Ditch your desk (and your guilt): A freelancer’s guide to beating stress

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Hi, my name is Hillary and I’m a workaholic.

(And, as a freelancer or entrepreneur, you probably are too. Hang on, I’ll explain.)

Once upon a time, I worked 6–7 days a week, for 14 hours a days, year in, year out. I responded to emails and assignments at 2 AM. I took no holidays, no vacations, and accepted no mercy.

Sounds crazy, right? What’s crazier still: I’m not the only one. The truth is, the workaholism trap is a rite of passage among almost every self-employed person I’ve met.

How does that happen? Didn’t we leave the 9–5 to ‘pursue our dreams’ or something?

We depart cubicle nation to become our own boss… but what we don’t realize is that we’re now our own employee, too. And wow, does our boss suck sometimes.

I remember watching friends with desk jobs take tropical vacations and spend days (!!!) out of their inboxes while I sat in front of my screen on Christmas, Thanksgiving, my birthday, and most weekends.

And you know what? I was proud of it. I was doing it. My will trumped all. Stress? Pish posh. I was a steamroller of productivity.

But what I really was, of course, was completely insane.

Yes, my work was getting done, but my body was crumbling. I ate like garbage. The small of my back cramped. I dreaded checking my emails. Every project exhausted me, and I was drowning in a tidal wave of work I’d created.

Then, one day, I woke and realized I’d put on 15 pounds and was always in pain or on the verge of tears. When was the last time I’d showered? When was the last time I’d put on pants?

I had to do something.

Naturally I headed straight to Google, and started researching the effect stress has on the body.

I realized the pieces of me I felt were falling apart — my moods, aches, sleeplessness forgetfulness, etc. — all tied back to stress.

In ‘I’m not a doctor terms’: Constant stress puts our brains in emergency mode and causes our bodies to release a constant, unpleasant avalanche of hormones (like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine). As a result, our immune systems get crushed, muscles tense up, and we put ourselves on the fast track to issues ranging from anxiety and heart disease to high blood pressure, obesity, and acne.

There it was. The truth. Clearly, I had some unlearning to do. So, step by step, day by day, I started to make de-stressing a must: for my health, my work, and my future self. It was time to stop being a steamroller, and rearrange my priorities, instead of ignoring them in the name of cash.

Along the way, I learned how a few small changes made a universe of difference.

Set boundaries around the way you want to work

70% of the reason I was crushing myself with projects was because I had absolutely 0 boundaries in place. I always answered that call or email no matter what time of day or night it was because I was terrified that if I didn’t, my clients would drop me.

While I couldn’t simply drop all my projects, what I could change was my approach. Slowly, I worked on pushing my anxiety aside and explained to clients that I was sorry, but this edit would have to wait a day or a weekend. I began to be honest with myself, and with them, about what I was capable of doing. I raised my prices so I could ease my workload and still pay the bills.

And you know what? Everyone understood.

The better your boundaries, the more time you give yourself for individual projects, and the more happily focused you become as a result. (It’s also a great way to stop dreading emails, and breaking out into cold sweats in the middle of the night).

Breaks are important. Respect your need for them.

When you’re in the heat of the hustle it’s so easy to sneer inwardly at the happy vacationers on Facebook or Instagram because they obviously don’t work as hard as you do.

The truth is, they probably do. They just make their free time non-negotiable, and understand that taking time away from their desks gives them space to breathe and recharge.

I started small, taking 20 minutes to walk to go get lunch, read a book for a bit, or even just watch a silly 30 minute show before getting back to work. As it turns out, this actually helped my procrastination tendencies, as instead of being half brain-dead and scrolling through Facebook, I was refreshed, recharged, and ready to really work.

Stop working so late at night, ya lunatic

I have to credit my partner for this, as he’s the reason I forced myself to learn how to close my damn computer by 7 or 8 PM, and take the evening off. When you work from home, it’s easy to let your days spill into nights, but it will exhaust you. And exhaustion makes you easy prey for negative distraction patterns.

Settle on a sane cutoff time and do your best to stick to it. Work until a logical time, then set down your laptop, put your phone on silent, and go do something to relax before bed. Chances are no one’s going to die if you don’t answer that email. The work can wait till morning.

Spend more time out of the house, and with the people you love

The hermit spiral is another common freelancer/solopreneur problem. You can spend weeks in your apartment or home blasting through projects and just feeling too tired to spend quality time being social.

Instead, try using that stress as your reason to switch up your environment, and hang out with your friends.

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Getting up and out of your house by working at cafes, or co-working spaces will make your day feel more structured and help with the isolationism. Making a conscious effort to reach out to friends or loved ones once a week or so to touch base, or grab a drink or a bite, will lighten your mood to no end. Fun stuff with fun people is never a mistake!

Eat, exercise, and sleep well

This should be obvious, but wow does being a McDonald’s-munching-at-midnight couch blob feel so much more convenient than physical activity, or making yourself a salad for lunch.

You might think you don’t have time for better food and sleep habits. If that’s the case, it’s just a matter of being more intentional with the way you schedule your day.

If you’re going to make your health a priority, the way you plan things out is the ultimate tool. Start seeing if you can set your calls and project deadlines around the time it would take to cook lunch and/or dinner, get in 30 minutes of physical activity, and be in bed by a sane hour.

Remember to breathe

While meditation is fabulous, and something I’m learning to adopt more often, not all of us have the patience to sit quietly and ommmm.

When I was working on quitting smoking, I learned a handy little breath exercise that has helped me keep calm in a whole heap of crazy situations since. It’ll cool down your adrenaline, and force your body to relax, just for a moment, so you can think more clearly.

Try it now: take a deep breath. I mean deep. Inhale so deeply, your lungs feel completely full. Hold that breath for 5–10 seconds, and then exhale completely. Meaning not a drop of air left in your lungs. Do this three times. It might blow your mind a little to find out what happens.

Seek out your stress source

Nothing will really change in your life long-term without focused reflection and dedicated action. So if you’re struggling with stress, take some conscious time in the next day or two to make an in-depth list of your biggest stressors. Write them down and start brainstorming steps you can take to shift them out of ‘nightmare mode’ and into ‘totally manageable’.

For example, is money stressing you out? Revisit or create a budget and find ways to save up 3–6 months worth of expenses. It takes time, but having that cushion will put your mind at ease.

Is there one main nightmare client overwhelming you with demands? Sit down and concoct a plan to slowly part ways, or just send a ‘I’m sorry, I’m done’ email.

Got administrative tasks driving you bonkers? Outsource, outsource, outsource. There are thousands of great VA’s out there waiting to be of assistance. Go find them!

Remember: your work is important. But you’ve only got one body.

When you’re dedicated to the work you’re doing, it’s so easy to stumble into that ‘I must work! I must push myself to make more money!’ guilt mentality.

But that little voice in your head that’s telling you you’re lazy, or you’ll lose clients, if you take a weekend to yourself? That voice is a dirty liar. Don’t you forget that.


If you’re feeling crushed under the weight of stress, don’t get angry at yourself that you’re not piledriving through. Instead, take the time to reflect and figure out: What can be changed? How can you stay healthy, sane, and focused, while also giving your clients what they need?

Where there’s a will to chill, there’s most certainly a way.

Now get up out of your desk and take a break already. 😉

Image credit: Joshua Earle, The Oatmeal

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