“My work is only as good as I feel.”
– Beck Dorey-Stein
If you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur, you know that your work schedule can be very inconsistent. Being self-employed often feels like a game of “feast or famine”. Either you don’t have enough to do, or you have more work than you can handle, which is stressful. It’s hard to find that sweet spot, where you feel in control of your time and on top of your responsibilities.
I recently went through a couple back-to-back weeks of “feast season”. I had more work than I knew what to do with, plus I was dealing with some difficult things in my personal life. It didn’t take long for me to feel exhausted, sick, and restless. I had less willpower than usual, and it was harder to concentrate. And yet I still had a lot of things that I had to do on a deadline.
This isn’t the first time I’ve gone through one of these stressful seasons of work, and it certainly won’t be the last. But this time around, I noticed that there were a few things that really helped me stay efficient and grounded during an otherwise-hectic time. Things have calmed down now somewhat, but I know I’ll be referring back to these tips the next time I’m in a pinch.
1. Write EVERYTHING Down
In order to get everything done during a stressful time, first we need to understand what we’re really dealing with. Before we can tackle the to-do list, we have to make sure we know what’s on the list to begin with! And for virtually all of us, that means creating a bonafide, concrete, visual, actual list. There are very few among us who can remember everything we need to do in our heads, and fewer still who would want to try. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, the very first decision I make is to stop trusting my ability to remember things on my own. Why would I?! There’s an app for that! (Or a notebook, or a binder, or the back of a napkin.) It’s far easier and more reliable to get things out of my head completely.
And when I say everything, I really do mean everything. I like to pretend I’m a small child who needs to be reminded to do basic tasks like having a shower or taking out the recycling. No task is below my notice! I assume that if I don’t write it down, it won’t happen. If I do write it down, it will happen. So if I want to be sure that I text a friend back or plan out my week, I put it on the list.
My personal app of choice is Asana, a system that I like because I can see all my tasks in a calendar layout. (You can see more of my Asana process in this post). Prior to Asana, I used Todoist for many years, and Notion for a few months, both of which I liked. And when I’m really stressed, I’ll also use my beloved bullet journal to copy out items of my to-do list that I can check off. Redundant? Yes. Helpful? Also yes.
Whatever method you prefer, make sure you’re capturing everything, even the mundane and “obvious” tasks.
2. Choose Which Balls to Drop
As I headed into this most recent busy season, a friend of mine said something very wise. “If you don’t choose which balls you want to drop, it’ll happen automatically, and you might not like which ones get dropped.” I believe this is absolutely true. It’s important that we make a proactive, conscious decision about our priorities, especially during stressful times. Not all tasks are created equal! When things get stressful, we need to choose what we’ll put on the back-burner ahead of time. These are not easy decisions, but it’s better to make them rather than wait for them to be made by default.
How do you decide? I recommend having a framework that helps you prioritize, like The Eisenhower Matrix. (You can read more about the matrix in this post.) Essentially, you plot all your tasks into categories of importance and urgency, which helps you decide where to start. Or, you could do a quick gut check! What areas of your life or business are doing well? Where could you afford to take a step back? What tasks are non-essential to your bottom line? When you answer questions like these honestly, you start to see areas that you could put on pause.
When I did these exercises, it became obvious that I could drop the ball on social media. Even though my Instagram stories & posts help clients get to know me, they’re not essential to the running of my business. So I made the executive decision that I wouldn’t post, or even worry about posting, until things calmed down a bit. And when I had the great idea for an Instagram story series about handling busy work seasons, I decided to turn it into this blog post instead!
More typical balls to drop, temporarily: reading email newsletters, scrolling social media, making multiple plans with friends, listening to podcasts, checking email repeatedly, passion projects or hobbies.
3. Adopt a Mantra
I love when the hosts of Happier in Hollywood talk about their work mantras. Theirs is “It’s a fun job and we enjoy it”, which I love. And while I haven’t chosen one work mantra for myself, I do have a mantra for stressful times. It’s pretty easy to remember: “This is not forever.”
For me, the hardest part of a busy work season is the feeling that life will be like this forevermore. I get tired, feel run-down, and quickly lose perspective. It helps to remember that certain projects will be over soon and that things will shift. I remind myself: soon I’ll feel more in control again! Soon, I’ll have more free time. Soon, I’ll have leisurely mornings. Remembering the mantra “this is not forever” helps me stay motivated when things get hard.
More possible mantras: “Choose gratitude”, “Just do the next right thing”, “Keep your eyes on the prize”, “Breathe”.
4. Work When You’re Working
The #1 best strategy I found for handling all my responsibilities during this stressful time was to stay focused. That’s it! Sounds too good to be true, right? But actually working when you’re meant to be working is harder than it sounds. There are so many distractions that threaten our productivity, and usually we just roll over and let them trample us. It sounds so simple, but it’s essential to set yourself up for success when you’re stressed out. Put your phone away! Turn on Do Not Disturb mode on your computer! Shut off your notifications! Do not go on social media, do not pass GO, and do not collect $200. When you’re working, work. Don’t switch back and forth or multi-task. Just get your butt in your chair and do the work. Focus.
One of my favourite ways to do the work is to use the Pomodoro technique. This framework suggests doing 25-minute blocks of work, with five minute breaks in between. After you’ve done four “Pomodoros”, you get to take a longer break. Personally, I don’t usually follow the exact time guidelines or break times, so don’t let that stop you. The thing that works best about the method is the simplest part: setting a timer for 25 minutes, and seeing how much of a task you can complete during that time. I don’t work this way all the time, but it’s the first thing I try when I’m feeling stressed.
5. Continue Your Self-Care
Last but not least, try your damnedest to stick to your good habits when things get busy. I know I talked about dropping some balls, but self-care shouldn’t be one of them. You might have to tone down your good habits (ie. a quick walk around the neighbourhood rather than a long run, or a phone call to your mom rather than a leisurely dinner), but prioritizing yourself is the best way I know to handle the stress of a hectic season. It always feels tempting to make the excuse that life is too crazy to eat well or exercise, but those habits are the ones that will actually make it easier for you to stay calm and grounded when you have too much to do.
More strategies for self-care: Getting fresh air, standing up to stretch, eating regularly, connecting with loved ones, tidying up your house, getting enough sleep, cooking at home, journaling it out, dance breaks.
Keep Calm & Carry On
The thing about stressful seasons of work and life is that they never last. Before you know it, you’re through the worst and life feels manageable again! But when you’re in the thick of it, that can be hard to remember. It never feels good to work late several nights in a row or say no to social plans, but when you know it’s only temporary, it’s easier to handle.
And the good news is, as your business grows, you’ll learn to get better at managing your time and income so that you don’t experience quite as much feast or famine! Setting up ongoing packages, creating subscriptions for your products, or just doing a better job of marketing yourself consistently will all go a long way towards smoothing out some of those peaks and valleys. Until then, I’d love to know: How do you manage the stressful periods of your business and life? What techniques do you use to stay focused when things are chaotic? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. Are you currently experiencing a hectic season and need some support? Learn more about my group strategy program, The Foundery, which I created for solopreneurs who want more strategy & accountability to get things done in their businesses.