Freelancer burnout is a thing. It creeps up on you slowly and usually makes itself known when you really feel as though you’re nailing it on the work-life balance front. When it happens, you might find that you move from a joyful period of productivity to suddenly realising that there isn’t a spare moment in your day for enjoyment.
One of the most common culprits is taking on too many clients. I’ve spent eight years working as a freelance writer, yet I’ll still sometimes find myself wondering where I am going to squeeze in that few hundred words I committed myself to on a whim. This doesn’t come from a lack of organisation, but rather the sense that you must say ‘yes’ to every project and occasionally over-committing myself even when I usually know it’s in my best interests not to.
How common is freelancer burnout?
If you’re worried that you’re suffering from freelancer burnout, you’re not alone. According to the Centre for Research on Self Employment (CSRE), 4.7-million of us in the UK are self-employed. It’s worth noting that-that figure doesn’t exclusively focus on freelancers. It also includes people working in the ‘gig economy’ (Uber, Deliveroo etc.) and individuals such as childminders, builders, and medics who have chosen to go solo.
Of those 4.7-million, the CSRE splits self-employed people into nine segments. Each segment represents individuals who are secure both financially and in terms of the work that’s available to them. Hazarding quite a rough guess, I would say that many freelance copywriters fall into category 6 (Mid-pay, independent, and secure) or category 9 (high-pay, independent, and secure). Both categories feature a large proportion of individuals who are graduates. They freelance because they chose to and there’s a lot of autonomy in their day-to-day lives. The primary difference between the two categories is that those working in 9 achieve higher rates than those working in 6.
The majority of people who freelance (53%) are more independent than their employed contemporaries and generally feel much happier. However, that means there’s still a significantly sized minority that isn’t experiencing the same benefits. They don’t experience the same benefits because their job security is poor and may end up overworking as a result.
If most of us have more autonomy and a higher degree of earnings, how does burnout arise?
What are the signs that you’re burning yourself out as a freelancer?
I’m going to assume that most of you fall into a similar category as myself on the personality front. That category feels as though they can do everything and anything, while remaining stoic in the pursuit of success and perfectionism. We see ourselves as high achievers, or we feel as though we should be. Unfortunately, it’s that same desire to aim high that’s resulting in our feeling burned out.
The earlier signs of freelancer burnout might creep up slowly. For example, you start to feel more tired during the day despite getting the same amount of sleep as usual. Or, you’re starting to forget tasks that wouldn’t usually slip your mind. Other subtle signs can include eating less, worrying more, feeling anxious over small matters, and heading to the toilet more often.
When freelancer burnout becomes chronic, you may start encountering the following signs and symptoms:
- Your energy levels dip entirely; Your fatigue is no longer minimal. Instead, you feel lethargic and as though you’re unable to complete any task. Rather than feeling revitalised in the morning, you’re ready to turn over and go back to sleep.
- Insomnia; Although not everyone will experience insomnia, many find that it accompanies their increased anxiety levels. Naturally, the less you sleep, the worse everything feels. You’ll also find it harder to meet the demands of each task.
- Work starts to pile up; Your inability to concentrate and remain organised will insidiously intensify until your deadlines suddenly start to hurtle towards you faster than usual.
- Your immune system suffers; If you’re noticing a sudden increase in your bouts of the sniffles, diarrhoea, and illnesses that become common during the winter, it might be due to freelancer burnout.
- Other aspects of your life start suffering; Once burnout leaves you feeling emotionally and physically drained, your ability to socialise, enjoy your hobbies, and take care of yourself will decrease.
The list of symptoms above isn’t exclusive. As unique individuals, we’re all going to experience freelancer burnout in our own ways. In essence, burnout is when we have reached the end of our tether. We’ve burned the candle at both ends. Our joie de vivre has disappeared into the horizon and it took our desire to work with it.
Let’s say you have a severe case of freelancer burnout, what do you do now?
