Tips for managing freelance burnout and stress

Burnout and stress are at all time highs across every profession, and freelancers are no exception, as they’re prone to working more hours than a full-time job.

Overdoing things will result in burnout. Your brain needs time to reset.

In this episode, freelancers Kaleigh Moore and Michael Keenan are back to discuss professional burnout. They share their own experiences and struggles and how they combat burnout as a freelancer.

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Kaleigh: So in today’s episode, Mike and I are going to be talking about how to deal with burnout as a freelancer.

We were laughing before we started recording because we’re both like, “how do you deal with burnout?” It’s something that we also are dealing with and we’ve been talking about it a lot off and on, I feel like for the past six months, maybe even longer than that— maybe since the beginning of this year. 

I know that for me personally, during the pandemic, I did nothing but work because there was nothing else to do. So I just kind of stayed home and worked as much as I could.

Then when things started to open back up, I was all [about] the travel—let’s do all of the speaking engagements—get out in the world, and that was great until I killed that because I overdid it. 

Now I’m kind of back in the burnout boat. For a variety of reasons—a couple of them being I just don’t feel super motivated. Right now, it’s my favorite time of year—it’s fall in the Midwest. So I just want to be outside. 

And I feel like I’m at year nine. So I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m kind of in a rut creatively. I’d love to really unplug for maybe two to three weeks and do no work. Maybe that would get my brain to reset. 

So we can talk about some strategies for getting past burnout a little bit more, but I want to ask you, first of all, are you dealing with this?

And if so, what things are you doing to combat burnout?

Why do freelancers experience burnout?

A lot of freelancers started getting pumped with work in the beginning of the pandemic. A lot of us didn’t have systems in place to handle the amount of client overload that was coming in. —MK

Michael: First, I’m sorry that you’re continuing to struggle with this because I know it’s been an up and down thing, but maybe we can get through some of it in this episode.

In my experience, right now I’m [kind of] in a creative rut. But for me, that doesn’t actually always mean burnout. Because I’ve experienced one burnout, where I was just fucking miserable and that was off the coattails of the pandemic. 

A lot of freelancers started getting pumped with work in the beginning of the pandemic. A lot of us didn’t have systems in place to handle the amount of client overload that was coming in. That was even more uncertain than this potential recession that we’re coming into. We had no idea [that] was gonna happen. 

So I was just pulling in work from everywhere. I was like, “Yes, I do landing page copy, all of a sudden, I was like, I do this. I do that.” I did everything because I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on in the world, and I’m scared, I’m concerned. What the hell is happening?” It felt like everything was falling apart and that compounded over time because of chronic stress. Like in just trying to manage deadlines.

I was getting up at five against my own will because I just had so much to do during the day. I learned from that though. I now wake up at five because I enjoy it, but I don’t always work right away. But [in the beginning] I was getting up, I was working all freaking day long. And the reason why freelancers are so susceptible, in general, to burnout is because it’s easier for us to find attractive opportunities, economic opportunities. 

If we just had one more client—just add one more client, you can make this amount over the next year or the next six months. So yes, there’s employee burnout, there’s leadership [burnout], but freelancers, in general, are more prone because we’re in control of our own economic opportunities. 

We have to access every opportunity we have to see how to take advantage of an opportunity. In other words, it just becomes emotionally taxing to have to do all that. Especially when you’re trying to manage the workload manage the outreach, meet everyone’s expectations. And it definitely pulls away from your own happiness and the whole reason why you started doing this in the first place. 

So, getting to the point, right now, I was feeling [like I was in] a little creative rut recently. And I think I’m just like, “where can I expand my business into next?” But I experienced true burnout, later on in the pandemic. I experienced a really bad burnout.

I was cranky all the time, I hated my life [and] I hated everything around me. I never left the house because I was fucking working all the time, and trying to manage everyone’s expectations of me, but I never managed my own expectations of myself. So [I was] working long hours, [spending] too much time in front of the screen, constantly answering client slacks or emails and never really taking a true vacation. 

So, yes I’ve definitely been there. From that big burnout phase, though, I kind of learned how to not do that again. 

Kaleigh: Yeah, I think we’ll definitely get into some strategies too. Before we do that, though, just to quickly give some context on the burnout I was dealing with… 

I like you, was feeling uncertain. So [I] was just taking on a ton of projects, working way too many hours of the day, [spending a] ton of time in front of the screen—my body hurt, my brain hurt, I also was cranky, I just felt generally unhappy. 

