Part the Second –
Welcome to the second installment of Cried But Did The Thing Anyway. Today, we’re going to talk about monsters. What kind? You tell me.
Every modern human has some monsters plaguing their life. From my own experiences, I’m inclined to say that freelance workers have one of the toughest gigs. The freedom to make up your own goals and schedules comes at a price of lack of external structure and very limited external validation. These things are harbingers of disorganization, chaos and insecurity. And if you’re lucky to be both freelance and an artist… Let’s just say, if fear were a nuclear war, your mind would be on constant DEFCON 1.
That being said, I’m not downplaying the challenges faced by executives or full-time workers, or full-time parents – or really, anyone who works hard in their chosen field. Whenever pressure is high, there will be cracks around the edges, and out of those cracks, monsters will rear their ugly heads at the least opportune moments.
With this in mind, I’m not planning to give you a pep talk, post pictures of kittens hanging in there, or point you to motivational music. What I want to do is talk about your brain.
Last week, when talking about taking care of your body, I mentioned how the body is basically an exoskeleton for your brain. But you, as a human, as a person, aren’t just a brain in a body. You are also a consciousness – call it a soul, a spirit, a spark of intelligence, your essence, your inner voice, whatever you can imagine yourself being if you were to survive while being stripped of your physical form. To extend my technical metaphor, your body is the exoskeleton, your brain is the AI that helps it work, but you are the operator. (You can have a simpler metaphor, where body = car, brain = GPS navigator, you = driver. Me, I like exoskeletons.)
Now, as we all know, our brain is very smart – and therein lies the problem. Our NQAI (not-quite-artificial-intelligent) already runs all the processes in your body, and oftentimes, it couldn’t care less about the arrogant consciousness that thinks it’s the boss. Our brain goes about its business, releasing whatever chemicals it deems appropriate at the time, and even when it’s being a complete nuisance, we can’t tell it to cut it out.
With the tiniest bit of encouragement, your pesky brain will flood you with adrenaline, complete with a pounding heart, short breath and cold hands – even when you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, away from any threat to your life and health. With certain hormones in charge, it will distort the reflection in the bathroom mirror to tell you that you’ve gone from beauty to beast overnight. Or, seemingly out of the blue, something in your head will declare that the world around you is ten times worse than it was only a few moments ago.
Things like that are incredibly detrimental to productivity, because they’re difficult, sometimes impossible, to separate from the rest of you – unlike, for example, physical pain. Working with a toothache, a broken bone, a back pain, or any physical ailment of choice, is anywhere between irritating and agonizing, depending on the health issue in question. But if anyone were to ask – does my broken leg invalidate me as an artist? – the standard response would be, “Why on earth would that be the case?”. And yet, somehow, the question “Can I be a real writer if I have depression?” doesn’t sound anywhere as outlandish. (It does, however, gets answered wonderfully by Chuck Wendig.)
Reasoning with your brain chemicals is even less productive than negotiating with terrorists (terrorists may send out a spokesperson; brain chemicals will just sit there and make faces at you). But that doesn’t mean you have to sit there and take it, while your brain throws you in for a loop and your productivity out the window. If you want to get somewhere despite the interference of your pesky AI navigator, you’d better learn to handle it even when it fizzles, eats up all of RAM and threatens to crash (do tell me when you get tired of computer similes).
After all, you are the driver. You’re the one in charge. Don’t you ever forget that.
Now, I’m going to go through the list of my usual suspects – that is, factors that can aggravate me when I’m already feeling vulnerable.
Please note: I am not medically qualified to counsel or advice on, well, anything. This blog is not FDA-approved and not intended as a substitute for medication, therapy, or anything else your physical or mental health may require. I’m assuming that you’re doing your best to take care of yourself, whatever your state of health, and sharing a few tips for those days when your best is suddenly not enough.
