Staying healthy as a freelancer isn’t easy. This kind of lifestyle definitely has its perks: personal flexibility and creative freedom are among the top rated. Yet, there can be major downsides affecting these individuals, which aren’t always spoken about. With the help of the 11,000 freelancers we interviewed for our report, Design Without Borders: The Freelance Revolutionand those who make up our creative community, we’ve come up with this ultimate guide to staying mentally and physically healthy as a freelancer.

illustration of two individuals working from home
By OrangeCrush

Designers have been freelancing for long before the pandemic. However, it has exasperated negative aspects of this lifestyle, which has been exhibited in our report. Over the last year, 36% of freelancers reported facing difficulty finding steady work, whilst 33% have found themselves working longer hours than before the pandemic. On the other hand, 42% of freelancers actually found that their work-life balance improved in 2020 compared to 2019.

Whichever side you’ve found yourself on, the way you work can greatly affect your health. Read on to discover the biggest issues that our freelancers have reported experiencing and their top advice to overcome them.

How to stay healthy as a freelancer:

  1. Optimize your hustle
  2. Focus on your journey
  3. Find new ways to connect
  4. Cut out external negativity
  5. Commit to your boundaries
  6. Recognise, listen to and fulfil your needs
  7. Stay hydrated
  8. Getting into an exercise routine
  9. Perfect your posture
  10. Never work from bed

Optimize your hustle

Everybody knows the key ingredient for success as a small business owner: hustle. Get your name out there, get those clients, market market market and don’t ever say no to an opportunity.

Careful. Hustle’s also a key ingredient in another dish: burnout.

illustration of individuals working digitally
The freelance revolution, by felipe_charria

Burnout is the state of being so exhausted by your job (or another role; full-time caregivers also frequently experience burnout) that you become pessimistic and doubt your ability to perform the job. Freelancers are at a heightened risk for burnout because unlike full-time employees, there’s no team to help manage the workload. The hustle culture freelancers are constantly exposed to on social media and other entrepreneurship spaces can also foster feelings of always needing to do more, grow your business bigger and completely crush any challenges that come your way.

But we’re people, not robots. And we can’t operate 24/7 like a robot can. If you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, you could be suffering from burnout…

Potential symptoms of burnout

  • Chronic headaches or stomach aches
  • A lack of energy despite getting a sufficient amount of sleep
  • Emotional distance between yourself and your colleagues
  • Feeling numb about your work
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of creativity

So how can you recover from burnout? Here’s how one of our designers copes with it. According to Top Level designer Stephen: “For burnouts, set boundaries and expectations and you will avoid a lot of unnecessary situations. Increase prices and reduce clients. Pick projects that align with you and decline the ones that do not.”

illustration of someone at work and daydreaming
Illustration by Spoon Lancer
Set boundaries and expectations to avoid a lot of unnecessary situations.

For a lot of freelancers, a regular meditation practice is another key way to avoid burnout. It’s not an alternative to setting boundaries and knowing when to say “no;” it’s a way to reduce your stress level and help you stay focused so you can set better boundaries.

You can download meditation apps like Headspace and Calm to start working meditation into your day. These apps offer guided meditations, timers and connection to other users around the world. Both offer free and paid versions.

You don’t even have to use an app to make meditation part of your daily lifestyle. All you need is a timer—a wind-up kitchen timer works just as well as any app. The goal is to simply build quiet, focused time into your schedule away from screens and other distractions, so as long as you’re accomplishing that, you’re good.

Focus on your journey

When you see your team every day, it’s easy to feel connected and motivated to work hard. Inside jokes around the office, cakes and silly hats on birthdays, team Slack channels and even commiserating over the less-than-enjoyable aspects of your job are important social building blocks that drive you to bond with your colleagues and in turn, drive your motivation. Take them away and you’ve got to make your own motivation.

It’s not easy. In fact, it can be downright hard to stay motivated to keep working hard and striving for growth as a freelancer.

One designer from our platform, VanessaBowman, recommends revisiting the reasons why you started freelancing in the first place, “You can call it your purpose statement, your personal motivation, or your ‘why,’ but it all comes down to the same thing: you might not know how to move forward, but you don’t want to stay where you are.”