I went from having one boss at a full-time job to having like 50 bosses—not 50, that’s an exaggeration—but so many bosses, so many people I was responsible to. So I got shingles twice, stress-induced shingles. That was kind of my body saying, “hey, maybe pump the brakes a little bit, take it easy.” So it definitely impacted my health, and I think it also really impacted my motivation to just do good work. 

Something I really pride myself on is delivering consistent quality work. That’s why I’ve been able to do this for so long. That’s why people send me referrals. And when that starts to tank, or at least drop-off, that’s really bad for my business. 

So in my mind, I was like, “Oh, I have to do all this work because of the money and the opportunity, because it’s endless. And if you’re self-motivated, you’re like, “oh, great, I can make a million dollars, I can make so much money.” But the reality is there [are] major trade-offs that come with that, and you’re only one person.

Even if you’re outsourcing stuff, you can only do so much in a day, and unless you want to be sitting in your chair in front of your computer for 12 hours a day, you really have to instill some boundaries. 

Speaking of boundaries, I would love to hear some of the things that have worked for you as far as managing this and just becoming a healthier work-life balance type of person.

What does freelance burnout look like?

[Your] body keeps the score. —KM

Michael: Before I get into [becoming] that healthier work-life balance person, I do think the mental and physical symptoms of burnout differ between each person, so I’m just going to briefly skim over them just in case you’re like, “Am I feeling burnt out, am I not feeling burnt out?”

The common mental [indicators] are the inability to switch off. This is a big big creeper. When you say it’s five thirty or six or whatever time you’re done with work, but you can’t actually transition out and relax. That was the biggest killer for me during COVID because I was like, “I ain’t going anywhere.” There’s [an] inability to switch off. 

Another one was not being very present for your friends or your family or any of your interests—like not being aware of them. So if you’re starting to feel on the edge of stuff where your partner is like, “Are you here, are you still around? Because I feel like you’re just totally gone.” Then you’re like, “Yes, I’m thinking about work sorry.” 

Things like brain fog, inability to focus, struggling with single tasks. And, you know, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how [they’re] developing ADHD. I’ve seen a lot of conversations about that and I’m not a medical doctor, I have no place to comment on it, but there is a similarity between this increase in burnout throughout the pandemic and the [number] of people talking about [not being able to] focus on things. 

The two may be related [or] may not, but I’m just pointing that out because that’s a big thing. Maybe you have ADHD or ADD or maybe you’re just struggling because you’re burnt out. 

Then there’s anxiety and depression. Feeling tense all the time or tired or just general panic beyond the Sunday scaries, like when you wake up, and life is scary.

Kaleigh: I feel like I’ve been in that mode for nine years.

Michael: Jesus. Yeah. Then because you’re tense and anxious all the time, you don’t sleep—you’re tired. Hormonal changes can take place. And these are studied, like physical symptoms—tension headaches, joint pain. 

So what we’re saying is, you really need to get it together if you’re feeling this way. Don’t let it continue on. There is a honeymoon phase [when] you don’t think you’re burnt out. That’s why I wanted to list out signs, because you may be thinking like, “Oh, I’m just a little anxious, you know, it’s a Sunday scary. Maybe it’s not.” 

Kaleigh: Body keeps the score.

Michael: It does. It never forgets. 

For me, the biggest part was, it was starting to affect my body of work—like you were saying. I noticed that I just didn’t care at the end of [the day]. I was breezing through work and at the end, I was just submitting whatever, because I was like, “I don’t care. I just need to get it done.”

I started being on this path of getting stuff done versus doing it well. And I can be a perfectionist, I really want to do things well. Like we said, it also increases your referrals. 

How to combat burnout

I don’t care if I miss an email. It’s not the end of the fucking world. I’m not out there saving people, I’m not saving the world.—MK

Michael: So what I did was, I tapered down the [number] of clients, I raised my prices, and gave myself very strict guidelines as to when I can and can not work. That’s for myself. Clients don’t tell me when I can talk to them. It’s not even a question of what timezone they’re in, I don’t care. This is when you will speak with me otherwise, we’re not talking.

Before I wasn’t good at that. I was checking Slack at night—what really helped was not taking on eleven or twelve clients at one time, that’s a good start. Raising your prices, and then shutting off my notifications was a big one. 

That was a big anxiety. I had two types of anxiety. I was getting anxiety because I was always getting emails, I was getting Slack messages. I don’t have a lot of social media, so I never had Twitter notifications. But email and Slack was just constant. And I would wake up and I would check my emails right away. Because working with people in the UK, that stuff comes in my mornings, and my stuff comes in on their mornings. It was just totally insane. 

