How to avoid freelancer burn out

I love being a freelancer, but despite its many pleasures and rewards, it can be enormously tough, a role where you lack the checks and balances of a ‘proper job’. There’s no boss to tell you that you have too much accumulated leave and need to take a holiday or you’re too sick to be in the office (there is, in fact, generally no paid holiday or sick leave at all), no HR to talk to about poor conditions, and no IT support to fix the computer when it crashes. There’s often not even anyone to bitch at the water cooler with. So when you are in charge of everything yourself, how do you balance the many demands of building a business or a creative brand alone without ending up burned out? Here are my – often very hard learned – suggestions:

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You sometimes have to turn down work

I don’t know a single freelancer – including people who have been doing this for years and are extraordinarily successful – who doesn’t sometimes worry that tomorrow might be the day the work dries up. This is a natural fear, since freelancing is by its nature unpredictable, but avoid the temptation to combat this by ‘stockpiling’ and taking on as much as you possibly can, all of the time. In a competitive sphere like the arts, there is also a temptation to feel you have to make hay while the sun shines and take advantage of any opportunity that arises because it might not come around again. But thinking like that is the fast track to wiping yourself out.

Of course, it’s good to create a financial buffer against lean times and establish as many solid client relationships or contacts as possible, especially when you are starting out, but it’s also important that you’re realistic about what you can handle in the short- and long-term.

If you build your brand on the basis of working flat out forever, you’ll inevitably crash at some stage. There will be occasions when you have to turn down jobs, for a variety of reasons – because it’s not profitable, it’s no longer your focus, or simply because you have too much on your plate. You can establish strategies to do this without losing goodwill (advance notice of unavailability, having a referral network you can send clients to) and, yes, there are sometimes opportunities that you have to grab with both hands and work yourself flat out short term to take advantage of, but you also need to accept that, sometimes, you just have to take a hit as part of the bigger plan. Which is, y’know, not dying of exhaustion or keeling over with a stress induced heart attack.

Do an annual review – yes, really.

This step scares off a lot of creatives who, after all, got into this so they wouldn’t be stuck in an office. (Admin, and spreadsheets and expenses, oh my!) But honestly, the clarity it gives you can be invaluable. One of the ways to assess which jobs (or even clients) you should be turning down is to make sure you have processes in place to assess what the most profitable areas of your work actually are. Who are your best clients, what brings in the best rewards? Where can you afford to take enjoyable but less well-paying work, and how do you make up for that with other gigs or income?

You might be all about making the best art you can, but you also need to eat. Reviewing your business / career on a regular basis (say, an in-depth annual review and shorter assessment at the six month point in between) will help you make more confident and informed decisions on where changes need to be made, whether that’s deciding not to take a show to Edinburgh this year or getting a part time job to boost the coffers while you work on your next book.

Control freakery will kill you

One of the challenges when you’re a solo business or a freelance creative is the temptation to believe you have to do everything yourself. After all, paying anyone else is an expense, one which many freelancers struggle to afford. And when you work in the creative industries, what people are buying into is you: your talent, your skills. That can make you think the whole process has to be managed by you – or either it’s wasted money or what other people do won’t be up to your standards.

But trying to run every aspect of your business/career without any assistance can cost you more in the long run, because you end up drained and less productive at doing the things which actually make you a profit. I identified early on those tasks I wasn’t skilled at, and I pay other people to do them: I have an accountant, I had – and am currently looking for – a cleaner, and I pay someone to format my novels.

These are all things I could do myself, of course, especially the cleaning (and I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with freelancers – particularly women – who would love a cleaner and know it would make their working lives easier but feel they ‘can’t justify’ the cost). But since I pay these people an hourly rate that is less than mine, and it would take me twice as long to do my expenses or clean my bathroom than it takes someone who does that for a living (and I’d likely do a worse job!) then it makes economic sense. Plus, when you work from home, there’s nothing nicer than having a lovely clean environment without having to sacrifice what little free time you have to household chores – I’ve found it a real sanity saver.

Take proper holidays

I always feel like a raging hypocrite when I write about the importance of taking holidays, since it’s something I still struggle with. But this does mean I recognise how important it is, and how much better I feel if I allow myself a few days off – and I do mean an actual break from work, not just checking my email in a different and slightly sunnier location!

If your workflow is unpredictable you can easily get into the mind-set of never booking any time off ‘just in case’ something comes in, or feeling like you can’t take a break because that means turning down jobs (and, worse, losing potential new clients or opportunities because you aren’t available). But never having a vacation is counterproductive and unsustainable. Look at your calendar, see which times of the year are generally your least busy, and diarise some actual time off. Arranging this in advance also has the benefit of allowing you to give your clients or contacts plenty of notice, so you don’t get a panicked phone call the Friday before your trip from someone needing an urgent job!

