It seems like yesterday that I found myself in a bathroom stall at my corporate recruiting company for what was at least the third time that week, trying to muffle the sound of my tears after a particularly brutal interaction with my boss. Not only was I unhappy with my job, but the pressure, the long hours, and the toxic work environment had left me feeling completely and utterly burnt out. And so, in a pivotal move, I walked away from the world of all-things-corporate to launch my own freelance writing business.
But while that seems like only yesterday, in reality, it was more than six years ago. And even though I can say with 100% certainty that making the transition was the best move for my career (and my life!), the freelance path can also be frustrating and challenging. There have definitely been times, particularly during COVID, that I have felt just as overwhelmed and exhausted as I did the day I walked away from my corporate job.
The good news? I’ve learned invaluable lessons on how to keep freelancer burnout at bay—and with so many people leaving the corporate world to launch their own freelance careers in the wake of the pandemic (I see you, Great Resignation!) I thought now would be a great time to share what I’ve learned.
1. Be on the lookout for freelancer burnout symptoms.
You can’t avoid something if you don’t understand what it is, so it’s important to know what burnout symptoms actually look like—and, specifically, what those symptoms look like in freelancers.
People experiencing burnout “may find themselves highly disengaged with work and dreading the start of their work week (hello, Sunday Scaries!),” says Megan Rankin, a career counselor and professional development coach for Growing Self. “They may feel drained or exhausted after tasks they used to complete with ease,” she adds, or even “trapped, stuck, or hopeless about the future of their work.”
As a freelancer, this can manifest in a number of different ways—like feeling isolated, overcommitted, overwhelmed by overlapping deadlines for different clients as well as all the administrative and other tasks freelancers have to take care of beyond their core work, exhausted by the prospect of holding it all together as a one-person band, and indifferent about the projects you used to be most excited to land and execute.
For me, I realized burnout was becoming part of my daily experience when I started feeling resistance around *every* work-related task—even the ones I generally enjoyed. Pitching new clients? No thank you. Taking client calls to discuss new projects? Meh, maybe next week. Even writing, which is the foundation of my business (and a core part of who I am), felt like a complete chore; articles I used to be able to knock out in a few hours were now taking a few days.
But it just so happens that burnout is one of the things I write about on a regular basis—so even though I was feeling resistant and resentful about work, I was able to recognize that my general malaise was a sign of impending burnout—and I needed to take action (more on that in a minute) to get myself into a better place.
2. Make boundaries a non-negotiable.
You can’t talk mental health—at work or in life—without talking about boundaries. And boundaries can be particularly tricky for freelancers. “There are no set ‘on’ and ‘off’ hours,” says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Alice Thornewill, cofounder and director of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness. There’s also no team to share the load, no boss or leaders to signal priorities, and no guaranteed, stable paycheck. “It can feel like the right thing to do is to work all the time to try and maximize chances of success. But working throughout the day without a break—and working evenings and weekends as well—is a recipe for burnout.”
Unfortunately, boundaries aren’t my strong point. A few years ago, I had a client completely change the scope of a project and request a last-minute rewrite—which I agreed to, even though I was on my honeymoon in Italy. Instead of wandering the streets of Rome with my new husband, a cappuccino, and a pastry, I spent an entire afternoon and evening in front of my computer screen, tackling edits that I certainly could (and should) have pushed until after our trip.
When the pandemic first hit, I had a bit of a panic. I took the stance of, “If I want my business to survive, I need to take on as much work as possible.” So I did. I was pitching at least five new prospects every week, filling (and I mean filling) my calendar with assignments, and writing, on average, more than 5,000 words every day. (Just typing that sentence makes my brain hurt.) There wasn’t a day without a deadline—and I was working late every night and through the weekends to keep up.
This, as you can imagine, was not a recipe for a happy, healthy life. After months of the grind, I realized the pace just wasn’t sustainable—and if I wanted to avoid burning myself out completely, I was going to need to set some serious boundaries.
I looked at the assignments I was working on and identified the ones that paid the least, required significantly more time or effort than other projects, or made me feel the most stressed out or resistant—and I took them off my plate, clearing up time and energy to focus on the clients that brought the most value to my business. I dramatically slowed down my pitching and focused on connecting with the businesses that truly felt aligned with my interests and writing style. Instead of setting tight deadlines (and stressing myself out to get things done quickly), I extended my writing time for each article by a week to give myself some breathing room.
And it worked! I was able to get back to a more regular 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday schedule. Sure, there’s the occasional deadline that has me pulling a late night or working a few hours on a Saturday, but those are the exception, not the rule—and I feel more calm, balanced, and burnout-proof as a result.
3. Carve out time for yourself *outside* of your freelance career.
Making time for yourself as a freelancer can be tough. When you’re the only one in charge of your career—and your paycheck—it can be tempting to put yourself at the bottom of your priority list in favor of more work. I know, trust me. When I was experiencing burnout, I made zero time for me. I started to feel like my business and my self were one and the same—and I felt like an empty shell of a person because of it.
But once I had better boundaries in place and was no longer working most nights and weekends, I suddenly had more time on my hands. Instead of succumbing to the urge to take on more work again, I filled that time with the people, places, and things that I enjoy. I took long walks with my husband and our dogs, mastered the perfect cream puff recipe, adventured my way through hours-long Dungeons & Dragons sessions with friends via Zoom (yes, I’m a nerd), and worked my way through my must-read list while soaking in eucalyptus and mint–scented bubble baths.
Taking that step back to focus on self-care didn’t just positively impact my life; it also positively impacted my work. Once I redirected some of the time and energy I’d been spending on my business back into myself, I felt totally recharged and energized—and was able to bring that energy to my writing. So even though I was spending less time working, that time was more productive and rewarding. And while I did cut back on the volume of assignments I took on, because I was focusing on my highest-value clients, my income only took a marginal hit, which allowed me to continue to meet my financial needs—minus the burnout.
The point is, Thornewill says, “If you don't take time to give yourself what you need to recharge, you won't be able to effectively give your business what it needs to be successful.”
4. Ask for support.
One of the biggest draws of being a freelancer is the opportunity to be your own boss. But without a built-in community of coworkers, it can feel like you’re completely on your own. Just because you’re running the show doesn’t mean you have to shoulder everything by yourself—and trying to do so can put you on the fast track to burnout. Which is why asking for support is so, so important.
If you’re feeling crushed by the weight of your “launching a freelance career to-do list,” you might consider hiring an admin to take some tasks off your plate (or, if you can’t afford to hire someone, you might consider a services exchange—if you’re a freelance web developer, for instance, you might offer to help design a virtual assistant’s website in exchange for a certain number of hours of admin support). If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, you might need to call a friend and vent. If you’re feeling isolated making the transition from collaborating with a team of colleagues to working solo, you might look into joining a freelancers’ group (online or IRL) to connect with other like-minded professionals.
It took many years to get here, but these days I work with a team of professionals who handle tasks I don’t have the time or skills to deal with—like a transcriptionist who transcribes all of my interviews (making it easier to pull quotes for articles) and my accountant, who takes care of all things tax-related. When I’m feeling frustrated with an assignment, deadline, or client, I text one of my best friends, a fellow freelancer, and after talking it out with someone who gets it, I always feel way better. When I’m powering through a particularly stressful, deadline-driven week, I make sure to let my husband know—and he’ll periodically pop into my office with a hug, snack, or cup of tea (or all three!) and encourage me to take a break.
Whatever kind of support you need, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for it. Not only will it help keep burnout at bay, but it will also make freelancing an easier, more enjoyable experience—which will set you up for success in the long run.