Okay, so your case of freelancer burnout is here and you’re sitting in a pit of retrospective thinking wishing you’d taken on fewer clients, sat in more hot baths, and spent more time with your family. While all of that thinking is an excellent way to reflect on what you could have done, it does need to give way to action eventually.
To digress slightly, this morning the word that I chose to use as part of my meditation mantras was ‘glisten.’ I decided that I want to feel as though I am glistening in all that I do because my most recent bouts of self-exploration have left me feeling as though I don’t appreciate the happier things in my life. I ignore little moments of joy and miss out on the opportunity to indulge in them while they’re there.
Unfortunately, freelancer burnout is something that will prevent all of us from glistening at some stage. While we are human (and, therefore, cannot glisten all the time), we do want to be the shiniest and happiest versions of ourselves most of the time. As a result, when you’re recovering from burnout you need to try the following:
Identify what it is that’s causing your stress
I’ll go ahead and confidently bet that most people who experience freelancer burnout do so because they have too much on their plates. When they try to wade through all of their work, family, and social responsibilities, it feels like they’re forcing their way through cement that’s drying around them.
Few of us are in situations where we can’t list a number of stresses and decide to tweak them or ditch them altogether. Physically, burnout arises when we’re flooding our bodies with too many stress hormones. For example, cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones serve us well when we need to dodge the bus that’s hurtling towards us, flooding our bodies with them unnecessarily isn’t what we evolved to do.
That means that now is the time to create your stress inventory. Don’t reflect on each point as it comes up. Just write it down, because you’re going to revisit it later.
After creating your list, step away and do something else. I don’t care whether that means cleaning your kitchen as though you’re Mrs. Hinch or meditating, just do it.
Once you’ve given your list a little space, bring it back out and look at what you can ditch, what you can tweak, and what you need to accept. For example, my list could include:
- The client who is persistently rude; While all freelance copywriters need to accept constructive feedback, if someone is persistently rude then they are elevating your stress levels. You can ditch that client and find someone else. Don’t make yourself beholden to them. You’ll only dread going to work every time you open your laptop.
- Working with clients in a completely different timezone; Can I expect my clients to work to my timezone? Nope, I can’t. What I can do, though, is tweak my working hours slightly to ensure I am in contact with them at least once a day. I make sure I am in control of this by setting those hours and sticking to them. Making myself available all day every day isn’t an option, as that means I am blending my work and personal life too much.
- A last-minute revision request; They don’t happen often, but these are the types of events that fall into the ‘suck it up’ list. If one arrives, I can see if it’s possible to squeeze it into my day. Otherwise, it’s a case of making time for it.
When reviewing your list, remain brutal on what you can honestly ditch, how you can adapt other things, and which ones you can tackle. If you struggle with doing this, I highly recommend reading Sarah Knight’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F***.
While you’re recovering from freelancer burnout, say ‘no’ mercilessly
The desire to say ‘yes’ to everything isn’t unique to freelancers. It’s something that many of us feel universally. On the flip side, some of us aren’t saying ‘yes’ enough. But we’ll stick to the point here and assume you’re over committing and therefore need to let the word ‘no’ escape your lips more often.
I discussed this in a book I wrote earlier this year: 31 Days to Self-Love. We should all find areas of our life where we need to start saying no, to prevent burnout and leave more time for ourselves. Examples of where you can start saying no during your freelancer burnout recovery include:
- Errands and tasks that the other person can fit in easily; For example, running to the shops to get your mother some milk.
- Spending time with toxic individuals; such as that frenemy who always turns up to nights out and lowers everyone’s vibe.
- Say no to new projects; Don’t let the fear that you need more money for something settle in. Question whether you can cut your spending first and generate extra you time.
- Say no to that internal pull that draws you towards experiences that will heighten your negativity; For example, watching the news, indulging in a scary Netflix binge (House on Haunted Hill was tremendous, but not a great fix for freelancer burnout), and conversations that make you want to tear at your hair.
- Say no to doing everything around the house; Let things slip, ask someone else to pitch in, and consider hiring a bi-weekly cleaner (mine is a sanity-saver).
