In May, 2016, I witnessed a dream come true: I signed my first book contract. While I’ve been a writer my whole life, and practice on a daily basis, and had even self-published books, the fact that someone was going to pay me to write a book was a significant milestone in my writing career.
I had only a few months to write it, and the format—a cookbook which required me to come up with 125 original recipes—was a challenging one.
Despite that, I managed to meet my manuscript submission deadline of October 1, and my book was published in April 2017. It was a momentous occasion when I held my book in my hands—it represented a year’s worth of hard work.
After that came the press interviews, and once that was finished, I took a well-needed vacation. But after that, I hit a wall. Hard.
I had been going full out for a year; writing my book, managing my business, teaching and raising my teenage son. I burned out.
The topic of wellness and self-care for self-employed artists has, therefore, been at the forefront of my mind these days, and conversations I’ve been having with similarly-employed friends has let me know I’m not alone.
While the artistic life is one that comes with many intrinsic rewards, it’s not without its specific stressors. Many of these stress points are shared among artists and their self-employed friends. How to help?
To prepare this primer on wellness for artists, I interviewed two experts: a business coach and a wellness coach. Together, we came up with some solutions to lower your stress, create more space in your life for what you really want, and to thrive in your artistic practice.
Learn When To Say No
Many artists and self-employed creatives find it hard to have boundaries around the time they work. It’s challenging to turn off and relax because whenever you do, you risk feeling guilty. There is, after all, always something more to do.
Unlike a 9-5 job, you have the advantage of working when you feel most inspired and creative. That could be early mornings or late nights, or anywhere in between, but add to that the fact that we live in a hyper-connected world, and it’s easy to feel like slackers if we aren’t working 24/7.
Many self-employed artists struggle in saying no to work, even if they are too busy, or they don’t really want to do the project. If they don’t know when the next gig may come along, and fear that it might never come along, it’s hard to turn work down. But the problem with saying yes to everything and the constant hustle is that it leads to burnout. And burnout doesn’t support creativity.
Self-care involves protecting your artistic practice, and that means saying no. Or rather, it means saying yes to the things you want. Vicki McLeod, a business coach and author, calls it ‘setting the terms.’ “What gets you to ‘yes’?” she said. A process of self-examination can help you discover and set these terms. Where do you thrive? What gives you energy? What would the perfect gig look like to you? What kinds of people do you most like working with?
You can also figure out what doesn’t work for you by examining your failures and learning from them. Sometimes knowing what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do want.
Maybe you value your family, so a gig out of town would be out of the question. Or perhaps you value working solo, so a collaboration wouldn’t be something you would enjoy. As with everything, there should be flexibility in your terms. For example, if you’ve decided that you won’t do any more free gigs, but a charity dear to your heart comes knocking, it’s OK to say yes.
Ultimately, “giving yourself permission to say ‘no’ is giving permission to say ‘yes’ to you,” McLeod said. And who knows what doors may open if you really focus on what it is that you truly want, and then make the space for that.
Wellness Comes First
Carve out time in your week and in most days for self-care. Make sure you’re well-nourished, drinking water, moving your body and connecting with loved ones. “Create a space for yourself that is clear of mental, emotional and social clutter,” McLeod said. It’s in this space that artists thrive and feed creativity. When I was writing my cookbook last year, I always needed to clean my kitchen first before starting work on a new recipe. It’s that blank canvas that makes room for freedom.
Farzana Jaffer Jeraj, a motivational speaker, coach and the bestselling author of I Cheat at Meditation, encourages everyone (but especially artists) to spend time each day allowing your mind to “free flow.” You might call it daydreaming, but this state of mind is when you’re basically doing nothing. No tasks, no technology. This creates a state of mind that is similar to what your brain looks like when you meditate and is incredibly healthy for your brain. “It mimics REM sleep,” Jaffer Jeraj said. REM sleep is the period where your brain sorts and categorizes and files away the day’s events, leaving you refreshed and ready to tackle the day ahead.
Jaffer Jeraj encourages people to sit and observe thoughts as they flow through the mind. Schedule this time off to literally do nothing, to just zone out. “No ‘shoulding’!” she laughs. As thoughts arise, acknowledge them without judgment. Allow them to pass. These creative “brain breaks” are important for your creative well-being and for your problem-solving abilities.
“It can help to externalize ideas while you are having a ‘free flow’ session,” Jaffer Jeraj said. “Keep a notebook nearby, and if ideas for the future come up, or you remember a task that you must do, jot it down (or create a voice note on your phone, or send yourself an email).” This allows your brain to return to its task, knowing that those other things are taken care of.
Get Your Own Squad
Writing and making art can be pretty lonely jobs—you spend a great deal of your day alone with your computer or your canvas. In my case, I had a great editor who was very supportive and held my newbie hand every step of the process. But it’s difficult to get better at your work unless you have feedback, and it’s hard to keep going sometimes without support.
Surround yourself with people who support your artistic process. I created an online support group with a couple of other female writers, and we use it as a safe space to express whatever positive or negative experiences we have, and also to run ideas by each other.
McLeod encourages you to identify “who are the people who don’t support your creative goals, and cut them out.” Getting rid of the folks that don’t support you in your life can make space for those who will. Surround yourself with unflagging cheerleaders.
Define Your Own Success
“Defining success is a deeply personal process, and it’s going to be different for everyone,” McLeod said. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. As hard as it is, don’t compare your level of success to that of other artists, as there will always be someone who is better than you, and that can lead to discouragement.
“Perfect is the enemy of done,” McLeod said. “We all have an inner drive for self-expression, but so much of that process is the actual journey.” You have to take risks and put yourself out there.
Jaffer Jeraj, encourages her clients to create a visual “Gratitude Wall,” which can include letters from grateful clients, reports, awards and photographs of happy times with your friends and family. This serves as a visual reminder of what you’re thankful for, and why you do what you do: your mission or purpose. It’s a great way to stay motivated and positive.
Remember: if all else fails, it’s OK to take a break. Over the last few months, I drastically cut my commitments to a minimum, and I’ve been enjoying more “do nothing” time (and trying to not feel guilty about it). And it’s working—I can feel my energy coming back, and I’m readying myself to tackle the next challenge. But this time, I’m going to be smarter about it and build in breaks and make space in my schedule for yoga and bike rides and wine dates with my girlfriends. Because that stuff will ultimately make me more productive and happier to boot.
Rebecca Coleman is a blogger and cookbook author hailing from Vancouver, BC, Canada. She lives steps from the Pacific Ocean, and enjoys travel, eating, cooking and hanging out with her teenage son. You can find her blog at cookingbylaptop.com and her YouTube channel at youtube.com/cookingbylaptop.