Five years ago, I couldn’t have managed a part-time job – whether a traditional one, or a self-directed one. The process of moving forward from this has been a learning one, and it is not a situation unique to me. Many people who experience major mental health breakdowns find it difficult to return to work – or in my case, to begin working properly.
Whilst one person’s experience is far from gospel, this is a topic that I feel strongly that people need to talk about more – and so, today I’m going to explore the things that I do as a self-employed person with major mental health issues, and the things I have learnt in that long, five-year process of recovery.
Framing the Situation
To start with, let’s go back to where I said “begin working properly”. This is a phrase we hear a lot in different forms, largely derogatory: get a proper job, do something that involves proper work, and so forth. If you’re anything like me, you’ve both been told these things and told yourself them…many, many times. I still do it sometimes, even though I am now set down this path and have increasing evidence of success. So I know how hard it is to stop beating yourself up in this way.
Even knowing that, I would still encourage you not to.
What on earth is a ‘proper’ job anyway? Whose measure of proper are we using? Is it about making a judgement on how you contribute to society, or how much money you make, how many hours you work or whether or not your salary is stable? Is it whether or not you have a boss, or go into an office, or whether your job title is easily summed up and recognisable?
Measuring ourselves against this invisible bar isn’t something we do on purpose – it’s the intrusive thoughts of mental ill health talking, and though it may trouble us greatly it is still not true or helpful. If your job is good for you, in whatever way that may be, then it is a proper job – if there even is such a thing.
With that established, let’s talk about managing mental health when self-employed, working from home, or similar.
At Dawn, We Plan
Firstly, if you get the reference, well done. You too are worthy.
If you were to ask me what the single most important thing I do to manage my work is, I would tell you two words: bullet journal. Bullet journalling, if you have been living in a Pinterest-free world, is a customiseable form of organising your life commonly associated with beautiful, artistic layouts and fantastic colours. If you want to see the artistic side of BuJo, I really recommend the blog Little Coffee Fox – which will make you want to run out and buy watercolour pens immediately.
My layout is not as fancy, but it is the result of a year of slowly tinkering with it. There are a lot of very popular things that I have experimented with using and no longer use – a habit tracker, for example. Habit tracking was useful for me and I credit it with getting me to do certain things that I was out of the habit of doing (like cleaning my teeth twice a day!). Ultimately, however, I found it tended to make me more anxious than relieving anxiety, as I would become too panicked if I had failed to do something enough.
This is what my bullet journal looks like now before being filled in.
I separate my work tasks from my general tasks so that I can tell whether I have an acceptable ratio of work to not-work. It also makes it easier to refer back to in the future. Everything that I do that falls under the umbrella of work goes in that column – whether it’s book marketing, brand management, doing my monthly accounts, or even writing and running roleplaying events. If it is work, it goes there. This line really helps.
Clearly this is all done with being organised in mind – however, for me, it has a far greater meaning. My anxiety is very fond of rendering me incapable of getting a clear, realistic picture of things. If I fail to clean my teeth one morning, I will become convinced that I have never cleaned my teeth and I am going to get a dozen cavities. If I forget an appointment, I am the worst person ever and I have wasted the time of everyone involved in said appointment.
Having everything laid out like this gives me a counter to that. Look: I cleaned the bathroom every Monday for a month; I had a hugely busy day yesterday and that is why I feel tired today; it doesn’t matter that I forgot what was for dinner, because it’s written right here.
It also serves as a place for me to outline my plan for whatever I’m working on. Let’s look at that in more detail.
Deadlines & Schedules
In almost any job it is inevitable that you will have deadlines to keep and schedules to plan. As an author publisher, doing this is a little odd – generally your deadlines are self-set, and your schedules are yours not just to draw up but to have the idea for in the first place.
This means it’s incredibly easy to schedule yourself badly. When I was first trying to ‘do the working thing’, I overstretched. At that point I was moving towards being an editor, and though I had done a lot of research into it and had the skills, I expected too much too quickly. I would look at it as a part-time job, and then assume that a part-time job meant working for 16 hours a week, and suddenly I would be overwhelmed.
But remember: there is no such thing as a proper job.
