I Run a Successful Freelance Business… and I Also Have a Mental Illness

How to work for yourself
Penny Hoarder contributor Kelly Gurnett at work in her home office. Photo courtesy Kelly Gurnett

I’m officially crazy.

I don’t mean 19-wacky-ways-to-make-a-buck crazy (although I’m that kind, too).

I mean clinically, diagnosably crazy.

I have bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and anxiety. And for the past five years, I’ve also run my own successful business as a freelance blogger.

And I’m not alone. Nearly half of the entrepreneurs studied by researchers from several prominent California universities reported living with at least one mental health condition. A third of them live with two or more.

It’s not that surprising, when you think about it — as the study points out, “several mission-critical entrepreneurial propensities and traits” like creativity, innovation and risk-taking “are also clinical features of bipolarity, depression, ADHD” and other mental health conditions.

When you have a mental illness, working for yourself can be a great career choice. It offers a level of flexibility, balance and stress management a traditional 9-to-5 simply can’t.

But it also presents its own set of challenges that anyone — especially someone dealing with a mental illness — needs to take into account.

Here are seven tips I’ve learned over the years to make it easier.

Work With Yourself, Not Against Yourself

There are a bazillion (non-scientific estimate) ways to be a successful entrepreneur, but what works best is what works best for you, and you’re the only person who can determine that.

Don’t let the infinite freedom and flexibility of being your boss derail you into chaos. Instead, use it to your advantage to craft a schedule that works with your natural strengths and weaknesses to create your best work, and best life, possible.

I’m a huge proponent of practicing what’s known as “energy management” rather than time management. Your body has its own natural rhythms — times when your energy, concentration and creativity are at their peak and times when they’re not.

I’ve come to learn I get my best writing done in the mornings, so I know I need to ignore my desire to hit the snooze button and sit down at my computer with my first cup of coffee to write until lunchtime.

After lunch, I focus on less creatively taxing tasks like research, editing and invoicing.

Get to know when you’re at your best and arrange your schedule accordingly. Not only will you get the biggest bang for your efforts, but routine and structure are proven ways to help manage mental health conditions.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Maximize your work-from-home productivity by using tools and apps to manage your project deadlines, personal calendar and to-do lists. They’ll help you get more done during the times when you’re “on” and stay on track and on task when you’re feeling “off.”

Most importantly, they’ll decrease your overall level of stress, a huge trigger for many mental illnesses.

Give Yourself Plenty of Lead Time

Plan ahead by parsing out projects into daily to-dos, and allow plenty of cushion time in the event of a “down” period or a reaction to a change in medication.

This strategy will enable you to meet your deadlines in spite of bad days, and it will also give you some breathing room and reduce stress (which helps minimize the potential for bad days).

Prioritize the “Project of You”

Burnout is a very real danger for anyone working for themselves, but when you have a mental illness, you need to be extra careful to avoid it.

Take care of your physical self by seeing your doctor and/or counselor regularly, taking your meds as prescribed, and following the basic tenets of eating healthy, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.

Take care of your mental and emotional self by allowing plenty of breaks to refresh, recharge and re-inspire yourself.

Walk the dog. Take a nap. Meditate. Make time for a hobby (I personally recommend adult coloring books, which are every bit as fun as they sound).

I know the whole work-life balance thing is easier said than done when your business is your baby, but your business is only as healthy as you are, so consider self-care a “work necessity” if that’s what you need to do to ensure you stick to it.

Beware the Usual Work-From-Home Traps

Being your own boss isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Be aware of the pitfalls of working from home and know how to combat them.

For me, this meant implementing rules like:

  • Shower and get dressed every day, even if you only change into yoga pants and a sweatshirt. Clean hair and anything that isn’t PJs can do wonders for your sense of confidence (and concentration).
  • Don’t take on too much. Assume each project will take longer than you anticipate and allow time accordingly. Don’t be a slave to your inbox. Set working hours for yourself and respect them. (Yes, your “office” is right down the hall, but that doesn’t mean you should be in it 24/7.)
  • Leave the house every day. If you’re in a good place mentally, work at a coffee shop or go run an errand. If you’re in a bad place, walk to the corner to mail a letter or to the end of your driveway to bring in the trash — anything to get a little sun and fresh air.
  • Stay connected. See No. 6 below.
  • Be kind to yourself. Don’t equate business ups and downs (and even failures) with personal ones. They’re part of being an entrepreneur. Learn from them, mourn them for a time if you need to, then move on.

Develop Support Systems

Working for yourself can be an isolating experience. Stay connected with the world around you and boost spirits by maintaining relationships that build you up, make you happy and keep your perspective in check.

Join a support group for your condition, either in your area or online. Reach out to other entrepreneurs in your field and create a mastermind group to trade tips and empathize over your daily struggles via Skype or Google Hangout. Join an online forum if face-to-face chats freak you out.

And don’t forget these friends and family circles with whom you can stop thinking about your illness and work and just have fun. Sometimes, a girls’ night out or a coffee date with your bestie can do more for your mental health than anything else.

Consider Whether or Not to Disclose

I’m not ashamed of my illness, but I also realize that stigma is real, and one of the luxuries of working for yourself is that you don’t have to justify your absences in detail to an iron-fisted HR department or nosy co-workers.

If you’re doing things right, the occasional bad day or even bad week shouldn’t sidetrack you too much. And if it does — if you find yourself having to skip out on a scheduled video chat or request a rare extension on a deadline — you are under no obligation to cite anything more than “health issues” or “personal issues.”

If you’re normally on top of your game, a good client or partner will forgive an occasional blip, because everyone has the occasional extenuating circumstances, whether it’s a sick child or a flooded basement.

In the end, the only thing that matters to your clients and business partners — and the only thing they have a right to expect — is that you deliver the results you promised them.

Your Turn: Do you work for yourself while living with a mental illness? What tips would you add to this list?

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.