Battling Mental Weariness

SUMMARY: Freelancing is tiring, especially when you are working in isolation. You have to take the time to maintain your mental energy and clarity; this blog post addresses that need and shares some insights I’ve had recently.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been preoccupied starting new (paying) projects and getting my thoughts organized around them. I also have several ongoing internal projects, and I’m finding that the overall project load has (along with Star Trek Online) produced a feeling of unbalance and inefficiency in my current processes. Bah.

Some theories:

  1. I’ve exceeded the number of simultaneous projects my brain can handle. Which isn’t that many, actually…
  2. or I’m not making progress quickly enough; I get impatient, and this tends to lead me to feeling that I’m not being fast enough…
  3. or I’m just mentally tired
  4. or it’s all three.

I work well on exactly one thing at a time. However, since I freelance I am often juggling multiple things with extremely rich contexts. This is a problem I am probably make for myself: I like to know and do things in detail, and not every project is a good match for that approach. But I digress… the way that I handle multiple projects is by keeping lists and having one place to come back to. In my case, I use Basecamp to consolidate all the communication on a project, so I can re-establish context quickly as I switch back and forth. I also use Google Calendar, synched to my iPod Touch and linked to my mobile phone via SMS, to keep track of scheduled events. And then I have several synched files and active projects on my two main computers and two auxiliary ones, all numbered by jobcode and accessible by shortcut. This is adequate, but lately I’ve noticed that all the projects have turned a kind of “gray” color in my mind. They are swimming together.

So I’ve been working on better ways to add some distinctiveness to each project, inspired in part by the Memory Palace approach to memorization. For example, I’m working on a small WordPress design for an organizational development company (itself very interesting, as I wasn’t that familiar with the idea of organizational development). To make it more concrete in my head, I probably can tag this project with a certain part of my workspace. The other project is a retainer for design consultation on a “change your life” type of application, using my game design experience to help give the rich source material some interactive structure. It’s a different type of project than the other, though equally interesting. In my mind, it should occupy a different place in my memory palace.

Although the idea of the memory palace applies to memorization of lists, the reason why it’s appealing to me is that I feel that I’m lacking some kind of anchoring presence in my business, and the desire for physicality has been a theme of mine for the past few years (hence, my interest in paper-based tools). I’ve thought that maybe I’m overthinking it and should just get over myself; as a freelancer, I’ve made a commitment to make this work, and I knew it would not be easy. But there’s a subtle challenge too…that of just being weary and tired of not seeing things happen as quickly as I think, and going through lean times wondering if there isn’t some easier way to make money by working for someone else. But I’m stubborn, and perhaps prideful, about trying to make it work on my own. And I absolutely believe that if I can solve this, I’ll unlock not only my own potential but also be able to show people that it’s possible. And that is probably my mission in a nutshell. I really have no choice.

I am mindful, though, of the creeping mental weariness. My favorite business blogger, Jory Des Jardins, wrote a blog post recently about her dad in Death of an Entrepreneur, which I found very moving. Her dad was an entrepreneur, and apparently a successful one initially, through the dint of his own hard work and effort. At some point, though, having been walloped with a giant tax burden, the business suffered a blow and never recovered, and this had a demoralizing effect on her dad. He started to spend a lot of time on the lake on his boat, and never quite back back into it. I can identify with that feeling (playing Star Trek Online is my boat-on-the-lake), and I can imagine it happening to me. But Jory writes (emphasis mine):

[…] As an entrepreneur I’ve come to learn how isolating and identity shattering starting your own business can be. I’ve gone into consulting, and quit, and returned to the corporate world, and quit, and started consulting again, and quit, and so on and so on. The difference this time around is a purpose larger than myself, and my reliance on others to make the business thrive and grow larger than me. For my Dad there was no outlet beyond himself. He was the driver, the cause, the one who got both the glory and the blame. At some point, I believe, as he came home week after week from the dealerships, with increasingly lower sales, he stopped believing in himself. He had never prepared for failure, only for the climb upward.

Heck, I could have hilighted the entire paragraph…every word is gold. When I started freelancing, Jory’s writing helped me feel that I wasn’t insane thinking all these thoughts, and it was extremely grounding. Now, I see the seed of a solution to my malaise. I think I have overly compartmentalized my processes, projects, and interactions with people, and need to break down some of those barriers so what I’m doing can grow into something larger than myself. I also just deleted Star Trek Online so it’s not so easy to “just check on my auctions” in the game and get sucked into a bunch of missions; I’ll restore the game from DVD and repatch when I want to play again (it takes about half a day for this to complete because of all the patching). It hasn’t been a complete waste of time, though…I’ve gotten quite a few insights into lessons of structured productivity from playing the game, which I’ll write about sometime in the future.

So, this puts my mind at rest for now, which is exactly what I needed. Onward with projects, to keep the faith!