7 Ways to Prevent Burnout as a Freelancer
*This article was originally published in May 2017 - It was updated on January 10, 2020
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2017, 5.9 million people held temporary jobs in the US, 10.6 million of those 5.9M people were independent contractors. Other reports on freelancing state that freelancers make up 36% of the US workforce today, and that by 2027, that percentage is expected in increase to 50%.
Working for yourself is probably the best thing you could do in this economy.
It allows you to explore new skills, meet new people, and work within your natural skill sets. And while being your own boss and setting your own schedule is exciting, it is also time consuming and makes you more susceptible to burnout.
But don't let the stress of burnout deter you from getting your business started or to keep it going.
Below are some steps you can take to manage your time (and sanity) so you can prevent losing out on your business.
Your health is your wealth
If you’re not healthy enough to work, you won’t make any money at your day job or side hustle.
I started my freelancing side business as a way to gain a skill that could sustain me in an unstable work environment. And 4 years later it paid off because I was unexpectedly laid off.
But it’s setting up a side hustle is hard work, and a year after starting my business, it took a toll on my body and mind.
I got sick, and after many doctor’s visits and medications that didn’t work, I was told I was over-stressed. My body was using up my hormone reserves and producing too much cortisol (a stress hormone). I was overdoing it and not sleeping enough.
When you’re over-stressed and under-rested, your hormones become imbalanced, and your body starts to break down. Here are some symptoms you could experience:
- Migraines & headaches
- High blood pressure
- Joint pain
- Constant fatigue
- Trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or needing too much sleep
- Irritability and/or increased aggression
- Cravings for salt and/or sweet (which I learned could be is from hormone imbalance)
- Weight gain or loss (and all the free prizes that come with that)
- Rashes like dermatitis and eczema (which can be signs/forms of autoimmune disease)
- Anxiety and panic attacks
So what can you do to prevent side hustle stress?
Be aware of the symptoms of burnout as soon as they start and manage the following 7 steps to keep your body healthy and your brain productive.
1. Your Hustle Should Reflect Your Natural Skills
Does the work you do in your business reflect your most favored and confident skill set?
If not, what's the point?
Find a side hustle that reflects your passions and values. Freelance writing isn’t the only type of business you can do, you can be a virtual assistant (VA), graphic designer, or web developer.
Aside from freelance writing, many small to medium businesses are looking for someone who can help with VA tasks like bookkeeping, social media marketing, email networking, and more. The one expert I know about virtual assisting is Gina Horkey. If you'd rather start a VA business and work on tasks like these, you should check out her course on becoming a VA.
Do you love meeting and talking with new people? Why aren’t you driving for Uber or Lyft?
Do you love dogs and kids? Why not start a dog walking business in your neighborhood or babysit for your friends and neighbors. You can get on with a platform like Rover.com or just get to know your neighbors and start your own small business walking dogs.
Do you create trinkets, artwork, or physical products? Why not open an Etsy store?
I love to write, learn, and teach so naturally, blogging and researching online is my side hustle. It complements my skills as an instructor (my former day job).
Pick a side hustle that uses your natural skills, so you’ll enjoy doing it.
2. Be Intentional With Your Time
Managing a a business on the side means more demands on your precious time. Just because you have a side hustle, doesn’t mean you get extra hours in a day.
You still get 24 hours, 8 of which you need to sleep, and another 8 is required for your day job. So budget your time wisely.
I have to keep telling myself this mantra - I'm not good with my time, either. I don't think anyone is! But it's something we need to keep reminding yourself and a practice we need to be diligent on if we want to succeed.
Set a schedule around your most productive time of day
Are you a lark and love early mornings? Schedule your most important work at the beginning of the day. Things are in reverse if you’re a night owl and love being up late.
Figure out when you do your best work.
If you have a day job during times of peak energy, don’t worry, most of us have a second energy boost later in the day.
I’m a lark and happiest when I wake up early. In fact, I have two peak times. 10am-12pm and 7-9pm.
When I had a day job, my schedule shifted between nights and days so when I worked days, attention to my business was given at night between 7-9pm. When I had to work nights, I would work on my business between 10am-12pm.
Now that there is no day job to anchor me, things get screwy! Now that there is more time to work on the business I need to prioritize what tasks to do and when to do them.
