Advice For The Anxious

inside out

Yesterday we looked at when, in our careers, we can afford to say no. After the discussion (which included “life is complicated, jobs are complicated, sometimes saying yes or no is more about circumstance than choice”) one Billfold commenter had a request:

Please, Billfold, provide an alternate answer for those of us who are anxious and prone to over-thinking and generally feel like they’re falling apart a lot of the time.

Okay. Here’s the best answer I’ve got.

I start with math. If I earn $5,000 a month, $1,000 goes to taxes, $1,000 goes to debt, $500 goes to savings, and $2,500 goes to living expenses and discretionary. I can live well on that and have plenty left over.

If I earn $4,000 a month, it becomes $800 to taxes, $800 to debt, $400 to savings, and $2,000 for living/discretionary. I can live on that and have a bit left over.

If I only earn $3,000 a month—which hasn’t happened in a long time—I give $600 to taxes and start pulling back on debt and savings.

If I earn nothing in a month, I have enough savings to make it through.

I also have plans. I often write the plans out in three or four places (my GTD list, my freelance spreadsheet, my notebook, sticky notes on my wall), first so I won’t forget them and second because the act of rewriting my plans helps to calm me down. This is what I need to do this month to grow my career. This is what I need to do next month. If something happens to Client A, initiate pitch to Client B.

I have dreams. Dreams help me keep working. Dreams give me a reason to work through the anxiety. There are fun little dreams like “I’m going to put flowers in my green Mason jar and stick them on my new dining room table,” but the biggest dream is that I will create something brilliant. I am working towards my future self.

I do 20 minutes of yoga in the morning, 20 minutes of calisthenics in the evening, and get my 10,000 steps. I rarely sit still; I have a standing desk and I pace around sometimes and I keep moving. I chase the anxiety with adrenaline.

I also chase the anxiety with music. I listen to fast music and fast lyrics and I sing the lyrics as I walk or do the dishes because that helps my brain focus on something that is not me. It also makes me feel smart and competent, to know the lyrics to things. It puts another little dream in my head, of the day when I will meet up with friends for karaoke and sing all the songs I’ve been practicing. (In the dream, I put one hand over my eyes. I won’t do that in real life because it’s too show-offy.)

I write everything down. Everything I want to do, and everything I need to do. I made a box on my freelance spreadsheet for this piece before I wrote it. I have boxes for the pitches I sent out today, and the pitches I’ll send out tomorrow. My spreadsheet has infinite boxes. It has as much possibility as the rest of my life.

At night, I remind myself that I am okay, that I did work today and I have work to do tomorrow, that I have plans for every fear that chases the edges of my thoughts. I say little mantras and do prayer-substitutes to say goodnight to the day and let my mind know that, at least for the next eight hours or so, I only have one item on my to-do list: sleep and rest.

I put a notebook next to my pillow, to write down everything that worries me during those 15 minutes before I actually fall asleep. Most of them seem silly the next morning, so I strike through them when I wake up. A few get worked into the plan and the GTD list.

I do wonder, all the time, when this life I’ve built for myself will fall apart. I probably think about it every day. I know this phase of my career won’t last forever; I hope that when it ends, it’s because I’ve graduated out of it and not because it’s disintegrated.

The other half of the “create something brilliant” dream is the “be good enough that somebody will always want to hire you” dream. Brilliance is the vision; being good enough that someone will always want to hire me is the little flame. I have to stoke both. It’s an action that both creates and calms anxiety simultaneously.

I hope that’s helpful to you. It’s the best answer I know.

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