Career Advice

Don’t Feed the Hustle—Here Are 4 Ways To Protect Your Mental Health When You Work for Yourself

Getty Images/Koh Sze Kiat
The last two years have shifted our perspective on the future of work. You’ve probably heard about “The Great Resignation” —the upward trend of people leaving their jobs caused, in part, by employees being asked to go back in-house—or how the Creator Economy continues to grow bigger by the day.

Whether you’re just joining the self-employed crowd or have been your own boss for years, you also most likely know of the existence of something called “Hustle Culture.” There is a deeply ingrained expectation that you should be as productive as possible from the moment you wake up until the minute you go to sleep. I’ve been working for myself as a writer and strategist for the last almost nine years, and I know how detrimental hustling can be to your biggest asset—your health. My mental health has been triggered by sleepless nights or never-ending stress. The anxiety or depression I struggle with then impacts my physical health, and it all starts to feel like a never-ending cycle.

While it can sometimes feel that hustling is the only way, the truth is, more sustainable businesses are built by pacing yourself. Below, find tips from others who work for themselves and have managed to protect their mental health.

Here are 4 tips for protecting your mental health when you're self-employed

1. Work the hours that work best for you

First things first, working for yourself doesn’t have to mean working never-ending hours. The freedom to set your own schedule is your superpower. You should find your sweet spots of productivity, while also making sure that you don’t overextend yourself regularly.

"I like a hard ‘no’ when it comes to weekend work. I need consecutive days off to recharge." —Miriam Thom, founder of club psora

When you work will likely be dictating by what type of work you do. For Miriam Thom, founder of club psora, who started working for herself six years ago, sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule suits her best. “It’s when I know I’ll get the most online engagement and response from emails,” she says. So maintaining a Monday to Friday work week is also a must. “I like a hard ‘no’ when it comes to weekend work. I need consecutive days off to recharge. Boundaries help me create a scaffolding to build healthy habits on. When I don’t have boundaries, I feel less in my power. When I’m not in my power, my work suffers.”

2. Remember that your mental health isn't a burden to your business

“The hustle mindset is so ingrained in our culture, we almost forget that when we step away from a job or a defined career path for independent life, we don't have to take those scripts for success with us or the same non-stop work approach of other industries,” explains Catherine Zack, meditation teacher and mindful stress-management coach. “We get to set the rules for ourselves. I know independents and entrepreneurs are busy, and it feels like there's no time to spare, but it's worth pausing and stepping back to take some space and reflect on what your own definition for success is.”

Once you’ve redefined success, it’s also easier to redefine how essential mental wellness is for your business and well-being. Jamie Grimstad became her own boss in 2019. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Favour Gum and founder of Curated by Jamie, and advocates for embracing the ups and downs of being self-employed as a means of easing mental tension.

“Being your own boss is a rollercoaster,” she says. “There are great days, and there are more difficult days—but it’s all part of the process. For years, I’ve struggled with mental health on a personal level, and there are times when that interrupts my work. I try to always fall back on my self-care toolkit on the days when I feel like I need to give myself some extra self-love. With that said, I think that being self-employed has ultimately made me more confident in myself.”

Bottom line: Allowing for self-care to pepper into your schedule without guilt makes it easier to be proactive in maintaining your mental wellness.

3. Redefine how you fill your time

While you’re setting boundaries and establishing a mental wellness routine that works for you, it’s also essential to be a good, fair boss to yourself. “I strive to be effective, not busy,” adds Ellen Mihalovich, founder of Gemmwell, who started working for herself six months ago. “A lot of people dream of the ‘freedom’ that comes with not having a boss, but the reality is for a lot of self-employed people, they have an even harder time turning off.”

"In basic terms, if I gave myself all day to get something done, I could ‘feel’ busy all day doing it. But, if I gave myself a perimeter, say two hours, to get something done, then the heat would be on, and the deadline would motivate me to stay on task." —Amanda Wolfe, founder of Growco Lab

Time-blocking is one way to start aiming for productivity over excessive business. “I learned early on that setting my own schedule meant that I could all too easily inflate the volume of time I spent working,” explains Amanda Wolfe, founder of Growco Lab, who’s been self-employed for two years. “I realized my time management lived and died by Parkinson’s Law: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’—which means it also contracts. In basic terms, if I gave myself all day to get something done, I could ‘feel’ busy all day doing it. But, if I gave myself a perimeter, say two hours, to get something done, then the heat would be on, and the deadline would motivate me to stay on task and follow through more quickly. The result? More focus, better execution, more margin, and feeling like the boss of my time instead of feeling at the mercy of it.”

4. Check in with yourself

Sometimes, we all slip up, and it’s possible that if you’re reading this, you may need help pulling yourself out of a harder patch with your mental health, instead of a preemptive approach.

If that’s the case, Zack suggests starting by checking in with yourself: “Take inventory with yourself to get a sense of where you're already doing a great job and where you might need some extra support,” she says. “Keep a work-life balance journal for one week. Pick a typical Monday to Friday in the next few weeks, and put pen to paper (or keep a digital record or voice memo). Watch your existing work habits, stress triggers, and coping mechanisms. Track your time and your to-do list, your expectations for what you think you can get done, the pressure you put on yourself, and what actually gets done in a day or a week. Base your next steps for creating change and seeking support based on what you really need.”

As you close out the rest of the year and look toward a new one, now is the time to start reestablishing or recommitting to healthier boundaries with your mental health and work. Working for yourself allows you that flexibility, as long as you don’t forget it.

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