Using peak times as an example, I do the hard tasks during those times. But I only work on the business during a set block of times. Or else - burnout!
It may take a few weeks to figure out when your peak times are. Keep a daily mood journal to see when you have your most energy. Then schedule your most important work during those times.
Once you know your best time of day for you to do your work, your next step would be to set time blocks.
Once you figure out when you work best, always time-block your tasks. Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time (10, 20, 30+ minutes) to work on tasks.
Bonus points if you batch your tasks.
Be realistic with your schedule
We’ve already allotted 16 hours of your day for the day job and sleeping, that leaves you with 8 hours left to work on your side hustle.
Maybe less if you have other responsibilities like taking care of a family, social responsibilities, or you're just plain tired!
Weekends or days off not counted, be realistic on how many hours in the day you want to dedicate to your small business.
Downtime with the kids, walking the dog, spending time with a significant other or friends is just as important as managing your business.
Even if you can only budget 30 minutes of work time Mon-Fri, that’s better than trying to “wing it” with your schedule.
Planning a realistic schedule can sometimes mean that you give up certain things like your favorite TV show, a nap, or even an entire home project (for now).
Taking on too much just puts you on the straight path to burnout.
Which brings me to the next point.
3. Learn to Say No
This is a golden rule of life - clear boundaries.
I'm still learning this rule - even if it's telling myself "no" - no to TV, no to things that aren't that important...
Being okay with saying no to the unimportant, the less priority, helps you stay focused on the work that is most meaningful to you.
Remember when I said to be realistic with your schedule? Well, saying no helps you stay real with your time and makes sure the projects you’re saying yes to are worth your time and effort.
It’s okay if you have to say no to potential clients, just be professional about it.
And bonus points to you, if you can refer them to someone whom you know, could better serve them.
Saying no doesn’t stop at your business
You need to also be okay with saying no to family and friends that put demands on your time. Especially the times you’ve scheduled to work on your business.
But be nice, let your family and friends know ahead of time when you plan to work so they know when to leave you alone.
And if you have people in your life that don’t support you, maybe it’s time to rethink that relationship.
4. Automate and Outsource
Don’t forget that you can outsource and automate some of your tasks. And it doesn’t have to cost a lot.
Take a look at all the tasks you do for your business, are there any tasks that could be automated?
Perhaps you can use a tool like Asana or Airtable to keep track of your work schedule and send you reminders.
You can also automate your money by using Quickbooks Self Employed (aff link) to manage your bookkeeping or use a freelancer-friendly bank like Discover to keep all your money in one place.
For a few dollars a month, you can take back your time and automate some of your business tasks.
The founder of Careful Cents, Carrie Smith Nicholson taught me this one.
Make a list of all your tasks and take note of the ones you can’t do and the ones you don’t like doing.
The tasks that you can’t and won’t do are the ones you want to outsource.
Personally, I outsource my WordPress management troubles to Grayson over at iMarkInteractive.com. He has been helpful and taught me a lot about WordPress set up and design.
And soon, I’ll be outsourcing my social media management to a virtual assistant.
There is no point working on things that you don’t have the skill for or that you don’t like doing.
Hiring a professional to do tasks that rob your time will reduce stress and free up more of that precious time you need to run your business.
5. Stop Comparing Your Business to Others
This one is a big deal. If you start comparing your business to someone else's business, you’re clouding your own goals and values. And you'll be wasting time!
You’ll start thinking, “maybe I should be doing that?” or, “Wow, I need to spend money on that!”
While it’s good to see what the competition is doing to find inspiration for your own product, it’s not healthy for you or your business to start comparing your milestones with theirs.
Your business goals are your own, and you need to stick to them.
6. Hang Out With a Group of Like-Minded Side Hustlers
But don't over do it. Social media can be a serious time-suck.
Find a Facebook or Slack group of people who do what you do. Look for one with freelancers, side hustlers, entrepreneurs, solo biz owners, or a group that resonates with you.
You may even find IRL groups that get together from time to time to talk business and network. The Freelancers Union has a group called Spark that meets across the country.
Just be sure it's a group that helps out and raises people up, not tear them down or talk badly about the competition (there are a lot of them out there).
It’s so important for you to have a sounding board with others who understand what you do and are going through the same things.
