There are plenty of subjects I’ve connected and commiserated with other freelancers about.
Draining clients. Late payers. Contract clauses. Sales tactics. Imposter syndrome.
They’ve all provided endless fodder for honest and meaningful conversations with fellow freelancers. Yet, there’s one specific topic that always seems to resonate more than others: freelance burnout.
Truth time: In my nearly eight years of freelancing, I’ve burned myself out almost more times than I can count. It almost feels like a cycle—I’ll feel totally exhausted, take some steps to rein in my work-life balance, and then eventually slide back into old habits that lead me straight to Burnoutsville all over again.
You too? I’m not surprised. “Hustle culture” is pervasive and that’s especially true for freelancers and business owners who need to relentlessly grind in order to make any sort of progress.
That new client or project (not to mention paycheck) is beyond tempting, so you convince yourself that you can fit just one more thing on your already-stuffed plate. You do that a few more times and you find yourself completely spread thin.
Like I said, it’s a cycle I’m far too familiar with. I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to preventing and managing freelance burnout. But, I’ve picked up a few strategies throughout the years that have helped me shut down that little work-obsessed voice in my head (“C’mon, it’s just one more project. It’ll only take a few hours. You could use the money…”) and do my best to keep burnout at bay.
There’s one quick thing we should address before we get into the actual burnout-busting tactics: figuring out what freelance burnout looks like for you.
Throughout my conversations with other freelancers, I’ve learned that burnout manifests itself in different ways for different people. Some people feel down and can barely drag themselves to their desks. Others respond by working even harder—convinced that if they can just grit their teeth and get through it things will be better on the other side.
For me? I’ve picked up on a few telltale signs that I’m burned out, or at least well on my way there:
Those are the bright, waving red flags that I need to take a step back and course correct, but you might deal with something completely different.
If you’ve burned out before, I think it’s worth reflecting on that experience to see if you can remember how you felt. You might even want to ask people close to you if they noticed changes in you that you might not have picked up on. Those can all help you better recognize burnout moving forward—ideally before it’s a full-fledged problem.
I haven’t found a surefire way to keep burnout out of my life. I wish, but it has a sneaky way of creeping back in.
However, the following tactics help me keep a better handle on my workload and my overall well-being. While it’s not a perfect system, it at least means I’m moving in the right direction.
Many freelancers aren’t working with a single client or on a single project at a time. Chances are, you have numerous balls in the air. That means you’re juggling various tasks, relationships, expectations, and deadlines all at once.
Because of that, I’ve always struggled to manage my business holistically. The deadline a client requests might seem reasonable when I agree to it…until I realize I have three other projects due around that exact same time.
I have a couple of tools that I use to keep track of my projects and daily tasks. I love my good ol’ fashioned paper planner and am a big fan of Trello for moving daily work along. But, neither one gave me the “zoomed out” view of my business and my workload that I was hoping for.
Enter this freelance project planner from Marijana Kay. It’s super simple and intuitive to use but also slaps you in the face with what your real capacity is for any given month.
(That’s not an affiliate link, by the way. It’s just a resource I use and love).
I still use my planner and Trello, but that project planning spreadsheet has been crucial for ensuring I don’t fall into the trap of overextending myself. Plus, I find it reassuring that I can also see my revenue right in the same sheet—as that helps me avoid taking on more work due to the all-too-common “oh, but I could use the money” temptation.
“I want to work less. I wish I had more free time. I feel like I should be able to have more flexibility in my schedule. Isn’t that supposed to be the top perk of freelancing? Maybe someday I won’t feel so pressed for time.”
Sound familiar? I used to mutter the same things to myself—usually while I was stuck at my desk past 8pm. I knew that I wanted better balance and more time freedom, but I could never take the real steps to make it happen.
So, I kept on trucking with my same routines and habits with the blind optimism that at some point the ship would right itself and I’d magically happen upon a schedule that worked for me.
That didn’t happen. In fact, the result of that “just get through it and things will be better on the other side” attitude was always a raging case of burnout.
Eventually, something clicked in my brain and I realized working less wasn’t something that was just going to fall into place. I needed to set real boundaries for myself and then make conscious decisions to operate within those constraints. Here are a few of the rules I’ve set for myself:
Those work well for me, but you don’t need to copy and paste those exact same boundaries. You need to figure out what works best for you—and that might involve some trial and error.
Maybe you want to work five half days every week. Or maybe you want to take one whole week off every single month. The important thing is to identify the schedule you want so that you can strategically fit your work into it. That’s better than piling your plate full and then building a schedule to accommodate that teetering pile of tasks and to-dos.
I’m not one to yell, but picture me screaming this at you: You can’t limit your time without also limiting your workload.
Take it from me. Far too many times I’ve made the mistake of setting boundaries on my time and then assuming that I could fit the same amount of work into that smaller container. Unless you have some sort of next-level productivity prowess, that’s not going to happen—and it’ll ultimately only lead to more stress and discouragement.
So, my friend, it’s time to get picky about not only how much work you’ll fill your time with but also what type of work you want that to be.
