How to deal with stress as a freelancer

How do you deal with stress as a freelance designer? I can’t promise some epic cure for stress but after Redmatter issued the next blog post challenge about sharing something we’ve done and learned from over the summer,  I thought I’d write about just that. Essentially, how I’ve identified and dealt with what I would call some pretty stressful periods over the last few months. Hopefully this post will help you identify what’s causing your stress bubble and help you figure out a way to solve it and become more productive. Here’s hoping…

Being a freelance designer, freelance illustrator, web developer, photographer, writer, marketer or whatever you are is guaranteed to have it’s stress pockets and it can sometimes feel like you’re falling at super high speed down a dark bottomless well of stress and panic. You will have to deal with often harsh deadlines, perhaps some difficult clients, complicated projects, not to mention keeping up with the latest trends and technology. Sometimes, it can feel like it’s a little too much to deal with. On top of that, if you’re like me, it’s often just you, in a room, by yourself, trying not to have a freak out.

Over the past three years I’ve taken on new clients and lots of fabulously interesting projects and I’m lucky enough to say (or I work hard enough to say) that most of these clients are returning customers and therefore, I’ve got a pretty steady flow of work coming in regularly from these guys. Moreover, in the past year, I’ve also thrown myself into networking and collaboration which has brought even more great new projects into the studio and has accidentally, increased my social life activities quite a bit. This is all great news for the business and I am definitely not complaining. But when does just enough, become too much to cope with?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It sounds like a great opportunity to expand and employ someone. Sure, it does but that’s a whole other story for a whole other blog but having thought long and hard about it, I don’t want to expand into an agency. That brings a whole other wheelbarrow of headaches. I’m super happy doing what I do. I’m still able to be flexible and work around my schedule, take time out and work from wherever I feel. To take someone on would change the whole dynamic and too be honest, I don’t want the added stress. That’s not to say though, that I’m not getting help. More on that later.

Identify What’s Causing you to stress…

So, what’s my issue? I’ve been known to work ridiculous hours, deprive myself of sleep and in the end, burn out completely which makes me useless to everyone, but why do I do it? There are a few reasons; the obvious is I want to make money to pay my bills and enjoy life. I want to do a really good job when someone hire me so that they come back for more and at the route of the problem most of the time is the fact that I’ve agreed to a completely unrealistic deadline in an attempt to gain favor and convince them that I’m some sort of super designer. It’s crazy. If I’m booked solid for a couple of months and a client rings on a Friday morning and needs something new for the Monday (especially if it’s an existing client), most of the time I’ll say ‘Yeah, no problem!’. Arghh! Then I kick myself because I’ve just agreed to the impossible. This approach has caused a great deal of stress, anxiety and sleepless nights. If I was burning myself out so often, how was I going to keep this up? How long before I wouldn’t be able to complete anything and I would let a client down? Am I really doing the job to the best of my ability if I’m trying to do fifteen things at once?

Your issues could be similar. Stress when you work for yourself can be caused by any number of things. Worrying about money, dealing with a difficult situation in your personal life and not making time for work. It could be worrying about your selling skills, your people skills once you’ve got the job, dealing with a client who just doesn’t understand what you do. Any number of things. The most common I’ve found when chatting to people are things like time management and keeping up to date with skills and technology. Whatever it is, there is a solution but you musty identify it so that you can solve it.

What you can do…..

Ask for help

A common mistake some freelancers make is thinking that they can do it all. As I’ve said in previous posts, numerous times, things like bookkeeping, accounting and general admin can all be outsourced so you can concentrate on what you’re good at. If you’re not financially ready to pay for outsourcing this stuff, make sure you set specific time slots to do these jobs otherwise they’ll pile up and you’re going to drown in paperwork. For me, I take a few hours at the beginning of every month to sort my receipts and log invoices for the previous month and file them into orderly folders. I still deal with all my own emails and phone calls throughout the day but again, set some time slots to check email and return any calls you might have missed while you were super busy concentrating on your job. For more on time management and how to have a productive day, read this!

For me though, and I’m sure for a lot of you, it’s the volume of work that’s the stress egg. I touched on the fact earlier that people will tell you that it’s time to expand and employ someone but that brings it’s own stress and troubles. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, in any shape or form and if that’s where you plan to go with your business then hey, go for it! This isn’t where I’m headed but I’ve found the best option for me which is the best of both worlds. I use freelancers, just like me. It’s been a way of growing the business without having to worry about health and safety and pay roll and all the other headaches. It has also meant that I can offer clients a full service because I have the resources to take on more without having to pay for a full time employee. This isn’t something to jump into lightly but I’ve built up a small network of creatives with various skills. Creatives that I have a great relationship with and that I trust to do a good job. In return, I pay them for their time. There might be a month or so where I want to take on all the jobs but there might be other times where I’ve got too much to do and I need a little help. It’s a great way of eliminating some stress while still keeping clients happy.