Get ideas for your business, share ideas, offer help and get help from others who have been in the same situations. I don’t have enough room in this post to explain all the stress relieving benefits of being part of a group that you can resonate with.
7. Sleep, Fuel, Exercise
The most important things you can do to prevent side hustle burnout is making sure you get enough sleep, fueling your body with the right foods, and getting daily exercise.
Most people need 5-9 hours of sleep.
Even if you don't actually sleep the whole 7-9 hours. At least give yourself that time in bed, without the mobile devices and TV.
Time block that much for you to be in rest mode with a book, meditation, or a journal. Then let yourself go to sleep.
Find out how much sleep you naturally need by keeping a diary of how much you sleep and how you feel after waking up.
I need anywhere between 6.5 to 8 hours of sleep depending on how much stress I'm under and how much sleep I got the night before. But if I get more than that or less than that I feel terrible.
Fuel your body with healthy snacks and beverages.
I love coffee more than anyone else in the world! But I have to stay away from it after 11 am while working a day schedule or else I won’t sleep.
I also can't stress the importance of drinking water enough in this post. But I'm not going to say how much because that's personal.
Juices and sodas don’t count as hydrating because the sugars in most drinks will only make you crash an hour later and will pull the hydration right out of you.
The best drink is water, how much water you or I need is going to be personal. And it will depend on what you're doing. If you exercise heavily and drink more coffee that Juan Valdez then you're going to need to drink a lot more water than a person who sits on the couch all day.
And always have healthy snacks on hand. They keep you from reaching for candy. Nuts and dried fruits are my favorite.
Exercise, even if it’s a 20-minute walk or bike ride. Do it every day.
Depending on the type of work you do, you may be sitting most of the time. You want to keep your joints supple so keep them moving.
A 30-40 minute walk every day is a good way to keep your mind clear and your muscles from cramping up on you from sitting all day.
Plus getting out of the house, away from the office and outside is a nice change of pace from working on the business.
Don’t take my word for it, here's what other professional freelance writers said about burnout:
Victoria Heckstall is a veteran freelance business blogger, so she’s no stranger to recognizing when a burnout is about to happen:
“I know I’m in burnout when I am just not motivated to work. I may experience a migraine and overall tiredness. When that happens, I try to focus on one of my other money making ventures. For example, if I’m burned out with business writing I’ll take time off from that and concentrate on my lifestyle blog or work on social media projects for my clients. I try to prevent getting burnt out by taking breaks throughout the day. I try not to sit at my computer for extended periods of time. I also try to go out and do something fun at least two weekends a month. I find that most of my burnouts come from constantly working and not taking the time to enjoy fresh air outside my home.”
Victoria says it perfectly. To prevent burnout, you need to break up the constant work with fun things to do and movement. Especially if your job keeps you sitting at a desk. This is why scheduling downtime is just as important as scheduling work time.
Stefanie Sears a veteran freelance writer and vlogger who explains how being a perfectionist can work against you:
“My perfectionism is attached to my work. I never feel like it is ready or good enough to submit or publish. I always have to read it, edit, and revise it over and over again to the point where I end up overthinking everything and this just makes me anxious, especially when deadlines are looming. It’s exhausting and often makes me question if freelance writing is something I should be doing if I feel this way. However, I’m trying to incorporate a new way of thinking...I need to give in my best quality of work, but I also need to dish them out quickly to work better. It’s helping me to have more confidence in my work and not stress too much about it. My writing ends up being good and making everyone happy, so there’s really nothing to fear.”
Stefanie makes a good point. Overthinking your work and trying to make it “perfect” will put you on the straight and narrow path to anxiety and burnout. As a side hustler, you need to set limits on how you do things. Don’t over think your projects and stick to a time block.
As a writer, I won’t edit something more than 3 times, and I’ll take day-long breaks between editing sessions so I’m not too close to the content when I edit. Sometimes my work isn’t perfect, but I won’t stress over it because I’m on to the next project almost immediately.
What are you doing to prevent side hustle burnout?
Your health is your wealth!
Taking on a side hustle as a freelancer can be rewarding.
No matter what you do, freelancing makes demands on your life force that could lead to burnout and ill health. But you can prevent it by managing your time and taking care of your body and relationships.
When you notice yourself burning out, what do you do to start feeling better?
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