Whether you’re supporting yourself as a freelance artist or just starting out with a side hustle, there are a host of mindset challenges that creatives deal with on a regular basis.
As a therapist, I love working with artists and creatives to help them navigate their exciting but unpredictable careers. Anxiety is more common among artists than the general population, and several anxious themes come up again and again with my clients.
Some of these common themes that emerge among most freelancers include feeling overwhelmed, feeling insecure (both financially and about their art), needing to learn clearer boundaries to prevent burnout, and feeling isolated and lonely.
Today, I’m going to talk about practical strategies to keep these issues in check, so that you can create the work you love and support yourself in the process.
Dealing with Overwhelm
It’s really common to feel overwhelmed as a freelancer. There are so many moving parts!
So many projects to choose from, both creative and business-related!
One of the best tools in your freelance arsenal is having a solid plan. When you map out your projects, set achievable goals and create a schedule that works for you, you’re giving yourself a roadmap. And guess what? Having this map can ease those feelings of overwhelm that can so easily turn into anxiety.
(As a side note, many creatives have ADHD. It’s beyond the scope of this article, but having ADHD makes it both more difficult to be organized, and more important! I have a feeling I will come back to this topic later.)
Setting up systems
When you spend time now setting up systems that run as effortlessly as possible, you’ll start to feel more organized and less overwhelmed.
Not sure where to start? Try this: spend some time today setting up recurring reminders for things you need to do every week, every month, etc. Simple alarms on your phone can set your mind at ease that you won’t forget important deadlines or appointments.
For help in setting up easy and effective systems, I highly recommend the book Atomic Habits by James Clear.
“Setting up organizational systems” probably does not sound as exciting as diving into your creative projects! But once you set them up, you won’t need to pay much attention to them, and you will feel less overwhelmed.
Here are more tips:
- Set clear goals. Start by outlining what you want to achieve. Whether it’s completing a big project, expanding your client base or learning new skills, having clear goals give you a sense of purpose and direction.
- Prioritize tasks. Once you have your goals in mind, break them down into smaller tasks. Then prioritize these tasks based on deadlines and importance. This helps you stay focused and prevents that overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin.
- Create a schedule that fits your style. Whether you’re a digital calendar devotee or lover of old school planners, find a system that works for you. Allocate time slots for different tasks, including breaks. Don’t forget your breaks! This will help keep you organized and prevent work from spilling over into your downtime.
- Automate as much as possible. Anything that you do more than once is worth figuring out a way to automate. Sometimes it doesn’t even involve technology, for example if you use email templates for standard communications that you send out on a regular basis (introductions, pitches, meeting confirmations, etc). I couldn’t survive without pre-scheduling emails to my mailing list — there’s too much to remember!
Essentially, task automation serves as a virtual assistant, in that you are “outsourcing” repetitive tasks, giving you more time to focus on the more personal parts of your work like making art and finding new clients.
- Use to-do lists. Every morning, jot down tasks that you want to tackle that day. As you check items off the list, the sense of accomplishment can be a powerful motivator.
- Batch similar tasks. Group similar things together, like answering emails or brainstorming ideas. Task batching reduces the mental load of switching between different types of work and enhances your efficiency.
- Be flexible. Although planning is crucial, remember that life will throw you curve balls. Leave some room in your schedule for unexpected tasks or moments of inspiration, because they will always arise.
- Review and adjust. Regularly review your plan and check your progress. Celebrate your wins and look for areas where you can improve. If something isn’t working, don’t worry, just tweak your plan.
Remember, you are in charge of the plan. You can make it look how you want your ideal life to be!
Two main types of insecurity I see among freelance artists are financial and emotional.
Financial issues are beyond the scope of this article: even though I’ve picked up a lot of information around pursuing multiple streams of revenue, running your own business, saving for taxes and so on, I’m not a financial expert.
Although it was published in 2010, The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs has saved my neck and continues to be relevant to me today. It can be hard to find, and a more recent and very helpful book for structuring finances when you own your business is Profit First, which lays out a tried and tested method of managing your money.
Okay, back to the kind of insecurity that I help people with all the time: emotional insecurity.
It’s easy to believe imposter syndrome when it crops up, and let your inner critic take over. The good news is that you don’t have to be perfectly secure and confident to be successful. We all deal with feelings of insecurity, and the trick is managing them so that they are not in charge.
I have mixed feelings about the phrase “Feel the fear and do it anyway” because I think it lacks nuance. Yes, there are things we all need to do that might make us scared. But I think it is more helpful to learn how to regulate your nervous system, so that you actually feel less scared. Maybe my re-write is “Feel less fear and do the things.”
Regulating your nervous system
If you’re lucky, you learned as a young child how to regulate your emotions and your nervous system. Most of us were not that lucky, but don’t worry; these are skills that are learnable.
