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Five ways to survive and thrive: a personal account

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Often freelancers struggle working by themselves, and feel a sense of isolation. For me, connection between family, friends and work colleagues (whether clients or associates) is key to a happy work and life environment. Social relationships are really important to me. And building stronger, broader social connections can increase your feelings of happiness and self-worth. Many of us would like to spend more time with people who are important to us; but in reality, having a busy job, caring duties or home life can make this tricky.

People describe me as a ‘connector’ or ‘cultivator’; I enjoy keeping in touch with people, building new networks and friendships. But before getting Lyme, keeping up these connections was starting to wear me down. Juggling work, family and my own interests had got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t win and was trying to please everyone (except probably myself). If I stayed late for a private view, I felt guilty for not being at home. If I was at home looking after my step-son, I felt like I was missing out on networking opportunities for the business or letting clients down. I started cancelling commitments with friends, or hobby groups because I had too much work to get through or was tired out from keeping on top of everything.

So I did two things.

Firstly, I began to get much firmer at saying ‘no’. This is often a major challenge for freelancers because a) there’s a fear factor about when you’re next job will come in b) you don’t want to develop a reputation for being constantly busy resulting in potential clients stopping approaching you or c) you’re simply being obstructive. It happens in employed roles too: we say ‘yes’ and then aren’t honest about when we can realistically complete a task by.

“Most stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept.” (Dave Allen)

Secondly, I evaluated and prioritised what really mattered and focused time on those things. I made a conscious decision to not go to any work events on Wednesday evenings when I have our step-son. I avoid working on weekends wherever possible. I take greater advantage of being freelance by spending an hour or two out of the office on sunny days (giving myself permission to do this, rather than feeling guilty!), working later in the evening instead. And I spend Fridays only focusing on business admin and accounting, doing this at a co-working space with freelancers which also gives me that sense of connection. It sounds like bloody common sense, but working smarter — rather than harder — has made a massive difference to me.

“There is always more to do than you can do, and you can only do one thing at a time. The key is to feel as good about what you’re not doing as about what you are doing at that moment.” (Dave Allen)

Keeping connected in the digital as well as physical world can help those feeling isolated or vulnerable by giving them a sense of community. Social media is also important for freelancers, helping us feel connected to others who are self-employed and working alone. But I’d become increasingly conscious of how much time I was spending on my phone — especially at night, and especially answering work related emails and participating in discussion groups. And as a freelancer, I’d always adopted a 24/7 availability approach. This typically meant checking email on an evening, on holidays and weekends; basically always having my phone on, and responding to emails straight away. Reassessing things after getting ill made me realise this behaviour wasn’t very fair on my family, or healthy for me.

At the last Museum Freelancer Network conference, Mike Ellis of Thirty8 Digital challenged us to make our mobiles boring. This involved removing apps that distract us with constant notifications and/or foster FOMO, checking them only when you’re at your computer. So, I deleted Facebook, twitter, and Outlook off my phone for a week, and only checked them when I was back at my desk.

“A survey by Deloitte in 2017 found 55% of phone users check their device within 15 minutes of waking up — while 41% believed their partner used a mobile too much.”

It was liberating. I got loads of work done on the move. I felt good not being physically attached to my phone all the time. It highlighted how inextricably linked our personal and work lives are with digital products (I struggled with not having access to my calendar which is the same for work and home life). But most importantly, I realised it’s OK to not always be available; to not always be ‘on’. That the world doesn’t fall apart if I’m not permanently and immediately answering emails. And let’s face it — if it’s that urgent, people will call and leave a message. For me this process hasn’t been about abandoning my communications, just adjusting them.

“On average, office workers receive at least 200 messages a day and spend about two-and-a-half hours reading and replying to emails. On average, we check emails 15 times a day.” (Forbes)

Mike and I are not the only ones starting to rethink how mobiles impact on our health and wellbeing. So I’d invite you to experiment with your mobile behaviour, at home and at work. Reflect on how any changes make you feel, whether you lose a sense of connection, or whether you feel more connected to those physically present in your lives. Look at how you’re managing your emails and consider whether you’re getting distracted by them both at work and home. When you’re at your desk, can you switch email off to focus on work instead? Can you create two or three windows in your day, where you check emails? Can you pick the phone up more? Can you draft emails in the work day when you feel the need, but send them when you’re leaving work so you don’t get a barrage of replies to distract you during the day (I’m crediting business coach Simon Seligman for that one!)?

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