Baking kit including self-raising feels to give your cookies the perfect lift
It’s not called “self-raising” for nothing, by bananodromo
Comparison is the thief of joy. No one else can tell you how your healthy habits journey should look or feel …at the end of the day, this is about you and your life.

She believes consciously choosing to not compare yourself to others because being kind to yourself is a critical component of keeping yourself healthy, “Comparison is the thief of joy. No one else can tell you how your healthy habits journey should look or feel. Getting suggestions from your peers can be helpful, but at the end of the day, this is about you and your life. Be kind to yourself! Never forget that you’ve chosen to create change out of love, and because you want the best for yourself. Your mental and physical health is the work of a lifetime!”

And even if it’s a temporary solution while you’re between full-time jobs, that’s a “why” in itself.

Find new ways to connect

image of lightbulb with community of designers illustration
Logo by foggyboxes

Speaking of cakes and commiseration, leaving the office environment to work for yourself means choosing a far more isolated lifestyle. While that can sound refreshing after years of office politics and chatty coworkers, even the introvertiest introvert can find themselves feeling lonely and depressed from the lack of social interaction.

When you don’t have the built-in social network a day-to-day job provides, an online social network can fill the gap. Social media can be your friend—but just like any other friendship, remember not to rely on it too much! Face-to-face interaction is important for your mental health, so arrange visits or video chats with the people who are important to you.

Taking a class or joining a meetup can also be hugely beneficial for your mental and physical health as a freelancer. Not only does having a regularly scheduled meetup build some predictability into your schedule; it also forces you to put on pants, leave the house and interact with people face-to-face. If you can’t do this right now because of lockdowns in your country, make a plan to get out and start socializing IRL when it’s possible.

In the meantime (and even once IRL interaction is okay again) you can connect with other freelancers who are experiencing the same things that you’re experiencing on freelance platforms, forums and social media groups specifically for your industry. Making solid industry contacts can also be hugely beneficial to your career—and theirs—because so much freelance work comes from personal referrals and word-of-mouth connections. According to our report, 57% of designers surveyed work with other freelancers in their networks.

Cut out external negativity

The support of your friends and family can be impactful. But at the same time, their judgement can feel huge. Many freelancers are experiencing a lack of respect and understanding from their nearest and dearest. Working for yourself, by yourself, does not mean you’re somehow always available to “pick up dry cleaning/babysit/go grocery shopping/clean the house”. Nor does it mean you’re just “lounging in pyjamas all day”.

key ingredients to staying emotionally healthy
The key ingredients to staying emotionally healthy, by bananodromo

A lot of freelancers regularly deal with these kind of dismissive comments, which can be especially difficult to hear when they’re coming from people you love. So what can you do?

The first step to dealing with this is to try not to engage in conversations where others belittle your work. Change the subject and if they persist, let them know you’re not interested in talking about how hard you work or how it compares to their work. When it comes to requests to run errands or do certain chores during the workday, remind the requester that you’re working from home and thus not available during business hours.

If you find your friends’ and family’s lack of respect for your lifestyle to be harming your self esteem, turn to your freelancer community for support. Trust us, they’ve heard it all before, and they’ve got your back when you need advice or just need a sympathetic ear to vent to.

If it’s getting to the point of making you doubt your decision to freelance or you find yourself believing the work you do isn’t important, talk to a mental healthcare professional. Because if you’re not taking care of your mental health, you’re actively sabotaging your career.

Illustration of woman working at laptop
Illustration by Natalia Maca
Don’t be afraid to be sad, embrace it. Life is a sine wave, not a straight line.

Top Level designer Cindric has four major points of advice for staying in a healthy state of mind as a freelancer:

“1. You alone are creating your reality and 99% of the niggles and worries you face won’t matter in the long run!

2. Don’t be afraid to be sad, embrace it. Life is a sine wave, not a straight line.

3. Reconnect with nature, reconnect with simple things and do things that you enjoy.

4. The moment you feel you are ‘working,’ you are stuck in a job that you do not like. Working should be fun, working is something that you would do even if you did not have to work.”

