Stress and burnout were a pretty heavily recurring theme of much of my work last month. As a mental health journalist, it was a pretty good warm-up, because April is National Stress Awareness Month!
It’s also the end of the tax year – or, as I like to call it, Freelance New Year – and, as you might remember from my first blog post of 2017, I love any excuse for a fresh start. Blank spreadsheets, new stationery, and a fresh set of goals and targets.
This year it’s more significant than ever. After my new calendar year didn’t get off to such a great start, April is the first month when I’m really able to get back into the swing of things.
Managing stress as a small business owner
A few weeks ago someone at QuickBooks contacted me about their plans for Stress Awareness Month. Throughout the month, they’re hoping to open up a conversation around stress in the workplace, including top tips for freelancers and small business owners. I was really flattered to be asked to be part of that conversation – particularly after I confessed that I use rival accounting software FreeAgent, not QuickBooks, to manage my finances!
I’ve been freelancing either full or part-time for the last three years, and while there are countless things I love about it, there’s no denying it comes with its own unique set of stresses and challenges. I also increasingly work with a number of small business clients, providing content for their websites and blogs – so I know small business owners come up against many of the same problems, and I hope the lessons I’ve learned along the way are helpful for them too.
This is one of my favourite subjects – and one of the most compelling reasons for going freelance – but it’s also a real challenge to get right. Managing your own time is a wonderful kind of freedom, but you really do have to actually manage it. For me, that’s all about listening to my body:
1. Working at the times when I’m most alert.
For me, that’s usually first and last thing, with a slump in the middle of the day which I’ve long since given up trying to work through!
2. Taking proper breaks for lunch and naps.
Scientifically proven to make you more efficient.
3. Getting plenty of exercise.
Whether that’s a lunchtime swim, a post-work jog, or even just a walk around the block to buy the morning papers.
4. Wearing proper clothes.
Pyjamas are fine for the odd day when you can afford to take it easy, but getting washed and dressed for work most mornings is a really useful part of your self-employed routine.
5. Seeing other humans.
It’s very easy to go an entire day where the only living beings you communicate with are the office cats. But even us introverts need some human interaction now and again, and it’s a great way of to get ideas flowing if you’re feeling blocked. I love finding an excuse to meet people for coffee or lunch – whether it’s a potential client, a fellow freelancer, or an editor.
6. Switching off.
Having a separate, designated work space is so vital – whether that’s a home office in your spare room, or hiring a desk in a co-working space. I have to admit I’m still bad at this, but there’s something really powerful about closing the door on your workspace at the end of each working day, and leaving your iPhone alone for the evening.
I’ve only got on top of this myself relatively recently, but imposing some work-life balance on your finances is a great way to ease the stress of irregular cash flow.
7. Accounting software.
As I said, I use and love FreeAgent, but there are other options that might work better for you. Personally, I find that FreeAgent takes all the stress out of invoicing, managing my income and expenses, and chasing up late payments. It saves me so much time compared to entering everything into a spreadsheet by hand. Plus it generates handy graphs to track my monthly income, and I can file my self-assessment to HMRC directly from within their interface. (We both get 10% off if you sign up using my referral link.)
8. Separate bank accounts.
This has been my most recent innovation (radical, I know) but it really has made such a difference. I’ve been meaning for ages to find some way of separating out my regular expenses (mortgage, bills, insurance, business expenses, etc.) from my everyday spending – or what my client Ayesha Giselle calls my “self-care budget”. Then my husband got a new job at Starling Bank, a brand new start-up bank offering straightforward, mobile-only current accounts. Well, it seemed like the ideal opportunity – so I signed up for an account as one of their friends and family BETA testers. Knowing how much I spend on monthly essentials and business costs means I can use my main account for standing orders and direct debits. Whatever income is surplus each month goes straight into my Starling account, for me to spend on whatever I fancy. Not only has it made managing cash flow much easier, it’s also a really nice way to support my husband’s work after years of him proofreading my articles! (Again, obviously other bank accounts are available.)
I’m naturally a bit of a control freak, so this is probably the part of freelancing I’ve struggled with least. Despite that, being 100% reliant on your own organisational abilities can still be a challenge. Fortunately, there are three tools that I completely and utterly swear by to keep things in order. I think I’d lose my mind if I was ever without them.
Basically my second brain. This digital notebook takes some getting used to but, once you’ve figured out how it works best for you, it’s absolutely invaluable. I use the desktop, iPhone and iPad versions to keep on top of everything from recipes to receipts. I’ve got folders for article ideas, client and editor contact details, paperwork copies, blog posts to read later, and travel plans. My favourite feature though is the web clipper, which allows you to save articles, emails and information directly from your browser. (You can have a month’s free trial of the premium subscription if you sign up using my referral link.)
10. Bullet Journal.
Although I’m incredibly reliant on Evernote for all my digital notes, there’s still no match for good old fashioned pen and paper. My version of the popular bullet journal format is much less pretty than the ones you’ll see on Instagram. I use a Moleskine notebook, a selection of multicoloured fine liners, and a basic to-do list plus journal layout. I also have monthly habit tracking pages, and an ongoing list of books to read, editors to pitch, and articles to write. Scruffy brain dumps win over delicately patterned borders, for me. As a cure for writer’s block, it never fails.
This Gmail plug-in is the only email hack I’ve ever tried and liked enough to stick with. As the name suggests, it brings old emails back to the top of your inbox at a time of your choosing. So perfect for reminding you to follow up on emails that haven’t yet had a response. I can’t believe how regularly I use it to successfully nudge editors who’d just missed my pitch first time around. Its other brilliant function is ‘send later’, which I use to schedule those emails I don’t want to send straight away, but also don’t want to forget about! Obviously, I have a referral link.
Have a happy and stress-free New (tax) Year!