Robert Bowen November 24th, 2010

Tips for Fighting Freelance Burnout

Freelancers are somewhat of a singular breed according to some of the outside perceptions held about us. We hear it all the time from friends and family, even at times from near strangers, that they could never work for themselves from home and actually be productive. Without some predetermined hierarchical structure that pits someone above them demanding results from them each day they are in the office. They are amazed at the power of will that we seem to exhibit, without any pressure from the higher-ups to keep us motivated. But they fail to see that we are motivated by the need to remain in business for ourselves, and so the motivation to keep on task is generally already in place. Most freelancers have a powerful need to eat and have a roof over their heads (okay, so less over the heads and more over the workstation or proverbial power centers), and still there are motivators driving us forward. So for freelancers reaching that motivation is not so much of a problem, but holding on to it can be. As most people are aware, freelancers tend to work long hours and that can often lead to the more pressing problem for freelancers: burnout. When that virtual flame of initiative and drive has flickered and faded leaving us with nothing but its sad, smothered remains as a reminder of what we should be doing, but can’t.

The Basic Idea

If you have never experienced burnout, then consider yourself lucky, for it can be a long and arduous recovery from this imposed downtime. Burnout tends to follow a particularly long period of focused work where we tend to forget about any and everything else beyond the project finish line looming in the distance. When productivity has been the only order of the day for weeks upon weeks and your freelance dungeon has become your virtual creative cave where you have, for all intents and purposes, confined yourself for this extended period of time. As a freelancer who is dependent on having work to keep them afloat, this can seem like a solid, productive approach which will yield positive results in the long run. Trouble is, no one tends to be able to run at this pace for that long. It catches up to you, and burnout begins. Suddenly you find that you are unable to force this creative drive to continue as your passion for your work has been reduced to ashes by burning your freelance candle at both ends. Then we find ourselves stuck, unable to move forward on this path until our passion, like a phoenix, magically rises fresh and anew from the ash. Burnout is hard to break free from once you are in its unforgiving, and unproductive grips, so our better odds come from avoiding this problem area, over getting out once we are in. It is so much easier to prevent than to escape, so that is what brings us here today. The long run only matters if you have the steam to make it to the end. Below are seven helpful hints for freelancers to assist us in our struggles to avoid this costly roadblock from becoming an obstacle in our daily grind. These are techniques that have proven useful for some in the freelance field, so hopefully they can also help to prevent you from falling victim to freelance burnout. They are in no particular order as they all rank important in this battle for continued productivity and drive, and there is no one tip that can guarantee victory. You more want to use a combination of these approaches in your daily schedule.

1. Keep Up On Your Personal Projects

First up in this discussion of ideas is to keep up with you own personal projects and not let them slip between the cracks. These side projects that we do are vital to our freelance business in ways many of us do not even realize. When time begins to weigh in on us, one of the first things we tend to drop from our days are those personal side projects that we have going. We feel guiltily like we can no longer justify taking time out of our schedules to devote to the work that is only there to stimulate and feed us. Designers, developers, writers, whatever the creative freelance hat you wear, we all tend to have one or two little pet projects going at any given time. This is a necessary evil. Pet projects are always begging for our attention because we need them as much as they need us. Well, evil is a bit of a harsh assessment, but we tend to look unfavorably on these projects when our schedules are stressing us. We see them as expendable, not as the saving graces that they can often be for us. Whatever the creative freelance work that you do is, make sure that you are not just doing it for your clients, make sure that you do some for you as well. Designing, coding, no matter the outlet it shouldn’t always be about work when you sit down to play in the waters where you freelance or you risk losing touch with the fun of it all. And if you lose the fun, you often lose the passion, and thus your edge. So these personal projects keep us grounded in everything about the work that we love, even when the client side of the coin is becoming repetitive and stale.

2. Limit Work Hours On a Daily Basis

Now the discussion turns to an area that many freelancers, admittedly myself included, have trouble keeping under control, effective time management. Freelancers tend to take a different approach to the standard ‘work day’ as it is, but when we are feeling the pressure of approaching deadlines and the like it is hard to pull ourselves away from the workstation. We feel obligated to be there, right in the zone until our eyes are drooping and we can no longer force them to cooperate with us and stay open. We seem determined to defy any and all outside distractions giving the project before us our undivided throughout the day. Letting the hours fall from the clock unnoticed, believing we are in control, not on the way to losing it. Keeping one eye on the clock can do a lot to keep stress from bogging you down. If we do not force ourselves to unplug and clock out each day, then these extended work sessions are carrying us full speed towards burning out. We think we are mastering this creative drive, but we are essentially overdriving it and putting unnecessary strain on it. Strain that will stress it until it can no longer move forward, and we are stalled. No matter what we do, at that point, we cannot get that forward motion back. This is why we need to limit ourselves each day to ensure that the hours we do work, can remain productive and creatively stimulated. The last thing we want is to burnout during a project, causing us to effectively phone in the final results. Time off is important to this effort, even though it seems like somewhat of a contradiction.

3. Take Full Days Off

Speaking of time off, we segue smoothly into our next burnout combatant, taking full days off. Recently we have published a similar piece on Smashing Magazine about just that. The idea of being accessible and on the clock 24/7/365 and how this is not the most reasonable of expectations. But the thing is, we as freelancers often put these expectations on ourselves. Or we at least put ourselves in the position for these expectations to put freely placed upon us unchallenged. Once again, we believe that this is somehow a necessary compromise for us to remain effective and ahead of the game. But we do not realize that this can have negative effects as well. We think as long as we take some time off each day, we will be fine to continue pushing forward. We just need to break up the work week, not keep going for weeks on end. However, we owe it to ourselves, our clients, and the work itself to take full days off to unplug and unwind, not just parts of them. As freelancers, this is not always the easiest thing for us to do, but unless we are taking full days off then we are never going to fully unplug from the work. This is vital in maintaining our passion and drive, even if we cannot see it. If our mind is always engaged by a particular project or idea, and we never allow that refresh, then our approach and our thinking become clouded. We are constantly processing the same ideas, never allowing for a virtual reset that can bring in new ones. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder and this can apply to our freelancing drug of choice as well. That day off can keep our passion igniting freshly with each return engagement!

