For the first time in my life, I am self-employed. I run Firain and I work as a freelance writer amongst other things. I am juggling like I have never juggled before and overall I love it.
In reality, the juggle can easily tip into feeling overwhelmed. I opened Firain after unexpectedly relocating back from the USA; my brother and Dad have both died in the almost two years since opening the shop, my mum has had cancer (and beaten it!) and the family home in Scotland burned down. Through it all, I have kept my fledgling business going and tried to show up for it each day. There is no sick pay, no holiday pay and no kind boss telling you to have a long lunch so you can cry in the toilets for a bit longer (whilst being paid). In my business, the buck stops with me and that can feel like a heavy weight to carry.
Before you think this is the opening speech to my pity-party, it isn’t. I am extremely privileged to be in the position I am. I know many people who strive hard every single day to just keep going and many more who would love to have a creative job. They would love to work from home with a loving partner and they would love to live in a peaceful place like we do. I never take my situation for granted and I will work hard to keep it going for as long as possible.
For me the question isn’t about my commitment to being self-employed; I actually can’t imagine being employed now. Instead, my research is around how to keep the balance in this new-ish life of mine. If you are thinking of being self-employed, you might find some practical suggestions here. If you are already self-employed, let me know in the comments what you do to stay in control. I have included my own tips toward the end, and I would love to know your thoughts.
Expert ideas from Planning Mentor Josephine Brooks
Josephine Brooks is a planning and productivity mentor for side-hustlers whose philosophy is all about doing less and focusing on the tasks that really matter, rather than being busy and trying to get lots done. Her mission is to help people who are building a business alongside other commitments to create a business that gives them the freedom to do more of what they love and create the lifestyle they long for. She does this by helping them plan more effectively and giving them the tools to boost their productivity, through her course Make a Plan > Make it Happen and 1:1 mentoring. She has a podcast (that I have appeared on) called On The Make and also creates the fabulous 12 Week Action Plan which I have started to use to plan my Firain work
Josephine says: “I generally experience overwhelm in waves. I’ll feel organised and on top of things for a few weeks and then all of a sudden things get on top of me. There are constant to-do’s pinging into my head, one after another. And then there are the piles of post-its and notes in my phone, tasks written on the backs of envelopes and then I realise I’ve forgotten my dad’s birthday – oops. I’m by no means immune to overwhelm, see above, but I’ve found an approach that works for me in overcoming it.
Step 1: Gather together all of your to-dos onto one list
Get everything out of your head onto one list, brain dump everything you can think of, then pull together all of the notes on scrap paper and notes in your phone and put them on the list too.
Step 2: Cull
Productivity is about doing less and focusing on the few tasks that make the biggest most positive difference. Go through your list and cross out the tasks/ commitments that aren’t having a big enough impact. Perhaps you’re going to a dinner or class each week that you don’t actually enjoy, take it off your list! If it’s non-essential, as Marie Kondo would say, ask yourself ‘does it spark joy?’ If not, it’s off the list.
Step 3: 2-minute method
Go through your list again and put a star next to the tasks that will only take you 2 minutes or less and do them right away. Get lots of quick wins under your belt and a dopamine hit to boot when you cross those actions off your list.
Step 4: Ruthless prioritising
Try creating a daily to-do list that’s a must do and could do list. Limit yourself to just three things on the must-do list each day, with the could do list being a bonus if you get on to that. By giving yourself three things a day you’re forcing yourself to prioritise and avoiding setting yourself up to feel miserable by giving yourself a 20-point list that’s totally unrealistic.
Step 5: Make a Plan
Finally, to avoid the overwhelm beast coming back to strike again, create a plan for the following few weeks. I’m a huge advocate of creating a 12-week plan, it’s long enough to get some meaty projects under your belt but not so far in advance that it feels overwhelming, that’s what we’re trying to avoid here! Set yourself up to three goals, break them down into the steps you’ll need to take to make each project a reality and plot those actions out over the next 12-weeks. When you’re done, you’ll have a plan that shows you exactly what you need to be working on each week to reach your goal.”
Stop squeezing things in - Jade Leung
Busy mum Jade Leung owns her own wedding and special events planning business in North Wales. She has kindly shared her tips: “My main thing is actually making sure that I stick to what I now call my ‘working hours’. As I work from home it was so easy to just keep going/ squeeze in another hour/ do a bit before my daughters wake up. But this approach just made me tired, feeling guilty for missing out on spending time with the kids and generally unproductive.
Move your office - Emma Drury-Jones
Emma Drury-Jones, owner of At Her Table, is a copywriting and marketing consultant who works from home in rural Linconshire. Emma wrote a recent instagram post that caught my eye: “If, like me, you work from home, the space you’re in can have such an impact on the way you work. I need things super tidy to focus and the thought of muddle makes me shudder but I know for others this is what they thrive on and helps their creative flow…I think I am going to start switching up my location work space once a week just to ring the changes. Seeking out lovely coffee shops, libraries and , if the weather ever gets it’s act together, the garden. “
Maintain a state of calm - Amanda Brawn
Amanda Brawn creates the most beautiful understated jewellery from her home in Yorkshire. She shares her experience: “After totally burning myself out in the run up to Christmas last year - a combination of some significant family events and the busiest time of year for my business - I decided to make ‘Calm’ my word of the year for 2019.
I’d been beating myself up terribly for not having to set aside a collection of work that i feel really passionate about and which I’d told my newsletter subscribers would be complete and ready for sale in the autumn. I felt I was letting them down, and oppressed that I couldn’t carve out enough time to continue working on it.
It took me a long time to come to terms with it, to not feel that I was being flaky and feeling increasingly stressed about it really wasn’t helping. My way through it has been to focus my energies and productivity on the tasks I need to do in order to maintain a state of calm. It can be putting my family’s needs before anything else and feeling OK about that. Or it can be prioritising my list of custom orders over work for shows and events. When I have shows and events coming up, it’s about thinking about lead-in times and timescales. It’s a movable feast and the focus changes from week to week, and month to month, but working from this perspective and planning my workflow accordingly, has really, really helped.”
My tips for being self-employed and not feeling overwhelmed
Live somewhere you like. If you are going to be working from home, make your space as comfortable as you can. We have achieved this on a very tight budget and we genuinely enjoy being at home. It’s modest, we rent but we live close to the sea and we love being here.
Get outside every day. I wrote a whole blog post about why this has become essential for my mental health: 7 Ways to Enjoy the Great Outdoors.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish when challenges come your way. Before my dad died, he implored me to have more fun and take more time off, which can seem absolutely impossible for self-employed people especially when trauma and grief and crises sap your energy; everything was taking me twice as long to accomplish in any case. I sometimes feel that I am always chasing the next commission and the next sale. But since my dad died, I have tried to remember his words and those of others much wiser than me and reassess my priorities. There is so much more to life than work!
Do not compare yourself to others. There is a fine line between feeling inspired and feeling deflated or even jealous. Limit the amount of business advice you absorb.
Remind yourself that this is what you want. Ben and I want to lead a simple, uncluttered life. We want to have a flexible schedule. Being self-employed contributes to these deeper values so when things feel a bit too much for me, I sit and think and pray and meditate and remember that this lifestyle means we have the balance that we want.
What have we missed here? Let me know in the comments if you have some tips we could learn from.