When you ‘haven’t done any work…’
Self-compassion for the self-employed.
I’ve spoken to quite a few freelancers recently who have told me, sheepishly, ‘I haven’t done ANY work today.’
What people usually mean by this is one or more of the following:
- I haven’t done anything on my computer
- I haven’t done anything traditionally linked to making a sale eg. cold-calling, outreach, social media posting, meeting.
- I haven’t done any boring admin
- I haven’t worked 9–5 (5–5:30 at best…)
Any of these feel familiar?
Since becoming properly freelance 3 years ago (eg. no regular income from a part-time job), I have been redefining what work means to me. I used to feel that unless I was drained at the end of the day from screen time and output, I wasn’t really ‘doing anything.’
Two years ago I came across the radical idea of a ‘to be list’ rather than a ‘to do list’. Yes, we may get through our tasks like a boss, but how have we been while doing them? Stressed? Anxious? Have we been kind and patient on the phone to people? Have we taken time to eat, to breathe? Have we actually had a good quality day?
As a freelancer responsible for our own income, we can feel the pressure to be doing ALL THE TIME. But here are some reflections and things to bear in mind when the inevitable self-employed guilt creeps in…
1. If it’s ‘you’, it’s ‘work’.
Once you work for yourself, you are the product/service: technically anything you are doing is work. Anything you are putting into your body and mind — be that inspiration from a conversation, sleep, exercise, a nourishing afternoon playing music or dancing — it’s all part of your work. Because it’s all you.
2. Integration time.
It takes a lot of energy to work for yourself — allow yourself time to integrate and process all the experiences you’re having. If there is a day where you don’t feel like ‘doing’, see it as an internal processing day.
3. Learn to trust your body’s rhythms.
If you’re too tired to do anything — sleep. Your motivation will come back, I promise. You are your own boss. Listen to your body and have a nap. You don’t have to work against industrial revolution time frames anymore.
4. Reframe ‘not working’ as ‘getting inspiration’.
As Carousellers our superpower is our ability to cross-pollinate from a range of experiences. It’s when we mix things up and do the ‘other stuff’ that it actually gives us clarity on the ‘main stuff’. So even if you feel you’re ‘off-task’, trust that whatever you’re doing is giving you a new perspective. Sometimes after I’ve had a phone call with a friend I take 5 minutes to make notes on themes that have come up, and ideas it’s generated. Everything is part of the puzzle.
5. Be open to serendipity.
We can’t always predict which of the things we do in our day will generate the biggest opportunities. So often on my days of truly giving in to ‘doing nothing’ I have ended up bumping into friends/clients in London and having exactly the conversation I needed to have to take my business forward.
6. Change your state.
Because we spend half an hour dancing around the kitchen, we are then in a much better mood to have a client chemistry call. Because we had a long chat with an old friend (oh the guilt) we’ve then got the motivation and energy to bash out some emails. Spend a few minutes doing what you need, rather than 3 hours forcing yourself through the mud.
7. Breathing space.
You know when you’re waiting to hear from someone and they call the moment you put your phone away? There is something about moving away from what we perceive to be the work, that allows breathing space for the things to emerge. This is really really hard to sit with though. Because this ‘breathing space’ can sometimes last for a long time. But what I’ve realised is that in any moment if I do what I truly want to do for my body and mind, if I’m in alignment, then it will be the right thing for my work too.
One of my favourite stories about this was back in Autumn 2016, when I had just started working with a new coach, Emily Johnsson. We uncovered a lot of guilt about ‘doing nothing.’ I believed I had to be ‘ON’ the whole time. Doing doing doing doing. Creating. Forcing. Taking action. I’d hired Emily because I ‘needed more sales.’ Emily encouraged me to turn off my phone and spend the afternoon doing something joyful, something creative. I really resisted because I had ‘SO MUCH TO DO’, but I humoured her and went along with the experiment.
I decided to write a poem for my friend’s birthday. I was in total flow and didn’t notice the time. When I turned on my phone a few hours later, I had an email from a company asking if they could book me for a Christmas workshop and they could pay upfront full price. I couldn’t believe it. I had had nothing for weeks, and then the one moment I stopped ‘working’, I had a booking. The other weird thing was that the company had been on my list of people to contact, but I’d taken them off because I thought it was unlikely that they’d convert: A double ‘stepping back’.
8. Work is not equal to struggle.
Just because something is effortless and fun, it can still be work. When you get to the end of the day and think ‘I’ve done nothing’, take a moment to note down what has made up your day: the conversations, the activities and steps you’ve taken. If it’s felt like flow, you’re doing something right!
So my advice if you’re self-employed and are feeling the guilt? Do what you need to do in that moment and trust that the motivation will come back. Give yourself permission to sleep, meet friends, walk around the park, watch Netflix. Do it for as long as you need, because if you’re meeting your needs, you’re starting from the best foundation possible.