Commit to your boundaries

illustration of happy person within their boundaries
Illustration by Kevin VQ Dam via Behance

It happens to everyone, not just freelancers. Difficult clients. The ones who nickel and dime you, expect you to be at their beck and call when they themselves can’t be bothered to answer the phone, the ones whose scopes creep out miles beyond your agreed-upon parameters and the ones who think it’s acceptable to ghost you.

The beauty of freelancing is that you have the power to choose your clients. You can find what practices work for you and say “no” to whatever doesn’t fit into your vision. So, how do you do that? By creating boundaries. Rock-solid, steel wall boundaries. Get comfortable standing your ground; limit client communication to business days and hours.

According to Top Level designer Isa Design Net the best step to take in affirming boundaries and balance to a freelance lifestyle is to know when to disconnect from work:

Know when to stop! Not just in theory… but to really stop.

“Know when to stop! Not just in theory… but to really stop. Stop working at a certain hour every day, which is more difficult than it seems when working at home. Stop working on certain days of the week.”

“We need to have some days just for ourselves, for the family or anything else we need to do. Stop worrying or even thinking about work (sometimes I even dream about it). I think this is the hardest to achieve, since we can’t control our minds. But maybe through meditation (or something grounding like that), we can learn to take a step back and switch off.”

Create and uphold contracts

Another form of instating boundaries appear in an explicit format. If scope creep is pulling you into the vortex of unending (and un-paid for) client demands, you need to draft and enforce contracts.

A few easy, low-cost contract programs for freelancers include:

Contracts are also key to ghost-proofing your interactions with clients, as are reputations.

Vet potential clients

Thoroughly vetting prospective clients before you decide to work with them can also be instrumental in weeding out the problem clients from the good ones. We know it can be tough to turn down work, especially when you’re new and still establishing yourself, so let us illustrate the client red flags that should send you running.

freelancer chained to their desk: an illustration in pastel colors
Illustration by gaea carino via Behance
Client red flags
  • Lowballing you. If a client tries to haggle down your rate, they aren’t just trying to save a buck. They don’t value your skills—and won’t respect you any more if you lower your rate to get the contract. There’s one caveat to this. Let’s say you state your rate and the client says they can’t afford it. You can offer a reduced scope of work so your rate stays the same, but the project fits their budget. If they agree to this kind of an arrangement, that’s a green flag.
  • They don’t respect your time. If your meetings continually get blown off, if they’re calling and texting and emailing you at odd hours and expecting immediate responses, run.
  • If they have bad reviews online. Freelancers talk. Google your prospective client and ask around about them in social media groups you’re in.
  • They’ve had nothing but bad experiences with freelancers before. Why could that be? What’s the common denominator in all those bad experiences? (hint: it’s them)
  • They won’t pay a deposit upfront. Whether you require full payment upfront or a deposit is up to you—but if the client refuses to pay for you to begin work, who’s to say they’ll pay once you deliver it?
  • They refuse to sign a contract. Just no. Run. Run fast and run far.

Even with the best vetting process in place, sometimes you still get stuck with a crummy client. When that happens, be professional, do the work, and move on.

black and white logo of a skull in a reaper hood and graffiti-style text
Logo design by Ovalicious

Recognise, listen to and fulfil your needs

2020 did a number on all of us. Some had it way worse than others, but instead of comparing who had it worst, it’s healthier to acknowledge that we all had our struggles and it’s perfectly reasonable to feel stressed from the career and financial turbulence the pandemic and related lockdowns created. Heck, the lockdown might be the reason why you’re starting your freelancing chapter now.

Take care of your fundamentals. Funnily, these are often most neglected things: sleep, nutrition, exercise, hydration.

Top Level designer Stephen. describes what staying healthy as a freelancer amid uncertainty looks like: “The most important thing to me is taking care of the fundamentals and taking care about what you allow to surround you. If you take care of that, you will be steps ahead. Funnily, these are often the most neglected things: sleep, nutrition, exercise, hydration. The times I have taken good care of my fundamentals are the times I have been at my best; boosted energy, mood, and concentration.”

