Freelance burn out is insidious and it takes over a lot of your life. I spoke at length about it during this blog.
And it’s a lot more common then we think. It looks like we all need to jump up and down on one leg while taking a selfie at a manic pace to get anything done in business. It’s important to recognise though, that is a carefully curated story. Most successful people spend an awful lot more time working on their business in a slow and steady win the race style.
Let’s pause for a moment and look at how you can continue to make progress without having to work ridiculous hours, at a frenetic pace while visible to all and sundry. It’s quite possible, believe me.
Here’s how to adopt a slow-moving version of your business and still make some solid progress away from freelance burn out
You cannot outrun freelance burn out
There’s a temptation to take a holiday or change careers. But freelance burn out is a wily thing and it will hitch a ride to that wagon if not treated. You do have to keep working in most instances anyway because who doesn’t like avoiding debt collection and eating?
If you can maintain a working schedule that has less pressure, this is often better for healing the relationship with work and mitigating burn out.
Your schedule has to be customised
I don’t know what in your life impacts you the most. It could be sickness and disability. It might be raising children. It could be that the field you work in has led you to vicarious trauma. Maybe your freelance business has called the shots for too long and too often and you’ve lost the ability to switch between the two.
All of these things and more can create a situation where you and freelance burn out are courting, even going steady.
Self-care and a proper plan are about the only things that will get you back on track. That plan should include:
Making sure you return to regular self-care practises – i.e. proper sleep, low to no booze, good nutrition, exercise, time in nature / outside the house, connection with friends and family.
As well as:
- Setting up a routine so that time doesn’t become an amorphous weed growing over the top of things
- A regular check in with a counsellor, psychologist, GP or other proper practitioner (or a friend who has overdosed on TEDx talks definitely doesn’t count)
- Regular play time. I am not talking about taking up whacky sports you’ll never follow through with. Look for things that you may have left behind that take your mind off work, feeling burn out and pressure. Some great recovery examples include crafting, drawing, knitting, model building, board games, surfing, swimming, volunteering, reading, gardening, singing, dancing etc.
Now set up your timetable to make space for these things to happen on a regular basis. Set yourself challenges like not drinking for a month or cooking on a Sunday so you have fresh, healthy meals to pull out during the week. Stop eating in front of screens and eat in the garden or at the table instead. Whatever helps support your goals.
Then add the work back in. Protect your self-care properly.
Tackling work and freelance burn out simultaneously
The key to success is routine and change in equal measure. You are after all disrupting a pattern of drudgery and not being stretched while also feeling like a thousand snail eyes connected to an electric chair. You have to be both fun and consistent. It’s not as difficult as it sounds.
Again, this must be tailored to what you need to do. But my advice is first and foremost, treat your freelance burn out with the respect you would give to any other major illness. Because that’s what it is. A major illness that impedes your mental, cognitive and physical functioning.
That means adopting an approach of:
Leaving time for healing and setbacks
Your schedule doesn’t go to plan when you are burnt out. You never quite know when a spot fire might lay you low. Make enough space in the schedule for that to happen.
Doing the work first
One of the most common things I have seen with freelancers that have burn out is that they are leaving client work to the last minute. This might seem like the nature of the game. But what you’re actually doing is prolonging the length of time you are carrying the emotional labour of a task. Carry anything for long enough and it will exhaust you, even if it’s relatively lightweight. The better you become at starting the work early, the more often you’ll feel less dragged and more accomplished.
Screw the internet, phone and email
Gasp, yes, I know. I have cut off your nose, belly button and favourite fun time button in all one swoop. You don’t have to get rid of them. You simply have to get mindful about using them. That is, shut them down. Only bring them up when you have a break. Nobody is that on fire that you need to be connected all the time all day long. And on the days where you need to give that level of service, you won’t feel as screwed up as your brain has had a chance to rest.
Cultivating positive touch points
If you like social media but don’t enjoy the comparison aspects, change who you follow. Drop the people you don’t like or who make you feel icky. Find others that make you feel great. If negative news gets you down, ask people for their recommendations on positive blogs and places to go for information. Change what and where you intersect with negativity.
Putting you first
A lot of people with freelance burn out are worried about clients, friends, creative partners, organisations, churches, family, villages and a whole slew of people being “let down”. Give yourself a break. And give them some autonomy over their choices too. If they are the sort of person that puts what they need from you ahead of your healing, I’m not convinced they need that much worrying about. And I also believe you should give people the opportunity to make their own choices in support of you and your healing with the right information. If you decide you have to be all things to all people and not ask for help, you’re encouraging that sense of obligation and being unsupported that burn out loves to paddle in. Cut it out.
And if you need to move away from freelancing for a while to something else entirely, do it. Your happiness and health are more important than anyone else’s opinions.
Itty bitty nitty gritty
If you’re still looking for line-by-line examples of fixing freelance burn out, I totally get it. I swam into a million books and places trying to work out a magic map back to feeling not like a half-sucked pecan, too. You would be surprised what works once you start digging.