Things That Can Make My World Worse When I’m Already Pissed Off
For me, a few extra degrees of heat in the room are the equivalent of a heart rate surge for Bruce Banner. Heck, even on the days when I’m otherwise fine, turn up the thermostat, and watch this writer rip her clothes off and SMASH. (Note: if you consider this an encouragement, please go back, read the part about the smashing, and decide whether the eye candy is worth the same eye being a lovely shade of black for the next few days.)
And when I’m exposed to an uncomfortable temperature and turn into a sweaty mess on top of an existing negative frame of mind – well, I’m all out of Marvel references.
(Funnily enough, while I’m also rather sensitive to cold, it only ever causes me objective discomfort, without altering my emotional state.)
In my case, this is closely linked with the previous point. In my current, non-air-conditioned apartment, I have the blessing of a room all to myself and the curse of a first-floor window to a busy street. Eight months of the year, the only way to maintain a comfortable temperature is to keep the window open at least half the time – which means exposing myself to the sound of outside traffic (and if that weren’t enough, a hospital at each end of the street means sirens at all times of night). I like listening to music while I work, so a pair of over-ear Sennheisers does me just fine. But if you need unattainable silence for work, I urge you to invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Barring that, there’s a variety of ambient noise you can use to soften the impact of the noise pollution – from the sound of rain to (I kid you not) the engine of the starship Enterprise.
I have an excellent chair, which is proven by the fact that whatever my emotional or physical state, I’ve never felt uncomfortable sitting in it. But I swear that my desk changes height depending on how I feel. On good days, it’s perfect. On bad days, I swear it sinks two inches into the floor, and I have to crouch like a question mark to type. Also, since it’s a bureau, it has a piece of metal on the inner surface, matching the lock on the outside, and that causes the worktop to be uneven. Which means that the left corner of my laptop is wobbly. On most days, I don’t even notice that, and when I’m typing, my wrists are holding the laptop down regardless. But sometimes, oh, if I could nail that sucker down, I would.
Even though having a (near-)perfect workplace is very important for us work-from-home folks, re-equipping it can be an expensive endeavor. I’ll talk about that in more detail some other time. For now, if your workplace isn’t perfect, and you’re already in a frame of mind where everything will cause you to spin out further – move base for the afternoon / few hours. If your work allows portability – pack up and go work from a library or a coffee shop. If you’re stuck inside, move to the kitchen table, the floor, the bed – any place that will feel marginally more comfortable (and provide an important change of scenery).
Closely related to the previous topic – working order of things. Have you noticed that when you’re breaking, everything around you seems to join in? It may be perceptual bias, but I swear my laptop starts freezing up when I get flustered, the printer chews up and spits out pieces of paper when I really want to print the damn thing and go to sleep, and light bulbs always blow out when I get home late after a long day. You can’t stop everyday objects from kicking you when you’re already down, but you can try your best to give them as few chances as possible. That means having a spare pair of headphones for when your main pair dies at a time when working without music is inconceivable. It means keeping an eye on the stack of paper you use for printing. Making sure there’s room on your C: drive so Photoshop doesn’t crash when you try to save a few hours’ work. Etc. Etc.
Unlike most things on this list, this one isn’t something you can fix when you’re already in a state. This is a preventive measure, something to remember on good days. But it’s worth it, I promise. Take care of your surroundings when you’re feeling okay – and they might just take care of you when you’re stumbling.
Body image issues.
I hear many artists/freelancers praising the opportunity to work in their sweats, underwear, garbage bags, or whatever else they wear when no one else is looking. That’s not the case for me. Over the years of working from home, I’ve schooled myself into never wearing pyjamas outside of bed, unless I’m ill. Dressing up for work, regardless of whether you’re planning to leave home, is the subject for a whole separate post. The reason that clothes made it to this list of things is that I’m frequently unhappy with the way I look. At my lowest, I feel like my very skin is a few sizes too small. On those days, I find myself wishing to crawl under the blanket and pretend I lack physical form. Since that’s not the case, the only way of dealing with days when I’m uncomfortable in my own skin is to do the best I can to look good, while reminding myself that it’s not me who’s hating on my looks right now. It’s only whatever brain chemical that’s put self-loathing goggles on top of my regular glasses, and I’ll probably feel better about myself tomorrow. (Fun fact: I normally do.)
