Sometimes I have to leave the studio and walk it off. My heart will speed up and I wonder how I ever made it this far, eight years into a freelance career in the creative industry. It’s not uncommon to wake in the night, my girlfriend nudging me, telling me to go back to sleep, saving me from the slobbering beast that was gaining rapidly on me in my feverish dreams, muttering out loud in strange tongues. It’s awful. This isn’t even David v Goliath, it’s something altogether more overwhelming. I’m talking about the end result, the deadline, my to-do list. Mordor and the Death Star rolled into one.
I plunge from an extended quiet spell, where it feels as if there will never, ever be another project, into oceans of projects and tasks and the culture shock is very real. The mistake I make is to look at the big picture, four or five deadlines and an equal number of blank pages, unopened ink bottles and dry pen nibs. The feeling is one of insurmountable odds, a candle standing up to the might of the sun. It’s psychologically destructive but also very unnecessary.
I did this at university and school. I did it at college. I made the critical mistake of not breaking the workload down into bite-size pieces. Do that and it isn't so bad after all. Pressure is a state of mind. If the deadline is on you, here and now, then it’s simple. Work hard and focus, do what needs to be done. But usually, it’s the notion of all the hundreds of small steps required to finish a piece of work bundled into one monster that overwhelms our mind.
As time has gone by, my portfolio has become stronger, my network wider and it means I’m subject to huge pile-ups of work. I’ve had to adapt or risk losing my mind under the weight of it all. What I always remind myself is, there is a limit to what I can do in one day. Today is all that really matters.
Think about it. What sense is there in getting sweaty palms and panic attacks because of something two weeks away, when this moment, the here and now is all that exists? If you order today right, do everything you can humanly do at any given stage, then at the end of those two weeks, you’ll be in a strong position. Just recently, I looked at my diary and worked out I had 3 x 700 word opinion columns to write and illustrate. 5 active illustration projects required planning, executing, amending and sending. With fourteen interviews for my Arrest All Mimics creative innovation podcast in hand, I had to edit, produce, record the intro and outro monologues for two shows. Then there’s invoicing, promotion, oh, and a life outside of my work. Yeah, it felt like I’d come up against something I could not defeat. But I took a breath and asked myself, what could I do this morning? Well that didn’t seem so bad. One thing that would not help the cause was sitting there, imagining the death and destruction of my career as a creative professional. So I distilled the more urgent bullet points on that list, put the kettle on and attacked it.
It’s worth reminding yourself, that any stage of your creative education or career, you can only ever operate in this present moment. Focus too much on the future and when you get there, it’s sure to be all the bad things you’re worrying about right now. So keep an eye on the big picture, but break it up into small slices and fully enjoy each of them. I’ve felt physically sick at times, because I failed to do that and almost broke under a very self-imposed and senseless pressure. Get a calendar app, buy a diary and get into the habit of writing tasks down as soon as they come in. Action them, cross them off, plan ahead, but place the big emphasis on today. Be here, now and you’ll take far more enjoyment from your work and a few less grey hairs from your head in future years.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.
Want to hear from Ben? His recent podcasts will resonate with freelancers and creatives looking to hear from likeminded leaders in the industry. Visit: https://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics