Have you ever sat back in your chair on a Friday afternoon wondering simultaneously how you accomplished so much and so little? Do you find yourself scratching your head at the end of the day feeling like you just ran a marathon but only went 20 yards? That, my friend, is a sure sign of overwhelm. Even though overwhelm is a sneaky bastard that creeps up around 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon, it's not the master of your workday and you can learn how to kick it to the curb by practicing the art of minimalism in the daily grind of running your creative business.
Minimalism is the practice of being intentional with your resources - whether it’s your money, time, energy, or responsibilities. It’s deciding before you bring something new into your life if it directly contributes to your goals and ideal lifestyle. It’s making sure there's nothing extraneous or unnecessary that's weighing you down, causing distress, or keeping you from pursuing bigger dreams. The only real way to escape the grips of overwhelm is by getting to the root of the problem. Today I want to outline five major culprits of overwhelm and how to conquer it once and for all.
If you started your creative career in a corporate job before going freelance (which is often the case) there's pressure to match your salaried income as quickly as possible, or sometimes before you even take the leap. You hustle and work 15 hour days charging what you consider to be entry level fees to grow your credibility in the market (and often working for what we so lovingly get offered - the almighty "exposure") You tackle your first creative projects while feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and pressured to work harder to make the end goal. What is this pattern doing for the future of your creative business?
I’d like to propose a different approach.
In Tim Ferris’ book The 4-Hour Work Week, he discusses the idea of absolute vs. relative income. Absolute income is $50,000 a year. Relative income takes time into consideration as a factor in wealth. For instance, $50,000 a year in a 40-hour a week is less than $50,000 a year in a 20-hour a week (or, the alternate $60,000 a year in your freelance business working 90 hour weeks is LESS than a $30,000 entry-leveled salaried position.) When thinking about wealth and success, don't forget about the value of time. Is making twice as much money worth being a slave to your inbox? Is making a bit less than your salaried position worth the 3 day weekends to spend with your family, friends, or yourself? Long term, what do you want more of in your life?
When you’re setting income goals for your creative business, don’t forget to factor in the amount of time you want to be working. So many creatives fail to do this and end up becoming accidental workaholics. If you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed working 7 days a week and still struggling to make ends meet, follow these 4 steps below to readjust your pricing to create more freedom and relative wealth in your business:
Map out how many days a week you would like to be working and how many days a week you would like to be off (don't forget to be realistic here - only working one day a week most likely won't be sustainable for the growth of your business.) Now map out when during the week you will handle marketing (blog, social media, networking events, meetups, blogging, emails), admin tasks (team check-ins, invoicing, project management, planning), emails (knowing it always takes more time than you think it will), and meetings or interviews. In the remaining time, around 60-70% will be for client work or developing your product. This is your availability.
Now, map out how much money you need to make to maintain your current lifestyle (given that it’s a reasonable lifestyle for your profession and stage in life, at least to begin with.) Don't forget to include alongside your personal finance needs, the expenses for running your business. Sometimes I find it's easiest to keep a record of business expenses over 3 months to make an accurate guess. Take this number x 1.3 (for taxes or savings.) This is your cash flow.
Plan out how much time working with each client or creating each product will take. How many revisions or reviews will you go through? How many clients can you work with or products can you create at a time within your availability window? This is your capacity.
Now, compare your availability window, your cash flow, and your capacity to see if the numbers match up. Can you maintain your lifestyle working at your capacity and keep your process streamlined enough to fit within your availability? If not, keep working on all three factors until you’ve found a happy place that puts you within range of your competitors, at a fair price for your services, and a sustainable work load for how you would ideally like to run your business (I mean you started this business for creative freedom in the first place, didn’t you?)
••If you sell products, determine how many products you would need to sell to make up for the time, production cost, and fulfillment to make it profitable. Determine if your sales goals are realistic (within range of the competition) and sustainable (enough of a profit to keep up with production and your available working hours)
By establishing boundaries around your availability, finances, and capacity, you'll find yourself feeling less overwhelm as you learn how to say NO to opportunities that compromise your goals.
I have found that as my creative business grows, I find myself trapped in the feeling of obligation. This can take a few different forms -
feeling that to exceed expectations I must bend over backward for clients
investing in cool new studio spaces, hiring extra help, or purchasing in expensive online education or programs
offering my services for free to friends and family
While none of these obligations are necessarily bad (and I certainly welcome aspects of each one), commitments must be intentional or I'll end up sacrificing my flexibility to explore where I want my business to go (and worse, accidentally land on a business that I hate!)
Wait to sign that expensive studio lease until you’ve determined that it is the most necessary and sustainable step without exceeding the amount you feel comfortable working. Determine how many days you are committed to being in the studio and the direct benefits it will have on your productivity and quality of life (for me - it's been EXACTLY what I needed to stay motivated and connected in my neighborhood creative community. But this is not the case with everyone!!)
