Hey guys. I’ve been sick for eight weeks. Yup, eight weeks. It’s mid-January and I’ve been sick since the first scratch in my throat a couple of days before Thanksgiving. I’ve been sick since Thanksgiving.
Now stop crying, I’m fine. I got walloped with a nasty cold, nursed a relentless cough for a few weeks after that and then got hit with another cold because life isn’t fair and I’m clearly paying for something I did wrong.
That said, I did learn a thing or eleven about working when you feel like your body is rejecting you. There’s no job in the world, other than unemployment, that lets you take eight weeks off. Plus, as freelancers and the self-employed know, this is an unforgiving way of life – there’s no such thing as sick days. There’s I’m-not-working-so-I’m-losing-money days, but that’s pretty much it.
I hope none of you ever get sick, ever, but since you will, here are my hard-earned lessons from my two months of feeling under-the-weather and still having to work every damn day.
1. Sleep. Sleep sleep sleep. Then sleep some more.
Despite what the past eight weeks would tell you, I haven’t been sick much since leaving my nine-to-five back in 2009. I attribute my decline in sickness to all the extra sleep I get now. I’m sure that not having the boss from Hell and avoiding an office full of people help, but let’s be honest – freelancing and self-employment is rife with stress, so those two improvements can only account for so much. Now I get the sleep I need because I can set my own schedule and I don’t torture myself with an alarm clock. When I’m sick – or about to be sick or getting over being sick – I let myself sleep as late as I need to. Lately, that’s been until 10:30 most mornings. I may have less time during the day, but the #1 priority is getting better, so sleep takes precedence.
2. Know what kind of sick you are.
About three years ago, I had the flu. I can’t even talk about it. I get war flashbacks when I think of it. For half a day, I actually thought to myself, “Am I dying?” That’s how sick I felt. I worked as minimally as possible – an hour one morning, two hours the next, no work at all one day. These past few weeks, I haven’t been nearly that ill, but colds are nothing to sneeze at (see what I did there?). It’s important to know what kind of sick you are. Are you so sick that you’ll be doing more harm than good if you expend the energy to work through it? Are you sick enough that you should be booking an appointment with your doctor instead of trying to file that article? Or are you feeling like garbage but know that an hour of answering emails isn’t going to make you more sick?
3. Take medicine, but also listen to your body.
I’ve done the math and my two colds have cost me $200, which includes seven bags of cough drops and enough cough suppressant that I could write a guide to choosing the best-tasting medicine. Spoiler: there is no delicious medicine, they’re all disgusting. I hate taking medicine, but when I’m afraid I’m going to break a rib from the never-ending coughing, I take the damn medicine. I also listen to my body. Yes, I may stop sniffling and coughing for the next four hours, but if I still feel like I can’t hold my head up, I’m not going to fill that time with working. Take the medicine, feel better, then assess how the rest of you feels and make your to-work-or-not-to-work decision from there.
4. Get dressed. Even if it’s just into a cleaner pair of pajamas.
It’s impossible to feel good, in any way, if you’re still wearing the crumpled clothing you slept in. You also don’t want to wear your germ-infested clothing for another day. Take a 30-second shower and get dressed in clean clothes, even if it’s just a new pair of pajamas. I won’t tell anybody.
5. Cancel or reschedule everything you possibly can.
It’s time to take out your calendar and get to reassigning anything and everything you can. If you have deadlines or daily to-dos that are just for you, get rid of them. Only focus on the things that people are counting on you for, then whittle those down as much as you can, too. I don’t like to tell my clients that I’m sick, but these past few weeks I’ve begrudgingly sent an email or two that sounds something like, “Hey Jane Doe, I’ve been sick for the past couple of weeks and I’m a bit behind on our project. I’ll have it to you in a day or two. Thanks for understanding.” Again, I hate doing this, but I’ve been met with nothing short of, “No problem, no rush, take care of yourself and feel better.” People get it. We’ve all been sick. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re human.
6. Squeeze as much as you can into 4 hours. Or 2 hours. Or half an hour.
Here’s the big secret: when you only have “X” amount of hours to get something done, you will get it done within that time frame. On a good day, I have about 6 to 8 hours of solid work in me. On a bad day, I have between 2 and 4. I can usually tell how much energy I’ll have when I wake up, but you should still plan for the worst. When you sit down at your desk (or on your couch) to plow through a sick work day, pile everything that’s super duper important into the first two hours. If you need to take a break or throw in the towel, you’ll still have handled the necessities.
7. Be available to your clients, but set boundaries.
When it comes to the clients who pay me every single month, they need to know I’m there when they need me. Even when I’m sick and miserable, I make sure to give them attention when they need it – within reason. I’ll check my email frequently through the day, but I stop around 5 p.m., the end of a traditional work day. If I need to make a phone call, I take a few deep breaths, pop in a cough drop and call them back. It’s important to cater to clients, even if what they’re asking about isn’t an emergency. If a five-minute phone calls makes them happy and gives you a feeling of accomplishment on a day when not much else is going to get done, it’s worth it.
8. Limit your stress.
This is the time to choose your battles. And you should choose none of them. This isn’t the time to restructure your client’s marketing campaign. It’s not the time to raise your rates and break the news to your customers. It’s not the time to go head-to-head over an invoice being a day late. If it’s not a real deadline or a real problem, let everyone, yourself included, off the hook.
9. Need a burst of energy? Meditate.
Whether it’s a long-winded email you need to read and answer or a blog post that’s due today, you may find yourself needing a burst of energy. Meditation is basically magic and I love it and I swear by it and I don’t do it nearly enough. I have completely changed my mindset and energy level for the day with just five minutes of meditation. If you need to gather up the momentum to get through work when you’re sick, sit down for five minutes, close your eyes, clear your head and focus on your breathing. For me, the quickest way to get in the zone is to picture myself in a dark movie theater, alone, as the screen changes different colors.
10. Prioritize to max out your not-so-sick time.
Woo hoo! You woke up and you’re totally not sick! You can go for a run, catchup on work, bake a cake…
Not so fast. You’re going to feel like crap in about eight hours, so you need to use this time wisely. It’s tempting to get through a ton of work you’ve been pushing off, but look around at your life first. For me, I use my “I don’t feel so sick” time to stack the responsibilities that make me feel like a human again. I stock up on groceries, wash some laundry and clean the kitchen floor. Then I crash, like I knew I would. I know you love your job, but the truth is that your life and well-being are more important. When you feel all the way better, you can do all the things.
11. Take the weekend completely off.
Working weekends is tempting for some freelancers, myself included. Nobody is calling or emailing and you have the time and mental space to get your work done with very few distractions. When you’re sick, though, there’s almost no limit to the time you need for R&R. Since nobody’s expecting work from you on the weekend, take advantage of it.
How do you handle a heavy workload when you’re sick sicky sick?