It starts with a trickle. A little too much work, a few too many tasks on the to-do list. Then a big opportunity comes (can’t say no to that) and then another. Then the sink breaks. The Internet goes on the fritz. Your college friend is in town for a week and would like to stay on your couch – and can she bring her partner? Your taxes are due.

All of a sudden, you’re looking at a hollow-eyed, frizzy-eyed zombie in the mirror… and your boyfriend asks politely, um, when you might have last showered?

It never rains but it pours, you try to cheerily tell yourself… just before you fall asleep sitting at your desk, drooling onto your laptop.

Every freelancer gets overwhelmed from time to time – it’s a natural characteristic of a flexible lifestyle that vacillates unexpectedly between busy periods and dry spells. Chocolate-covered coffee beans and espresso shots may help, but how does one stay sane during the most frenetic times?

1. Put it in Perspective

Okay, yes - that client wants the project done yesterday, and that Big Fish prospective client wants those samples NOW, and those invoices were due a month ago, and dear God, you dropped your iPhone AGAIN and you can’t take it to the store for a week and now you fear little shards of glass will embed themselves in your ear and permanently deafen you.

I don’t know what exactly you do, dear Reader, but unless you run nuclear disarmament programs, falling a little behind probably will not cause the end of the world. That said, it’s easy to get stressed out about the many, many things you have piling up – especially for us freelancers, who know that completed projects often = income and opportunity. All that stress, however, does not necessarily lead to better work. Often, it makes you feel swamped and panicky – and that means an increased likelihood of small mistakes and faulty thinking from your poor, over-adrenalized brain.

Take a breath. Relax your shoulders – are they up around your ears? It is okay. You will get it done. You are okay! All will be well!

2. De-Prioritize

Odds are, you’re obsessing over all of the things you have to do. But is every single one of them really necessary? All too often, we assign TOP-LEVEL RED BLARING PRIORITY to things that can be put off for a day, or a week, or ten days.

Where in your life can you find a little give? Can you let the dishes pile up for a few days? Can you delay updating your website? Can you rain-check coffee with that friend, and make it up to her with dinner next week?

You do not have to be the world’s most astonishingly talented freelancer with a perfect shining kitchen floor and a packed social calendar and a rigorous side-career as a professional marathoner. You are allowed to let some “musts” become “shoulds”.

When my to-do list gets overwhelmingly long, I put one, two, or three checkmarks next to each item. If the item has one check, I have to do it right away – or as soon as humanly possible. Two checks means that it can wait for a bit – and one check is even less important. When I’m honest with myself and weigh items comparatively, I’m surprised how few items “deserve” one check. Those can often wait until a slow period – which is why my closet only gets cleaned once a year.

3. Organize

Nothing contributes to stress like a mountain of complex tasks. Personally, looking at a big, daunting, never-ending pile of work makes me procrastinate like crazy. The only thing that saves me from this run-and-hide impulse is organizing projects into bite-sized chunks.

First of all, I try to pre-organize by making my to-do list more specific – building in deadlines for each item. Instead of writing Call Sam, for instance, I’ll write Call Sam by 4:00 Tuesday. Eliminating ambiguity helps me feel more in control, and lets me order “due” tasks first.

Second, I try my darndest to follow the 45/15 rule – even during really busy periods. For every 45 minutes of work, I MUST take a 15 minute break. Taking breaks signals to my body that we’re not in complete Panic Mode – and helps me to battle both exhaustion and procrastination.

4. Ask for Help (or Flexibility)

Ohohoho, how I hate to ask for favors. I don’t mind doing them for other people – in fact, I often love to help others out.

But I hate admitting I can’t do everything all the time, all by myself. I hate not being perfect. I hatesessssss it.

And yet, I find that almost every time I do grit my teeth and ask for help, people are overwhelmingly kind and supportive. We all need help sometimes – and if you’re normally a “giver”, folks are even more likely to return your kindness.

Can your partner handle the laundry this week? Can you outsource some work to a freelance colleague (for reasonable payment, of course)? Can you ask a flexible client for an extension of a low-priority project? Can a friend give you some advice on how to handle a contract?

Think of who can help you shoulder your burden for a bit – are you wrongly picturing yourself as an island? My friend, odds are there are people in your life (or in your circle) who may be able to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others when you’re overwhelmed and stressed out. Make clear that you’ll be glad to return the favor in the future… it’s good karma, and you’ll be surprised how many people will be happy to lend a hand, an ear, or an eye.

We’ve all been there, my overwhelmed freelance brethren. Try out these tips next time you’re harrowed beyond belief – hopefully, they can help ease the press of your next busy period. If they don’t, you have my sympathies. Keep on keepin’ on, and pass the caffeine – all too soon, this crazy rush will be finished.

And then, you can get around to cleaning that closet.

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