Once upon a time, there was a freelancer who thought he’d never burnout. He was young, he was in love with his job, he was making a lot of money, and he felt invincible. He didn’t mind burning the midnight oil or working over the weekend, because he thought freelance burnout was something only the weak or lazy experienced.
I know very well how that guy felt, because that guy… was me. And by now you can probably guess how the story goes.
With a pretty bad case of burnout.
Why burnout is so dangerous for freelancers…
When you are burned out while being employed somewhere, the path is a bit easier. You call in sick. You take a few days off. You keep receiving your salary, even though you are physically unable to work.
As a freelancer, you don’t get that luxury. Either you are working – and getting paid for it – or you are not. And if you are not, you are losing money.
I didn’t wake up one morning and said ‘Damn, I am burned out’. It was a slow process of feeling more and more stressed, losing productivity and enthusiasm over the course of a few months, that left me unable to work for more than 30 consecutive minutes.
I was lucky – I had been freelancing for more than 10 years, and I had built up an emergency fund of approximately 6 months of living expenses. I could afford to stop working for a little bit, but I was worried that no clients would wait for me for months while I didn’t work. So I did something worse.
These are the steps I took to recover from burnout… while I was working. Not full time and not at my best, but I went through burnout without fully pausing my business.
How to fix a burned-out freelancer? 6 Steps to recovery
Step 1 – Admit you are burned out
We live in a culture that celebrates the ability to be ‘always on’. Constant availability is often considered a synonym of dedication. Admitting I was burned out felt as though I was admitting a weakness. It made me feel vulnerable in ways I never imagined.
And yet, the signs were there:
- Loss of interest and enjoyment – As a translator, I had always enjoyed finding the right words and diving into the small details of every text. Suddenly, that became very uninteresting.
- Chronic stress and fatigue – I kept procrastinating every project. I had this feeling of being incredibly stressed out that never left me. When it came to working, I was constantly tired.
- Decrease of productivity – I slowed down considerably. A project I could easily complete in a couple of hours just a few months earlier would now take the whole afternoon.
If this all sounds familiar to you, it might be time to consider some remedies, before it all becomes too painful to face. Only after you acknowledge you are suffering from burnout you can start thinking about what you need to do.
Step 2 – Understand what is causing your burnout
Based on research, there are six main areas that can lead to burnout.
- Workload – As freelancers, we know workload imbalances all too well. When you have nothing to work on, you are stressed. When you have too much on your plate, you are stressed. This phenomenon has a name – it’s called the feast or famine cycle. And it can burn you out pretty quickly
- Perceived lack of control – I became a freelancer to be my own boss, and yet from time to time I felt like I had 10 different bosses I couldn’t say no to. The earlier you internalize that your client is not your boss, the better
- Lack of reward or recognition – Not all clients take the time to send you great feedback, even when it’s due. Over time, this lack of reward can make you feel like you are working in a void. And if the financial reward is not there either, you have a pretty destabilizing mix
- Poor relationships – Or shall we say ‘no relationships’? If you’ve worked from home for more than a month, you know how working from home can feel pretty lonely. My friends were always saying how lucky I was that I didn’t have to commute to work, but they hardly realized I could spend whole days without uttering a single word
- Lack of fairness – Favoritism, bias, the feeling that your contribution is not appreciated enough, all play together to make you feel like you are not being treated in a fair way. This may be more common for employees than for freelancers, but it can definitely play a role
- Value mismatch – Do you feel like your values align with those of your clients? At a certain point in my career, I certainly didn’t. I was just doing stuff, whether or not I was interested in it, or felt supportive towards it. Someone, somewhere, needed something I offered and was ready to pay me for it. That was all I needed.
Step 3 – Reframe your identity – you are not your work
Acknowledging I was suffering from burnout meant I could no longer claim I was invincible. I had to admit I couldn’t do anything. For years, I believed the only way for me to ‘make it’ was keeping up with the constant pressures of freelancing, and that I was doing everything right.
When work suddenly became impossible to deal with, I was left with a question – who am I without my job?
Shockingly enough, I discovered the answer was not easy to find. I was the first person to graduate in my family. I started to work (and make money) while all of my friends were still university students. I was the only person I knew that was making six figures at my age.
And then I was a guy with a job he couldn’t do.
