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You’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of setting boundaries with your clients, saying no, and making sure you’re taking care of yourself so you don’t burn out. As business owners, we need to protect ourselves from those who think they can control our time or the way we work. We get to choose when, where, and how we get the job done. That typically boils down to communication and it’s pretty straight forward to understand.
But what happens when we can’t really say no? Not because we’re afraid or timid, but because we’ve made a commitment and people are relying on us. We can’t always shut everything down because we’re not feeling well or are dealing with something personal that’s pulling our focus. There are times when we have to power through whatever it is because we said we would get something done. That can get pretty tricky because you need to take care of yourself, but the rest of the team still needs you to stay on track.
I have to suck it up because people are depending on me
This is something I deal with regularly because of my chronic pain issues. I’ve found ways to cope, which rely heavily upon exercise and nutrition. I’m not a believer in synthetic medication unless absolutely necessary so I am always looking for natural solutions, whether it’s CBD oil, lavender, turmeric and other anti-inflammatory foods, or whatever thing I read about recently. I couple that with a good old-fashioned dose of “just deal with it.” That’s not to say that anyone with pain and other ailments can or should do that, that’s just how I deal with my particular situation. When my grandmother was diagnosed with MS, her life expectancy was cut drastically short. She was also paralyzed at the time due to another illness and was told she would never walk again. Well, she said no, and when she passed away at 95 years old, she could still walk. Thankfully, I definitely inherited some of her stubbornness.
My issues stem from some bad genetics – I’ve been migraine-prone since I was a kid and am highly sensitive to changes in the barometric pressure. Meaning when it’s overcast because of a looming storm, I feel it in my joints and those are the worst days. I’m the one who can tell you when it’s going to rain, even when it’s not in the forecast. It’s not a superpower I welcome, but I’ve accepted it. Those issues were compounded with a bad car accident when I was 17. After months of physical therapy, chiropractors, acupuncture, and everything else we could think of, the doctors basically told me I’d never get better and would be in pain the rest of my life. Their solution, of course, was a handful of drugs that I’m really grateful I didn’t take. I’ll save that rant for another time though.
I’m giving you that bit of backstory because what they said was true. I’ve never gotten better, and I do deal with pain most days. Because of the aforementioned coping mechanisms, though, I’m not really aware of it except for those days when the weather does its thing. Not much I can do about that. I don’t always know when those days are going to hit me, so I can’t exactly plan for it either. Sometimes I wake up knowing I have a full day of work ahead and it’s going to be difficult because my head is throbbing. But I have responsibilities, so I have to suck it up.
Why? Because if I don’t, my clients are going to get behind on what they need to do. As great and understanding as they all are, it’s not always practical to think they can put everything on hold because I’m having a bad day. I actually don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone to do that. I don’t make my pain an issue. It’s not that I hide it, but I don’t generally talk about it because I don’t need the pity and I know I’m not going to let it affect my work.
Time management and prioritization skills are crucial
Of course, I still use my basic time management and prioritization skills to know what I absolutely have to get done and what I can possibly put off another day if I need to. That self-awareness is the biggest key to all of this for me. I know myself and my workflow well enough to know what I need to do and when. That means I can quickly assess what’s going on to figure out that balance between taking a break I need while also fulfilling my obligations on time.
As a practical example, here’s what a recent day was like. The show I’m working on was shooting, so I was basically on call in case anything came up in the field that I needed to address. At the same time, I was post supervising a marketing video and the review was due that afternoon, so I had to coordinate everything between the client and the post team to make sure we delivered on time. In addition to that, the Voice Actor Studio was preparing for a 1-day flash sale that required some behind the scenes work on my end. And, of course, the random requests that come in from my various retainer clients every day.
I woke up that day and, guess what? The weather was weird, so I woke up tired and my whole neck/shoulder area was a mess of knots. I got up and did the usual stuff. Took my vitamins, had my smoothie, did my workout – yes, I make sure to do my workouts even if I have a headache or worse. I remember going into pilates that way fairly often and some people thought I was crazy, but more often than not, the movement helped. I always figured the worst that could happen was I’d leave and not feel better, but even then at least I got some exercise. I never left feeling worse.