At the end of all these ‘nos’, you have more time for yourself. That time then goes into self-care. Not the projects you think deserve that time, but by putting your own oxygen mask on first instead.
When working, schedule time to do other things between projects
How many projects and clients do you have on the go at once? If you’re sensible, it’s around three or four dependable ones. Providing they’re not overwhelmingly large, this is the best way to maximise your income and prevent yourself from depending on one person.
As you move between the moments you dedicate to each project each day, what do you do in-between? Are you giving yourself time to spend on your hobbies? Are you reading something enlightening or uplifting? Are you exercising? Or, are you preparing for the next thing and driving your mind into overheating mode?
Don’t force yourself to move from project to project throughout the day without respite. I’m not suggesting that you should procrastinate instead. However, it’s wise to invest in one of the other areas of your life that prevent burnout. Examples include:
- Hobbies: Mine include gardening and rock hounding (yes, I know). So if I can use 15 minutes when moving from one project to the next to cleanse my mental palate with them, I will.
- Cooking: Nothing too elaborate, but can you start working on a dish that’ll leave you feeling excited later?
- Family and friends time: I love to group family and friends together, as for many people the word is now used interchangeably. If you can see someone for a little while, talk to them on the phone, or dedicate a little time to them via WhatsApp, do it. We’re social creatures at heart, not home working hermits who should avoid other humans.
- Mental re-wiring: If you’re yet to investigate/try meditation, do it. Download an app such as 10% happier (or, listen to the podcast if you need persuading on the exercise’s benefits), find a free YouTube video, or give Headspace a whirl. Or, you can choose a mantra, listen to soothing music, and repeat it for 10 minutes. It won’t always feel ‘right’ but with daily practice, it can soothe you.
Start your day in a way that works for you
Do you begin each working day with an over-arching sense of doom? You dread opening your emails, you fear responding to feedback, and your toes curl at the thought of delving into a dull project?
Now’s the time to revamp your morning routine. Don’t make the mistake of copying whatever it is your favourite celebrity is doing. For example, I love Barack Obama, but there’s no way I am getting up after five hours of sleep, to do 45 minutes of cardio and switch coffee for green tea. If that’s your thing, though, I stand in awe of you.
Sit back and think about how you can start your day positively. My partner has a similar routine to Obama, but I prefer to get up, do a few yoga moves to relax myself, meditate for either 10, 15, or 20 minutes (the upper limit is preferable, but this week it’s half term and time is not on my side), and then eat. Depending on deadlines, the blog then gets my attention, followed by whatever I am writing on the book front, and then I work.
Forget all of this eating your frog shit. You can eat the sodding frog after starting your day in a way that works for you. If you’re weird like me and you get excited by the thought of cradling yourself in darkness, caffeine, yoga, and creativity at 5am while nobody else is awake…do it. Or, if you’re a little quirkier, let’s say like Karl Lagerfeld, commit to seven hours a night then rise and eat a steamed apple…then do your thing. Whatever it is, just make sure it’s sort of a routine and that it makes you want to embrace each day, not dread it. Your frog will still be there after. I promise. Nobody else is going to steal that thing. It’ll be waiting for you when you get back.
Seek support from others who are in a similar situation
One of the most frightening aspects of freelancer burnout is that other people just don’t get it. Before I launch into this, I’ll also play Devil’s advocate. Before I started working as a freelance copywriter, I assumed that burnout wouldn’t be possible. In my (very young) mind, sitting behind a laptop all day and flicking between work and household tasks with glee would be far easier than anything I had ever done. I’ve met others who are new to freelancing and feel the same.
Unfortunately, that means that the people who you usually seek support from may not quite get it. At best, they’ll still provide support but they’ll assume there’s something else going on. A mental health component, perhaps? Regardless, it’s quite unlikely that they’ll fully accept that working as a freelancer has burned you into the ground.
At the worst end of the scale, there will be those who can’t accept that your job is sometimes hard. To this day, after eight years of working as a freelance copywriter, some of those who are close to me can’t accept that it’s possible for me to have a hard day. My job is referred to as “Your Internet work.” It’s difficult to justify it on the basis of my income, let alone explain how some days are quite wearing.
