5 tips to avoid freelancer burnout
Burnout is a very real issue when it comes to freelancing. When you start freelancing everything is new, exciting, even scary and you are full of ambition.
Year after year though it can start to take it's toll.
Maybe you are spending too much time working, never seeing family or friends. You could be getting bored of doing the same work over and over. A client or two are possibly starting to really rub you the wrong way. Many reasons exist for freelancers to burnout.
Burnout can lead to snap decisions. I once almost emailed all my retainer clients saying I was going to stop taking on projects for a while because I was so burned out. I wanted a change, I wanted to do something completely different.
Luckily I had time over a holiday to think it through, and although I did fire some clients I kept working with the majority of them - and still do to this day.
What is freelancer burnout?
Burnout is defined as a syndrome that results from chronic work-related stress. It is a feeling of being exhausted or unhappy with the demands of freelancing.
If you have good paying clients, good cash flow, a constant stream of work and are finding it difficult to get work done or are considering giving up all together. You have burnout.
If you freelance, you will probably burnout at some stage. Knowing what it is and how to deal with it will ultimately make you a much happier person.
Choose who you work with
As a freelancer we spend a lot of time emailing clients back and forth. Some clients we might even form a business friendship with over years of work. Most clients are friendly and fun to work with. Some however, are not.
Well paying, but rude clients. We all have worked with them. They pay well enough that you are willing to ignore some of the things they say or the "7PM - Need this done ASAP" emails.
Over time though, they can really start to degrade your happiness. Looking at your emails and seeing another rudely worded, or unnecessarily urgent email from them when you are already busy can really peeve you off. Over time this can lead to burnout.
It's very important to work with clients who are easy to work with to prevent burnout. This was one of the issues which lead to my burnout and in the end I fired a few clients who were just too hard to work with.
As an established freelancer you have the luxury of choosing who you work with, but most of us never do. Cash is usually king and we ignore many other factors of what makes a good client when a large cheque comes our way. If you want to be happy as a freelancer long term, other factors matter when it comes to picking clients - chief of which is if you like working with them, or don't.
Stop working every hour of the day
Either you are just starting out and you want to work every hour of the day to maximise your success or you have an abundance of work and you want to make as much money as you possibly can. Two very common scenarios for freelancers.
Freelancing like that is unsustainable. You might manage it for months or even years but eventually you will burnout.
I worked 12-14hour days for years and didn't really see a problem with it, right up until the moment I burned out.
In hindsight I would never have worked so much. Life work balance is very important and although sometimes we can get caught up in it, work is not everything. Make time for your friends and family. Make time for hobbies. Spend time doing other creative pursuits that are completely different from your freelancing work.
Get enough sleep. Working to 2am every night at the start feels great. You feel like you are achieving so much. Unless you are on a deadline though, don't do it. Have a cut off point each day where you turn off the computer and you stop thinking about work.
If all you ever think and do is work, you are heading straight for burnout.
Start using lists
If you have a lot to do in your day to day as a freelancer, start using lists. If you are prioritizing your tasks in your head you will struggle to switch off when not working. Constantly planning and organising what you will do today, tomorrow and even next week.
Having a list means you can prioritize your time, then switch off. You can stop worrying about what work needs done when you should be enjoying your personal life at night-time or at weekends. You can simply forget about the "to-do" list until the next time you are working again.
Using a list also means you can visually see what needs done. This can help relieve some of the stress that gets built up by feeling "snowed under" or having too much to do. Simply writing it out in a list format can sometimes make you realise you didn't have as much to do as you thought. Listing out smaller chunks of a project can also help you work your way through it and help make you feel less stressed.
Lastly, assigning a day or time to each item on the list can help you prioritize your time better and help you have more personal time to enjoy. Ultimately not feeling like all you do is "work" will help in preventing burnout.
Take care of yourself
I once had a big, well paying project on. I was working flat out on it. My diet, exercise and general health all took a sideline so I could get the project completed. A situation that a lot of freelancers will be familiar with. DO NOT DO THIS.
Make time to take care of yourself as a priority. Exercise, go a run, take a walk, get out of the office daily. Get as much sleep as possible. Eat right - junk food just because it's quick to make is not a long term solution.
If you don't take care of yourself how can you expect to always be producing your best work? If you can barely stay awake, you aren't going to be using all of your talent when you sit down at the computer.
Hobbies are important too. Something else you care about and want to succeed in that is not related to what you do as a freelancer helps a lot mentally. Keeping your mental and physical state well looked after should be more important to you than simply making a few $ more on a project.
You will find burnout is much less likely to happen in someone who is taking care of themselves, than someone who is not.
I also understand, sometimes for short periods of time we have to focus everything on work. Maybe for a big deadline? We all have to do it now and then as freelancers, but don't let it go on for months and months. Look after yourself.
Only check your emails 3 times a day
This made SUCH a difference to my freelancing happiness. I always used to have my emails open, and would see and respond to each email as they came in. Not only did this sometimes prevent me getting actual work done, but it would make me feel extremely under pressure.
I would feel the need to respond quickly and if a client emailed something urgent through I would feel the pressure to get that work done immediately. Often at times taking me away from what I was working on and messing with my daily plan.
Constantly being available to your clients is not healthy for you as a freelancer. You need time to focus and work. You need time to yourself.
Checking your emails 3 times a day, morning, midday and mid afternoon will make you much happier. In between times, close down your emails so you can't see or hear them come in. This will allow you to focus and get work done distraction free. It takes the pressure of feeling the need to reply straight away.
When I think back to my burnout. Seeing client emails always coming in when I was at the computer and even when I was out of the office on my phone, started to really make me feel unhappy. I always felt like I was working and felt obligated to reply - even at weekends.
Creating a real distinction between when you are available and not will make you much happier and actually more productive. This will make burnout much less likely.