I'm writing this from a little apartment in Mexico City, where I've just woken up to my first day of a 4 week vacation around this amazing country. I've just spent a week in LA and Vegas, and while it feels like I have been away for much longer, it still feels surreal to be on holiday. Maybe this is due in part to jetlag, but mostly because my mind is still well and truly stuck in work mode. I feel guilty at the prospect of being away from my business for so long and for my work flow to suddenly come to a halt when I'm so used to riding that momentum from one job to the next.
I think it may take some time to shake this mindset off and decompress from what has been a truly insane few months. From July to October it feels like I literally did not stop once or come up for air. I barrelled through project after project, juggled multiple insane deadlines, and pulled countless all-nighters to get stuff done (something I hate doing), all while working my day job 3 days per week. I literally feel exhausted just from writing that! Now, I'm not attempting to glorify this extreme workload situation, nor would I ever want to promote busyness as some kind of badge of honour. This scenario is just a reality for a lot of freelancers, or those balancing design work with other life commitments. Sometimes shit just gets crazy!
As I have previously mentioned, craft-based design is a niche job with a laborious workload that tends to fluctuate a lot. Sometimes I don't have that much on and can be a bit more chill about producing work, but other times I get inundated with great design opportunities that I really want to take on, and no matter how organised I am, how we'll I've managed client expectations, or how fast I work, I all of a sudden find myself with a bunch of big projects on the go, all with competing deadlines.
This is when I slip into what I call "Deadline Mode", which can kind of feel like a survival challenge. Deadline Mode involves one or more of the following things:
Abandonment of regular sleeping, eating, washing laundry, seeing friends, hydration, grocery shopping, exercise, free time, and most other daily human tasks
Extreme swings in mindset from motivation, determination and enthusiasm to stress, frustration, panic and a whole spectrum of other feelings
Binge eating (hate you/love you Uber Eats)
Binge watching of Law & Order SVU (let it be known that this is actually a positive, not a negative)
So much craft mess, with no time to clean it up so I'm basically living in craftermath for the entire deadline period
Numerous other gross things that adversely affect my mental health
I know I can say no to jobs to try to minimise this happening, and I know this way of working is very problematic but it does seem rife across the creative industry, and I often wonder why it is so common. Perhaps this forms part of a greater conversation about why so many of us encounter this way of working so regularly; why we let it happen, and how this could be related to the bigger picture of how creatives are valued; and how there can be a discrepancy between demand for quality output vs the time (and often money) offered in return. (I touched on these issues a little but in my recent interview on the Never Not Creative podcast.
Perhaps this ("Deadline Mode") forms part of a greater conversation about why so many of us encounter this way of working so regularly; why we let it happen, and how this could be related to the bigger picture of how creatives are valued.
Regardless of why this is happening to me (and believe me I'm working on trying to shift the way I work to avoid it) the reality is, sometimes things get stressful, and when that happens it's good to have an arsenal of tools you can use to combat it. After many Deadline Mode experiences I've learned a lot about the way I work, and how to minimise stress as much as possible so these experiences don't overwhelm me or get in the way of me getting the job done. Like everything, this is a work in progress for me, but I thought I'd share some of my current survival tips in the hope that they can be useful for you when you're next feeling under the pump. Here goes!
1. Trust that it will all work out
If you're like me and have experienced many busy and stressful periods, it could help you to remember that you've been through it all before, and you survived! Sometimes just the simple knowledge that you've overcome seemingly impossible situations can reassure you that you are capable of doing it again this time. You got this!
2. Manage expectations
While it's important to be open with your clients/collaborators about the realities of your availability and how long a project is going to take to complete, it's also super important to be honest with yourself as well. Be realistic about what you can achieve each day and try to spread the load. Overloading yourself with epic expectations that may be physically impossible to achieve is a sure way to increase stress and make you feel like you're failing before you've even begun.
3. Set boundaries and stick to them
Before heading into a stressful period I find it's helpful to identify my limits regarding how far I am willing to physically and mentally push myself to get the job done. It's really easy to push too hard when you have a lot on, which can lead to burnout, breakdowns, and even physical illness. Setting boundaries for yourself (for example, "I will get at least X amount of hours sleep per night, no all-nighters") can help manage the expectations I spoke about in Tip 2. No job is worth compromising your physical or mental health! This should be a daily motto for all of us.