I cut off that—that was the biggest thing and then I had anxiety at first I was like, “Oh my God, what if I miss an email?” But then I was like, “Wait a second, I don’t care if I miss an email. It’s not the end of the fucking world. I’m not out there saving people, I’m not saving the world. It’s not that serious.”

So the start for me was definitely shutting off notifications. And then [this] is something I want to talk to you about—because I know that you’re good at this—choosing clients carefully. That was also one way to prevent the burnout that [I] was feeling because I was writing in a lot of different industries at that time. 

Also during COVID—I can write faster than average, I think, so for me, writing long form is fine. But I was taking on a lot of other types of work, that would take me forever to finish. Then I was getting tired because I needed to hit this deadline or that deadline. So [it was important for me to] choose my clients a little more carefully. That’s something I know that you’re really good at.

Choose your clients wisely

Are [they] willing to make this a long-term commitment and invest at least X amount of dollars and getting on my schedule that way?—KM

Kaleigh: Yeah, I think one of the things that really helped me was I started implementing minimums for new clients to work with me because I was getting really busy. So I said, “Okay if you would like to work with me, I require X amount of work per month.” It’s not necessarily [a] retainer but it’s a filtering mechanism to say, “are you willing to make this a long-term commitment and invest at least X amount of dollars and getting on my schedule that way?”

I’ve never been somebody who’s been a big pre-booker. I know that some people will do projects that they book like three months out and [that] gives me anxiety. So instead [I’ve] just been kind of filtering [clients] that way and saying, “Okay, here’s the new requirement if you’d like to become a client, if that’s not a fit, I’m happy to refer you to somebody else.” So that has been helpful. 

I think the other thing too is that—you and I talked about this when we met up at the conference, we continued the conversation. You were like, “You need to take a month off.” And what was funny was [around] that time over the summer [when] you told me to do that, my work kind of slowed down naturally. A lot of July, I didn’t have that many projects going on. 

Take time off

“I recently went to the beach, and I actually unplugged from everything for an entire week. And I can tell you, when I came back, my fingers were on fire, I was pumped.—MK

Kaleigh: So what I did was, I was like, “I’m not going to sit here in front of the computer and just keep refreshing and waiting for emails to come in. Because I feel like I’m supposed to be here, I’m gonna go outside, I’m going to go do something, I’m going to go hike, I’m going to go for a run, I’m going to just get away from my home office because there’s nothing immediate that needs to be done. So I need to take advantage of this time.” 

I didn’t necessarily take a month off, but I was mindful enough to appreciate the slowdown and to not just be anxious about it and try to fill it with work—I just kind of let it be. I think that’s really hard to do when you’re a freelancer because it can be so variable. Your income goes up and down [and] your projects—you just don’t always know what your workload is going to look like. So when it’s slow your instinct is to panic. And through your [encouragement], I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to roll with it. I’m going to take this, it must be meant to be, I need to take this time.” And it was wonderful. 

The trouble is, I feel like it wasn’t enough. I feel like I really have not ever fully unplugged since I started doing this. Like you, I am a chronic checker of email and Slack. I always want to be on top of things for my clients. I never want them to feel like they have to check on me or like they’re waiting to hear from me. 

And it wasn’t until about this past year that I was thinking along the lines of what you said where it’s like, “It’s not that serious. Like, there is not a ripple effect. If I don’t answer this email within six hours, you know, I need to chill, I need to be okay with responding at a normal person pace.” I think that’s something to think about. Are your expectations for yourself realistic? Or are you operating at a level that’s like unnecessary? Right?

Michael: Yeah. I mean, to your point on that, I’m so glad that you enjoyed yourself taking that time off. The other point to that is, even if you are out, like on a hike or whatever, and you’re still answering the email—part of burnout is also not being able to focus on one task. So you’re not even focused—and not you in general—but even if you are taking off, but you’re still answering stuff, it has the same effect. It doesn’t let you go away. 

For the first time in a very long time, I recently went to the beach, and I actually unplugged from everything for an entire week. And I can tell you, when I came back, my fingers were on fire, I was pumped. And I was like “Hey, I’m gonna make a t-shirt that says fire fingers. No, Mike, just enjoy it, everything doesn’t need to be a business.” But I came back on fire and in love with what I was doing again. For a little [while] I was like, “Yes!” Because it was just so fucking pleasurable to not have to worry about answering emails or Slack or anything. And just focus on being there. Just focusing on being alive and in this place at this time not worrying about anything else. 

I also didn’t have to worry about the dogs because I sent them to the dog sitter. So that was another thing. That was just such an important part. And I think because of the events of the past few years, people are just feeling exasperated because even if you’re not at work—even if you’re not doing freelance work, there [are] awful things happening in the news. 

