Tuesday, 29 April 2014

On finding a balance...

Nothing in music school can prepare you for the transition from student to freelancer.  If life were fair, it would just be another step on an even, well-balanced staircase.  But instead it's a giant leap away – worlds apart from student life.

Student life can be stressful, but it does offer a safe kind of consistency.  You stay in the same city.  You have lessons every week with the same teacher.  You hang out with the same social groups.  You go to the same cafes and bars.  Freelancing is a whole other story.

Freelancing means a life of inconsistency, a life of highs and lows – and not just the highs and lows of your work, but the emotional highs and lows that come along with it.  It's often a business of feast and famine.  You have to take the work when and where it comes.  So you can find yourself yo-yoing between very busy periods and very quiet periods.  How do you navigate these two extremes?  How do you avoid letting them drive you crazy?

It can really throw you for a loop!

Personally, I find it difficult not to be emotionally affected by all this back-and-forth.  When I'm busy, I tend to get overwhelmed or stressed.  And when I have those long bouts of empty time, I get a bit lethargic and depressed.  Now I'm beginning to learn some strategies to deal with this, and to find some balance in my energy and mood.

When the freelancing life seems chaotic, it's important to find some consistency wherever you can.  This could mean practising in the same place, or going to the gym every day.  It's helpful to have some structure in your schedule when everything else is so open-ended.  A lot of freelancers are devoted to their daily gym visit for just this reason.  It also gives you a nice sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much today, but at least I went to the gym!

It's also important to be mindful of how you spend your "quiet time" between gigs.  Naturally, you'll be inclined to see this as a rest period.  And that's fair enough.  Nobody is built like the Energizer Bunny – we all need to recharge ever now and then.  After a long stint of work you need some time to recover and take care of yourself.  This kind of downtime is important if you want to avoid burnout.

Unlike this guy, you can't just keep going and going and going...

When I'm between work, I try to take advantage of the time by getting lots of sleep, exercise, and healthy home-cooked meals.  It's harder to control my diet and exercise when I'm on the road, so when I'm at home I try to be extra healthy to compensate.  After all, my body is my livelihood.  It's important to keep it in good shape!

But just because you're resting doesn't mean you should fritter away all of your time between gigs.  Your quiet periods should also be used productively.  The more you can get done when things are quiet, the less you'll feel overwhelmed when things are busy.  So use this time to schedule things down to a T, organise yourself as much as possible, and take care of all those annoying errands and administrative tasks which have been nagging at the back of your mind.  Trust me, when you're on the road and too tired to think straight, you'll be glad you've already sorted that stuff out.

It's important to find balance in your social life too.  When I'm on the road, it's tempting to treat the tour like one big party.  I'm surrounded by nice colleagues who I see only rarely.  So of course I want to head to the pub!  It's a great way to blow off steam after a long rehearsal, or to come down after an adrenaline-pumped performance.  But you can have too much of a good thing.  If I go out every night, I know I'll be in pretty rough shape by the end of the tour.  So I'm learning to be boring sometimes, and go to bed early.  My friends might call me an old grandma, but it's worth it to look out for my health.

And to make progress on my knitting.

On the flip side, when I'm between gigs, I tend to go into shut-in mode.  I hole myself up with my admin work and my scores, and nobody hears from me for days.  This is just as unhealthy as going to the pub every night. 

I don't quite get to this point though.

I'm learning now that it's important not to let myself get isolated.  Reach out to friends – especially those who understand the challenges of your freelance lifestyle.  We all have a tendency to put on a brave face.  This is a competitive industry, and it leaves a lot of us feeling insecure.  So we hold our cards close to our chest, and we pretend to each other that everything is fine.  No time to chat thanks, I'm very busy and important.  What is the point of acting like that?  Just swallow your pride and call a friend.  You'll be surprised to hear that they're dealing with a lot of the same things.  And if you're willing to open up, they'll be able to offer you some much needed sympathy and perspective.  I've found some freelancer friends I can really trust, and they're worth their weight in gold.  When I feel myself going into shut-in mode, I try to get in touch with them and see if they want to meet up.  This can be a lonely profession if you let it.  So it's important to nurture your friendships.

Above all, it's important to stay positive.  Appreciate the small things in life.  If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I've recently started the 100 Happy Days Challenge.  The idea is that you try to be "happy" for 100 days in a row.  That is to say, for 100 days you take a picture of something that makes you happy.  This challenge is not just designed to annoy people on social media – it's supposed to help you appreciate your day-to-day life more.  When I first read about this challenge, I was at the end of a long month on the road, and feeling pretty run down.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  I could use a bit more happy in my life.  And sure enough, I've already noticed a difference in my outlook on life.  Not only am I starting to appreciate small things more, like a cup of tea or a bit of sunshine, but I'm actively seeking out things that will help me feel good.  Whether it's going for a walk or getting coffee with a friend, I know that I'll need something for today's photo.  So there’s no excuse to keep moping around in my pyjamas.

Pyjamas *can* make you happy though.
Just ask these guys.

Freelancing can feel like quite the rollercoaster.  But don't just let yourself be taken for the ride.  Be aware of the highs and lows, and balance them out wherever you can.  Find ways to relax when you're busy, and keep your energy up when you're not.  In the end, you're the only person who knows how to take good care of yourself.  So go ahead, show that rollercoaster who's boss.

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