How to work through the hard times

Jan 13, 2015

Freelancing can be all-absorbing, whether it’s stressful or wonderful. The intensity of the work can be great, but it sometimes poses a challenge – especially when you’re confronting personal stressors.

It’s inevitable; at some point, even the luckiest person will encounter hard times. And when you’re dealing with a big move, an illness in the family, a breakup, or any other manner of taxing situations, it can be hard to maintain focus as a freelancer. Some of that is natural and desirable; presumably, you became a freelancer so you could control your own priorities, and it’s often helpful to have that flexibility when dealing with a crisis. But when your personal life gets overwhelming, it can also be easy to let work get overwhelming– and when you’re dependent on freelancing for an income, getting too stressed out to be effective doesn’t help with ANY aspect of your life.

Now, obviously, if you’re going through hard times, I don’t know the details. I can only hope that things soon get much better for you and yours – and I’m offering a very focused perspective on the ways I’ve found to keep working when times get tough (without losing much sanity):

Work as escape

In the long-term, this isn’t a great strategy; if you find that you’re always using your work to escape your problems (or that it’s affecting your ability to connect to others or to solve those problems), you might want to talk to a mental health professional. But in the short-term, work can be a great way to pour your anxiety and agita into something productive.

It can be comforting to think about that project for a few hours instead of your problems; often, you can feel a sense of control in your work that you can’t exert in life. You may not be able to prevent illness, major disasters, or bureaucratic failures… but I bet you can get that project done on deadline, darn it. Using work as an escape from chaos is a good way to remind yourself that there IS life outside of that chaos – and that it will still be there after the crisis is over.

Join the nation's largest group representing the new workforce (it's free!)

Become a member

Work as structure

Big shake-ups can often disrupt our routines, making us feel unmoored and uncertain. Sometimes (not to get too yogic about it) that’s a great gift; we’re often forced to acknowledge unhelpful patterns, make changes, reprioritize, or grow. That viewpoint sounds pretty pat, however, when you’re feeling like the floor has just dropped out from under you.

In uncertain times, work can provide the solace of structure and routine. Even mundane tasks like invoicing and paying bills can feel like a relief. In rough periods, I’ve found that sticking to a self-imposed work schedule helps me to feel stable, productive, and grounded – even in the midst of uproar.

Work as healing

Again, this may not be the best long-term strategy; in my experience, time and expression heals more than routine. But becoming reabsorbed in the ins-and-outs of your work (particularly if you enjoy it, which I hope you do) may allow your brain to unplug from adrenalized crisis-mode.

I’ll also extend “work” in this example to not only your day-to-day work, but also creative expression. Whether you take time to write in a journal or paint or, heck, listen to a good song (anything that stimulates your mind and lets you release some of your stress) that kind of “work” has real potential to heal. If you’re lucky, you may be able to channel some of the feelings you’re wrestling with into this creative outlet. If that happens to coincide directly with your freelance work, all the better! If not, consider making time for that expressive work outside of your normal routine – it may really help.

And if your work is AUTOMATICALLY a stressor, because you don’t fundamentally like it… take a deep breath, get through this tough period, and then start examining how you can find work that isn’t damaging to your happiness. If crisis periods teach us nothing else, it’s that life is short and contentment uncertain; you should pursue what makes you happy.

Thinking of (fulfilling) work as an escape and outlet – as a largely positive influence, not an additional stressor – has allowed me not only to keep working during tumult, but also to deal with crises in a healthier fashion. It won’t always be helpful (sometimes, you just have to let difficult periods be, well… difficult), but these seemingly-minor perspective shifts have helped me through several rough stretches. I hope they can do the same for you.

How do you keep working through hard times, fellow freelancers? Let us know in the comments!

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.