A guest post by Jennifer Jackson
As a freelance writer, time management, having the confidence to send pitches to clients and meeting tight deadlines are crucial for success.
I don’t know about you, but as a person who is a chronic worrier and has recurrent depressive and anxiety episodes, that sentence always gives me knots in my stomach.
How could someone like me succeed in such a competitive and prestigious line of work?
That thought often plagues me. Surely any pitch or article that I would send would be littered with inaccuracies and even punctuation or grammatical errors. Any prospective client would surely laugh at my proposal and I’d be lucky if they’d reply with a refusal!
Does this sound familiar to you? Did you expect someone else to voice the very doubts that you’ve been having? Or did you think that the fact that you have these doubts in the first place is just an indicator of incompetence?
You’ll be pleased to know, as I was pleased to learn from Learn Freelance Writer founder Emma Rowlands, that none of the negative thoughts are true, and that having such thoughts is a very common phenomenon known as Imposters Syndrome. This is something common among many people trying to better themselves in one way or another.
However, for those of us who have a formal diagnosis of generalised anxiety, or who have another condition in which acute anxiety is an integral part; this can make Imposters Syndrome a lot more intense, a lot harder to overcome. It often has a domino effect on even the most basic parts of our lives. So, when you are prone to such bad anxiety and such low mood that it can stop you from getting out of bed for several days at a time; how do you overcome it enough to make a success out of freelance writing?
I’m new to freelance writing, so this is only what I have learned so far; and I’ll keep you posted with any more helpful tips that I find along the way. However, in the short time that I have been doing freelance writing, and during my most recent Masters, as well as having times of caving in to anxiety and completely ceasing productivity; I have also found some very helpful coping mechanisms which have helped me to be very productive.
Breaking through the barriers of anxiety and depression as a freelance writer involve identifying, and subsequently avoiding unhelpful coping strategies; and trying new strategies which help you to be brave and to submit those pitches and articles. So, here’s a few starting tips.
- Be kind to yourself- unconditionally.
On your worst days; it’s hard to do even the simplest things. There are times when you can’t leave the bed except to eat, drink, go to the loo, and that’s it. On such days, you’re not lazy, or any other negative adjective; you’re having a bad day because you’re ill. You wouldn’t berate yourself for having a duvet day if you had a stomach bug or any other physical illness; so why should you when your mental health flares up? Listen to your body and mind equally. If they tell you that you need to rest, or that you just can’t face getting out of bed; then listen to it. Make sure that you inform your clients so that you can get an extension and get a few days’ rest. Don’t be afraid to be honest with clients. Mental health is equally as legitimate as physical health; and if any of your clients can’t sympathise with that, then do you really want to make yourself more ill by writing for them? Whatever you do, don’t berate yourself. You haven’t failed, and you’re not inferior or hopeless; you’re just anxious and/or depressed. Tomorrow is another day, and next week is another week, next month is another month, and so on. For all the bad or unproductive days that you have, there will be good and productive ones where you will achieve more in one day than you have in weeks. Believe me, I know this from experience.
You’re probably wondering how you can ‘fast forward’ to a more bearable day where you can face the world and be productive again. Cue my next point.
- Take things one small task at a time.
On your worst days, if you set your goals too high (for example, “I must write 500 words”) then you’ll set yourself up to fail. Why? Because all you’ll end up doing is giving yourself a sense of dread, and subsequently burying yourself further under the duvet with thoughts of “I should be doing this” and “I’m not doing this, therefore I’m inferior” making everything seem less and less attainable. So, take everything one step at a time… and I mean, everything. Sit up, put your feet on the floor, stand up and walk to the kitchen, put the kettle on, etc… Once you focus only on those small tasks, you’ll find that you’ll start to gradually relax, because focusing on the basics is a relaxing process. You’ll also find that as you become more relaxed, you’re gradually more able to do bigger tasks (for example, get dressed for the first time in days). As you become more relaxed, the last thing that you want to do is to end up back at where you started. So, how can you get your writing assignments done without flaring up your panic attacks, avoidance and depressive episodes all over again?
