Putting out the fire
As many as 50 percent of Americans are consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 percent two decades ago. Burnout—is it inevitable?
As a freelancer, there's a lot that hinges on your ability to dispatch assignments faster than The Flash. Living in a generation where being the busiest is praised, dealing with at least some burnout is a given. It’s a societal trend—as many as 50 percent of Americans are consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 percent two decades ago.
Freelancer burnout? It's inevitable.
Despite contributing over $1 trillion annually to our economy, freelancers remain overworked and undervalued. It's lonely work. Avoiding co-working spaces to save on money often leaves you working from home. No coworkers to chat by the coffee machine with. No one to look to when your screen is driving you bonkers. Instead, you find yourself dreading that difficult assignment that will no doubt go through endless revisions. All of this takes you down a path of procrastination that may involve spending, honestly, an embarrassing amount of your day perusing listings of shelter dogs up for adoption. Then it hits you. Oh no. Am I burned out?
Perhaps the worst part of freelancer burnout is finding out you have it, and feeling like you can't escape. Once you get the ball rolling as a freelancer, it's easy to become adjusted to its snowball effect, where stopping isn't an option.
The first step to escaping from this disaster is acknowledging that this is on you. The fact is, we spend a lot of time ignoring how we feel, instead of facing the problem. It doesn't mean you should give yourself the green light to feel miserable just because you're burned out. It means you need to acknowledge the fact that your inner voice is shrieking back at you, signaling you to slow down.
If you stop for a second, you may notice some glaring symptoms of burnout. These include dreading tasks, frequent creative blocks, and exhaustion. Burnout can manifest itself physically, as well. Are you always catching a cold? Nauseous? The never-ending knot in your stomach? You guessed it—burnout.
You have two choices: either submit to your burnout, or take control over it. The good news is that just acknowledging you're struggling, gives you all the power to start managing it. To start, you need to stare at the problem as a whole. Dissecting your exhaustion and the path you took to get there will be key to taking control, and can help you understand your symptoms more clearly.
Sometimes, drastic action may not be necessary, and a short coping skill can help to reset you. Go outside, see the sun after who knows how many hours, feel the breeze, and breathe. Maybe go for a walk. If exercise or deep breathing is not your thing, just give yourself permission to disengage from work, and do whatever it is that brings you joy—from cooking a homemade meal to meditation. Sometimes even an in-depth talk with your dog will do. Don't think about it too much. Five minutes will do. The goal is to start fighting the burnout with things that excite and motivate you.
Once you come back from your breather, if your reboot doesn't come easy, don't feel stuck. Instead, focus on the small tasks at hand, the ones that come quickly to you, and that feel like second nature. Try not to overwhelm yourself as you start to take control of your burnout. Breakdown your pieces in more manageable components, so you can tackle them as you take control of your symptoms.
Ignoring your burnout will hurt you not only physically but also professionally. Beyond the stomachaches and headaches, your burnout could lead to self-destructive behavior and a lack of spirit. Even the most exciting projects may seem mundane. And when that spark goes out, it's not always easy to get back.
Pick a date (the sooner, the better) and sit down to review your role as a freelancer. Look at yourself from the eyes of an employer, not an employee. Write down your current workload, schedule, pain points, processes, and everything about your daily operations.
Calculate about how much time it will take to complete your work, and spread that work across several days of the week. Create your own “office hours”—that is, the hours you will hold yourself accountable to accomplishing meaningful work. And no matter what you choose, make sure it’s achievable. Inserting structure into your work style provides helpful boundaries for you to try to stick within. Don’t sweat it if you go off schedule, but note to yourself that you may need to make up that time later on.
Time to analyze your clients. Create a spreadsheet that helps you separate the right clients from the bad ones. List them by order of reward: those who give you ongoing projects, pay on time, match your pay rate, and inspire you to do meaningful work. The ones that send back a simple task for six rounds of revisions? End of the list.
Analyzing your clients like this can be scary, and not all freelancers can afford to do so. But, if you're looking for a way out of your burnout—this is a must. What follows is a bold move, but one that will lift a weight off your shoulders almost immediately. Consider the clients that will value your work and continue doing business with you if you were to raise your rates. Then, send them an email and let them know your rates will increase in the following thirty days.
As you go through your client list, also look at the low-performing ones. The ones that only give you headaches. Be honest with yourself, and balance out the effort it takes to maintain such clients and the rewards. If the rewards just aren’t materializing, kindly resign from these clients. They're doing you more harm than good, and it's time to move on to greater things.
Beyond your clients, it's time to look at yourself as well. Is it time for you to expand your horizons and start branching out? Consider joining Facebook and LinkedIn Groups that can help you connect with real people. Try to attend networking events, and—even if you're an introvert—head out there and talk to someone other than your dog.
The root of your burnout lies within these things. Either you've fallen into the traps of workaholism, running at an unhealthy pace that's only leaving you physically and mentally exhausted; or, you've set yourself a trap by not setting standards for yourself related to your freelance role. The truth is, mundane and straightforward aspects of your workday such as having a designated desk area, taking short breaks, choosing the right clients, and doing things you enjoy besides working, are all key elements to help you keep your sanity in this frantic world of freelancing.
Oh. One last thing. Take a break already—you earned it.