Essays & Confessions

How Freelancing Nearly Burned Me Out, And How I Learned To Handle It

By and | Tuesday, August 04, 2015


We talk a lot about how lifestyle Instagram accounts and magazines make us feel inadequate. We don’t have the perfect room, or kitchen, and there isn’t a fruit bowl sitting on our perfect marble island. I don’t have any resentments toward people with the perfect kitchen, but lifestyle photos of perfectly tidy, nice desks irk me as someone who works as a freelancer and doesn’t have that picture-perfect work from home set up.  The pictures of those idealized desks are clean, organized, and look like a great workspace for any student and professional. In my ideal freelance life, that’s how I picture my desk.

Flashing back to reality, I have spent the last few months pushing myself to work harder – get new contracts, finish up current projects, network, send invoices, and look ahead to upcoming deadlines. And my workspace looks nothing like the idealized workspaces I lust after in magazines.

I’ve been working from coffeehouses, at the kitchen table, while riding the bus, during breaks at my part-time job, on the couch, and in bed. It works for me. I like the variety (and being highly caffeinated), so it’s actually pretty fun to work all over the place.

Here’s my challenge: When the whole world is your workspace, when do you decide to actually clock out?

Burnout is a real risk for anyone who is a side hustler, or a freelancer. Letting projects slide, not doing your best work, blowing deadlines, and getting sick can all happen – and usually all happen at the same time. And when you work as a freelancer, you don’t leave the office and get to call yourself “done” for the day. You keep working until every project is done, and if that’s at 11 p.m., then so be it. That’s how I’ve come dangerously close to burning out.

I’m moving too fast, trying to tackle many projects at once, and what I really needed was to take a moment (or a day, or a month) and learn exactly what I to do to ensure that my freelance life wasn’t pushing me to burn out.

Here are 6 simple ways to make sure you’re not burning out on freelance work or side hustles:

1. Forget work-life balance. It’s time to instead focus on a balanced routine and variety. I’m all about flexible hours and a work-life balance. But when you have your hands in many different projects, you understand that an entirely balanced scenario is not likely to be your norm. I make sure to schedule some non-negotiable activities so that I can also be spontaneous and do things on a whim.

To find your ideal routine, first you need to admit to yourself whether there are patterns in the way that you do things. Are you a night owl or a morning lark? That’s one of the simplest ways to know what time of day you are at your most productive. Use that as a starting point.

2. Have a cutoff time to stop working every day. This can help with both the need for routine and variety. It could be a different time for each day of the week, or it could be at 10 p.m. – fullstop, every single day. By implementing that certainty, packing in as much work as possible doesn’t have to seem endless. It gives you more control over your choices.

3. Eat well and stop compromising your sleep schedule. This sounds like a no brainer, but the first thing we do while working on freelance projects is keep going late into the night because we don’t have a cut off time. Given the choice between getting paid and getting an extra hour of sleep, we’re going to choose the former. Not sleeping is going to push you to burnout that much faster, so try to set a specific “sleep” deadline so that you’ll be motivated to finish your work before that time.

4. Be honest. If you need a project extension, or your stomach is feeling terrible and you’d rather not trek across town for a meeting, say so. Meetings or interviews can be rescheduled or done over the phone, and people will actually understand. You’re only human. Trying to pretend you’re superhuman is exhausting and the facade is unnecessary.

5. Say no. This one is crucial. Do not take on more work when you’ve got more than enough to keep you busy. If you do, you risk submitting subpar work when the deadlines creep up on you and you could actually risk your reputation if this becomes a habit.

6. Stop multitasking. I think it’s fair to get a meal going in the slow cooker or put in a load of laundry while you work (actually, I’d say that’s fairly smart!). But if you’re flipping back and forth between talking to clients or working on projects within the span of 15 minutes, you’ve got too much going on. Focus is a muscle, and once you develop it, you can get more done in those 15 minutes than you used to in an hour.

With these steps in place, my workspace still may not look like the perfect lifestyle ones I see on the Internet. In fact, maybe I’ll never have the dream office set up. But at least now I have a structure that’s keeping me from burning out. I’m working smarter instead of just harder.



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