I found out my job was wrapped around my identity, and my identity was heavily dependent on my job. I had become one of those people who didn’t work to live. I lived to work… and apparently, I wasn’t happy.
Finding out who I was aside from my job took me a whole year of soul-searching.
Step 4 – Prioritize your health
I know, being unable to work – or to work as much/as well as usual – is a tough pill to swallow for a freelancer. Without working, we don’t get paid. If we don’t get paid, we are stressed. Yet, this is not the time to worry about money.
When you are burned out, or if you feel you may burn out if you don’t change anything in your current routine, your first concern should be your health. Here are a couple habits for you to consider:
- Therapy. This may or may not be necessary. I was going through a pretty bad case of burnout, and I found therapy extremely beneficial. You may be at a stage where you don’t need it, but let me tell you – it certainly won’t hurt…
- Exercise. A proper exercise routine should be at the absolute top of your list. I chose weight lifting, but potential choices are endless. Pick something you truly enjoy doing, because if you don’t, you won’t stick to it in the long term.
- Healthy eating. If you struggle to focus and find work tiring, unhealthy food is only making things worse. The point here is not to eat healthy – even though that has amazing benefits – but rather to avoid making things worse with low-quality food.
- Sleep. How often have you prioritized sleep in the last year? For me, the answer was ‘never’. If you are like me, you’ll be surprised at the difference a couple extra hours of sleep can make.
Step 5 – Reassess with a clearer mind
I’ll be straightforward – burnout changes you. You will come back stronger, but you will also be a different freelancer.
Do you love your job? Do you like it, at least? In my case, I had to go back to the parts of it that I liked – the thrill of getting new clients, the flexibility that only working from home can offer, the joy of translating texts that I truly enjoyed reading, before I started to work on them.
What I didn’t like was the monotony of always working in a given niche, the need to balance so many clients and the pain of being glued to my desktop 12 hours per day. That had to change, or things would only get worse.
Making the necessary changes may not be easy. If you work too much, you might end up making a bit less than you do now. If the social aspect of work is what you are missing, a coworking space may be the solution, and that adds to your monthly expenses. If you dislike your clients, you may need to get new ones (and earn less while you look for them).
Financially, you could take a hit. In terms of work-life balance, though, you may be about to hit a home run.
Step 6 – Take baby steps
If you are burned out, don’t put yourself under pressure by assuming you’ll be back to work 8 hour days in a couple of weeks. You need to take burnout seriously, or your brain will force you to.
Phase back with ease, without stressing over what your working routine should look like.
Be ready, because the process will not be linear. You might feel energized and ready to do your best for a week, and then be exhausted throughout the following one. You need to be ready to accept this and forgive yourself.
Don’t automatically assume your clients won’t be there to support you. Some of mine were, and I am extremely grateful for it. Others were not, and I am happy to say that today they are no longer my clients.
Whether or not you want to disclose your burnout to your clients is up to you. Back then, I chose not to, but in hindsight I’d probably be more honest with my most loyal clients.
We are all human, and we all have weaknesses. Once you start discussing your burnout in the open, you’ll be surprised at how many people open up about being burned out at some time during their career.
Life after burnout
You can’t choose to avoid burnout, but you can choose what to do with it. You could take a 2-week long vacation and come back ready to endure work a few more months. That might work, and you’d think ‘I never thought it was that easy’.
It wouldn’t take long, though, to be back at square one, with that same stress and fatigue following you every time you turn on your PC.
While I was burned out, I took the time to find myself again. I started healthy habits such as regularly going to the gym and lost 40 pounds. I started implementing productivity hacks to spend less time doing the chores that were stressing me out so much.
These are just a few of the many things I experimented with. Some worked, some didn’t. In hindsight, however, I can easily look back and say burnout changed me for the better.
One year after I admitted I was burned out, I finally started to get back to a normal work schedule.
My daily routine, however, is quite different from my old life. I go to the gym 3 times per week. I take days off regularly. I am much more picky about the projects I decide to work on, and rate is no longer the first factor I consider.
I no longer work 8 hour days, not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to. I am still working 6 to 7 hours, but I am only dedicating three or four of them to actual translation work. The rest is spent on a blog for aspiring translators, and on a different business I started while recovering from burnout.
Believe it or not, burning out can be an immense opportunity to change your life for the better. Don’t waste it.
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