- Make a list of why you CAN do this.
I learned this very recently. Even though I had the possibility of a client who I really wanted, a huge anxiety flare-up and confidence crisis made me freeze and avoid sending the pitch. I’ve always responded better to the carrot than to the stick, so realising that I was getting nowhere by being angry with myself for letting anxiety take over; I decided to try a new tactic. I thought “I’ve actually come much further than I ever thought possible. So, why not make a list of all the things that I’ve achieved despite the odds”. So, I made a list which was entitled “I CAN do this because I’ve done…” Yes, there have been times that I have “failed” and plenty of things that I haven’t achieved. However, I wasn’t going to focus on that, I was just going to focus on the positives, and that’s what you should do too. I guarantee that you’ll have things to write when you stop and think about it. Everyone has something to be proud of and challenges that they’ve overcome no matter what their walk of life is. Think of all the times that you forced yourself to get out of bed and walk your dog, look after your kids, or go to a job that you hated. Or of the time that you decided to put your health first, leave your job and take the brave step towards freelance writing. All those things take a tremendous amount of courage, strength and endeavour. So, write down all the things that you’ve achieved or feel proud of, however big or small; and I guarantee you, that you’ll look at the list and think, “if I could overcome/do that, then I can definitely do this pitch too”. Doing this helped me to put anxiety to bed and get several pitches sent, and if I can do it, then so can you. Read this list before you do each pitch or assignment and add each pitch and assignment to the list as you go along.
- Make a list of what you need to do.
At an initial glance, this sounds like I’m trying to teach your granny to suck eggs! (I would usually say Google it if you don’t know what it means, but in this instance, with the unlimited interpretations of the internet, perhaps don’t!) As freelance writers, lists are invaluable for juggling different pitches, writing assignments and general chores, so this won’t be unfamiliar to you. However, sometimes if you just write lists, the seemingly undefeatable number of tasks glaring up at you is enough to make you run and hide under the duvet. So, don’t just write a list. Prioritise. First, you need to write the list to get it all out of your brain and onto paper. Then, you need to come up with whatever works best for you in terms of prioritising and coding the list from most to least important. I find it best to highlight urgent things that need to be done today or at the very latest tomorrow in one colour, then things that can wait until tomorrow or two or three days later in another colour; and then things that can wait until the end of the week or next week in another colour. Don’t do any more than three tasks per day. It’s better to do a small number of tasks well than a lot of tasks sloppily. Look at your list every day, tick off everything as you go along, and make a new list every week. Doing this not only helps you to stay focused, it also helps you to realise that tasks can be broken down into much smaller chunks than you’d think, and that everything isn’t “equally as pressing and urgent”, so it also comes as a huge relief!
- Take Rescue Remedy, Kalms or Valerian Extract.
Once you’ve done everything above and you’re sitting at your laptop pumped up with determination and adrenalin, how do you keep that adrenalin at just the right balance so that you don’t tipple over the edge into an anxious flap? I find that over the counter remedies such as St John’s Wort, Rescue Remedy, Kalms and anything which contains Valerian Extract tremendously helpful in relaxing me enough to be productive, but not so much that I’m zombified. To give you an example of the efficacy of over the counter herbal remedies; after failing my practical driving test, a whopping five times due to anxiety, I went to my fourth driving instructor who was much more understanding about anxiety. He advised that I could take as much Rescue Remedy as I needed to, and there was nothing in it that could make me over the limit or otherwise impair my judgement, yet it would calm me down tremendously. I took his advice and drank a whole bottle and passed sixth time lucky! Always check with a pharmacist or doctor to see if whatever you choose to take is OK to take with any prescribed medication that you’re on. Don’t let that deter you though, because there are lots of different over the counter herbal medications, so you are bound to find one that suits you; and they really do make the world of difference to my anxiety levels. I often take one just before I’m about to do a pitch or assignment, and it helps to calm me down enough to complete the task.
- Practice Mindfulness or go for a walk in the countryside.
