Stress in itself is a natural reaction that has helped us deal with dangerous situations since the beginning of mankind. Nowadays, however, it tends to turn up uninvited and make a mess out of our lives. Stress can cause physical symptoms like headache, stomach problems and insomnia. It can play tricks with our memory, steal our focus and even throw us into depression.
For too long, I have bought into the idea that stress is an unavoidable part of freelancing. That superhuman productivity is the ideal and that resting is something you do later, once you are done, which, to be honest, you never really are. So, you overwork, but since you love what you do, that’s no problem, right?
Not until your stress is so suffocating that you can’t pretend it’s not there anymore.
Not until it makes you secretly hate what you do, because you are too exhausted to enjoy it.
Not until your body screams for you to stop.
For years, ‘Fine, I just have a lot of things to do right now’, has been my standard reply when people ask me how I am. Recently, my ‘Fine’ has started to turn hollow. There are just a lot of things. It is affecting both my body and my mind. But I am dealing with it now, and each time I pull myself back onto my feet, I am one step closer to overcoming my stress. I realized there was so much I wanted to say on this topic that I decided to divide it into three separate articles that will be published over the next three weeks. If you find it helpful or know someone who might benefit from reading it, feel free to pass it along.
Carving out time for a clear-out
It seems counterproductive to take a break when you have a thousand things to do, but that is often when you need it the most. Yesterday, I woke up at 4.15 am and couldn’t go back to sleep. I packed my camera, my lunch and a notepad and walked to a nature-reserve close to where I live. For seven hours, I just walked around through the drizzle, filming the subtle movements of nature, allowing my thoughts to come and pass. After finding myself in the middle of the World Masters Orienteering Championship for veterans, I went back home and wrote about my thoughts, considering all the things I thought I had to do and figuring out which of them really mattered.
The mere thought of taking a whole day off would normally make me cringe, but I needed that break and that time to reflect. Just like we have to clear out our physical environment once in a while, we need to pay attention to our mental clutter. You don’t have to go away somewhere for a whole day, but I encourage you to carve out at least an hour to stop and evaluate your commitments. It will pay back in clarity.
When I clear out my desk, I like to gather everything in a pile, away from my desk, and deal with each item, one at the time. Some of them belong on my desk, so I put them back. Some belong in other places, in a binder, perhaps, or the kitchen. Some need to be dealt with immediately, some can be stored somewhere for later, some can be thrown away. My point is, there is not enough space for all of the items on my desk, just like there is not enough space for all of the items in your mind.
You can clear out your mind in a similar way. Start by gathering all your tasks and commitments in one place, away from your mind. Write down everything you think you need to deal with, everything you have been worrying about lately, both personally and professionally. Then look at your list and figure out where each item belongs. If you have to deal with it soon, set aside a chunk of time on your calendar. If you can’t make space for it there, then you may have to let go of this task for now. Surprisingly, there is almost always something you can let go of, something that turns out to be not quite as important as you thought it was. If you could only do three of these things, which would you choose, and why? What if you could only do one? How many of them can you get rid of? Look at each item and ask yourself: Is this really urgent? Is this even necessary? If not, put it on a ”Some day” list and let go of it for now.
While you are doing this, take a moment to consider why there are so many items on your list, especially if this is something you experience often. Be brutally honest with yourself. Are you losing focus too often? Are you over-commiting because you don’t want to disappoint other people? Are your deadlines unreasonably tight? Are you placing unrealistic expectations on yourself?
What changes will you need to make in your life to be able to keep your mind uncluttered?
Being aware of your own behaviour is such an important step when you want to change it. If you know how you tend to react, you have a chance of catching yourself before you say yes to another project or stay up until 3 am to perfect something that doesn’t even have to be perfect.
What will you let go of today?
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where I will write about the importance of taking care of your health while dealing with stress. And don’t forget to stop by on Sunday, when I will publish a new interview with two artists who find their inspiration in nature, stories and dreams.