Before hiring on extra help, determine if the extra help will be directly improving your bottom line or drastically improving the quality of your working life. Just because your competitor has a VA doesn’t mean you need one and it can cause a lot of stress if it doesn't make sense with your cash flow. You may end up having extra help in your email inbox but then have to work 5 extra hours a week to afford that help, completely defeating the purpose.
Before saying "yes" to every request a client, or potential client, asks of you, take a moment to decide if it's fair. It's ok to say no! I've said it before and maintained great relationships with clients. Just be sure to explain why it's an unreasonable request. Keep in mind that clients are real people who aren't out to steal your time - sometimes they don't even know what they're asking for and will gladly take an alternate route. Always offer an explanation and a new solution that benefits you BOTH.
When working for trade, clearly outline the terms. Even if you're doing work for your parents or siblings, unnecessary tension can arise when expectations aren't met. In some cases, I do favors but say that I won't be able to do revisions. Or I ask for a very clear trade. If it's a friend in the industry, we send each other invoices and make sure the value of the services we are trading is equal. I also stopped doing more than 1 trade or favor at a time alongside client work which SAVED my sanity!!
The more commitments that you make in your business will sacrifice your flexibility for taking on new opportunities, pivoting your business when you notice a change in the market, or working from that beautiful AirBNB in Costa Rica. While commitments are good and necessary for growth and success, be sure to weigh each and every investment against your end goal and vision for your business.
This one will sneak up on you and sometimes be hard to determine. But let me ask you - do you ever feel the need to “keep up?” Do you wonder if you should be posting more on Instagram, blogging with more frequency, investing in a new course, or creating a sales funnel (but you don’t even know what a funnel is except as a sugary treat from the State Fair?) I urge you to challenge the rules and the status quo.
Are all of your competitors going after xyz but you don’t see the value in it? By all means, don’t do it and try something else. Stand out!!! Be different and don’t wait for permission or to see if other people start doing it first. Be a leader and a trailblazer. If something doesn’t look fun or exciting, find an alternate path. Wait until it DOES look fun and valuable and worth your efforts. Don’t just follow the crowd down a path to an over-run task list and 15 hour work days.
Oh boy, inspiration can be the best friend and worst enemy to a creative entrepreneur. As artists, we thrive off of inspiration, which allows us to be able to do what we love every day. The mere act of creativity is a product of inspiration and not a technical skill that can be condensed down to a formula. When it’s there, it’s wonderful.
But…. sometimes it’s not there. And we need it to be. There’s a looming deadline and the inspiration has just NOT come. And you’re freaking out. And the worst possible thing for inspiration to flourish is to attack it with anxiety. Lack of inspiration can so quickly throw a creative into an overwhelming sense of dread and self-doubt.
So ask yourself -
Are you considering the amount of time you need in order to flirt with inspiration?
Is your workspace environment helping or hurting? Are you working during your best hours?
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you fueling your body with nutrients or caffeine? Are you being kind to yourself and taking breaks or working until your forehead hits the keyboard?
Have you ever considered that taking care of yourself is actually the best thing you could do for your clients as a creative? That maybe taking a break to walk around your favorite store or window shop could be the breakthrough you needed to finish the task in 15 minutes instead of forcing it over 5 hours and then hating it at the end?
Take inventory of the white space you need for each product or service to allow inspiration to work alongside you as a creative partner instead of as a tool that you depend on to meet your tight deadlines. It may just be that adding in a bit of "fun" to your workload will make you more productive.
I actually feel the strongest about this one, but it’s also the most abstract. If your creative venture lacks a long-term vision or end goal, if you don’t have a purpose behind what you’re doing or why you’re wildly passionate about it, it’s going to be overwhelming.
Being an entrepreneur is not just a career path or a way to work less and make more, it’s a mindset. It’s seeing a way to fulfill a bigger mission and leave a lasting legacy. If your business lacks a deeper, driving passion, it’s going to feel like busy-work. And we all hate and despise busy work - we tend not to give it our best efforts. What was once your passion will become your obligation, and as you’ve already seen, obligations are a major factor in overwhelm.
Be clear, very clear, on why you're on this journey. Ask yourself often. Rewrite the story when it stops being your driving force. It's so vital to your relationship with your business.
So as we enter into the weekend, I encourage you to take inventory of your stress. And I’ll leave you with this parting note:
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. Good stress is challenging and motivating to do great and impossible things. Healthy stress is knowing that we are capable of growth and improvement and that things can always get better. Bad and unhealthy distress will keep us from cultivating the good kind. Distress will keep you in a creative rut and slowly chip away at your health and happiness.
Make a plan to eliminate the stress in the category that resonates the most with your feeling of overwhelm. Talk to your mentor, partner, or creative community to hold you to it and come up with creative ideas to beat the system and work from a place of deep inspiration, purpose, and energy.
If you want to continue the conversation, I invite you to join our email list. On Wednesdays, I send further insights into our blog posts through a dose of what I like to call Brand Therapy.