People. Any people.
You’re sad and lonely, and craving company, but as soon as you find people, they’re annoying, and don’t understand you, and you really were better off alone, and why won’t they let you be, but where has everyone gone and why does nobody love you?
Sound familiar? On some days, no social situation will work out for you, and that’s a fact. Myself, I frequently swing between super-clingy and antisocially introverted. It takes me anywhere between one and two weeks to go all the way from one extreme to the other. Talking to people online (mostly IMing) is often a lifesaver for me, allowing me to socialize as much or as little as I feel like at the time – while always being able to reach out to someone if I feel lonely.
(Lack of) food / water
Sometimes, that strange, hollow feeling inside you just means you skipped lunch. Jokes aside, when everything in the world is wrong, pause and try to remember – when was the last time you ate? Don’t let low blood sugar make things worse for you. (But don’t spin off into a junk food spiral, either, because at the bottom of every bag of crisps, there’s a free Guilt Potion, guaranteed to make you feel worthless and pathetic.) Also, when in doubt, drink a glass of water.
(Lack of) breathing room.
However much work you’ve got, however close the deadline – there’s always room to breathe. Yes, really. No, I don’t believe you’re performing open-heart surgery in your kitchen. No, I’m pretty sure firefighters don’t normally telecommute. You do have the time to step back and breathe. You really, really do.
Sometimes, just the thought that you cannot, under any circumstances, step away from your desk until your job is finished causes paralysis, a sense of impending doom, and destroys any remaining shreds of your motivation. If that’s the case, look at your work objectively. Can it be finished in 15 minutes? If so, stand up, take a few deep breaths, stretch, drink that glass of water – then sit down and FINISH IT, Mortal Combat style.
If, however, the job takes longer than that, take a 15-minute break. Walk around, step outside, make a warm (or cold) drink, smoke if you’re a smoker, do anything on this list – but for heaven’s sake, step away from your desk. Because when you’re panicking / crying / freaking out about piece of work that you can’t do, the worst thing you can do for yourself is to keep sitting there and staring at the very cause of your distress. Haven’t you ever been in a fight? Slam the door on that bastard! Then, once you’ve cooled off, you can go another round.
What To Do When All Fails
So you’ve tried everything, and nothing is working. It’s just one of those days. What to do then? I do believe there’s books written about that, but here’s my succinct take on the issue.
Don’t do anything that you can’t fix tomorrow. Feel free to write a badly-worded cover letter for your manuscript – but don’t send it just yet. Sketch and pencil your comic book page – but don’t put any ink over those lines. Play your guitar and mess up the chords – but, well, don’t throw it out the window.
And yet – do write, and draw, and play, and do what you can. Do what you can. A day on which you write five words is better than a day when you wrote nothing. A day on which you put three lines on the paper is a day where you did less work than you’d like, but not a day where you gave up.
Yes, you were “supposed” to do X amount of work today. You didn’t. You couldn’t. In the words of Ze Frank, “some todays are badly bent, and even if you do get them to work, they certainly don’t shine and sparkle.”
But if you made at least one step, one tiny step forward, then today, however bent and broken, wasn’t a day on which you lost to the treacherous AI that took over your system. Maybe you didn’t win, either. But you live to fight another day. Which is probably tomorrow. So go get some rest.
…Right after you listen to this. Yeah, the thing I said about not pointing you to motivational music? Well, I LIED. Don’t you feel stupid now? Seriously, though, as far as uplifting music goes, this is an absolute staple. Do give it a go, and if you’re not dancing by the end of it, feel free to send me hate on twitter.