Freelance Habits for Anxious People

by gigigriffis

When it comes to work, I get overwhelmed easily.

It’s kind of crazy, because I’m not like that in other areas of my life. Hand me a personal tragedy and I can stand vigil. Tell me a three-hour story and I’m with you all the way. Throw me in the middle of a complicated travel disaster and I’ll solve it. Get me completely and utterly lost in a new city and I’ll calmly find my way home.

But give me a thirty-item to-do list for the week and I melt into a procrastinating puddle of anxiety. I still get things done. I still don’t miss deadlines. I’m still all sorts of reliable…but I’m also miserable and overwhelmed, short of breath and on edge.

It’s not a great way to be when you’re working for yourself.

And it’s taken me years to figure out that the solutions for me are actually rather simple.

In case you, too, are an anxious freelancer, I thought I’d share what I’ve finally (finally) learned works for me:

1. The only thing you have to do today…

I used to make long to-do lists. I’d throw every single thing I could think of on there. Sometimes I’d color-code it all. Pink for what needs doing this week. Blue for the month. Green for non-urgent someday items.

While all that helped me stay organized, it didn’t help me feel peaceful. In fact, it often kept me working late into the night. Because if I have a list of everything in front of me, I just keep going until I pass out. I’m compulsive like that.

So, after years of that nonsense, I started using a new system. I signed up for a free online project management system and entered my entire to-do list into it. But instead of looking at it every day, I pulled it up once a week or once a month and used it to make the schedule I’d look at every day.

That schedule? I call it “The only thing you have to do today.”

The basic idea is this: instead of an endless to-do list, the thing I look at on a daily basis is a one- to two-item list of the things I absolutely must accomplish that day.

Monday might say, “Write two articles for magazine X.” Tuesday might say, “Empty email inbox” and “Follow up with interview subjects.” And so on and so forth.

By splitting things out this way, I find that my days feel more peaceful. I’m not looking at everything that needs to be done…I’m just looking at priority one and priority two. And if I get those things done early in the day? I can reward myself with a luxurious hike or I can tackle one or two other, less-urgent to-do list items.

This means I end each day feeling accomplished and peaceful. I’ve either accomplished everything on my to-do list or I’ve over-shot. I’ve done more. I’ve rocked it.

I still have the same amount of work, but by splitting things into smaller, digestible to-do lists, I’ve tricked myself into feeling relaxed as I wrap up my workday rather than feeling like I should be doing more, working into the wee hours of the morning, burning myself out, and then having to take long stretches of time to recover.

2. One topic at a time.

My brain isn’t great at switching gears. Going from copywriting to creative projects to the blog to marketing tends to leave me drained and exhausted.

So I came up with a solution to that one, too. (A solution, to be fair, that I am wildly imperfect at implementing, but does work when I do make the effort to implement it.)

Instead of working on the book project, a copywriting project, and administrative stuff all in one day, I limit myself to one thing.

If I’m going to work on the book, I’m going to focus all my energy and brainpower on the book. If I’m writing travel articles, I might do three first drafts for three different magazines, but they’ll all be in the same category: creative writing about travel. If I’m copywriting, I’ll focus my energy on copywriting.

For me, this creates a whole lot of efficiency, eliminates a whole lot of distraction (my mind is less likely to wander back to a marketing conundrum if I’ve been working on travel pieces all day), and makes me feel less fragmented and exhausted at the end of the day.

3. Administration gets its own day.

Taxes, monthly billing/tracking, tracking expenses, checking in on business goals, mailing things, printing things…instead of trying to wedge this stuff into my normal workdays, whenever possible I set aside full days for administrative stuff and errands.

This also gives me a break from creative and problem-solving thinking, which I find makes the day after admin day a really productive and creative power day.

Are you an anxious freelancer? What works for you?


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13 comments

Rob April 24, 2014 - 4:34 am

Fascinating that you post this today. I’ve been enjoying a little life crisis lately, and whilst going through this morning’s attempt to make myself socially acceptable I realized that I was going to have to push the big “reset” button on the way I run my life. I’m too easily distracted and am doing enough unimportant things that my days are being “nibbled to death by ducks”, to quote Robert Heinlein.

To that end I just purged the worthless from my FB feed (you’ll be pleased that you made the cut) and was sitting here starting to write down the planning for my upcoming days. Once I finish my morning coffee and 10 minutes more of reconnecting with the world task number one will begin.

I like very much the idea of an “admin” day, and scheduling one task at a time. I’m terrible at doing that naturally, so it’ll have to involve a written schedule.

There’s a lot more in the way of resetting things needed, but that’ll be a slightly more drawn out task. Reference to Lao Tsu and his thoughts on journeys.

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gigigriffis April 24, 2014 - 11:22 am

I love when that serendipitous timing thing happens. And I’m flattered to have made the cut.

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Anita Mumm April 24, 2014 - 8:59 am

This is awesome, Gigi! I can identify with you completely (no wonder we’re friends!) and I’m no stranger to feeling overwhelmed. These are wonderful, practical tips I’m going to try in my own freelance life. Merci!

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gigigriffis April 24, 2014 - 11:32 am

Merci back atcha.

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Em April 24, 2014 - 9:23 am

Great article! I’m not a freelancer, but I do own my own business. The best advice I’ve ever been given was:
1. Don’t do anything work-related or stare at any screens (computer, phone, TV, etc) right before you go to bed.
2. Get enough sleep.
3. Get enough exercise.
Works wonders for all manner of stress. :)

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gigigriffis April 24, 2014 - 11:32 am

So, so true.

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Kira April 24, 2014 - 9:45 am

Oooh, me too. So easily overwhelmed! And then I start spinning my wheels in panic. I’ve definitely adopted the first two techniques…and would add:
– Don’t be afraid to tell people you can’t start their project for a few weeks/months…either they’ll deal or you won’t go insane and
– (this one I’m working on) Respect thy own boundaries and healthy limits.
And if all else fails, add a rush fee and use the money on a fabulous treat once the work is over!

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gigigriffis April 24, 2014 - 11:36 am

Excellent additions! I was actually talking about your first point today – about being able to take time between projects, say no to things, and trust that the next thing will still come. Because saying yes all the time and burning ourselves out is all about fear. And so much of the time that fear is unfounded – because, yes, the next thing will come. And we’ll be better ready for it if we haven’t burned ourselves to a crisp.

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Kira April 28, 2014 - 1:54 pm

That’s a really good point…overloading IS about fear, one way or another. I hadn’t thought of it that way but now it seems so clear! Fear from a scarcity mindset…or fear of the other things we could be doing. Strangely, when I say no more often, I feel like people want to work with me more…it’s really only backfired once or twice!

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Carolyn April 24, 2014 - 1:53 pm

Thanks for the great article. I can relate as my ‘to-do’ list is massive!

I’m curious – which online project management tool did you end up using? I’ve been looking at a few to try.

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gigigriffis April 25, 2014 - 4:35 am

Asana.com (free and simple)

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Gina April 25, 2014 - 2:49 am

This is great! I especially need to work on number 2. Often as soon as I hit the slightest block I jump to something else, meaning I have 6 different things going by the end of the day and not one of them is finished, just adding to the stress of my to-do list. It’s almost like training yourself to meditate, but I hope to eventually be able to sit and write for a good two hours before I dissolve into a puddle in front of the computer (now it’s a much shorter amount of time!) Thanks for the post Gigi!

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gigigriffis April 25, 2014 - 4:33 am

I hear that. I’ve actually been thinking about using one of those internet blocking services so that I can’t get online until lunchtime. That way the morning can be 100% undistracted writing/editing.

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