Andi Best Freelance Designer

The Wobble

  • Published 28-11-2020
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The Wobble
A wave rippled over my skin the other day, very rapidly, rising up vertically from somewhere low until it washed over the very top of my head. My ears sort of popped with a soft static and the outlines of my eyes lingered with a prickling sensation. And whilst the ripple rose upward, my innards felt like they were plunging down. Like on a rollercoaster that's in free fall or a lift that catches you off balance. Stomach descending, lungs descending. I'm pretty sure my heart stalled itself briefly too, before recovering with one deep uncomfortable thud.
It was over in seconds.
Couldn't tell if I was warmer or colder for it, but I didn't feel right at all, sat in my chair, gripped by the aftermath.
It was fear. Anxiety manifested. I genuinely think it was my mind overworking itself at such reeling phenomenal speed that it forced itself to crash, or blow a fuse or something. I'd had a wobble.
There was a coding project open in front of me which was a little more ambitious than my usual fare, and whilst I was confident I could carry out the job back when the client and I were first scoping it, it had fallen apart spectacularly on day two of the actual contract. I'd barely broken ground and already I was faced with the uncomfortable reality that I couldn't deliver what I said I would, when I said I would, how I said I would.
Reeling from that initial implosion, I found myself free-falling through the aftershock, panicking about how the client might react to this, how their trust in me was misguided and how my reputation and abilities may well be fraudulent. How a court might be reaching out to me on their behalf for some reason. How that rather than being paid, it would actually cost me. How I'm not cut out for this calibre of work and how dare I have the audacity to call myself a professional. And on, and on and spiralling on.
The Wobble
I've never had a cerebral misfire like this before and I'm confident the coding project was only part of the catalyst for it; a plethora of other unrelated stresses had grown commonplace in both my personal and professional (known collectively to a freelancer as perfessional) life which were chipping away at my sensibilities day by day.
Writing this with hindsight (spoiler alert) I now know that that formidable dose of alarm and subsequent self-destruction were baseless transitional thinking and a gross oversight of the magnitude of trouble I was actually in. But it was necessary thinking for critical introspection and business analysis. I eventually reasoned that in lieu of a formal performance review by, say, a line manager or department head, breaking down at one's desk is perhaps the most potent metric a freelancer has to assess how they're doing. I freelance alone in an office in my home. I have no immediate peers to speak of; I have friends in similar fields (web design, development, illustration) but none with whom I am professionally bound, none with whom I am in regular collaboration, and none with whom I frequently mediate, unload, or unwind with.
I am an island.
I. Am. Alone.
There's a lot of conversation online at the moment about how dysfunctional and even unhealthy this arrangement can be, and I never thought my voice would ever have a need to be among that crowd. I love being on my own, I truly do. Being my own boss, implementing my own ideas, shouldering all the responsibility - it's normally all firmly within my control and comfort zone. However this particular episode forced me to challenge that comfort. Perhaps I had actually rowed too far from the mainland? Maybe I had gone long enough without a support network? I'm not exactly drowning in solipsism but on that day, in my chair consumed by hopelessness, it was evident that I was pretty close.
To summarise to this point; I'd been stewing in a concoction of late nights, disrupted days, little sleep, imposter syndrome, burnout, and pressures at home (plus a dash of lockdown anguish for flavour) for far too long and the resulting cataclysm was the wake up call I didn't know I needed. There has to be change - I can't go on like this.
The Wobble
The first and immediate thing I did was reach out to somebody - the lost art of asking for help. I called a friend who is an accomplished developer and I'm grateful to say he entertained hearing my coding dilemma in the middle of his working day. Whilst we didn't come to a resolution he did manage to talk me down from the ledge and I left the call with a few suggestions to stave off defeat. They would ultimately prove fruitless, but the difference this time was that connecting with another human through my otherwise very expensive rectangular echo chamber had empowered me to not only be more relaxed about the problem, but also to confidently present to the client a way past the problem. I'd scrapped my initial approach entirely, taken the project back to the drawing board and worked up a whole new proposal. My client was fortunately very receptive to this revised approach and the project was back on course within a week.
I felt immensely better, especially knowing that thanks to my friend the mainland was now just a brief jet-ski punt away rather than an arduous swim against the tide. Then I pondered - what if it were even closer? What if other people were partially allowed on my island, moored up on a galleon in a bay or perhaps residing in a modest cliff-side resort if I felt I could extend the luxury? I couldn't leave the thought alone and before I knew it I had started to weave a safety net, setting up a Slack workspace dedicated to peer support in the field - if I was struggling to see the wood for the trees at times perhaps other isolated developers out there were too. The group is currently populated by over a dozen developers sharing ad hoc tips and advice, and poised to offer a shoulder to cry on during a coding crisis.
But I didn't stop there. My crusade to better myself and my working practices went on to target other widespread freelancer taboos.
I deactivated my email account from my smartphone. As I did so, I recalled the moment I hooked it up in the first place, on the balcony of the apartment I was holidaying at at the time, applauding myself for doing best by my clients and providing such finger-on-the-pulse communication even whilst "away". Turns out I'd severely underestimated how soul-crushing it would eventually become to reach for my device of an evening to send a comedic meme to my brother for example, only to find a client had blundered their way onto my lock screen notifications with a work-related matter that I absolutely could not muster the headspace for at 10:00 at night, but yet, also couldn't ignore either.
With the email account uncoupled, so much as even thinking about work is now confined to business hours, which has done wonders for work/home separation.
Moreover, I acquired a second handset to further alleviate the burden. Regulating email was a good start but clients can be insatiable and think nothing of sending the occasional text or WhatsApp message outside of work and even waking hours. Such unsolicited messages invariably encroached into personal and social exchanges on the device resulting in a lack of will to acknowledge them which, curiously, was opposite to the affect that email was having.
A second phone curtails this issue as no matter what channel a client chooses to reach out to me, at 5pm I power down the device and keep client communications at bay, freeing me to use my other device to enjoy personal use unencumbered.
Finally I looked at my plate. It was heaped. It was always heaped lately. I can't remember the last time it wasn't, nor can I remember when I became blissfully ignorant to how I was blindly piling on top of it. Enough was enough - it was time to start cutting back. Time and again I've heard freelancers revel in the satisfaction of saying "no" and feeling guilt-free as they do. I desperately wanted to know that feeling. The secret to combatting the overwhelming urge to furnish all and sundry with top quality service is to come to terms with the alternative; that trying to please multitudes of clients simultaneously is the reason why my chair is only vacated eleven hours a day, why my mood is often so low for the remaining thirteen, and why anxiety dreams about programming frequently manifest and rob me of sleep. It's early days on this front, but I have begun turning down some jobs that with a rational mind I know I absolutely cannot accommodate, and I've been scheduling other jobs into the distant future to create a decent buffer and maybe, just maybe, afford a me bit of long-overdue down time between projects.
In conclusion my wobble proved to be quite valuable. By taking ownership of it rather than letting it totally consume me it encouraged a reboot. It coerced me into stepping back from my business - and myself - and reassess how I do things, what's detrimental to my wellbeing and to finally acknowledge that as resilient as I am, the status of my mental health is something that can't indefinitely go unchecked.
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