depressed freelancer on the couch with bourbon
Small Business & Productivity

Kate’s 7 Rules for Preventing Freelancer Depression

Freelancing, working from home, self-employment, #bossbabe…however you describe “what you do”, it can be a pretty sweet gig. But when you realize you haven’t put on pants that zip in 4 days and you’re as pale as old bones in Death Valley, you may start to think that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Like most other things in life, freelancing must be approached with some structure. Long solitary hours and an unsteady income stream can wear down even the most Chuck-Norris-of-us. There’s a reason why Googling “freelancer depression” will get you almost 2 million results. (If you’re not already depressed, you will be after reading through some of those articles. It’s a real problem.)

To stave off the sads, I’ve come up with 7 Rules for Preventing Freelancer Depression. I’ll be 100% honest — I still have down days. There can be a lot of loneliness in this lifestyle. And while I generally don’t mind being on my own, there are days I’m staring daggers at the front door until my husband walks in. But by following these rules, I’m able to keep the malaise to a minimum.

(Note — Several of the following points only apply to the able-bodied. The disabled need to take care of their physical and mental health in whatever way is best for them and their specific needs.)

1. Put on pants.

Yes, you can roll out of bed, stagger over to your computer, and immediately start working. But I don’t. At least, not unless I’m facing a tight deadline.  

When you work a 9-to-5, you generally have some sort of morning routine. You wake up at a specific time, shower, brush your teeth, maybe have breakfast, and then start your commute. You’re able to ease into your work day.

Try to keep that same mentality, even when you’re working from home. I get up at 6:30 am every day. I do a short meditation and then do some personal writing for an hour. By 9:00 am, I’ve showered, dressed, had breakfast, and I’m ready to work.

Some days, I go for a mid-morning run. On those days, I’ll start working at 8:00 am, go for my run around 9:30 am, and then shower after that. But no matter what, I’m showered and dressed at some point in the morning.

There is a strong temptation to sit in your Captain America underoos all day. Resist it. “Getting ready” for your day signals to your body and brain that it’s time to work, time to accomplish something. Nothing makes you feel more like a lazy sack o’ crap than to realize it’s 4:00 pm and you still have last night’s sleep fuzz on your tongue. Gross.

2. Leave the house.

Every day. Again, if you’re on a tight deadline, you gotta do what you gotta do. But I make it a point to get my butt out of my chair, and out of the house, at some point every day.

Go for a run or to a workout class. Work from a coffee shop. Run an errand. Take the dog for a walk. No dog? Take the iguana for a walk. No iguana? Now you’re annoying me. Take yourself for a walk.

The difference in my mood between days I leave the house and days I don’t is massive. A change of scenery is a huge factor in preventing freelancer depression.

And I don’t want to hear, “I don’t have time.” Think about all the time that people in offices waste, chatting about their weekends, picking up lunch, letting their brains turn to mush in the 6th pointless meeting of the week…taking 20 minutes to safeguard your mental health is a must. You do have time.
And if you really, really don’t? Quit bragging and raise your rates. I hate you.

3. Take care of your health.

Get Up.

The life of a freelancer is necessarily sedentary. No walking around the office looking for people. No little trips to the copy machine. No trying to avoid that one super annoying coworker who won’t stop talking about Pokemon Go.

If I’m not diligent, I have a very sad Fitbit at the end of the day. So I make sure to get up and move.

Personally, I’m a fan of the Pomodoro technique. In Pomodoro, you work for 25 minutes,  then take a 5-minute break. During my 5 minutes, I get up and do something around the house. I always set a timer so my break doesn’t stretch on for too long. I might do a few dishes, or start a load of laundry, or take the dog out. But I just make sure to get up and do something on my feet for those five minutes.

Work Out.

Also, you need to exercise. Everyone should be exercising. But it goes triple for freelancers. And no, taking the dog for a walk doesn’t count. I’m talking heart-pounding, lungs screaming, muscles aching kind of exercise. My choices of exercise are Orange Theory and running. I do each twice a week. But there are lots of options to suit every budget. With all the sitting we do, it is vital.

Healthy Food to Prevent Freelancer Depression
Eat this stuff.

Eat Well.

Don’t think that if you exercise a few times per week, you’re off the hook when it comes to food. Just because no one is around to see you eat an entire 20-piece McNugget meal for lunch, that doesn’t mean you should do it.

One positive of working from home is that food temptations are drastically reduced. No one is bringing in donuts for breakfast, and there are no office pizza parties, except the ones you throw for yourself.

So keep the food in the house healthy and convenient. Pre-bagged salad mixes are quick, and with a little protein on top, they’ll keep you filled up. And be honest — you can’t do good work when you’re in a food coma.

You have to make your health a priority when you’re a freelancer. Your brain will be clearer, your work will be better, and your mood will be massively improved if you focus on getting plenty of exercise and nutritious food.

