Digital Zombies: How to Maintain Decent Health When You Freelance From Dawn to Dusk
A few tips on staying sane and fit, especially if you make money on websites like Upwork or Fiverr.
Digital freelancing and entrepreneurship are so common these days, especially among the generation of millennials and post-millennials, that one cannot say there is any lack of resources on how to increase work productivity, develop optimal pricing strategies, or acquire new sales leads.
We do, however, hear much less about how to maintain our bodies — hunching over laptops, tablets, and phones for the bigger part of the day — in a good shape.
You’re meant to wear several hats at once from the moment of your decision to start a one-man or a one-woman business. You have no team around to help you and there’s a lot of financial as well as social pressure on you to succeed fast. That’s why logging in as many hours as possible becomes the ultimate imperative of your days. No matter what the toll on your physical and mental well-being may be.
You don’t leave your room. You order takeout, or you skip meals altogether. You end up falling asleep fully dressed with your computer still humming next to your face.
What inevitably follows, in a few weeks time, then, is a critically low amount of energy, worsened cognitive functions, poor physical fitness, and a weakened immunity, which makes pain your new (and unwelcome) business associate.
I’m not going to advise you now to lower the number of working hours or to find someone to help you out. Having started a few online projects myself, I know very well that in the initial stages of your new routine, it takes some time before you settle on a reasonable schedule and before you discover which activities yield the best results. But I will try to sketch out a few simple steps you can take during your working time, with minimal effort, to keep your body nourished and working as it should be.
And if you’re asking why you should even care, or if you believe that you’re still young and strong enough to withstand a few weeks, months, or even years neglecting yourself for the sake of bringing some money in, let me remind you that without a healthy body and a balanced mind, your overall productivity will sooner or later start falling rapidly. Your body and your mind are your main business tools, not the hardware or software you use, and possibly even take better care of.
STEP ONE — NUTRIENTS
The same way your car needs a certain type of fuel or your iPhone needs to be charged with electricity now and then to serve you well, your body cannot perform all its functions without the essential nutrients it uses to make energy, grow, and repair itself.
You can look perfectly fit on the outside or, on the contrary, be overweight, and still suffer from malnutrition. Carbs and saturated fat alone don’t provide enough vitamins, minerals, and (omega-3) fatty acids your body cells need. Besides, if you are unable to get rid of your food cravings, you’re most probably missing some essential nutrients, which your body attempts to obtain by making you eat more than usual. On the other hand, if you eat highly nutritious food, you will feel full and satisfied with much smaller portions.
If you come to the point that you’re starving so much that you’d eat whatever is available in your fridge or on the delivery menu, put something small and nutritious in your mouth first (a piece of fruit, a few nuts, etc.). It will reset your brain, allowing you to make a more reasonable choice afterwards. Try to do this every few hours, especially if it seems that you have “absolutely no time to eat.”
For such occasions, it’s good to have your kitchen always stocked with:
- fresh fruits and veggies
- dry fruit (preferably sugar-free, sulfur-free)
- plant-based milk (coconut, rice, almond etc.)
Then, if you are willing to invest 10–20 minutes more:
- quinoa or buckwheat (these grains are gluten-free, rich in protein)
- rice, potatoes, legumes, beans
- coconut oil (cooking) and olive oil (salads)
- onions, garlic
- some spices or herbs
All the above should help you prepare a tasty meal (e.g. a salad, a smoothie, porridge) in no time. Investing into a smoothie blender is a great option for a digital freelancer, since you simply fill it with some green goodness (e.g. spinach, celery, cucumber, avocado, spirulina…) and some colorful one (fruits), add grounded flax seeds or chia seeds for omega-3 fatty acids, and plant-based milk (extras can include: cinnamon, cocoa nibs, honey, shredded coconut, a pinch of cayenne pepper, some lemon juice, or a couple of ice cubes), press the button, and in a few moments you have a refreshing, nutrient-dense breakfast/lunch/dinner.
STEP 2 — OXYGEN
Now, except for eating, you should also breathe. However banal it may seem, you’d be surprised how many people keep themselves underoxygenated due to shallow, fast breathing caused by stress and tension.
The oxygen you breathe in is carried by the blood to the cells throughout the body where it helps convert (“burn”) nutrients into energy. Therefore, no matter how much nutritious food you eat, it won’t benefit your body to the fullest extent without oxygen and a proper breathing technique.
A human body cannot store oxygen so it depends on respiration to get all the oxygen it requires. The more oxygen in the cells, the higher the body can perform. But careful: it doesn’t mean that you should suddenly start breathing fast and heavy to hyperventilate yourself. Bohr effect explains that red blood cells release oxygen into tissues only when they sense a higher concentration of CO2 there. That’s why it’s not about how much air you breathe in, but about how slowly and steadily (engaging your diaphragm rather than your chest) you are able to inhale and exhale, so that the proper exchange of gases (oxygen in / carbon dioxide out) can take place.
All in all, to keep your body cells, including your brain cells (!), in a perfect state:
- Sleep with windows open if possible.
- Open windows a few times during the day (esp. if your focus deteriorates, or if you start feeling tired).
- Breathe through your belly, not your chest.
- Whenever you make a pause, focus on taking a few STEADY and SLOW breaths.
STEP 3 — MOVEMENT
I believe there’s no need to explain how exercise makes your body and mind healthier and more energetic (in short: the more you exercise, the more efficient your body cells are in producing energy).
Here’s the minimum you can do to sneak in some body movement even when you’re busy with your work tasks:
- Never use a lift, always use stairs.
- If someone is present within less than 200m perimeter, go talk to them → no messages, no emails, no calls.
- Avoid public transport and driving a car as much as possible (you’ll eventually need to leave your house, so just use your legs for a change).
