Tackling the Freelancer Burnout

Yesterday was a Saturday morning, and instead of watching the Penn State football game, I spent hours researching “Freelancer Burnout.” I came across these two articles, “3 Symptoms of Freelance Burnout” and  “Coping with Burnout: A New Study Reveal What Works (and What Makes it Worse)”, but ended up reading about a dozen in all. The articles confirmed what I already knew. I am burnt out – in a major way.

While my husband and a few close friends have known this for months, it takes a lot for me to admit it for the entire world to potentially see. 

Will the Real Freelancer Life Please Stand Up?

I’ve been a freelance copywriter since August 2007 when I quit my full-time, good-paying and secure job, and my hubby and I decided it was the right time for me to come home to work. I did so for many reasons (perhaps I’ll cover in another article), but the most important reason was so that I could actually see my husband and take care of the home front – because his military career was taking him all around the country (and world) pretty frequently in those days.

Oh, the life of a freelancer – and the people who make all kinds of assumptions.

“You get to work from home in your PJs.”

“It must be so nice that you can make your own schedule. You can work whenever you want – let’s grab an early lunch and go shopping next Tuesday.”

OMG if I hear someone say those things about freelancing one more time, I may just punch them.

Here’s the real picture of my freelance life (and the lives of so many freelancers I know):

I don’t go to work in my PJs, but there have been days when I haven’t remembered to brush my teeth and wash my face until 2 p.m. because I woke up to way too many emails that needed my attention.

I keep a regular workday schedule, but because I live in Arizona and most of my clients are on the East Coast, I have participated in conference calls that began at 5:30 a.m.

I spend my “lunch breaks” folding laundry, doing dinner prep, unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming.

The freelancing life means no paid holidays, vacation time, sick time or personal days. There is no 401(k) or year-end bonus, and I am responsible for setting enough money aside for taxes (federal, state and local) because I am my own employer. That means for every $1,000 that comes in, I set aside at least $350 – because early in my career I didn’t set enough aside and that was an ugly, stressful and tear-filled tax season.

The freelance life means no regular paychecks and can involve chasing down clients for payments. Depending on the size of the organization, an invoice can be paid in 15 days or 90, so if someone forgot to submit my invoice for payment, I am waiting even longer.

The freelance life also means following up with clients who said they wanted to do a project. Sometimes when I get them on a scheduled call to discuss the details of the project, they say, “I’ve been too busy to think about this, so let’s just push it until next month.”  This equates to a hole in my schedule and expected income stream.

That’s the dark side of freelancing – and things that keep many freelancers up at night.

There is an up-side to freelancing, though, and is what I choose to focus on and be grateful for.

As a freelancer, if I get all of my work done by noon, I can take the afternoon off. I do have a bit of flexibility in my schedule (because I am my own boss), so I can take the dogs to the vet when they are sick or plan my grocery shopping when there aren’t a lot of shoppers. While I choose not to wear my PJs to work, my “getting dressed” is shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. I don’t make a salary, so my earning potential can grow depending on the projects I secure (course, it can also dip).

Perhaps the biggest benefit of freelancing to me is that I can work from (nearly) anywhere – all I need is cell phone service and a fast Internet connection. This is a particularly nice right now as we focus on hubby’s second career. While my location may change a few times, I can still work for my clients and not have to worry about finding another job each time we relocate.

Ebbs and Flows: The Killer of Freelancing

My work has evolved over the years, and although I still do plenty of copywriting, for some clients, I act more like their virtual marketing director. This means that in addition to writing, I also am their marketing strategist and implement a wide range of tactics to increase their visibility and get results.

The shift from only being a copywriter to being a virtual marketing director was deliberate and necessary.

This past spring, I found myself having spent the previous year constantly working on anywhere between 6-12 small projects for clients. For those who aren’t familiar with the freelancing life, this means that any given time I have between 6 and 12 bosses – all with their own timeframes for getting things done. And no matter how hard I tried to keep those bosses held to a project schedule, it never works out as originally planned, which creates a “log jam” of work (and income).

The ebbs and flows of work and income are frustrating and tiring – waiting for each client to provide the information needed to begin a project (or move to the next stage). They always do, but it often happens around the same time – throwing my well-plotted project plan out the window.

Then it becomes a mad scramble to get the work done – and putting in long days and weekends to get the projects done, because if I don’t, I don’t get paid.

After feeling the ebb and flow of work for 8 years, and particularly after those previous 12 months, I was going mad, and it had to change.

The solution I came up with was one that other freelancer friends had also implemented: Cut back on the number of clients (fewer bosses) and look for clients who had long-term needs and regular work. An opportunity with an existing client was presented to me in March, and I took it. Then another client came along with similar needs, and we decided work together, too. Those two, in addition to another long-term client that has needs approximately 8 months out of the year, was exactly what I was looking for.

