Earlier this year I struggled with severe anxiety that lapsed into depression. The root of the cause? My workaholic tendencies. I took on too much work as a freelancer. Working long hours created stress, which resulted in lack of sleep. With my off-kilter schedule, it’s no wonder I was soon dealing with mental health issues.
There are perks that come with being a freelancer. There are also downsides, like fluctuating income, being in “hustle mode” constantly and the unpredictable expansion and contraction of your workload. These can all lead to depression.
Here are some ways you can keep freelancing from messing with your mental health. (Quick note: These tips are based off of my personal experience and are no means meant as a replacement for medical care. If you're struggling with mental health issues, it's important to consult a physician. More on this in a bit.)
1. Know your limits
Easier said than done, right? It can be hard to know how much work you can do. If you’re working with a new client, it’s challenging to gauge the scope of a project. If you’ve been freelancing a while, see if you’ve done a similar project to figure out how much time something will take.
There are other limits you’ll need to figure out, such as the type of clients you work best with, what topic and tasks you excel at and what sort of work will help you grow and develop the most. You’ll also need to determine how many hours you can work on a certain task before you feel burned out.
For every assignment in my queue, I estimate how many hours I think it will take to complete. Next, I’ll block out time to work on each assignment. I’m a full-time writer so I need to schedule time for all the parts that go into writing an article, such as researching and creating an outline, finding primary sources, doing interviews, writing and editing. It seems tedious to schedule everything, but it’s helpful. When I fail to do this, I take on more than I can handle and suffer from burnout.
2. Create structure
The beauty of freelancing is you have more control over your schedule than someone with a day job. Use that to your advantage. Get your work done during your peak productivity hours. I try to do most of my writing in the morning when I am more cogent. Ideally I’ll take a two-hour lunch break to eat, exercise and run errands. In the afternoon I schedule interviews, research and revise.
Because freelancing can be ever-changing, having constants, such as regular yoga sessions, a weekly coworking date with a friend or owning a pet who needs frequent attention can help you maintain your sanity.
Another way to maintain structure is to get a coworking membership. You’ll have to go into an office, but working outside of your home can boost productivity and you can meet other self-employed people.
3. Schedule self-care
All work and no play makes Jack a little loopy. Self-care is important but easy to neglect. When you’re slammed with work, it’s hard to remember to take care of yourself. Make sure you schedule “you” time, whether to veg out in front of the TV, take a long walk or play ping-pong.
4. Have a strong support network
Freelancer isolation is real. Spending long hours by yourself without coworkers or bosses around can feel lonesome. I’m fortunate to have freelancer friends. I can schedule coworking dates with them, commiserate and offer job referrals. I also frequent monthly Freelancers Union Spark events and scour Meetup for free coworking days and freelancer mixers.
If you live in a place where you tell people you freelance and they look at you like you’re a foreign object, you should move. Just kidding. There are quite a few great online freelancer communities. I’m a member of several freelance writing groups on Facebook, which provide a safe space to ask questions about rates, vent and share “you too?!” moments only other freelancers can understand. (We’re a weird bunch.)
5. Seek professional help
If you are struggling, look into options for mental healthcare. If your health insurance doesn’t cover it (check out our guide to health insurance for freelancers), consider Open Path, a network of therapists that charge on a sliding scale, or nearby counseling centers. My medical plan covers mental health, but when I did my intake appointment a few years back, the counselor said I would have to jump through hoops to get weekly sessions.
Earlier this year when my anxiety spiked, I looked into other options and found a nearby counseling center that charged on a sliding scale. The cost per session turned out to be comparable to sessions through my health insurance.
While depression and anxiety among freelancers seems common, there ways you can prevent it. Managing mental health can be a struggle when you’re stressed, but knowing there are methods and resources to keep you well has helped me big time.