Continue seeking support from those who love you, by all means. However, you need to find support from individuals who understand how you feel too. Join forums specific to the freelancing niche, or perhaps a work from home forum, parenting forum with a specific section…just chat to someone who understands. They don’t have to provide solutions, because just being heard by a person who gets it is enough.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
No matter what you think, you are not Wonder Woman. Or Superman. Whichever. Shrek, if you must.
You cannot do everything and if you’re here and feeling burned out, I’m guessing you tried your best to. First, not being some sort of comic book hero is no bad thing. Could you imagine the pressure? After you’re done imagining, just embrace the sheer relief that comes with recognising that you are human.
Now that you’ve accepted your real identity, start to ask for help. If you’re the stoic type who doesn’t usually do that, I understand the difficulties that come with being a first timer to this technique. So, you’re going to write a list of areas where you may need a little relief. For example:
- Cleaning up the cats’ furballs
- Life admin (bills, planning holidays, that shit)
Next, make a list of who could help:
- The crazy cat lady down the road who you sometimes threaten to send your kids to live with when they won’t behave (appalled? Sometimes I threaten to sell my daughter on eBay. I have no limits).
If nobody is around to help, is there a chance you can delegate or hire someone? Again, some examples include:
- Look into childcare, even half a day a week could save your sanity
- Is there a school pickup and drop off service? For me, that saves 10 hours a week
- Could you pay somebody to clean once a fortnight? Use an ironing service every so often?
- Finally, don’t write off outsourcing. Fiverr is no longer the place where piss poor freelancers go to make an easy buck. There are some pros over there whose work really shines. Give it a try when your work is mounting up.
Bit by bit, as you remove things from your plate, you’ll start to feel a little mental freedom return. Then, when your free time becomes obvious, you can begin dedicating it to self-care. Spend time focusing on your hobbies, cook healthier meals, and squeeze in an extra hour of sleep. This is your recovery period, so do whatever it is that puts a smile back on your face.
How do you prevent freelancer burnout?
After falling into the pit of doom that is freelancer burnout, you need to try to not let it happen again. My first suggestion is to keep on delegating. If you can extend the help you’re getting from others beyond your recovery period and into your long-term plan, you won’t find yourself rocking backwards and forwards in a corner wondering what you’re going to do when all of your clients ditch you.
Other ways to prevent freelancer burnout include:
Keep saying no
Letting go of the thought that you must say ‘yes’ to every project is liberating. Start extending saying ‘no’ to ridiculous client demands, events you don’t want to attend, and revisions you think are unfair. You may have been a doormat before, but now you are understanding your own limits and setting boundaries. If someone wants a Skype meeting that doesn’t work with your timezone, suggest a time that works well for both of you. When you retake control of the things that made you spiral, you take yourself further away from burnout and closer to a good work-life balance.
Eliminate and delegate all that is unnecessary
Perform a thorough analysis of what happens each day. If you can’t do this retrospectively, behave as you usually would and write all of your tasks and behaviours down. Every.Single.One.
Then look back after a week and consider how many of them are unnecessary? For example, it’s not necessary that I check my email as soon as I wake up. This is something I have always believed, but I didn’t fully appreciate why until I listened to a podcast featuring Ariana Huffington. She said that she doesn’t open her emails on waking as she doesn’t want her inbox to set the tone for the day.
When you see what is unnecessary, eliminate it. It’s necessary that I open my email eventually but the action of opening them at 6am isn’t. Unnecessary actions are those that suck away at your time. Or, they intrude your mental space in a way that’s harmful to the rest of your day.
Then, take a harder look and see what you can delegate. Again, using myself as an example, I’m not going to clean my partner’s office. Cleaning sucks up a significant proportion of my time as it is. I’m not refusing to clean his office out of spite, but because I don’t know what’s meant to go where and it’s his personal space. Therefore, it’s also his responsibility.