When I sat down to work, I looked over everything that needed to be done. There would be no way to predict what the show might need, but I would have to stay on top of my emails and text messages in case something happened. The marketing video had a concrete deadline and I had to make sure that was priority, that everyone did what they needed to do so we could get a new file uploaded by a certain time. The sale was still a week way, so I knew I could put that on the backburner if needed. As new requests came in, I gave them the same thought – does it need to be done today or can it wait?
Of course, the way I work, I also know that putting things off can be dangerous because I never know what’s going to come up unexpectedly. So that day, I still got everything done because I felt okay to do it. Sometimes, though, you need to take a nap. Or spend time not staring at a screen. Or go outside. Or hang out with your pet for a bit. Or whatever you need to do to make you feel better, even if it’s only temporary. The important thing is to keep realistic about what still needs to get done and where you can hold off if you need to.
I compartmentalize until I have time to deal with it
Physical issues come with their own challenges, but what happens when the problems are mental or emotional? It can be really hard to keep going with business as usual when some part of your world is falling apart at the same time. If you’re dealing with a loss or are worried about something, it’s hard to keep your head in the game. But sometimes you don’t really have another choice. Of course, everything is a choice and you can decide to brush off your obligations, but you should probably consider the repercussions to doing that.
Unfortunately, I have experience with this too. The day before I was leaving to work on my first rocket launch, my cousin died, completely unexpectedly. I was texting her the night before and then early the next morning, my mom called and said she was gone. That one was difficult to deal with because it wasn’t anything we saw coming. My grandma had passed away a few months before, and I just lost my grandpa last month. Both of those were sad, but they were in their late 90s so we had time to prepare. But with Kristine, it was out of the blue. Of all my cousins, she’s the one I spent the most time with. We lived together off and on in my teen years and even though we lived in different places for most of our adult lives, we always stayed in touch.
The rocket launch job was a pretty high pressure one already. It was my first one and even though I’d been prepped by the best, sometimes you can’t really prepare for those jobs until you’re in them. I have a pretty strong ability to compartmentalize. Meaning, I can put feelings aside when I need to in order to focus on something else. It’s not avoidance or denying they exist, but it’s a way of telling myself, “Hey, you don’t have time for this right now so let’s put it over here for a minute and we’ll come back to it at a better time.”
In that case, it was probably good that the job required nonstop attention. It was busy and a little chaotic, but also what an incredibly cool opportunity to be part of something like that. The day the rocket was supposed to launch, it rained, and we had to push everything another day. The next day it almost got pushed again, but it ended up happening. But it happened much later in the day than usual, and I was supposed to leave that day. In normal circumstances, I would’ve stayed an extra day to make sure everything got wrapped out properly. But it was at that point I had to have an honest check-in with myself. I needed to go home. It had been a long several days in the cold, without much sleep, away from home without any of my normal life comforts like healthy food, my Tempurpedic bed, my cats, all that stuff. So I talked to my client, explained what was going on (I hadn’t mentioned it prior because I knew I wasn’t going to let it affect my job performance) and he was fine with me leaving as scheduled.
The best way to handle these situations is through honesty and communication
Like with everything else, handling these situations often comes down to two things – honesty and communication.
By honesty, I mostly mean being honest with yourself. What state of mind are you in? Can you still do the job? Can you get through it without making mistakes or creating too much of a burden on yourself or anyone else involved? If you try to show up, will you break down and wish you would’ve stepped back? If you choose to cancel, what will that do to your relationship with your clients? Will it hurt your income in any long-term sense, and can you handle that? It’s a lot to think about when your brain is likely tied up with other things, but it should be a decision based on logic as much as emotion, if not more. Only you can know what you really need to do, and even that can be pretty difficult to determine if you’ve never been in that kind of situation before. But hopefully you know yourself well enough to make an educated guess about what the best move will be.
