If I rewind to 2013, life was good; I'd been freelancing for a few years and enjoying the lifestyle of travelling all over the country for conferences and I was tentatively beginning to enter the speaking circuit; I felt like I was starting to work towards where I wanted to be in life. I was still ill during this period but I was a decade into what I’d class as good health, probably around 80 - 90% capacity of a “normal” person. If you looked at me, you wouldn’t have known I was ill and if I was under the weather, it was quite easy to hide or even fake it for a few hours. However, I was dangerously caught up in the lifestyle of the tech industry and didn’t think twice if I had to work an evening or had to miss a family occasion due of work. It almost felt like a badge of honour if I was working extra hours. The word “hustle” wasn’t a popular in 2013 then but I was a slave to my hustle.
My working lifestyle was very different back then; I used to take on large chunks of work, put every ounce of myself into a project and then crash and burn after each piece of work. I’d still line up project after project and just push through the crash. I stupidly thought my actions had no consequences (I felt like I was superwoman) and even though I’d sit at a computer for probably 10 hours a day, I’d only achieve maybe 7 billable hours a day. All I kept thinking is “I’ve got to just get this piece of work done” but that was a constant “just." Even though I was ill, I had no respect for my health and didn't understand what a work / life balance was. The only holidays I took were days added onto conference trips and it was more unusual if I didn’t work an evening or weekend, than if I did, all under the guise of being “productive.”
Fast forward to 2017 and my life has been turned upside down. I completely burnt out from work in 2014, suffered from depression, both of which I'm sure were contributing factors to a relapse of my CFS in 2015. I’ve been bed bound again and I still use a wheelchair or walking stick if I’m out and about. I can’t remember the last time I made it to a conference, if I do attend an event in the evening, chances are I’ve been in bed resting all day so I’m able to attend. For the past three years, I’ve basically ran my business either from the sofa or bed. I’m lucky that I have a career that means I can work from my laptop and freelance whilst I'm being sick (what I would have given for a laptop or smart phone when I was 13 and first sick) but I can’t pretend I’m not ill anymore, there’s simply no hiding it.
Even back in 2013, I always believed it was best to be open and honest with my clients but I’m fortunate that I don’t necessarily have to be because I limit how my health affects my work. I've had to learn how to be sick and still run a business to pay the bills. I don't achieve all of these things every day but this how I manage to be productive with a chronic illness.
I’ve learnt that I’m more productive 5 hours every weekday rather than 8 hours each day for only a week, as can cause a crash for a fortnight where I might only be able to do an hour's work a day. Therefore, when I schedule work, I make sure I’m only working part time hours and I also give myself a day or two off between projects so I have a few days to recover and breathing room if anything runs late.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s easy to get distracted online but if I only have a set amount of time to concentrate during each day, I try and limit my distractions otherwise I find myself too exhausted to work and I haven’t met my deadlines. On days I struggle to focus, I use a Pomodoro app so I allow my mind 5 minutes to wander every 30 minutes. I also use Toggl to ensure that I know how long I’ve worked; it’s not healthy for me if I sit at a computer all day long or useful if I've only achieved minimal amounts of work.
I also have to be smart with what I work on; I try and avoid extremely stressful projects and like everyone, I have tasks on my to do list that I simply want to avoid but I work when I’m well, regardless of the task, as I never know how my health will be the next day. My mental health is surprisingly better for this, I feel a sense of achievement when I’m on top of my to do list rather than drowning in work. I set myself realistic goals for each day and quit while I’m ahead. It is tempting to carry on “just” a little longer but there’s no better feeling than finishing early at 4pm when my to do list is completed and being able to work again the next day.
Sometimes I'm slow to get going in the mornings so I try and avoid early Skype meetings but on the days that I do feel well I try and be at my computer for 9am, giving me the best chance of achieving the day's goals. If I need an hour or two to rest, I allow myself this rather than pushing through as this makes me more tired and the quality of the work isn't my best. I find sometimes a break can make the world of difference.
I’m a firm believer of being honest and under promising and over delivering; if I’m not sure I can meet a deadline, I don’t agree to it. There’s nothing worse than letting someone down instead of being honest and saying I need an extra day for this work. If I think I can achieve 5 logo concepts, I’m more likely to promise 3 but still deliver 5, this eases the pressure and stress on me. Unfortunately, my condition is very much linked to stress.
I can honestly say, I can’t remember the last time I worked a evening or weekend. I physically can’t now but if I do, I make sure I give myself some time off in lieu so I can recharge my batteries. I try and limit the time I’m attached to the screen as well. I enjoy regular holidays now and spent a week in Scotland earlier this year; phone signal and wi-fi were extremely limited and after the initial panic of being unconnected, by the end of the week I felt like a whole new person. I now try and finish work by 7pm and switch my phone and laptop off by 9pm. I also have hobbies that don’t involve a computer! I knit, crochet, sew and have a cinema pass. I try and see my friends, never miss a family event if I can help it and I've found joy in creative workshops. This year alone I've tried dressmaking, screen printing, lino printing, pottery, embroidery, calligraphy and even Islamic geometric art.
I don’t think social media helps with productivity levels. I feel like my lifestyle is frowned upon because I don’t hustle or have an active side project. It’s so easy to see everyone else’s picture perfect “highlight reels” but I’m trying to stop beating myself up if I haven’t posted on Instagram in a while or even checked Twitter for a week. I simply can't do everything, I don't have the energy levels and find it impossible.
My focus has to remain on finding a long term, sustainable and healthy lifestyle and I find the healthier my lifestyle is, the healthier my work situation is. In terms of my business, it did suffer from my relapse and I’ve also relocated to Manchester so that’s had an effect but I’m working slowly but hard to build my health and business back to the “normal” I’d like. I’d love to be working on side projects but for now, I’m learning to be okay with just surviving. I feel no-one in the tech industry ever talks about surviving in the sense of taking on projects because you need to pay bills, it’s all about the hustle but in reality it's not always possible.
For me the moment, I'm quite proud that I've survived the last few years and I hope if every week I make a small step towards my dreams that one day I’ll get back where I'd like to be. Although, it frustrates me greatly and I wish things were different, I’m definitely a tortoise in life instead of a hare but I can proudly say at least I’m a productive, in a strange way, healthier and happier tortoise now who doesn't hustle.