Two Hour Walk to Sanity
Monday, June 17, 2013
The past three years have been difficult for me, to say the least. Laid off and job hunting and trying to pay the mortgage on a home that’s worth 65% less than what I owe on it has been the biggest challenge of my life. Budget-conscious doesn’t even begin to describe my lifestyle. I’m more fortunate than some others in my situation because I have 20 years experience in a profession that lends itself to freelancing and consulting.
So I’ve kept myself alive (barely) with income from whatever freelance projects I can get. But that means working a lot of weird and long hours. Companies hire freelancers for two reasons:
1) we’re less expensive than ad agencies or marketing groups; I bid low on projects because I want the work and I want to keep busy, but even at cutrate pricing I have been underbid by other freelancers. Suffice it to say we all bid far (far) below agency rates; and
2) we’re “willing” to work outside the M-F, 9 – 5 standard. It’s not unusual for me to get a call from a client at 3:00 in the afternoon with a project they need for 10:00 the next day. So I work a lot of late nights, weekends and early mornings.
Because I never know when I’m going to get a call for work, I’m always “on.” If I’m not working on a freelance project, I’m job hunting for a full-time job (which is my main goal and focus life, my raison d’etre). I made a vow that I would get out and walk an hour a day. I knew I needed breathing space from what are often grueling job applications and demanding clients. And I knew I needed exercise. But of course, as fate wills it, just as I rounded the 15 minute mark from home, a client or interviewer would call. I don’t want to sound unprofessional with outside noises on a call, so I let the calls go to voice mail. But of course the calls nagged at me during the rest of the 45 minute walk. And on more than one occasion I lost the opportunity for a freelance project because in the 30 – 45 minutes it took me to get back home and return the call the client found another freelancer. (Yes, there is that much competition for freelance/consulting projects.)
So my walks became sporadic. I could never find a good time of day to put clients and job hunting on hold – clients email or call me as early as 7:00 AM and I’ve received frantic emails, pleas for help with presentations, at 11:00 PM. And weekends do not offer reprieve. Business in general is moving away from the M – F, 9 -5 model (thank you, email and SmartPhones), and this is especially true for anyone who is self-employed. The standard rules of business do not apply – or at least that’s the general consensus, and the reason why companies choose to use freelancers instead of agencies. Lesson #1 of freelancing: As a freelancer your business is always open. Always.
I can’t afford a gym, and I can’t afford healthy food. I’ve been eating the poverty diet of rice and beans, potatoes, peanut butter and when I can afford it, Grape Nuts. The poverty diet has done things to my body I didn’t realize were possible. (I’m convinced my ear lobes are fatter, to name but one body oddity.) The depression, anxiety, sleepless nights and general stress in my life aren’t helping my body, either. So that one hour walk was crucial for my health and sanity. But it was rare that I didn’t have to postpone it because of an interview or a rush project.
Finally I threw down the gauntlet. Every day around noon I would take “lunch.” No matter what. And my lunch would be one hour of walking. It isn’t always easy and I do miss days – if I have an interview or a tight deadline on a project I have to skip a day. But I’ve found, oddly, that clients respect lunch more than they respect weekends and late nights. If I don’t answer their call between noon and 1:00, they dismiss it as, “Oh, she must be at lunch.” However, if I don’t answer their call after 6:00 PM they leave a snarky message along the lines of, “must be nice to only work when you want to.”
A few months ago I upped the ante and started walking, gasp, 2 hours at “lunch.” It started one day after I spent three hours crafting a lengthy and difficult job application. Typically I walk 30 minutes and no matter where I am, I do a 180° and return home ensuring my one hour lunch. But on this particular day I embarked on my lunch hour walk and it felt so good to have completed the application and I didn’t have a freelance project on deck, so when I hit my 30 minute mark I didn’t turn around. I just kept walking until I hit the one hour mark. My one hour lunch became a 2 hour lunch. And that’s been the routine ever since. I can’t do it every day. Interviews and projects and job applications remain the top priority; I’ve yet to get a walk in every day of the week. But it’s a huge improvement over the chaotic catch-as-catch-can non-routine prior to the lunch time walks.
Of course this is a time-worn lesson: Exercise at the same time every day and it will become a regular routine, a daily habit like brushing teeth. The key factor is finding a time of day that works for you. A time of day that you won’t feel guilty (or afraid) of not taking calls and emails.
And another time-worn lesson: No matter how much stress you have in your life, no matter how much chaos and unpredictability, it’s crucial to make time for yourself. The huge amount of stress I have in my life feels insurmountable most of the time. It’s constant, there’s no relief from it. However, I noticed when I’m able to do two hours of walking I am more able to let go of stress easier than when I only walk an hour. It takes a good 45 minutes for me to get outside my head and focus solely on walking, enjoying the scenery and thinking about something, anything, other than finding a job, clients, money and all the stress that goes with unemployment. If I’m walking two hours, that gives me one hour and 15 minutes of much needed unburdened thinking.
As for health benefits, when it comes to walking of course more is better. But I haven’t noticed much difference in my appearance or weight since I added an additional hour of walking. Sometimes I try to walk farther distances in two hours, pushing myself to walk faster, but as yet I haven’t noticed that makes a difference, either. I still have the bodily results of a starch-heavy diet, sleepless nights and an off-the-chart stress level. But I know the added hour is good for my heart. And just as importantly, I know it’s good for my mental health.
Most of all, the lunchtime walks are a routine. In what has become an unpredictable, reactionary life, finding one source of certainty is like finding a life buoy just before going under the tide.