoughts into my own head to add to the stress.
This is where age and experience comes in. You know yourself better can catch it before it gets out of control. You can trust the process and what you bring to a project. While you may feel behind on the project, chances are if someone else were at the helm the project would be even further behind.
One of the early lessons I learned in freelancing was deadlines were made to be broken. This was incredibly frustrating as I’d often drop everything to finish something, which then would launch a couple weeks, or a month later. These hard lessons were a good reminder to keep barriers between my work, and my life. I’d need both in order to succeed. What I’m working on is not a life or death situation. It will get done. Any work will be better in a less stressed context. This is also where I learned that asking questions can help save your sanity.
A theme I’ve found come up over and over in my writing is the reminder to build in extra time for things to go wrong. Even the best intentions can have curve balls. Filling every hour of your calendar is not going to help it get done. Sometimes space and time is the best remedy. Even if you can’t have a break right away, try to plan for it when planning ahead.
There’s a certain unpredictability when running your own business, particularly when it centers around clients. Client speed is often rush and tight deadlines, but it’s also clouded by administrative bureaucracy. Hence their idea of “as soon as possible” may not kick off for a week until everything is approved and signed. This then compresses your already tight deadline, which is not the best for your mental health. And the cycle continues.
Self-stress can also come in the form of delayed email responses, or comments that throw you off your game. Oh, the mind games. At some point you have to really learn to shake things off, and this is just work, and its not your be all and end all. (Warning: the bigger the project or more senior you do get, there pressure can mount with it.). As my mom would say, “I worry about things I have I have control over. I don’t worry about things I have no control over.”
While I don’t have all the answers, here are a few things I try to do to manage stress, and make sure I also focus on self-care:
Don’t let the client work take over your life. Yes, there are going to be crazy periods, but even during the busiest of times, I challenge you make time and prioritize your own projects as well. By making time for my writing in the mornings, I still continued posting even during the heat of a big deadline. It helped me stay more balanced. I realize it’s a huge luxury—and it doesn’t always work out—but for big involved client projects I try to limit them to 3-4 days/week so there’s room for my brain to think in between. Balance.
Find time to disconnect. For me this is in bed at night where I don’t look at my phone. Instead I curl up with a physical book. Most of the time I only make it through a few pages, but over time those few pages add up. When I find myself dozing off, I know it’s time to close the book and sleep. In the morning I don’t look at my phone now until after I’ve gone through my morning writing routine. (This post got written because I wasn’t distracted on my phone.)
Get enough sleep. Ideally this involves going to bed early, and getting 8 hours of sleep. This is much easier said than done, but it has to be a priority. A good night’s sleep can make all the difference to your stress levels.
Get up and move. One of the worst things you can do for your body is sit in the same place all day (or my bad habit of writing from the couch.). Try to get up and move around a bit every hour. When I’m not on a huge deadline, I try to build in an hour walk into my day, or get in some steps during my commute. It’s also my time to listen to a podcast. The gym is also key to my sanity. It’s really more for my mental health than my physical health. (I wrote about how going to the gym is like running a business.)
Treat yourself. My guilty pleasure has become paying for good coffee in a coffee shop. In Paris, it is more of a splurge than just a caffeine pick me up. But also, it’s important to do the things you enjoy. A coffee may just be that break you need to step away from your work. (Or for me, I’ll often take a notebook and work through ideas on paper to get away from my computer.). On the higher level of the splurge spectrum I love a good massage and facial. Yes, I get judgement from others that I pay too much for it, but the price of my sanity and health makes it worth every penny. I prefer to think of it as an investment that will save me in the long run.
Have something to look forward to. It can make getting through the slog of a deadline much easier when you have something to look forward to. This may be getting that massage, or going on a trip, or treating yourself to something in your community. It doesn’t have to be big, or expensive, but it can help break up the monotony of the grind.
Celebrate wins. A friend of mine always keeps a bottle of champagne in refrigerator for anytime there’s something to celebrate. While champagne isn’t the only answer, it’s one idea to get you thinking about how you can celebrate your wins. I’ll be the first to admit that projects don’t always have the clear and definitive end than we think they will, so consider celebrating small wins. When you’re running your own show, keeping things in perspective is key.
There are going to be natural stressful times in any work routine. Pressure will build around deadlines. Great opportunities may arrive without a lot of notice. Having an awareness of when stress starts building is a good start.
When you know you may be burning the candle at both ends, consider where you can take off some pressure in other aspects of your life. (For me, it’s often fitting in some cheesy Netflix movies in my downtime. 😜)
Don’t feel like you have to take on more to be better at your job. Instead, I challenge you to take on less. (It’s easier said than done.) Also, consider how you can push back to get better results. Not all stress is bad. Some stress is good for growth. Working on something that challenges you can be highly rewarding. There may be some mountains to climb, but on the other side, you’ll have that experience in your back pocket that will better prepare you for the next one.
Ok, your turn! How do you manage stress and self care? Share all your tips in the comments below! I shared more ideas in my post on managing stress and minimizing burnout.
P.S. The eye in the photo is by French street artist JR. He currently has a a show at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.