- 30 minutes of brisk walking, 3 x per week, is enough for most people to keep them fit (if you eat responsibly).
- Go for a combination of cardio (e.g. walking, running, swimming), strength exercise (squats, push ups, planks etc.) and flexibility exercise (e.g. yoga) for at least 30 min, 3 x per week.
Bonus tip: Replacing a traditional office chair with a balance ball will help you strengthen your core muscles while not missing anything of your responsibilities.
STEP 4 — SLEEP
This is a tough one. First of all, try not to fall asleep with a computer under your head. Do your best to preemptively plan for a moment in the evening when you will stop working no matter what. Set aside at least half an hour for your brain to relax and get ready for a night of good quality sleep. In the ideal world, you would switch off your computer and put down your phone two hours before going to bed, so you can stretch your body, get some fresh air, take a brisk short walk, read a book, meditate, breathe, watch a nice movie, or spend this time with someone you like. If you manage to do that, the quality of your sleep will increase dramatically.
The sleeping time is when our batteries get recharged. When you plug your phone into a charger, you know you need to wait for a while before the battery bars go up again. Analogically, we need a certain number of hours of deep, restorative sleep so that we can function to our full potential.
When we sleep, essential hormones are released to help the body develop and grow, our damaged cells are repaired, and our immune and cardiovascular systems are recharged. Besides, when we sleep, our brain consolidates and stores new information, creates links between memories, and prepares itself to soak up even more.
Good quality sleep is therefore not only important for our body to work well, but also for our mind to learn and stay creative.
STEP 5 — WATER
Proper hydration is as important for your body as consuming the right nutrients and breathing oxygen. If you wake up after 7 or 8 hours of sleep and still feel exhausted, it most probably means that you’re dehydrated. If you suffer from temporary mood swings, mild anxiety, overthinking, or headaches, chances are that a glass or two of unsweetened water will do wonders for you.
You lose water not only when you exercise and sweat, but also when you exhale, pee or poo. Then, if you drink less than you lose, your body lacks the water it needs for transport of nutrients, removal of harmful substances, regulation of your body temperature and many other vital functions.
When you feel thirsty, you’re already slightly dehydrated, so in the morning, simply put a 2-liter bottle of pure water on your (working) table and make sure you finish it by the end of the day. This is a very easy habit to follow and your body, including your nerve cells, will thank you tons.
And if you’re used to “energizing” yourself with the help of caffeinated, carbonated, or sweet drinks, remember that they may not only make you eat more (due to the subsequent higher fluctuation of blood sugar levels) but also that your energy level will plunge as fast as it rose.
LAST STEP: TIME MANAGEMENT
What does good time management have to do with maintaining good health? A lot, actually. You need some amount of time to eat. You need some amount of time to sleep. You need some amount of time to visit a bathroom. Even proper breathing can take some time initially, before it becomes automatic.
And we all have “only” 24 hours in a day, which a typical freelancer finds insufficient even for their work-related responsibilities, let alone for something so “trivial and profitless” as preparing a healthy meal or going for a walk.
Therefore, to be able to run our businesses successfully and at the same time keep our major business tools — our body and mind — running flawlessly, we need to assume full control of our time.
The key components of good time management are:
Learn to make daily/weekly estimates of the number of hours you need in order to deliver an excellent service to your customers. But don’t stop here. Make also an estimate of how many hours in a day you need to sleep, eat, exercise, or pursue any other activity that will maintain your body and mind healthy and performing great.
When you’re done with those calculations, I’m pretty sure that you’ll find out that the total number of required hours (work + self-care) is not as dire as it feels when you pass your days with no plan whatsoever, only reacting to what’s coming up, rather than proactively controlling how you spend your limited time allowance.
When you become comfortable with dividing your days into chunks of time dedicated to a certain activity, make it a priority to give your full focus to whatever you’re doing currently at the moment. For example, a schedule of a freelance copywriter may look like this:
7.00 waking up
8.00–9.00 shower + breakfast
9.00–9.30 replying to messages & emails
9.30–12.30 uninterrupted writing
13.00–13.30 short walk
13.30–14.00 replying to new requests and messages
14.00–16.00 uninterrupted writing
16.00–18.00 planning new content + research
18.00–19.00 business-related stuff (leads, website maintenance, accounting etc.)
20.00–22.00 fun & family time
22.00–23.00 study & reading
The person in this example has dedicated two slots to communication with their customers so they can fully focus on “creating” when they need to work on their projects. Of course, some client requests are time-sensitive and you should be able to reply as fast as you can, but then it’s up to you to distinguish the level of urgency and to shift your focus back as soon as you’re done.
The ability to focus when you’re working and be mindful when you aren’t is not easy to develop. It demands a good deal of discipline and most importantly practice.
Everything that has been described above calls for a lot of flexibility and experimenting at first. You need to look for what suits your unique lifestyle the best. There’s no failure here, only opportunities to learn and do better next time.
The most important thing is that you know what you want, not only for your career and bank account but also for your body, which is the vital element of your success. Next, learn to work smart with the 24 hours you have in a day, by filling them with activities that bring you the best results, while ditching those that bring only very little.
And then practice. See what works and what doesn’t. Modify your habits and your schedule. Sharpen your focus. Nourish your creativity. Be mindful. Sometimes be extremely strict with yourself. Sometimes let go and give yourself a big break.
Maintaining solid physical and mental health is not so hard if you realize that it’s about remembering a few straightforward rules regarding some quite basic functions and needs of your body.
If you wish to succeed as a freelancer, it’s crucial that you provide exceptional work and that you understand perfectly what your customers want. However, you will never be able to do that if your main working tool — your body — is lacking the basic care it needs to serve you well.