Build in downtime  

Tied into the subject of holidays, is the idea of building in regular downtime between longer breaks. Again, I tend to be terrible at this, in part because I have a lot of foreign commissions – so I often work Sundays to cater for my Middle East clients, for whom that’s a working day, and I can’t remember the last time I had a bank holiday off, since those are generally UK-only holidays. My evenings are often committed to theatre work or US clients, and I’ve also built a bit of a brand as being able to turn around copy quickly, so I am often the person people turn to when they need an article written at very short notice.

But as much as, some months, I do have to work a seven-day week, I do think it’s far healthier if you can try to schedule at least one day off a week. I also find it’s much more effective if you plan this at least slightly in advance: to me, the least useful ‘rest’ days are those where I plan to work but am simply too tired, or don’t have a lot on, so I fritter away the time in small tasks and get the worst of both worlds, feeling neither rested nor productive!

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Look after yourself

It’s boring advice, but it’s true: you can’t function at your best if you’re existing off a diet of little sleep, bad food and no exercise. Again, I am guilty of this myself: many is the end of a winter day when I unfold myself from my laptop and realise I have barely lifted my eyes from the screen and have eaten nothing but crisps and chocolate. I can’t stop working long hours during my busy periods, but I have put measures in place to ameliorate the damage. I didn’t used to keep coffee in the house, so I was forced to go to my local café in the morning and for my afternoon break, which ensured I’m going outside at least twice a day – now I don’t have that natural break I have to be more organised to ensure I actually leave the house, but have tried to build a short walk into most days.

I stock up on healthier snacks so that if I’m too busy to cook I have something in the cupboards that isn’t just fat and sugar (admittedly, over my busiest period I still consume an awful lot of biscuits!). In the past I’ve had regular massages (I miss them – it’s something I haven’t rescheduled since the move), and I bought a foam roller for stretching out my back to avoid ‘laptop hunch’. I’ve suffered from serious RSI in the past, and trust me, you might think taking time out to do stretches and give your eyes a rest might slow down your creativity or flow, but nothing will derail you like having to deal with constant pain – and it can take years to get back on track once it gets to that stage. Combat it now, and you’ll save yourself literal agony further down the line.

You are not your work – Establish emotional distance

One area not often touched on when talking about freelancing is the emotional aspect – and, sometimes, the emotional toll. Because, in many cases, you are working direct for a client, this is a very personal relationship, which can make it very difficult when things go wrong or if you get criticism or negative feedback, since this can feel like a personal attack (it can also make it more difficult to turn down work, even if you have good reason to).

This is particularly true in the creative fields, where your connection with your work can be viscerally personal – you are putting your soul into something and it can be crushing if it fails or is ill-received. Even getting notes from an editor can feel like a slap in the face! (“How DARE they suggest that… um, perfectly reasonable edit?”)

I’m often commissioned by people I know (in some cases, who I know very well) and it can make it tough to keep a professional distance, but it’s crucial to remind yourself that this is just work, and that sometimes your client will want revisions you don’t agree with or quote a price you think unreasonable.

And some people just won’t like what you do. As Dita von Teese once said, you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world – some people just don’t like peaches. You have to decide: do I accept these criticisms as part of the process, is this turning the work into something I can’t accept? Learning the right answer to that – rather than going by the knee-jerk ‘hurt feelings’ reaction – takes time and experience, and I could write a whole other article on that. But it’s worth remembering that almost no creative product – no play, no book, no TV show or movie or even painting – gets to fruition without input from someone else. Even the most personal creative process involves a degree of collaboration – and when someone gets so successful they don’t need to listen to other people tends to be when their work becomes self-indulgent, so take the very fact you are in this position as a positive.

Don’t pile on the stress by making things about your creativity or your personal relationships rather than about the end product, which is often about money or sales or getting bums on seats – and may involve a lot of compromise to accommodate everyone’s goals and vision.

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Admit when it’s not working

Finally, the unpopular opinion: freelancing simply doesn’t work for everyone. There’s a romance to being your own boss that many find seductive, but if you are constantly anxious about money or the level of work, or you struggle to organise your life as a freelancer, it may be that you need to consider a salaried job with the structure and benefits that brings.

In a world where we are constantly being told ‘not to give up on our dreams’ and that tenacity equals success, it can feel like an enormous failure to realise your dreams aren’t working out the way you hoped, or that the toll of doing what you love has either taken all the actual love out of it, or is simply untenable in the long term. And you know what? That is OK. Finding ways to integrate your creative work or desires into a more structured life – one that doesn’t leave you stressed and exhausted over how to pay the bills – can often be a much better life choice than slogging away at something that is slowly killing your spirit.

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