Other things I can delegate are logo design, editing, and how my daughter gets to school. The last one added almost 2.5 hours to my day. It’s safe for her to get the bus, so that’s what I let her do. As a result, I have almost 15 more hours in my working week. That’s almost two extra days of work.
Start sleeping more
We live in a society where a bad night’s sleep is pitched as being necessary because we need to feel stressed and drained to thrive. I’ll harp back to Ariana Huffington again on this one. I haven’t read her book on sleep yet (although I will), but it apparently highlights how a poor night’s sleep was in vogue from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Those who pioneered some of our best advances were also pushing the idea that we needed to sleep less for the world to keep spinning.
While there’s a small handful of people who can manage on five hours sleep, most of us aren’t those people. Realistically, we need between seven and nine hours. Using Karl Lagerfeld as an example for the second time, the guy who sits at the head of Chanel and Prada, he gets seven hours of sleep no matter what. He might go to bed at a later time, but that seven hours is happening.
Is there evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation is inherently harmful? There’s plenty! It is an understudied area, but all the evidence points towards sleep deprivation resulting in poorer mental health, a lower immune system, and higher stress levels. So if you’re not sleeping more, you may be swimming in a sea of anxiety, welcoming in the flu, and pumping out cortisol levels that are too high for you to make rational decisions.
In a nutshell, try to find where you land between those seven and nine hours. Once you know what’s right for you, start examining how you can sleep more.
Find better ways to manage your stress levels
Preventing freelancer burnout isn’t about eliminating stress altogether. Stress is going to happen and in the right environment, it’s a necessary motivator. Instead, look at how you prevent and respond to stress.
Preventative methods could include lowering how much caffeine you drink, ditching the clients who are just difficult to work with, and trying meditation. Meditation is an excellent prophylactic measure that (thankfully) is becoming more acceptable in our Western culture.
Then, manage how you respond to adverse events. There’s a big difference between responding and reacting. When you react, you act from a place that’s motivated by fear and anger. As a result, you’re likely to make the problem worse rather than better. If you respond, you’re taking a step back and measuring what the best thing to do is. See the difference?
Finally, leave your day behind at the end of the day. Decide how many hours you will work and then switch off when those hours end. Shut down the email notifications and dive back into the areas of your life outside of freelancing. If you must, set up an out of office response with an alternative email where people can reach you if it’s a true emergency. If they’re abusing that access, consider whether you should work with someone else.
At the very minimum, leave work behind half-an-hour before your head is due to hit the pillow. Leave everything else in the day behind too. There’s nothing you can do about your stresses and feelings of angst while you’re temporarily unconscious, so try not to place everything that’s bothering you amongst your last waking thoughts.
Take back control of your time
I feel as though my last point brings me to taking back control of your time quite naturally. At the start of my post, I mentioned how friends and family may not understand your role as a freelancer. They could assume that your flexible work schedule means you’re free to run errands, receive visitors whenever they feel like dropping in, or become available at the drop of a hat.
While you can be there for people in true emergencies, make sure there is a clear line between working hours and personal hours. The same applies to when your working hours end. Don’t let work bleed into your personal time. Occasionally, you’ll face big projects that make doing that a necessity. But, those occasions should be the exception rather than the rule.
Making your entire life about freelancing doesn’t allow you to thrive as a person. Yes, there’s a small degree of satisfaction in spinning a million plates and watching oodles of money flow in. But if you can manage on a 40-hour work week (or whatever suits you), then do it. What’s the point of all that cash if you’re not able to enjoy yourself regularly. Enjoyment is a human necessity! It’s a motivating force, so take back control of your time so that you can harness its power.
Be kind, always
Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and be kind to the world around you. It takes much less effort to be kind, because you don’t harbour those feelings of shittiness that arise right after being nasty. I know it’s not always palatable to pitch being kind as a non-altruistic activity, but there’s no harm in enjoying those warm feelings that come with being a pleasant person. Knowing that you’ve made someone smile makes you smile too.
It also makes other people look like dicks when they’re not the kind ones. Kill them with kindness. Just do it.