4. Make some noise.

I don’t mind quiet. But my husband leaves the house at 8:30 am, and he is not home until 7 pm or later. That’s nearly 11 hours of quiet per day, or 55 hours per week. That’s a long time. So I make sure to get some sound into my ears.

Getting out of the house (Rule #2) will help with this. But playing some non-lyrical music or ambient noise is my method of choice. You should listen to whatever you like, as long as it’s not distracting you from your work. But I highly suggest you avoid anything with lyrics. They are incredibly distracting for most.

I know a very competent controller who listens to TV shows through headphones while she does her job. It helps her to tune out office noise, but she’s still able to be productive. However, she’s a unicorn. If putting on reruns of The Simpsons as background noise turns into watching reruns of The Simpsons, then it needs to go.

5. Keep office hours.

If you’re not working, you’re not making money. So instead of relaxing at the end of the day with YouTube videos and a glass of wine, why not just keep on working? Finish that project. Write a few more emails. Update your portfolio.

WRONG. Pick an ending time, and STOP WORKING. No one is going to set up boundaries for you, so you have to do it yourself. Personal time is a must. The work will still be there tomorrow.

Your hours can be whatever works best for you. I generally work from 9 am to 5:30 or 6 pm. If noon – 8 pm is your preference, then make those your office hours. If you’re a night owl and you want to work from 11 pm to 7 am, knock yourself out.

One important sub-rule that will make this big rule much easier to follow — manage client expectations. We all want to provide the best work to our clients, as quickly as we can. That’s how we get repeat work.

But how urgent is the project? If it’s not hair-on-fire, tell the client it will be done one day later than you think it will be. Then you can exceed their expectations when you deliver it early, and you’ll still get to meet up with a friend for dinner or re-watch that one episode of The Office for the 87th time.

The occasional emergency project will pop up. They always do. But they should be just that — emergencies. If you find that you’ve been putting in 12 hour days for weeks, something needs to change. It’s not sustainable, and you’ll find yourself in a very unpleasant mental space.

6. If you don’t have work, create some.

We all know that freelancing has its ups and downs. Some weeks, the work is flowing, clients are happy, and all’s right with the world. Other weeks, it’s like the well has dried up. There’s no work and no one will ever hire you again!!!

No wonder we’re all suffering from freelancer depression.

Don’t panic. The dust bowl that is your freelancing career is only temporary. Let’s not pack up our covered wagons and head off to California just yet.

Obviously, your first priority is to get some work. Send some cold emails, make calls, reach out to past clients, apply for jobs on freelancer sites if you use them. These are all ways you can try to generate some work and some income.

But there is only so much that you can do in one day. Plus, the danger of applying for too many things at once is…what happens if they all hire you? Now you have too much work. A nice problem, but a problem nonetheless.

So you’ve done all the work-hunting you think you can for today, and there is a lot of day left. No, it’s not time to crack open the bottle of Booker’s. (Also, you have no work. Drink cheaper bourbon.)

I’d be willing to bet that there are things you need to do to work on your business, not in your business. Days like this are your opportunity.

Are there some new InDesign features that you’ve been meaning to learn about? Learn them. Is there a webinar link that’s been in your inbox for 3 weeks? Watch it. Are your financial records a mess? Fix them. Is your website woefully out of date? Update it.

No one likes days when they make no money. But they happen. Use them as an opportunity for continuing education, long term planning, and laying the foundation for future growth.

7. Let it go.

You thought you understood your client’s wishes, but when you delivered, they were unhappy. Maybe there was a miscommunication, or maybe you just made a mistake.

So, like the good little freelancer you are, you apologized and offered to fix it. But they won’t let you. Or they do let you, but no matter what you do, they just don’t like your work.

Here’s a little secret — You can’t make everyone happy. Some people won’t like you or your work. And there is nothing you can do about it.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest. But when we have, and there is just no pleasing that client, channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

This is the hardest part of any job for me, whether it’s working as a freelancer or working a traditional job. I started meditating daily a year before I started freelancing, to help me to handle work anxiety. My never-ending terror at doing a “bad job” was keeping me up at night.

And when I had my first unhappy freelancing client, I was almost ready to throw in the towel. I had worked crazy hours to try to meet a client’s vague requests, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t deliver what he wanted. He ended up terminating the contract, and I was incredibly upset.

But I had to remind myself that I did everything that I could to make that client happy. And since it was not in my power to do so, we were a bad fit. Beating myself up about it will not make me a better fit for that client.

I wish there was a magic mantra I could use that would instantly make me forget a bad working experience. If you find one, please share it. But in lieu, I just have to remind myself that there’s nothing I can do but my best, and let it go.

To wrap it up:

So there they are. My 7 Rules for Preventing Freelancer Depression. When I stick to them, I feel better, my work is better, and I’m an all-around happier human.

Now it’s 6 pm, and my office hours are over. Time for a bourbon.

Anything that you like that I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Need someone to take some writing off your plate? Drop me a line!

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Header photo by Naomi August on Unsplash


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