Then it’s all about communication. I don’t think it’s a good idea to share the details of your personal drama with everyone. That’s not the way I handle things. Everyone is different, though, so you have to do what feels right to you. It’s also important to be mindful of how you communicate to make sure your explanations don’t come across as excuses. In general, I like to believe that people are understanding because chances are they’ve been in similar situations themselves. But, no matter what is going on in our lives, we have to remain professional.
My clients rarely know what’s going on in my personal life, good or bad. If they ask, I’m pretty much an open book, but I do keep a lot of separation between my work life and my private life. I have received emails from a variety of people in my career who give me way too much information about what’s going on. Not only is it not my business, but sometimes it just makes it awkward. People will send a novel because they think they have to explain why they’re asking what they’re asking. Simple is usually better. I would rather hear, “Hey, I’m not going to be available at this time, but here are a couple of options that will work” than a long detailed explanation saying, “Hey, so, my dog ate something bad and now his stomach is upset and I have to take him to the vet, but that means I have to get a babysitter on short notice and my usual babysitter can’t do it because she’s dealing with a breakup and not in a good headspace, but I think my brother’s girlfriend can jump in but then I’ll have to housesit when they’re out of town next week, so I might not be able to do it on this day or that day but I can probably do it another day or maybe at this time.” That’s too much information. All I need to know is when you’re available. Short, and to the point. If someone asks for an explanation, you can elaborate appropriately, but remember that one person’s need to overshare is not always well received on the other end.
If you have to back out, offer a solution
When you’re communicating something difficult, it’s also important to give as much notice as possible and provide them with a solution. If you know that you aren’t going to be able to deliver what you’ve promised, or perform effectively on a job, you have to let the client know before it’s too late. And give them an alternate plan so they aren’t the ones stuck scrambling to pick up the slack for you. If you can’t be available for the time you’ve committed, find someone who can do it for you, and give them that option. Then they can either accept or decide to use someone else. If they go with your referral, though, make sure you properly onboard that person so it’s a seamless transition. This will show your clients that even though your priorities had to shift, you didn’t leave them hanging. This is a good way to keep a strong relationship so you can come back when you’re ready.
This happened to me last year. I had hired someone for a job and a few days before it was supposed to start, she was notified that she was potentially exposed to COVID on her last project and was urged to quarantine for 10 days. As soon as she found out, she let me know and gave me the info for someone who was available and could do the job. The person she replaced herself with was fantastic and because of the way the original person handled the situation, I’d be happy to hire her again for a future project. She couldn’t control what happened, but instead of creating an additional problem for me, she gave me a solution. If she would’ve just texted and said, “Hey, I can’t do it anymore. Good luck.” I would be hesitant to ever work with her.
Also, if you decide to power through, make sure you can still deliver. It comes back to being honest with yourself and what you can handle. While it’s admirable to try to pull through when you’re struggling, it’s worse to say you can do it and then fall short, especially if it can negatively impact the client or project. And if it gets to be too much, be honest. At that point, it’s better to let them know that you’re not at your best and you are concerned that you won’t be able to give them what they need than to halfway commit and not do a good job. In most cases, I think people will be understanding and work with you to figure it out. If not, it’s probably not the right fit for you anyway and you should take care of yourself.
It’s hard to work through pain, grief, and other turmoil. There are times when you just want to shut down your brain and go lay in bed, lose yourself in a book, or binge watch a mindless show to take your mind off of what’s going on. Other times, you want to surround yourself with family and friends who can help you through a situation. And sometimes your head and your heart are just not in what you have to do, and you have to figure out how to get through it without letting anyone down, including yourself. And despite what you want to do, there are times when what you have to do is to push through it all because you made a commitment and backing out of it just isn’t a real option. When that happens, do what you have to do to get through it and then, when the job is done, take care of yourself.
Figure out what is urgent and what can be done later. Take breaks if you need to. Communicate with the other people involved and be honest with yourself in deciding what you have to do. Bad things happen. We can’t always control the timing of it all, and sometimes we have to decide whether it’s more important to honor our present internal needs or our previous commitments. No matter what the situation is, be kind to yourself in the process. Sometimes that’s all you can really do.