So your social media timelines may be full of really negative things and it’s not to say you have to ignore those negative things, they’re a part of the world—it’s good to be aware of them, but it’s also good to pull away from them. Like, muting the things that aren’t going to bring you back up in energy. 

[It’s like that saying], what you put in is what you put out. So if you’re putting in negative stress, —if you’re putting in negativity and stress through what you’re consuming, what you’re reading what you’re watching, what’s going to come out is negative and stress in your business and life in general and you’re gonna feel like shit. Who wouldn’t?

Kaleigh: I mean, it seems so common sense but when you get to the day-to-day, we all do this to ourselves. It’s become so chronic because we’re [attached to] social media and email. It’s all so enmeshed in our day-to-day now anywhere you go. Everybody’s looking at their phone, nonstop. It’s how we fill down spots in time like we have to be doing something—there’s always information going in and I think that’s a really slippery slope. 

Especially when you are a freelancer and you don’t have a boss or you don’t have set office hours, where you’re going into a space [where] you work from nine to five every day. What becomes your work office is in your home. And there’s this blurred line and your office hours are kind of ephemeral. They can be anything they can be as much as you let them be. So boundaries are really important. 

Even though you don’t have PTO, through an employer, giving yourself permission and time to fully disconnect as you would if you were working as a full-time employee somewhere—no one’s going to do that for you. So you have to do it for yourself, you have to implement it. It’s just tough to do, but it’s really, really important.

Michael: When I take a break like that I even set a payment to go through while I’m on vacation. So my business pays me and I’m like, “Cool. I just got paid.” It reminds [me], “yeah, I got paid [even though] I took time [off].” It’s a mental trick. 

I don’t know if you’re aware of this (I know you do it), but one of the other things is delegating out tasks to free up your time. I think delegation includes people, but also tools. 

What are some things that you could handle by yourself, but you’re like, “I don’t need to do this on my own anymore, I can find the resources to do it for me.”

Get things off your plate

Anything that I didn’t like doing or that pissed me off, I was like, ‘I’m gonna find a VA or somebody who can handle this because it’s tedious.’ It’s not requiring my actual skills and expertise that I could be devoting to something else.—KM

Kaleigh: Yeah. So earlier this year, I kind of did a mini audit of all the things I was doing on a day-to-day basis, and anything that I didn’t like doing or that pissed me off, I was like, “I’m gonna find a VA (Virtual Assistant) or somebody who can handle this because it’s tedious.” It’s not requiring my actual skills and expertise that I could be devoting to something else. [Then] I just took it off my plate. 

So like VA-type stuff, I offload some of that. I still handle all of my emails, but I am not as precious about it anymore. I will not read every email now. If it looks like junk, or it’s not important, I just delete it and move on—just speeding up efficiencies. 

I also handed off all my bookkeeping because I hate numbers. I don’t want to do any of that, so I just outsourced it. I basically just do a scan-through once a month and make sure it all looks good. And that’s been really nice. So minor things—baby steps in the right direction, but an improvement nonetheless.

Michael: I’m such a fan of accounting software, too. All I do is print out the things or export the things my accountant gets me to do. By the way, getting an accountant, that’s the best thing ever. I just print out—just PDF what they tell me and then I send it to them and it frees up my life. 

A few other things that I found really work too, are things that [are] high impact, low effort, stuff. Stuff that if you have to do it over and over again, you have to continue thinking about it, which is tiring. Templates for onboarding, for briefing, test projects—having that. Also like samples and Loom videos that maybe can describe your working relationships. Having those things so you don’t even have to think about [those tasks] because [another] stressful part of freelancing is each onboarding process—you have to tweak it a little bit—but it can be the same thing. 

You want to win this client, you’re gonna put your emotion and your energy into it, but you can take out some of that stuff to release your brain a little bit. Some [of] the things that I like to do is keeping those templates on—and obviously contract templates and everything. So you don’t even have to think about it. Just go in, find what needs quick changes, and be done with it.

Kaleigh: Yeah, yeah, I think all of those are really helpful things that you can implement right away. It’s not a big shift in your business that you have to do. [They’re] just little incremental changes that make a really big difference as they add up. 

This is gonna look different for every single person, but it’s something we wanted to talk about because we both personally dealt with it. We know that a lot of people are also dealing with it. We’re living in a really strange moment in time. And it’s just it’s top of mind for a lot of us. 

Hopefully, this has been helpful and hopefully, you’re walking away with some ideas on things that you can try to make things feel better day-to-day and hopefully that’s a good jumping off point.

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