On paper, this plan provided the income I wanted and gave me back a normal schedule that included having my weekends again.

But it is never that simple, right?

When I made this switch, it was only on paper. I still had commitments for smaller projects I needed to fulfill – while ramping up working in a much larger capacity for these regular clients. So not much changed. I was still working long days and weekends to fit all the new work in with the old.

What I thought would be a transition that would last 2-3 months turnout out to be a drawn-out one that is still going 7 months later and counting. I certainly didn’t account for that.

Admitting Freelancer Burnout

For me, admitting to freelancer burnout is like admitting I am not tough enough to muscle through it.

My head screams, “I was an Army wife for 13 years, for crying out loud! Just suck it up, drink water and drive on!”

I think back to all of the incredibly hard times when hubby was on a mission, and I wonder if now that he’s retired, did I just turn into a big wimpy whiner?

But looking back, the signs of burnout started showing up well before I made the transition – which is probably why I am feeling it so significantly now. But for months, I’ve been trying to attribute my burnout to something else:

  • Maybe it’s because we moved away from our friends and family, and I don’t know a lot of people here.
  • Maybe it’s because I am not sleeping all that well.
  • Maybe it’s because it is so hot. I mean, it IS 100+F Every. Single. Day.
  • Maybe it’s because I am sore from kettlebell class and that’s why I am so tired.
  • Maybe I just need to get through this “summer of isolation.” Once hubby is home from his three-month internship, I’ll feel better.
  • Maybe it’s because I am not getting the right vitamins or eating the right food.
  • Maybe it’s the worry over our (elderly) dogs.
  • Maybe it’s this one project that is draining me. Once I get it off my desk, I’ll feel better.
  • Maybe I need to get out and exercise more.
  • Maybe I need to sit down and actually relax.
  • Maybe it’s the guilt I feel for not going to Pennsylvania to visit my family in nearly two years.
  • Maybe I am stressed about the impending move.
  • Maybe it’s that chocolate chip cookie I decided to eat.

On and on and on.

Nope. After spending time reading accounts from other freelancers (and talking to a few trusted ones), I can now, without question, confirm that the burnout I feel is because I’ve been over-committed for way too long. My brain is fried, and I need a break. I can’t keep working long days and weekends, because when I do take a weekend off, it isn’t even close to being enough R&R time anymore.

A Plan for Tackling the Freelancer Burnout

The interesting part of in all of this is that I’ve never stopped looking for a solution (ironically, that’s been tiring, too). As much as I want to throw up my hands and give up, I haven’t. I’ve always tried to identify what I can control and how I can change my actions. Now that I’ve identified the issue, it’s time to come up with a plan for change.

  1. Acceptance. I can’t change what I’ve already committed to project-wise, so the first part of my plan begins with accepting that this is the place I currently find myself. There is nothing to do but to tap into my strong, Army wife mentality again and say, “Suck it up, drink water and drive on.”

Here is when I need to be laser-focused to get through my commitments and do them well – but have a deadline for taking a break. Mine is November 1 – because November 2 I am on a plane flying back to Pennsylvania to see my family. It is the perfect goal to set my sights on. I want all of my over-commitments wrapped up before that trip, so when I return home a week later, I have a “normal” workload again.

  1. freelancer-burnoutControl My Schedule Better. I made a sign that is hanging in my office: “Don’t say YES to any projects until the end of January!”

I have enough work on my desk to fill up my time through the middle of January, so any new project will have to wait – else I’ll be right back in this quandary again.

  1. Take Time Off Over the Holidays. While this may sound like a given for so many of you, I don’t remember the last time I took more than just the holiday-day off (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day). I always had good intentions, but client work called my name.

Given my current state, taking time off this holiday season is going to be a must-do, not a nice-to-do. I already know that taking a week off to visit my family won’t be enough. While it will be nice to spend time with them, it will be emotional seeing everyone again, and the days will be packed full of activities. Plus, the 10 hours of travel each way will definitely take their toll on me.

  1. Plan Ahead. Moving into the new year, I’ll have to do a much better job at scheduling client work, particularly around the months of April, May and June. Hubby graduates from the University of Arizona in early May, and we’ll be moving (location TBD). In addition to the time needed to move, I’ll want time for us to explore our new location.

Having said all that, it’s not like we have a money tree growing in a pot inside our house. Every time I take “time off” it’s money I am not earning, so the key is to find a balance between work and life – something that I lost these last few years.

Finally, it took a lot for me to write this and even more for me to actually publish it. I didn’t do so to be “woe is me.”

I wrote this for two reasons: 1) I wanted to figure out how I could cope with freelancer burnout, and one of the most useful ways for me to gain perspective is to write and 2) I have to believe that I am not the only one struggling with true burnout, and if that’s the case, it is often easier to deal with issues when you know that there are others struggling – and not giving up – too. I hope this helps someone else.

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