There are plenty of different ways you could think about this, but I think a niche is a great way to start weeding through potential opportunities that come your way. Your niche could be a:
When a prospective client or project lands in your inbox, you can readily ask yourself if it’s in the niche you want to be working in. If not? It’s easier to pass on it without falling victim to the little voice in your brain that tells you to take on absolutely everything that comes your way.
Basically, your niche can be a mechanism that helps you be choosier when your natural inclination is to say “yes yes yes” to any and all work.
Side note: This doesn’t mean you can never venture outside of your niche. You absolutely can, but that’s a topic for another day.
That niche strategy helps for future opportunities that might crop up, but what about the stuff that’s already on your plate?
Anytime that burnout has reared its ugly head and I’ve decided I need to lighten my load, it’s always involved tough and sometimes even counterintuitive decisions—primarily, letting go of existing clients and projects so I can have the breathing room I so desperately need.
It can be tough to get clarity on what should stay and what should go, especially when you’re already feeling drained and depleted. That’s why I like to use a simple matrix (it’s a variation of the Eisenhower Matrix if you’re familiar with that) to filter through my current obligations in a way that feels thoughtful and systematic. Here’s how it works.
The matrix works best when it aligns with your values—not mine. It’s time to ask yourself: What’s most important to you in your freelance work?
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Uh huh yep all of those please…” Here’s the hard part: Pick your top two criteria. What two things are the most important to you? They might not even be on the above list.
That’s the criteria you’re going to use on your matrix. Create a box and then split it into four even squares.
Choose your first piece of criteria (for example, pay) and label the top side of your boxes accordingly (“pays well” and “doesn’t pay well”). Then use your second piece of criteria (let’s go with enjoyment) along the side (“enjoy it” and “dread it”).
Those are the characteristics I typically use as they matter most to me. But again, you need to figure out where your values are. You’ll end up with a matrix that looks a little somethin’ like this:
Now it’s time to put your matrix to work. Pull together a big ol’ list of all of your current clients (if you don’t already have one).
One by one, place each client in the appropriate box. For example, maybe Client A pays well and you enjoy the work. That goes in the top left box. But, Client B doesn’t pay well but you really enjoy their projects. They go in the top right box.
Pretty simple, right?
Once you’ve used the matrix to filter all of your clients, it’s time to actually do something with that information. The simple act of making the matrix won’t accomplish much for you—that’s like making a budget and assuming your savings account will automatically fill up.
Your next steps will hinge on what criteria you used on your matrix. But, sticking with my “pays well and enjoy doing” example, here’s how I typically respond to each category:
Remember, if you think working less will help you address burnout (and even prevent it moving forward), you can’t expect to fit the same amount of work into your limited time. You’re going to have to make some tough choices and this matrix process helps you be strategic about what you keep and what you kick to the curb.
Think you need to do everything yourself as a freelancer? You don’t. Bringing in some extra hands can help you run a thriving business without constantly edging toward burnout.
I do want to mention this: Delegation isn’t always possible for super new freelancers. That’s especially true when your budget is tight. It took me several years before I felt like I had my feet under me enough to hand out certain tasks and responsibilities to other people.
I started by bringing in people to manage aspects of my business I didn’t have expertise in. An accountant to handle my taxes and other number stuff. A lawyer to answer questions and create a contract I can use with my clients (I sell that contract as a customizable template, by the way). A developer and designer to create and maintain a super-polished website.
I’m in over my head in all of those areas. So, having experts I can turn to saves me so much stress—not to mention the hours I’d waste trying to trudge through those tasks myself.
As my business has grown, I’ve also brought in subcontractors who help me deliver my actual client work. Building a roster of reliable fellow freelancers means I can produce more high-quality writing for more clients without needing to handle the entirety of every project myself.
Finally, I’ve delegated plenty of life stuff too. So often we talk about burnout like it’s solely a work problem, but I find it’s way more holistic and far-reaching than that. Here are a few non-business things I’ve shoved off of my own plate in order to free up more time and energy for myself:
Those types of things have helped me so much—along with a super supportive husband who is a true partner in keeping our household (and my business) running.
However, I do recognize that there’s a bit of a Catch-22 here: You need money to delegate these types of tasks. And to make that money you need to work—sometimes harder than you’d like to. And then you burn out. And the cycle continues.
I don’t have an easy answer here. Like I mentioned, delegation is something I’ve continued to refine over time rather than something I did straight away in my freelance business. So, have some patience and hand things over one at a time when you feel like you’re able to. You’ll get there.
Umm…I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve “beat” burnout several times before, but it has this way of tip-toeing back into my life for a number of different reasons like:
And also? Life is just hard. Sometimes it’s too much. Especially these last two years or so, burnout has felt like more of a staple of the human condition as opposed to a rare or periodic phenomenon.
I’ve learned that there’s no simple fix for burnout. Bubble baths, massages, and quick vacations can help. But when those things are over, you return to your exact same situation—which means burnout can’t be far off again.
Both preventing and addressing burnout requires more than short breaks or 15 minutes for a little self-care. You need to get to the root cause, make the tough decisions, and change your circumstances. It’s easier said than done (believe me, I get it) but also well worth the effort.
Need a little more information about burnout? Here are a few other resources I recommend checking out: