9 Ways to Avoid a Freelancer Burnout

A freelancer burnout sounds crazy but it happens more than you think. Here are 9 ways to stay healthy and keep rocking your freelancing life.

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Sounds crazy, right? A freelancer burnout. I mean, freelancers are in charge of their own (free) time. So why would we work more than we can handle? Still, there’s a huge number of freelancers dealing with health problems related to stress. How many? No idea, it’s hard to tell. Unlike those softies from the office, the self-employed can’t call in sick with anyone.

We often forget how many things a freelancer really does. It’s not only the actual project. It’s also acquisition, administration, marketing, customer service, website design, human resources, cleaning the kitchen.

Most of us work 24/7. We check our email during the weekend. We quickly reply to that client late at night. Not to mention what we do on a holiday. Oh, sorry. A holiday (hol·i·day) is “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.”

I’m pretty sure that many freelancers have a hard time finding that healthy ‘work-life balance’.

What causes a freelancer burnout?

It’s all good until our body decides to quit. You’ll wake up one day, not remembering the password to your computer. Or you’ll get exhausted from putting your socks on. And making a cup of coffee feels like solving a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

Seriously, this actually happens to people. When you suffer from chronic stress, your body is in survival mode (aka stress mode). It produces cortisol, a hormone that makes you react faster. This was definitely useful in prehistoric times when we had to run from scary bears or chop off the head of an enemy.

Cortisol is crucial for our appetite, energy level, and motivation but when your body produces too much of it, it gets exhausted. Your immune system weakens, you get sick or you develop mental problems. Chronic stress is strongly linked to heart problems, obesity, intestinal problems, insomnia, anxiety disorders, and depression.

But what is stressful for one person doesn’t have to be stressful for another. Everyone reacts differently to stress. Some of the stress symptoms you may recognise are the following:

Physical symptoms:
  • Sweating
  • Tense muscles
  • Breathing from your chest instead of from your belly
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Cold feet and hands
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
Emotional symptoms:
  • Hard to think clearly
  • Mood changes
  • Highly irritable
  • Anxious / panic attacks
  • Crying or the feeling you need to
  • Blackouts

9 ways to avoid a freelancer burnout

Are you experiencing some of the symptoms above? Then it’s important to learn to let go and relax. You need to take responsibility for the most important thing in your career. Your own health. Here are 9 ways to relax and avoid a freelancer burnout.

1. Keep track of your hours

One of the many pitfalls of freelancing. Not keeping track of your hours. I had to get used to this one for sure. Before, I worked until I felt tired and then went on a break. And because I was tired, the break turned into a whole afternoon, which made me finish my work late in the evening. As a result, the quality of my sleep deteriorated considerably and so did my productivity.

Fortunately, I learned to keep track of my time with a time tracker like RemoteOne. I now work in blocks of 40 minutes. Every time the beeper goes off, I take a 5 or 10-minute break after which I continue working. This way, I’m way more energised and I get more stuff done, too. Decide what works for you. Get tired after 25 minutes? Work with a 25-minute block.

2. Plan your day into realistic time blocks

Many people work with to-do lists on which they scribble down all kinds of things. Although it is good to write things down, to-do lists are actually very chaotic. One task always takes longer than others. At the end of the day, it makes you think you haven’t done anything because you only ticked off one or two tasks. That’s a stressful thought!

A better way is to block off the time you’ll be working on something. This doesn’t only apply to a project but it also applies to customer relations, administration, breaks, shopping, and lunch. If you’re realistic about how much time something takes, you won’t feel like you’re chasing your own tail anymore.

Time blocking helps you to focus better, gives you more peace of mind, and makes you ten times more productive. Try RemoteOne as a time tracker and stay ahead of things with their built-in task due-date system.

3. Protect your free time like you would your iPhone

Another pitfall is to work during the weekend. Deadlines are there to be met, aren’t they? Now, you can do this for a while. But if you suddenly wonder where your joie de vivre took off to (probably living it up somewhere in the Caribbean), you are in dire need of a holiday. Or at least in need of a whole weekend without your laptop - or phone.

You need to put yourself first. I know, you want to keep your clients happy. But what good would you be to them if you’re out of the game for 6 months? Make sure you have a clear structure and stick to it. A day off is a day off. Do something fun, dive into the forest, the ocean or the kitchen. Whatever it is, do anything but work.

4. Make sure you get enough sleep

A no-brainer but still an important reminder. Sleep is crucial to function properly and build up resistance to stress. So make sure you get enough sleep. For some that’s 6 hours, for others that’s 9.

Here are some tips to help you sleep:

  • Avoid stimulants like coffee, chocolate or alcohol. Even though one glass of alcohol can make it easier for you to fall asleep, more than one disturbs your deep sleep. You need deep sleep to restore your body and mind.
  • Take a hot shower. A hot shower or a hot bath will help you relax and fall asleep more easily.
  • Take a power nap. It refreshes your brain and it’s a good way to compensate for a short night. Make sure that you don’t sleep longer than 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will end up in a deep sleep, causing you to wake up feeling like a zombie. The best time is at the beginning of the afternoon or after lunch.
  • Decide whether you are an evening or a morning person. Some people are more active in the evening than in the morning.
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5. Work up a healthy sweat

Exercise makes us get out of our head and connect with our body. Exercise helps us to build up stress resistance so we can avoid that freelancer burnout. Your body produces endorphins and releases serotonin when you exercise. This is also called your ‘happiness hormone’.

Move your body for at least 30 minutes a day. You don’t need to train for a marathon. A simple walk around the block can be enough.

6. Let go of the steering wheel once in a while

A freelancer burnout mainly happens to people with control issues and perfectionism. Do you focus (too) much on the details and small things that don’t really matter? Do you think that receiving bad feedback once, affects the rest of your career? A good way to let go of control is to zoom out and see the bigger picture. You do this by asking yourself the following questions.

  • Is it really important?
  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • Suppose that it does happen, will I survive?
  • Is it still going to be a problem tomorrow? Or next week? In a year?

Get your Om on

Meditating is an excellent way to relax and let go of control. Through meditation, you can learn to be fully present in the moment. When you meditate, you realise what is really important (living) and what is not (deadlines).

Here is a simple exercise you can do at home:

  • Sit down somewhere quietly. It can be on a chair or on a pillow, as long as you sit with your back upright so that your posture remains active and you don’t fall asleep.
  • Close your eyes and feel how your body connects with the floor or chair.
  • Relax as much as possible. Relax your face, your neck, your shoulders to your toes. Perform a body scan from top to bottom.
  • Every time you notice tension, try to let go of it and relax.
  • Now focus on breathing into your abdomen. Notice how your belly moves to the rhythm of your breath.
  • Try to keep your attention on your breathing and the movement of your belly. It’s quite normal to be distracted by a thought, especially in the beginning. But every time you become aware of that, you bring your attention back to your breathing. Without judging or thinking “I can’t meditate” (which you will think but try to let that go as well).

If you meditate every day, even if it’s only for 5 minutes, then letting go becomes easier and easier. Ironically, letting go gives you more control over yourself, your thoughts and your emotions. You will find that you are better able to avoid stress, see what really matters, and take care of yourself.

8. Raise your rates

A higher hourly rate means that you have to work less! How good is that? Of course, you do need to have to the balls to ask for a higher hourly rate. But you can grow some step by step. Whenever you get a new client, for example, you can negotiate a higher rate. Usually, they are willing to pay much more than what you eventually agree upon. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re worth.

Also, you can’t use the same rate for more than a year. Even if you keep the same client(s). Every year, inflation leads to higher personal and business expenses, so you have to take this into account. Not only does a higher hourly rate free up more time for you, but it also helps you to worry less about money, and it increases your feeling of self-worth.

9. It’s all in your gut!

Nutrition plays a decisive role in your health and your resistance to stress. You know how emotional problems influence your digestive system? When you’re nervous, your bladder suddenly shrinks down to the size of a raisin, right? Well, it also works the other way around. There’s a significant correlation between gut bacteria and mental health issues. Your gut bacteria can either reverse or worsen stress damage.

So in times of stress (and in times of chill), make sure your body gets enough fibre, vitamin C, D, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids like fish oil. Foods that specifically promote a sense of calm and help you to avoid a freelancer burnout are vegetable soup, celery, sugar-free oatmeal, bananas, nuts and seeds, chamomile tea, and potatoes.

Interested in more tips for a successful freelancing career? Check out these 10 lessons I have learned so far as a freelancer, and learn from my mistakes.

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