I’m sharing my list of things I reach for on a regular basis.
Here was my workday with freelance burn out:
- Making space for my own projects as booked entities
- Implementing better boundaries with clients who have a volume of work that is too much for the time allotted on a regular basis OR with people wanting high touch customer service in my Freelance Jungle work. Both can want a lot for very little outlay, so it’s up to me to set the standard of how I want to be treated
- Working to a regular schedule so that clients can’t just drop work in my lap without thinking or planning – or getting rid of them
- Starting the morning earlier. That way, I can enjoy working without emails and phone calls and social media demands
- Ending the day earlier where at all possible. Giving myself time between looking after clients and then looking after my family made a huge difference. Plus, it feels nice to be in the sunshine before everyone bursts out into peak hour
- Writing or recording to soothe me. I am happiest when I am creating. Writing a blog each morning or recording 5 minutes, even if it never sees the light of day, has been a huge salve to my jittery mind
- Slimming down the TO DO List. I still use it (on occasion) but I write across a week. And I jump from different takes as the enthusiasm and desire ebb. That way, I look like I am ahead of what I needed to do instead of behind
- If I start to freeze, I stop what I am doing and switch to something else. The main issue I have is that work bottlenecks, I freeze and then I start mindlessly scrolling on the internet. If I change to something easy, I get a short win. If I change to something I like, I can nourish my head. I look for the disruption that will eventually give me the equilibrium to keep going
- Trying to be all things to all people is exhausting. Trying to control those people after you’ve tasked them with something to do defeats the purpose. If you’re letting it go, let the damn thing go. Let them surprise you with their awesomeness
- Parking ideas and projects. I can’t do everything for everyone all the time. Including myself. Choosing what is achievable and tackling that is so much better than drowning in what ifs that never get done
In the off hours (prevention is better than cure, trust me!):
- I practise gratitude and self-reflection every night. I write down the 3 challenges of the day, the 3 things I’m grateful for and the 3 things I did well. It helps to demonstrate what I overcome, what I have and my capability on a regular basis
- I’ve turned a lot to writing on grief. I have trained as a death doula, but this isn’t the only reason why grief, end of life and death works as a balm to my burn out. It puts life in perspective. The worst moment’s I’ve felt have been loss. Loss over people dying, suicide, my health, my autonomy, my identity. Learning from people who have come through grief to a new normal helps you come out of burn out. Burn out is a style of loss, after all. You never have closure. It never truly ends. It simply transforms from sticking thorn to ancient beloved rose in the garden of life. But grief can really help with this process. Such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B or the creative work of Katie Hawkins-Gaar
- I water the plants and spend time in my garden every afternoon. Even an apartment herb garden helps
- I make cards for people I care about. Thankfully, due to my Patreon, I have plenty of people to love, admire and thank. What turned out as a way of saying thank you at the end of the year has turned into a regular monthly tradition of me watching bad TV in bed with a TV dinner tray making things for people
- I have cut my drinking down. I opt for high quality alcohol in smaller doses. It’s changed the game immeasurably
- I eat to appease my gut. If you have anxiety or feel like your gut is always disturbed, I suggest going to see the Centre of Digestive Diseases in Sydney (or equivalent) and getting your gut checked. Through finding out I had diverticulitis and changing to a diet with fermented foods (e.g. kombucha, kim chi, sauerkraut etc) away from triggering foods (e.g. nuts, corn and anything erm…nobbly), I’ve reduced my anxiety by a heck of a lot because my gut bacteria was increasing my state of unwellness and anxiety
- Listening to my dogs. They comfort me- and they also dig me out of work mode and outside to play ball. They also lead me to the fridge at lunch because they get a carrot each and never miss an opportunity for food. They also look at me without the negative in a way that makes me want to be a better person. Might sound odd, but I reckon you’ve probably got a dog, cat, bird, kid, best friend or someone else that gives you that very same feeling
Recognising you need compassion
I’m not perfect. My freelance business also isn’t perfect. I don’t always make the right call with the Freelance Jungle. I don’t always do my best work the first time around for a client. I don’t always have the answer or realise the heights I want.
But I do believe that my willingness to keep trying and to work at myself and come back from my darkest moments is the best that I can do. And being honest about that fact is also the kindest thing I can do for myself and for you.
Doing your best and trying to be the kindest you can is all anyone can ask of any of us. We forget that as the pile of powerlessness grows. But it’s the truth.
If you’re feeling burnt out and screwed over, don’t do it alone. You deserve to feel safe, happy and supported.
Please join the Freelance Jungle. Or keep staying with the blog to find out more help. Reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14 and ask for a plan to get you moving and some resources in your local area like a counsellor or support group to get you back where you need to be.
You deserve to reverse freelance burn out – or at least find a new normal alongside it. If you need a guided hand, ‘how to keep working when you’re dying on the inside’ is launching in April 2020 on the Freelance Jungle Patreon.