Experiment and practice the techniques that work best for you from among a wide variety of options: breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy, yoga, affirmations, daily walks, praying, and more.
Why Breathing Helps
Anxiety can’t thrive where there is relaxation, and breathing is a direct route to calming your nervous system. Deep belly breathing activates the vagus nerve, which induced relaxation.
Here’s a simple yet effective breathing exercise you can practice anytime, anywhere. It’s called the 4, 7, 8 technique.
- Find a comfortable sitting or lying position. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth for a count of eight.
Repeat the cycle for three to four breaths, gradually increasing the number of breath cycles as you become more comfortable with the exercise.
As you practice the 4, 7, 8 breathing exercise, you’re creating a sense of calm and your body and mind. This technique taps into your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Setting Boundaries to Prevent Burnout
As freelancers, we often pour our heart and soul into our work, which can lead to burnout if we’re not careful. Learning how to say no in an appropriate way can be a game changer for maintaining our boundaries and preventing burnout.
If you have a hard time saying no, it’s likely that you wind up working when you don’t want to work, or taking on projects that don’t align with your goals.
If you struggle with saying no because you feel guilty, know that there are ways to say no that land softly.
For example, try the sandwich technique:
- Start with a positive and appreciative slice. Acknowledge their request or opportunity and express gratitude for being considered.
- Then, slip a “no” in as the filling. Politely and directly decline without overexplaining.
- Finally, seal the deal with another positive slice. Offer an alternative solution, a genuine compliment, or express your interest in future collaborations.
Here’s an example: “I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project (slice one). Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take it on at this time (filling). But I’m excited to see how it turns out and I hope you find the perfect fit! (slice).”
I just pre-ordered Setting Boundaries That Stick: How Neurobiology Can Help You Rewire Your Brain to Feel Safe, Connected, and Empowered. I can’t wait to read it, and I may write about it in a future post.
Boundaries Around Your Self-Care
Self care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s not just a buzzword referring to bubble baths or massages. I’m talking about caring for your entire self, from nutrition and exercise to spending time with loved ones, sleeping enough, and having fun.
Four areas of self-care to pay attention to:
- Physical self care. Things like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and enough sleep.
- Emotional self care. Tune into your emotions and practice self-compassion. Make sure you do things that bring you joy, and learn how to express your feelings. Surround yourself with positive influences.
- Social self care. Connect with others who uplift you and share your passions. Maintain relationships and spend time with people you care about.
- Spiritual self care. Whether through meditation, mindfulness, nature, or religious beliefs, engage in practices that feed your spirit and provide you with a sense of purpose.
Creating a Self Care Plan
Creating a self care plan doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s a simple approach to get you started.
Daily routines and rituals: dedicate time each day for self care basics (eating right, exercising) as well as something nurturing (such as a morning stretch routine, a few minutes of meditation, or a walk in nature). Take breaks, hydrate, and eat some veggies!
Unplugging: set aside time every day to unplug from screens and technology. Use this time to connect with yourself, engage in mindfulness, or just take a breather.
Weekly rituals: schedule weekly self care dates with yourself. Maybe it’s spending a cozy evening with your favorite book, trying out a new recipe, or taking a wander in a museum. Mark it in your calendar!
Check-ins: Regularly assess how you’re feeling physically, emotionally and mentally. Adjust your self care plan accordingly. If you’re feeling stressed, definitely make self care a priority. Mental health days exist for a reason!
Remember, self care is not a one size fits all approach. Find out what works for you, and honor your needs.
By investing in your wellbeing, you’re not only protecting yourself from burnout and anxiety, but also stoking your creative fires.
Loneliness and Isolation
Freelancing can be a solitary adventure, but that doesn’t mean that you’re alone. Seeking support and connection is important for you to sustain a freelance career.
Reach out to fellow freelancers, or join online communities where you can share your experiences. Just knowing that others face similar challenges can really ease the weight on your shoulders.
When it comes to managing anxiety, the power of social support is undeniable. Sharing your struggles, fears, and victories with other freelancers or friends who understand your creative world provides a sense of validation and relief.
We all need a safe space to vent, share ideas and gain insights from people who have been in your shoes. Also, connecting with like-minded individuals reminds you that you’re part of a larger community, connected by a common passion.
Humans are social beings, wired for connection. When you reach out, you’re not burdening others. You’re fostering an environment of mutual encouragement and empathy. Whether it’s through virtual meetups, online forums or local creative groups being part of a supportive community. Is there a real lifeline, especially if you’re feeling isolated or anxious.
The takeaway: you’ve got this!
Navigating a creative freelance career is brave journey, requiring patience and persistence. But you are fully equipped to handle it!
With some planning, boundary setting, self care and staying connected to others, you will be armed with the tools you need to deal with the challenges of a freelance career.