I have a nasty habit of thinking that I “don’t have time to go out and get fresh air or do mindfulness”, and hone in on doing writing and only writing. This means that I forget to get dressed and attend to my other basic needs to function as a human being, and subsequently end up curdling my brain into an indecipherable slop, and doing very little, or no writing. I’m advising myself as well as you when I write this, but I have found that every time I have gone for a walk, and just focused on what I can see, hear, feel, smell and touch around me, this has really cleared my head of all the clutter in my brain, and the sheer beauty of it has massively lifted my mood. Having a brisk walk or a swim has also helped me to get my endorphins pumping and has then spurred me on to be productive for some more of the day. Try doing some form of exercise (however gentle or intense is best for you), and then taking your laptop to somewhere other than your usual place of writing such as a café or a library. This has worked wonderfully for burning off anxious energy and then having enough endorphins to work productively. A lot of people find mindfulness and relaxation smart phone apps such as “head space” and “breathe” very helpful; but I find their voices stupendously irritating, so I tend to just do the recommended exercises (which can also be learned through a wealth of literature) without listening to the insincere monotones! Try them for yourself to see what you think!
- Set a timer.
When you are sitting down to do a task, don’t make my frequent mistake of falling into one of the very toxic traps of either “I’m going to set aside the whole day to do this”; or “I am not moving from this laptop until it is done!” These are not goal specific and seem so endless that you’ll put it off for as long as possible with cleaning or cooking becoming a sudden burning interest! Or, you’ll sit at the laptop and write a few sentences for about five minutes, and then spend the next two hours browsing Facebook and finding out that your stripper name is Polka dot Cornflakes Babe, that Caroline from work has had a Full English for breakfast, providing the informative review of “nom nom”, and that Becky from school’s little bundle of horror has a runny nose. After feeling suitably enlightened by this information, and feeling some unknown satisfaction from sharing some banal information of your own, you know that you need to break off and do your work, but you can’t. So how do you get out of this trap? You need to set yourself small chunks of time in which you will do nothing but this assignment. Set a timer for at least twenty minutes, but for no longer than an hour. I find it helpful to make a list of what I’m going to do in that time (e.g. research X) prior to setting a timer, or to write non-stop without policing what I’m writing until the timer goes off (you can always edit it later in the day after you’ve had a break). As one writer and very good mentor said to me, “you can’t work from a blank page”. Even if you end up changing a lot of what you have written in the set time, at least you have something to change; which you otherwise wouldn’t have if you didn’t set yourself specific chunks of time in which to work solidly.
- Set a reward.
In regular jobs, you clock off from your shift and enjoy the time that you’re not at work (or dread going in). Either way, you have a break and switch off from “work mode”. If you’re freelance writing or studying full time, it is very difficult to switch off from work mode because the assignments are constantly hanging over you with no set shift patterns to complete them in. It’s crucially important that, after the timer goes off, have a rewarding break such as a snack, and make yourself a drink; and then after you’ve done everything that you need to for the day, clock off from emails and other “work” things, and do something nice such as reading for leisure, binge watching Netflix, having a hot bubble bath, or meeting up with a friend. This will all help you to feel relaxed and rested enough to face another day of writing the next day. Also make sure that you keep weekends free (or at least one day in the weekend) free and go somewhere different for the day such as the nearest coastal beach, or a national trust site or a family walk; something that allows you to spend quality time with the people who you love, and to give your brain a serotonin boost and a rest from writing deadlines.
The most important thing to remember, is that you’re not alone in how you’re feeling; and that what you’re feeling is important and worthy of acknowledgement. I once had someone brush off my admission of anxiety with “but everyone worries”. Yes, everyone does worry, but not to the debilitating effect that we do. We don’t need sympathy, but we do need understanding. Make sure that you keep yourself well by distancing yourself from people who say these dismissive comments (as well as the age old “writing isn’t a real job”!) Surround yourself with people who are loving and supportive and have as much time alone as you need to. Make no apologies for who you are and what you need; because if you are too eager to please others and you take all the negative comments on your shoulders, then you will have no energy left for your writing.
Take care and believe in yourself.