Recently, I agreed to take on some freelance editing work. This is in addition to writing for the Freelancers Union, juggling four other projects, and balancing ongoing creative work.
Why did I do this to myself???
Because I am remarkably dumb.
… no, no! That is not the real reason!
In reality, I, like most freelancers, have a reflexive, almost uncontrollable impulse to take good work – even when it’s inconvenient.
Most of us develop this compulsion during our hungry early days, when we were desperate for any and all gigs. It’s just hard for us to say “no.”
So if this unhappy/happy overwork is almost inevitable, what do we do?
How do we handle too much commitment?
1. Panicking won’t help
Trust me, I have done extensive informal research on this subject.
Some panic may be inescapable; you can’t help how you feel. But when we have too many things to do (and too little time in which to do them), we have to focus on tactics and habits that are productive – and panicking isn’t productive.
Take a deep breath. Resolve to take everything one step at a time. Put your work in perspective: it’s important to get things done, yes, but the fate of the world’s nuclear codes doesn’t hang in the balance (I hope).
Tell yourself that you can totally give into panic and hide under the bed after it’s over – for now, you’ve got to do your best.
A support-network for the over-committed (it's free!)
2. Drop what you can
It’s easy to look at one’s life and think, “I CAN’T DROP ANYTHING, IT’S ALL EQUALLY IMPORTANT!”
… it isn’t.
Until this busy period is done, where can you cut corners? Where can you take the easy way out, in order to preserve energy for your bigger tasks?
This may involve some professional procrastination (get that invoice out a day or two late, put off looking for new gigs), but it’s a bit easier to adjust or delegate minor tasks in your private life.
You don’t need to hold yourself to some exacting standard of perfection in every aspect of your personal and professional life; sometimes, something’s gotta give.
Knock off tasks of little importance – you can get back to normalcy soon.
3. Structure, structure, structure
When the going gets tough, the tough whip out their calendars.
When you’re teetering dangerously close to completely capsizing, you need to carefully structure your time.
It’s easy for our brains to get overloaded, and for details to slip through the cracks – a freelancer friend working four assignments simultaneously once completely forgot his deadline, and had to ask the client again.
Write down every major detail. Set realistic goals. Make timelines, and stick to them. Think of this structure as a way to take control of the maelstrom.
4. Engage your support system
None of us get through this life alone – and we never need support more than when we’re overwhelmed.
Try not to take everything on yourself! Engage your support system, both privately and professionally.
Ask your spouse if she can handle the grocery shopping for the week (take her out on a date when the project is over). Beg your sister to take the kids for a night, so you can work (cook her dinner in recompense). Ask a friend to look over your finished projects, to catch any mistakes (offer to edit their work, in return).
If you’re really overwhelmed, consider subcontracting. Do you know any freelancers who can handle a bit of your workload? They may be happy to get the gig!
Heck, even minor tasks can be subcontracted: hire a sitter or cleaning service! There’s nothing wrong with finding help for a fair wage.
All freelancers overcommit sometimes. The key to staying sane and productive is not to CONSISTENTLY overextend yourself.
None of these tactics will help if you’re abusing the system. Give yourself the time and space to do tasks, and learn to say “no.”
Make overwork the exception to the rule.
Kate Shea 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.