The short version of this post is: trust me, take care of yourself or everything – including your work – will suffer. You can easily be more brutal on yourself as a freelance boss than your company was in your last job.
Now the long version:
My health in Cubicles ‘R Us was…not great. I’ve pretty much made my peace with that, prompted partly by a post on APW that I cannot for the life of me find. The long and short of it was the author saying that when her life had gone to hell and she and her husband wound up eating takeout every night because they were exhausted and stressed and just trying to stay alive, her body kept going. It had gained weight and developed some health problems, but it kept going, and she was grateful for that.
When you put it that way, it’s difficult to be too mad. I was sitting all day, eating junk food, not getting much sunlight, and dealing with a constant acid-wash of anger and stress. I had a vivid memory of this the other day as I found myself walking the path that would bring me back from the bus stop. I remembered that usually when I walked that, I was trying desperately to get the anger out of my system. And my body, bless it, kept going. Still, I don’t miss that.
I had this deep-seated belief that all of it was going to clear up when I started freelancing. I was going to be so much healthier! I could get up and stretch and go for a walk whenever I wanted! I wouldn’t have junk food in the house! I’d be able to open the windows and have fresh air!
And then, with remarkable self-delusion, I plunged into a wildly unhealthy pattern in my freelancing. My planner was a riot of color: up at the normal time from my cubicle days, make a super healthy breakfast, be hard at work by 7AM, work on my projects AND contract projects until my super healthy, from-scratch lunch that was somehow supposed to take zero time to eat or make, keep working diligently through 5PM, make a super healthy dinner, and…somewhere in there, work out. What’s weird about this isn’t that I planned it, it’s that I actually pulled it off for so long. I worked 12-14 hour days, feeling self-righteous and smug in the extreme, until…
I totally crashed. Because I was working myself into the ground. Because no matter how many times I told people at work that research showed wildly diminishing returns on overtime, freelance-boss-Moira didn’t seem to believe that. Even when my returns on time spent showed exactly that pattern.
This turned around, in fact, only when I acknowledged that it was actually hurting my productivity. It turned out that if I put in more than one or two long days every three weeks or so, I got LESS done in 12 hours than I did in 6. It turned out that successful writing was composed of almost equal parts writing and not-writing. Stage 1: notice that unhealthy practices affect work.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to get past Stage 2: start taking care of myself for my work’s sake. Stage 3, of course, was taking care of myself for my own sake, and I’m still struggling with that. I’ve found that it helps to make a bucket list. But the good news is, every time you stop working at dinnertime, it gets a little bit easier to do.
What does my schedule look like now? Sleep in a little bit later (as much as possible, rise with the sun), a fairly leisurely breakfast with B, stretching and a brief meditation before launching into work, a late lunch (usually very simple, lots of fruits and veggies), another couple of hours of work, working out, dinner, and reading or hanging out all evening. Weekends OFF. This is a constant struggle not to slip into, “just another hour,” but I swear to you it is worth it.
Your ideal schedule won’t look like this. You may be a night owl. You may have a metabolism that needs lots of protein midday. You may want to start your day with a workout, or need to make regular time for other self-care like therapy. These are all really important things to consider. Try to start noticing little things, like when you’re thirsty or your skin feels dry or you hate one pair of pants because they’re wildly uncomfortable. Believe it or not, these observations will set you on the path to your best schedule, simply by teaching you what your body needs. (Remember: the mind-body divide is completely made up.)
So, please, do yourself a favor, and start listening to yourself. If you can’t let yourself do it for your own sake yet, do it for the sake of your work or your family. Try the baby steps of asking your body what it wants to eat, or making sure to get water whenever you’re thirsty, or stretching when your back starts to ache. Try to think up one thing you’ve been wanting to do that has ZERO impact on your work. For me, I’ve started whittling. Set aside time for that thing. Write a list of things to do when you feel helpless and overwhelmed, to try to turn things around. Set an alarm in the evenings to remind you to get to sleep. And start trying to cut yourself a little bit of slack.
Learn from my mistakes!