Managing the busy times

I’ve been pretty busy lately. Woo hoo! That’s something to celebrate – when you’re freelance, work coming in is most definitely a Good Thing because it means you can do exciting things like Buy Food and Pay Bills. (I don’t know why I felt the need for Pooh Caps there; just roll with it.)

But actually, when I say “pretty” busy, I mean Jesus-Christ-when-am-I-actually-going to-next-have-time-to-draw-breath busy. (Turns out the answer to that is now, hence why I’m finally getting back to my poor neglected blog.) Various circumstances conspired to give me the most ridiculously packed April and May I’ve ever had, and I have been exhausted. But in this last week or two, the number of projects on my desk has come down to a manageable level, and I’ve been able to take some time off to enjoy the sunshine with my family, and I think I feel… what’s that word again? Oh, right – happy.

We talk a lot about self-care in this day and age, but the truth is it’s much easier to talk about than actually achieve. I think we all know, on an intellectual level, that we tend to work better when we’re less stressed, and that we don’t owe all of our waking hours to work and boring life-admin, and that stopping and taking a breather every now and then is actually pretty vital. But sometimes when you’re stuck on the treadmill of work, work and more work, even the thought of stepping off it takes more mental energy than you can actually spare. And for me, even when I do take time off, I tend to spend a chunk of it feeling guilty, which just ruins it. Sometimes it’s just easier all round to live with the stress and power through.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. But now I’m out the other side, and some non-work things have resolved themselves and taken some mental weight off, and the weather has finally brightened up, and I really want to hold on to this lovely feeling of having a sensible amount of work and not all that many things to worry about (relatively speaking – I am a freelancing mother of two living in covid times, after all). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experiences over the last five years of freelancing, it’s that you have to learn from your experiences. Busy and complicated periods will come again, I’m sure, and while I’m not averse to that, I think I’d quite like it if they could be marginally less horrible than this recent bout was. So these are the lessons I’m going to take from it.

Boundaries are good.

Part of the reason my schedule went bananas recently is because I was doing my best to be accommodating of clients who have struggled to deliver their manuscripts on time. I don’t particularly regret that in principle – these times have been rough on everyone, so kindness is important – but I think there are things I could have done, and things I could have refused to do, that would have protected my time and energy a little better. Being flexible is a good thing, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of things that matter to me and my family. I understand better than ever now that there needs to be a limit to my flexibility, so I’m going to try to be much better in future about putting those boundaries in place.

Looming decisions sap your energy.

And the bigger those decisions are, the more energy they sap. When work hits, it’s easy to think you don’t have time to think about other things that are going on in your life, but the truth is you don’t ever totally let go of them, or at least I don’t. They sit there somewhere in the corner of my brain, demanding attention that I tell myself I can’t give them. Once the decision is made, it removes that stress over not yet having made the decision, which in turn can make you more productive, so it’s worth setting a small amount of time aside to address those things. Consider your options, make a decision, and then it’s done. We bought a car last week, and I can honestly say I’ve spent more time deliberating over leggings. But taking a few hours to talk over the various options and just bloody pick one means that I’m no longer worrying about what we should get and what we can afford or whether we should just stick with our old one until it blows up. My brain is freer, and that’s a wonderful thing.

You can’t always think long-term.

I’m the kind of person who likes to fully think through the ramifications of the things I do. This isn’t necessarily a bad trait, but it does mean that sometimes making decisions is hard (see above). And it does mean that I often make decisions based on what I think will be better in the long-term than the short, which isn’t always ideal. I’ll squeeze in a client when I know I am already at capacity, for example, because I don’t want to lose them, or I’ll say yes to an opportunity that might be great for marketing, even though I don’t really have time and I might not be particularly hurting for clients right now. I was so busy recently that I really had no choice but to say no to those opportunities, or to only choose the opportunity that took up the least amount of time, even if it wasn’t the strongest choice strategically. I had to subcontract some work out, and refer a couple of regular and potential clients elsewhere. And the sky didn’t fall in. Maybe some of those decisions weren’t the best for the future, but I’ll just have to worry about that in the future, when I’ll hopefully have the time and space to properly think about solutions. Sometimes you’ve just got to put the quick fix in place to give yourself room to breathe.

Respect your own work time, or no one else will.

Say it with me, freelancers – just because we can be flexible in theory, doesn’t mean we have to be so ALL THE TIME. If, like me, you are a parent who lives with someone in fixed employment, you’ll know what it’s like. It gets taken for granted, by the whole family, that you’ll be the one to drop everything to take care of anything that crops up. Appointments, errands, homeschooling a child when their bubble bursts and they’re sent back into self-isolation – all you. But we have work to do too, and often our stakes are higher – my husband isn’t going to get instantly sacked if he has to leave work a bit early one day, because there are disciplinary and performance management procedures his boss has to stick to. But if I miss a deadline, one of my regular clients could drop me forever, and, worst-case scenario, refuse to pay me and maybe even sue me for breach of contract. I’ve always enjoyed that my work gives me the flexibility to be there for my kids when I need to be, but there have been times over the last couple of months where I have had to put my foot down and say “No, my work has to come first this time.” We’ve had to work together to figure out solutions that are fair, instead of just assuming I will make the time, and I think that’s been much healthier for all of us.

Freelance life inevitably involves ebbs and flows, so learning how to manage those is a crucial part of running a business. It’s important to take care of ourselves, and that in itself is a good business decision – we can’t give our best to our work and our clients if we’re running on empty. Now, let’s see if I remember all this wisdom the next time all my deadlines look like they’re about to converge…

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