Bright illustration of freelancer multitasking whilst working
Self care while you work. Illustration by Illia Kolesnyk

Taking agency over the aspects of your life that you can is crucial. If you’re consistently feeling anxious or depressed (or both) about whether you can be successful and how you’re going to make ends meet, please don’t do it alone. Talking to a mental healthcare professional is the most important thing you can do for yourself, whether that’s looking up free services in your area or getting in touch with your doctor to arrange support.

Today, you have more options for app-based mental healthcare than ever before, between self-help apps like What’s Up and Happify and apps that connect you with a therapist like BetterHelp, Uprise and Talkspace.

Stay hydrated

It sounds silly, but it’s true: when you’re working alone, it can be easy to forget to drink water. And forgetting to drink water can lead to a whole host of physical and mental health problems like:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dry mouth and eyes

And in extreme cases, dehydration can lead to problems like heat injury and urinary and kidney problems. One of the easiest ways to stay healthy as a freelancer is to make sure you drink enough water every day.

two clear water bottles side by side with minimalist text
Product label design by Igor Calalb

But how much is enough water? The Mayo Clinic recommends about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluid each day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women. Keep in mind, this is fluids, not necessarily water—but some fluids like coffee and soda are diuretics, which means they drive your body to excrete fluids, drying you out. When you need to hydrate, water is always the best choice.

The challenge might not be getting yourself to drink water, but getting yourself to drink enough water.

For a lot of people, an easy trick is to get a water bottle large enough to hold a full day’s worth of water and sip it throughout the day. These bottles often have lines on the side showing just how much water is left (and how much you’ve drank so far).

Other strategies include setting reminders throughout the day, drinking a glass of water before each meal and if you don’t enjoy the taste of plain water, infusing fresh fruits like strawberries and cucumbers in your water.

Getting into an exercise routine

Exercising is an important part of staying healthy for anyone, freelancer or not. But with pandemic lockdowns shuttering gyms, keeping up a workout routine has proven to be quite difficult for a lot of people.

Getting into the habit of exercising can be tough, especially if you didn’t have an exercise routine before you started working from home.

Setting unattainable goals sets you up for failure. Set yourself up for success with small, attainable goals!

Designer VanessaBowman suggests, “Start where you are! For example, if you’re currently drinking 2 glasses of water a day, setting a goal to drink 8 glasses may not be attainable. We’re all attracted to the idea of big changes, but setting unattainable goals sets you up for failure. Set yourself up for success with small, attainable goals!”

“If you’re not getting any exercise, start with a 15 minute walk each day. If you’re drinking 4 sodas a day, try cutting back to 3. When it starts to feels comfortable, ask yourself what the next step is. Baby steps!”

healthy lifestyle logo illustration
Logo design by Anna 🙂

You’re a whole lot more likely to stick to an exercise regime if you’re doing an exercise you enjoy, so take some time to find something you like. This could mean trying different kinds of exercise—so try them! You might give yoga a try and find yourself looking forward to your nightly down dogs and child’s poses, or you might find HIIT is your jam or you really enjoy the slow, methodical process of doing reps with free weights.

Having a daily activity based on your passion or interest helps a lot. I spend my daily morning cycling for around an hour.

The point is, your health is one of the most valuable things you have, so investing in a workout routine you’ll stick to will pay dividends for life. For Top Level designer Bow’n’pencil that means cycling each day: “Having a daily activity (cycling, outdoor games, etc…) based on your passion or interest helps a lot. I spend my daily morning cycling for around an hour.”

This cycles back into the section on burnout, too. When you make time to exercise, you make time to take care of your personal needs. That goes a long way in insulating yourself against burnout.

Perfect your posture

If cake was self care: our favorite recipe to stay healthy as a freelancer
Our favorite recipe, by bananodromo

If you’re working from the couch, or your dining room table, or your kid’s desk… or anywhere that’s not designed to support a healthy posture, you’re potentially causing yourself a significant amount of pain and even putting yourself at an increased risk of injury.

But what can you do to improve your posture and prevent these aches and pains? If you haven’t already and you can afford it, invest in ergonomic office furniture. But perhaps the biggest hurdle in tackling the dreaded slouch is remembering about it.

