How to Spot and Stop Burnout Before You Give Up On Freelancing

It started with a headache. I took aspirin, and when that didn’t help, I tried taking short breaks from my computer screen. But even after some time away, I found that my mind was scattered. I’d start in on one task, and just a few minutes in, I’d be in another browser tab working on something unrelated. I wasn’t hungry, and it seemed like I needed more and more coffee to get anything done.

Was I getting lazy? No. I was halfway down the road to burning out.

Whether you chose freelancing or you were among the 2,900 media workers laid off in the last year, as a freelancer you’re pretty much on your own. And while there are upsides to that independence, the prolonged bouts of stress that tend to accompany the lifestyle (when work dries up, for example) take a toll. I’ve been there.

It’s tempting to work as much as you can—especially in the beginning to gain traction, or if you’re gunning to boost your income or save for the next dry spell. But hustling 24/7 can be detrimental to your health, your self-esteem, and more importantly, the quality of your work. After all, you’re a creative professional—what good are your skills if your work is suffocating them?

How can you tell if you’re experiencing burnout?

The biggest sign is a loss of motivation. I’ve been in this dejected headspace several times in my past life as a freelance journalist and blogger, and it’s not a good place to be.

When I was running a personal blog, I set very high expectations for myself, aiming to publish seven posts per week. The pressure I put on myself to meet that goal ended up backfiring. I wanted to please my subscribers, to feel proud of myself and my blog, but the weight of meeting such lofty production targets only zapped my motivation. I ended up leaving it all behind and ditching the blog, instead of developing a more tenable publishing schedule.

At the same time, I was also a freelance crime reporter. I wanted every crime blotter to be perfect. I was working for two different publications, and although my responsibilities at both were more or less the same, I was spreading myself too thin. I let my obligations take a hold of my life. I felt helpless.

According to New York City-based therapist Monica X. Thompson, LCSW, burnout happens often. “As of recently, many of my [patients] have had to relate to burnout,” she said. “It’s a real problem, and the best way to address it is by creating healthy boundaries in the areas creating stress. Also, engaging in self-care.”

According to Psychology Today, burnout can occur when professionals feel they are not in control of their work, and after long periods working toward a goal that doesn’t materialize. Burnout is also more common among those who lack emotional or professional support. Needless to say, freelancers are a high-risk pool.

How can you avoid burnout?

Combatting burnout can be as easy as taking a much-needed break—and I don’t mean spending a few minutes scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. You don’t necessarily have to go on vacation either, but something as simple as a long walk in the park or making a point to schedule more in-person meetings can make all the difference.

Here are some other simple options to combat the early stages of burnout:

1. Expand your network and invest in “weak” relationships

According to this study by University of British Columbia researchers Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn, people who have plentiful “weak” ties (relationships with everyday people, like baristas or bus drivers) report higher levels of social and emotional well-being. With that in mind, group exercise classes or even cultivating a friendly relationship with your mailman could help you feel better.

2. Focus on personal branding to get the work you want

If the work you’re doing now isn’t fulfilling, revisiting your personal brand is a chance to attract the kind of work that gives you energy—and not the other way around. With that in mind, take stock of your public face online. Make sure your personal website is selling the full spectrum of your offering, the “about me” section on your LinkedIn page resonates with your target clients, and the clips on your personal website or Contently portfolio are up to date.

3. Surge your self-care practice

Being in front of a computer for hours on end is taxing whether you’re a freelancer or not. Good news is, being outside an office means you have more liberty to mitigate the drain.

Blue light glasses can help reduce strain on your eyes from prolonged screen exposure. Typing breaks paired with wrist and arm exercises can help ward off carpal tunnel. A stint in the sauna or a mid-day massage can relieve stress. And a digital detox where you disavow your phone and computer for a weekend can go a long way toward helping you recharge for Monday.

4. Guard your time and set boundaries

As a freelancer no one will guard your time for you, so chief among your concerns should be maintaining a sense of control over your work/life balance. Setting boundaries early and often with clients is key—but so is setting boundaries with yourself. At what point do you close the computer and leave the rest for tomorrow, no matter what? When do you stop checking work emails for the night? If you don’t have answers to questions like these, decide where you stand immediately.

Freelancing is a grind, there’s no way around it. Luckily there are ways to spot burnout and stop it before you bow out of the game. These tips helped me manage my workload and preserve my mental health at the same time—hopefully they’ll do the same for you.

Written by: Shelley Bade

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