A career within digital industries often leads to stress: tight deadlines, troublesome communication with clients, and unapproved work are all occurrences which you’ll encounter at some point.
For people who work as full-time freelancers it can get worse: you have less financial security, more worries about landing the next gig, and you might have issues finding the right work/life balance.
In this quick tip we’ll cover some basics on how you can prepare yourself to handle stress in a better way.
Everything starts with the realization of when exactly stress occurs and how it manifests itself.
There are plenty of reasons for feeling stressed; anxiety about “something” typically being the root cause. You might have trouble focusing on non-work related activities such as eating, sleeping, and relaxing, because you’re preoccupied with your job.
Being aware that you’re stressed is the first step in reducing the anxiety you’re experiencing. Below, I've outlined a few methods which can help you reduce stress.
Being more “mindful” helps you feel in control. You can achieve a state of mindfulness by being aware of the present moment instead of being distracted by past or future events.
Whenever we’re stressed, our mind races and we’re tremendously focused on all the different things we should do, with our minds concentrated on the future or the past instead of what matters right now. This is why, at certain moments, the sheer anxiety freezes you to do any work.
The trick is to focus on what’s at hand. Breathe. Close the abundance applications or browser tabs on your computer, clean your desk, remove distractions. Focus on the single most important task at hand and get going.
2. Pragmatic Thinking
Another solution is to remove emotion from the equation. This is something which is not for everyone, considering that some people are very emotional by nature.
“Pragmatism” means to focus on the facts at hand and figure out the most rational way to achieve what you want to accomplish. Some of the reasons you might be stressed are purely emotional, such as the fear of no longer finding paying projects as a freelancer. If you’ve been good at finding clients for the past year, for example, why should you feel worried?
3. Problem and Solution Mapping
Directly related to the notion of pragmatic thinking is problem and solution mapping. The idea is to list all the problems which are causing you stress on a piece of paper.
Now, you can think about potential solutions to solve these issues. For example–if you’re stressed because there are too many deadlines looming, you can define different solutions. Perhaps you can try to move or extend a deadline and suggest to a client why extra time is a good thing, such as being capable of delivering a higher-quality final result.
Communicate transparently, be brief about the problem at hand and collaborate towards a solution.
If your work is causing you anxiety you can’t solve by yourself, something is severely wrong and needs to change. Whether this be to find a different job, confront your boss, or fire a client, in such a situation drastic measurements will provide much more relief than drowning in stress.
4. Worst Case Scenario
Another helpful exercise is to think about the worst potential scenario and define potential solutions to overcome this hurdle.
“What if I get fired or lose a project tomorrow? Who else might have a job for me? Perhaps there are previous clients I could reach out to?”
Typically, as you end up thinking about the worst case scenario, you’ll realize it truly isn’t the worst. Presumably you’re in good health, you have access to food and a roof above your head and you know people who care about you.
So, that failed project; is it really worth the lost sleep and anxiety?
5. Stepping Out
By far the most effective solution I’ve encountered is also the most simple: go for a walk, preferably outside.
This sounds counter-productive while you’re working, right? Here’s the reality: there’s always more work to be done.
Going out for a coffee, or a stroll around the block resets your thoughts (I would definitely recommend listening to music–this prevents your mind from spinning the wheels while walking around).
Some fresh air and having seen something other than your computer screen can do some amazing things to your heart rate and sanity.
Remember that your mental energy works very similarly to a lung. There’s the motion of breathing in and out. For your mental energy, it’s much the same. There are times of focused work and times to take a break as your attentiveness and quality of your work decreases by simply putting in extra hours. I personally recommend spending a maximum of two hours of uninterrupted focus. Spending more than this rarely achieves the same productivity than if you would leave the office for a half hour and return for another chunk of work.
6. Use a Schedule
Another game changer is making a schedule and sticking to it. Even while overbooked, I still try to stick to my schedule as much as possible in order to deliver work of quality and remain sane in stressful situations.
This means taking time to sleep enough (lack of sleep reduces productivity–there’s no reason to push for 5-6 hours of sleep a day), eat healthy and work out every day.
In between these activities that I consider necessities to function as a human, I divide my time in work sprints and breaks (grabbing coffee, going for a walk, and so on). During a work sprint, I define what is the most important task (it’s rarely email, for example!) and get going.
This means that in reality I only have a few productive hours a day, but whenever I’m working I’m fully focused and delivering.
The key to dealing with stress is to figure out what works best for you in terms of staying calm and focused.
A little stress is helpful to push us further, but don’t let it take over your life.
Take a breath, go outside for a walk, and once you’re back you will be fully focused on the most important task at hand. The most effective way to deal with stress is to push forward on your terms and not somebody else’s.
Best of luck!