Learn to say no

I mentioned that there are times when I’ve agreed to an insane deadline and then a slow rise of panic begins when I realise it’s probably a little impossible. I love my clients and I want to keep them happy, which is why I do it but you must remember that you’re human, they’re human too and if it’s just not attainable you have to say so. Well, don’t just blurt out ‘NO!’ down the phone at them but explain that to do a good job for them you need x amount of time and that the time frame they’ve given you isn’t going to allow you to produce something you’d be happy with handing over. Explain that you want to give them the best product you can and this is what it’ll take. More often than not, they’ll understand and if they don’t? Well, you win some and you lose some. Don’t stress though, if you’ve done great work for them before, likely hood is they’ll try again next time and perhaps even give you a bit more notice.

Take time out

If you burn out, you’ll be no good to anyone. It’s so important to actually take time out and do something different, away from your screen. I don’t mean sit down and watch a crappy TV show. I mean get outside and do something. Get out in the fresh air, go walking, go cycling, go and have a drink with some friends and do it preferably, without your email notifications turned on. It’s pointless to say, ‘Don’t take your phone!’. Especially this day and age but at least put it on silent and enjoy some quiet time. Your not going to be able to switch off if you can hear emails coming through.

To elaborate on this. Don’t feel guilty about taking some holiday time. It’s difficult as a freelancer to organise a whole week off sometimes and often, trying to arrange the time off with multiple clients can be stressful in itself. However, it’s so important. Give everyone enough notice, remind them as the weeks go on and let them know, in no uncertain terms that you will not have access to a computer or a smartphone and won’t be contactable at all. It’s the only way. If they need urgent work done before you go away you will have given them enough notice to get the brief to you so you can complete it before you leave. They’ll also appreciate that you’ve kept them in the loop and not disappeared of the face of the earth.

Set office hours

This was one of the most important lessons I had to learn over the last 3 years. A lot of people I’ve met have assumed for some reason that if you’re a freelancer, then you work whenever. They take it as gospel that you’re going to be on call all hours of the day and over weekend. I’d say that was pretty unfair. Sure, we have to work overtime sometimes to get a job done but who wants to live working 24 hours a day. Often, I’ve had phone calls come through at 8:20pm in the evening and even 10am on a Saturday morning. When I used to answer ( I don’t anymore), I’d get a client asking  ‘Just checking in to see if you were going to send me a first draft today?’ or ‘Evening, just wondering if you could make some amends on that brochure right now?’. Um, no. It’s the weekend or the evening and I’ve given you a delivery date that’s 2 days from now.

Don’t be afraid to set office hours and stick to them! Mine are 9-5 and I don’t answer calls or emails after 6pm at all if I can help it. (she says, uncertainly) If I have a deadline for a particular client that’s upcoming then of course I might make an exception but on the whole, my office hours are exactly that. I’m in the office, and out of those hours, I am elsewhere. It’s super important to try and separate your work time from your leisure time. Not only to make sure you get a proper break, but because if it all blurs into one you’re going to run out of steam and end up banging your head against the wall. It could be difficult at first but with all rules, people get used to them.

Get some shut eye

I’m sure you’ve all read the countless articles out there about sleep and health and the benefits and this was definitely a major issue for me. It was so hard to shut off in evenings and stop my brain from dreaming about the pile of work I had to do the next day. Not surprisingly, this would affect my performance the next day and by 3pm I was reaching for my 5th coffee and my eye would be twitching like a crazy person. Again, how can I possibly do a job to the best of my ability if I’m not looking after myself. I recently began hypnotherapy sessions with Carolyn Spillerand although I know there will be some controversy with this I believe that it’s really helped me be able to switch off. I won’t go into too much of the how’s and what’s but we’ve dealt with stress and sleep and I’ve come to realise how important getting an adequate amount of sleep is. Not only for day to day function but for health reasons and the sessions have really helped me think differently about taking the time to sleep and getting to sleep has been much easier. I highly recommend addressing it if you have an issue with getting enough sleep, whatever the right way of doing that might be for you.

Chill the hell out

I thought I might end on a lighter note. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Another thing I’ve learned is that some things are just beyond your control and it’s absolutely pointless and downright counterproductive to stress about things you cannot change. If you can change it, think about things rationally and avoid the panic stage as it’ll only make things harder. Figure out what the problem is and find out how you can solve it and make a plan. It’s all about thinking rationally and planning ahead. If you’ve planned and organized what you’re able to, when something goes wrong usually it will be because of something that’s out of your control so therefore….? Therefore, chill the hell out, you can’t change it. If all else fails, smile and ask for some help. We are but mammals after all.


About the author: Jessica Morgan


Graphic Designer and Illustrator and founder of Jessica Draws, Jess is an experienced designer with a love of beautiful, creative visual work. She has produced infographics, illustrations, graphics and digital artwork for all sorts of brands – including Sainsbury’s, Go Compare, IKEA, London Women’s Clinic and many more.

Jess started out as a surface pattern designer for a major greetings card company. She has also worked as a mobile app and web designer, and as part of the Advocate Art agency. Jess has since gone on to establish her position as the go-to designer for some of Wales’s most successful businesses and communications agencies across the UK.

This article was first published by Jessica Morgan