If you’re not used to working long hours, don’t. Build it up slowly. If I count the actual hours I spend working now, it’s an average of 2-3 a day. Yes, there are days when I do a lot more – sometimes even more than a traditional work day. In general though I am only now beginning to manage 16-hour weeks.
Similarly, I have to recognise my limits in terms of how many days a week I work. I now do my best to ensure that weekends are sacred; I spend Friday queuing up my social media for the weekend and keep my weekend work to a minimum, unless there are events or things I’m running specifically on a weekend day.
This also applies not just in the planning stages, but on the fly. Sometimes I have bad days. I have days where I sit at the computer, know I need to make a Facebook post or Tweet something, and I just can’t. I just can’t do it. For ages that has scared the hell out of me. Well here’s the secret: no one notices on the days I don’t post.
The internet is full of things, peoples’ lives are complicated and myriad, and unless you have specifically announced something is happening on a certain day…no one will notice if you don’t post. No one will mind. Always blog on a Wednesday? People won’t mind if it’s there on Thursday instead. By all means endeavour to keep deadlines where you can, but give yourself slack where you can. It might just mean you need less slack in the future.
The Value of Research
I’ve never had this job before.
The vast majority of what I am doing now is new to me, and there are few things that give me more anxiety than ‘things I do not know’. It is exceptionally easy to fall down into a spiral of things I don’t know, of how inexperienced I am, of how high the chance of me messing things up is.
This is, obviously, prime real estate for a prep talk. Everything you’ve done in your life has lead to this moment! Basically everyone is doing things that they don’t know how to do! If you weren’t able to do this, someone would’ve said something by now!
And, sure, those things are all true. But the best thing I do to counter this anxiety spiral is: I obsessively research everything.
I’ve been over this a lot in my previous posts about Mundane Magic and the path to self-publishing, plus the resources I used – so this won’t come as a surprise. Truly though, it is the single most effective method. Whenever I am nervous about something, I read up on how to do it.
It doesn’t stop the anxiety, but it sure as hell kicks it in the teeth.
Environment & Wellbeing
Living space is one of the hardest things to handle on a budget and when you cannot change your working area too considerably (such as if you have children, or are starved for space). We’ve all read articles about how your workspace has a huge impact on your wellbeing, and how you should be working in, say, somewhere with tons of natural light or a comfortable chair or as little clutter as possible.
I definitely find that my workspace does have an impact on how I’m feeling. One of the things that I do to help this is that I change things up often – whether that’s moving my setup around, or just spending a day in a different room. It helps break out of the anxiety-inducing sense of being stuck, and it doesn’t rely on me having a thousand pounds to drop on redecorating.
This also extends to bad days. On bad days, I start to try and work by sitting in bed with my laptop. This often means that I manage to do something and then don’t feel quite as awful – sometimes it even means I do something, then feel better for having done it and am able to get up and engage more fully with the day.
As with all of this advice, find what works for you.
Rest, Relax & Celebrate
Lastly, if you do absolutely nothing else I’ve suggested, do these three things:
One. Get some damn sleep. Let me say that again. Get some damn sleep. Schedule it if you have to. Just make sure you sleep enough. It will enable you to – yes, really – work more. If your life doesn’t have room for much sleep, please, try and find a way to make it so. It will have a huge effect on your wellbeing, especially if (like me) your sleep is often disrupted anyway.
Two. Celebrate your victories. Finished a big project? A small one? Started something new? Whatever it is, if it has meaning to you, celebrate it. Tell someone how excited you are by this thing. Eat some cake. Do a happy dance around your kitchen. You deserve it. Now keep doing that – because you still deserve it.
Three. Accept when you cannot do something alone, and ask for help. Wait, I hear you say – you called this section rest, relax and celebrate – why is the third thing asking for help? Well, it’s because asking for help will make you relax. No, seriously. For all that it is terrifying there is nothing more relaxing, more relieving, than accepting that you cannot do something and getting help with it.
If you’ve stuck with this through to the end, congratulations! I refer you to point two. Let me know what you do to maintain your mental health as a self-employed person, or whether you have any secrets from general employment that might apply. I’d love to hear from you.
And remember, as always, to seek professional help if you are experiencing mental distress – whether it’s from your local medical services, global helplines like charities, or just from someone who cares.