Remind yourself of your posture by…

book cover showing a person with neck pain sitting at a desk
Book cover design by abdo_96
  • Make standing up straight a conscious habit by spending part of your workday on your feet. If buying a standing desk isn’t an option for you, be creative and make one! Maybe your bookshelf or kitchen counter is the perfect height for you to use as your “standing desk.” Alternatively, you can make a rule for yourself like “take all calls standing up”
  • Sitting for too long is never a good thing, so remember to sit up straight by getting up from your desk and moving around at regular intervals, ideally once every hour. When you return to your desk, reset good posture by sitting in an upright, non-slouched position.
  • Taking time to stretch at regular intervals throughout the day, especially areas that are frequently bent like your neck, elbows and shoulders. Working yoga into your routine can be a great way to do this while practicing mindfulness. You can find yoga videos on Youtube or download a yoga app like Yoga for Beginners (free) or Glo (not free).
  • Adjust your desk chair so it’s at an appropriate height.
  • Strengthen your core through core exercises.

Good posture and alleviating pains goes hand-in-hand with establishing a consistent workout schedule. When you’re not in pain, you’re more likely to work out. When you work out, you build muscle that improves your posture.

Never work from bed

The best thing about working from home is working from your bed, clad in pajamas.

Right?

Wrong.

3D rendering of a bed covered in spikes with signs saying things like “No Sleep” on the wall behind it
Album cover design by Jeff Purnawan

There’s a significant body of evidence demonstrating that electronic devices like your phone, your tablet and your laptop shouldn’t come to bed with you. Blue light exposure can make it more difficult to sleep, as does the brain stimulation these devices provide. But as far as actually sitting up and working with these devices from your bed during the day goes, the problems you’ll face include:

  • A lack of spinal support which can lead to poor posture, pains and muscle tightness.
  • A negative impact on your association with your bed and sleeping. Basically, when you work from your bed, your brain connects being in bed with being awake and productive. This can negatively impact your productivity and sleep quality.

However… sometimes your bed can just call your name. For some, it offers a break away from your desk and relieves work-related stresses. It can be a beacon of comfort in a sometimes solitary work environment so who are we to undermine it. There are, however, some rules we suggest playing by, if you want to optimize your horizontal working experience.

If you really want to work from bed, do it the right way:

illustration of a king asleep in bed
Make sure you’re not snoozing on the job. Illustration by ERosner
  • Change positions often. Going from lying to sitting, then sitting in another position, then lying again can prevent the soreness and pain associated with sitting on a bed for a prolonged period.
  • When you’re sitting, prop yourself up with pillows for back support.
  • Use a bed desk.This provides a flat surface for your laptop and holds it high enough that you won’t strain your neck from looking downward all day.
  • Consciously revert the bedroom from “sleep mode” to “work mode” and back to create a mental separation between the office and the bedroom. You can do this in a variety of ways, like removing the comforter, adjusting the light and changing your clothes.
  • Keep it to just a few hours at a clip. Remember how we suggested you get up and move throughout the day? Move away from the bed after a few hours.
  • Always work in a well-lit room!

Take care of your physical and mental health by establishing a specific office space in your home. If you don’t have a den or second bedroom to turn into an office, a section of your kitchen or your living room will do. The goal here is to create a specific area for work, an area you can log out of and walk away from at the end of the workday.

Being healthy today leads to a healthier, more successful future

Don’t think of your health as a one-off goal to check off your ever-growing list. Remember, a healthy lifestyle (mentally and physically) is a constant work in progress. So instead of trying to make a bunch of sweeping changes at once, pick one or two areas of your life where you can make healthier changes right now, like drinking more water or making time to exercise each day. Then, once those habits are part of your routine, move onto the next area where you’d like to improve.

Take a look at the resources we’ve listed to find strategies and support for incorporating changes into your lifestyle and remember, you’re not alone. If you’re ever unsure about how to resolve a challenge you’re facing or how to make certain lifestyle changes, ask. Reach out to your professional network, reach out to your friends on social media, or if you’d rather remain anonymous, ask on a forum like Reddit where nobody knows your real name. When you’re a freelancer, self-care is professional care. Think of asking for help as an investment in your business.

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