4. Learn from past experiences
After countless creative projects I have learned a lot about the way I work. For example, I know that I spend a lot of time in the planning and development process, with the actual making part happening in a short and super efficient burst towards the end of a project timeline. This happens because it takes a while for my plans to crystallise, but once they do, everything is mapped out to the last detail, leaving only the physical execution to be done. I used to get so stressed about this way of working, viewing this long development time as procrastination, feeling like I was that shit person that always left things until the last minute. But now that I recognise this as my unique way of working and NOT me being lazy, I can ditch the stressing and self-criticism and get on with the job.
5. Use lists as your lifeline
Stress for me can often occur when I have a million to-do’s floating around in my head and no clear idea of how or when they are going to get done. So lists are everything to me! You might not be a list writer but I encourage you to give it a try because they can really help with time management. I like to map out my entire timeline before a busy period begins and assign tasks to each work day. Getting it all out on paper allows me to sort of switch into autopilot and just methodically start working through the list like some kind of craft robot. The key to lists though is being flexible with them and open to the reality that you may need to shuffle tasks around and might not get everything done each day and that's ok. Also, it's REALLY satisfying to cross something off a list, right?! Use a fat red pen, it feels even better!
Sometimes just the simple knowledge that you've overcome seemingly impossible situations can reassure you that you are capable of doing it again this time. You got this!
6. Make yourself comfortable
When you're stressed, the last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable in your work environment. This is not conducive to getting shit done! When I'm in Deadline Mode I always move my work home instead of staying at my studio. Because I often work late, it's way more comfortable to be home rather than at the studio which is in an old warehouse that's quite creepy and desolate at night. While it's not always great to be working on big, messy projects in my little bedroom, at least I am somewhere safe and cosy. Whatever your scenario is, and however you want to do it, making yourself as comfy as possible will help you be more productive!
7. Keep it tidy
Oh man, this one is everything. I am naturally quite a messy person, so I try to reset my workspace at the end of every day during Deadline Mode, no matter how late it is or how much I CBF in that moment. Waking up to a clean, tidy, and organised space, ready and waiting for you to get cracking is a glorious feeling, especially if you're like me and mess = stress.
8. Move your body
Oooh, this one is also a goodie. We know that physical exercise can reduce the effects of stress on our bodies. But often, when you're busy, your normal routine (including time for exercise) goes out the window. Long hours of sitting down with no movement does not make me feel good, so I try to make time for a bit of physical movement every day when I’m busy, even if it’s just a walk to the cafe for a coffee before I start the daily grind, quick breaks throughout the day to stand up and stretch, or time in the evening for a little home yoga session to decompress before bed. Do whatever works for you!
9. Pre-prep meals
When I'm super busy my healthy eating aspirations tend to be replaced by desperate Uber Eats binges or late night scrambling under mountains of craft debris for those 3 crackers I know I left there 2 days ago (and this may be all I eat that day).. These are not good habits! I love a good batch meal prep, so I've recently started doing this when I know I'm about to go into a busy period. It's been really good because I can cook something super healthy and filled with nutrients to help fuel my body so i can survive Deadline Mode, and all I have to do each night is heat it up!
10. Take a break
Sometimes I can become a bit of a martyr to my work, which I hate. When I'm in a busy and stressful time I often feel guilty for even considering resting when there's so much to be done. This is dumb because recharging my brain and body is the key to productivity! If you're a bit the same and find it hard to rest when you're under the pump, it's OK! As weird as it sounds I find that scheduling breaks into my timeline (add it to your to-do list!) is a way for me to make sure I get some rest and gives me the permission to do so, so I don't feel guilty about it. For a mini brain break on the go you might also like to try our mindfulness meditation, it's great for busy people!
11. Practice self care
I love the concept of self care! It should really be a daily thing for all of us but I feel it's especially nice during busy and stressful times. It can take any form you like. For me, I love a luxurious shower or bath! Water is very cleansing for me, so during Deadline Mode I'll end each day with a super hot shower, then do something nice like put on my most bougie body lotion, light some essential oils, get into bed, massage my feet and wind down from the day. Make time to treat yo'self every day, it's the best!
So there's my top tips for ya. Stress is inevitable, and also a natural part of life, and it's unrealistic to try to eradicate it from our lives completely. I think we should instead figure out ways to at least minimise it a bit and work around it so that it doesn't hinder us from doing our best creative work.
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