4. Don’t Forget to Diet and Exercise

As the freelance stresses of our overactive schedules can get in our way and make us forget about the important times we need to virtually feed and nurture ourselves away from work, it can also distract us from the important times we need to actually physically feed and nurture ourselves. A healthy diet and regular exercise are things we often forget in the interest of making this freelancing way of life work for us. We see these once more as acceptable compromises in our means to reach our ends, without realizing the impact that correctly addressing these areas can have in keeping us on our creative and productive paths. But burnout can sneak up on us through these routes if we neglect them, and underestimate their importance to our drive. By maintaining a proper, balanced diet and adhering to a regular exercise routine, our bodies and our minds are kept in harmony and in check. Exercise releases endorphins which keep us happier and deliver more peace of mind. Helping to keep the stress levels of our freelance business in check and from feeling overwhelming. Also, as mentioned before, the virtual mental unplug from work is vital, and exercise affords us an easy opportunity for said disconnect. A healthy diet helps keep our minds clear as well, while giving us bursts of creative and physical energy, both of which are needed when facing the potential long hours of the day ahead. Living glued to the workstation surviving off processed foods and chemicals, sublimated with caffeine induced energy pockets is on the way to stay fresh and out of the reach of freelance burnout.

5. Maintain Non-Work-Related Hobbies

Now keeping up with side projects in your chosen area of freelancing is important as we discussed, but there is another side to that coin as well. It is not enough to keep those creative fires stoked within your field, but also maintaining non work related hobbies also helps keep those creative fires burning all around. Often at times we find it hard to not only justify personal projects but to make time for them, then we are certainly not going to see the value in keeping up with creative hobbies that take our minds out of the proverbial zone we tend to keep it in for our freelance workmode. But the value is there, we are just overlooking and underestimating it. We need to be able to unplug from workmode and switch gears to stay fresh and far from burning out. What we have to realize is that the more we can unplug and allow our creative efforts to find other outlets, the less likely it is that this creative flow will be stifled and interrupted in any way. As mentioned before, if our mind is always engaged in a certain way, then our thinking along those lines can become clouded and less vibrant. So if we are actively taking our minds into different directions for engagement then chances are less likely that any one of those paths will begin to stagnate. These other creative pursuits can also help us find new ways in our freelance work to come at projects and ideas. Allowing some crossover in methods or practices to allow our creative freelance processes to evolve and grow.

6. Get Outside

As freelancers, with our living and work spaces effectively combined, we can find ourselves needing a more physical unplugging of sorts over just the mental ones we have been discussing to avoid burnout. This unplugging is done by simply getting outside of your living/work space. That is all: just leave your domicile and get out into the real world. If you must, take the virtual one with you via some portable device, but get out of your proverbial place of business. Again, this is not easy for a lot of freelancers to justify. Time away from work is okay, because they are still in the vicinity, so that invisible lifeline is still intact. But if we do not get out of the building then we are doing ourselves and our work a complete disservice. The call is coming from inside the house..."Get outside!" We can say that we are unplugging all we want, but as long as we have some virtual umbilical cord connecting us to our work then we are not getting that true refresh. This is why it is best to leave the connections to the virtual world behind when venturing out if we can. This way we are truly leaving work and all of that behind as we go forward into the great outdoors to reconnect with the world in a completely different way than we do from behind our screens. Nature has a way of stimulating that creative flame inside us anyway, so this is a easy way to get your necessary recharges without having to even think about it. So give yourself some time outside away from your combined space so that it does not start to close in on you, sapping your creative drive and pushing you towards burnout.

7. Keep Learning

Our final area of discussion comes from the fresh is better frame of mind with regards to our freelance choice of profession, and that is to keep learning. As long as you continue this pursuit of knowledge in your area of expertise, then you are always moving forward. Again, it is easy to get bogged down with work and begin virtually circling in the familiar waters we have been in, rather than reaching out for new areas to expand into. Seemingly justifying this by presuming some sort of lost clientele and revenue via this learning distraction, when it really is quite the opposite. We can gain so much more for our freelance business by allowing this sort of growth. Not to mention, it can stave off the burnout factor as our work is constantly evolving. So the continued learning experience is not only a necessity because most of of us are operating within fields that are advancing and changing often by great leaps and bounds each year, but because through this continued exploration of our fields we are less likely to become bored by it. So we want to find ways to continue to challenge ourselves through our freelance field of choice, in order to have our processes and routines become less stagnant. Which always translates well for our body of work. These challenges prevent our work will from suffering through these stale periods of no growth, which can negatively impact our chances at gaining new clients. So be sure you are constantly looking for new challenges within your market to keep you learning and excited about your field.

Final Words

Burnout can be damaging to any person working in a creative field, but for those freelancing and running the entire show themselves, it can be deadly. Being able to keep refreshed and vibrant is vital to the growth and stability of your business. So taking whatever steps we can to prevent this burnout from rearing its ugly head should be considered necessary for the life of our freelance careers. What methods do you use to keep the burnout at bay? (ik) [fblike]

Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


  1. In the freelance niche burnout is common. Regardless if you are a web designer; blogger or programmer. It is vital to maintain a balanced lifestyle in order to perform at your very best.

    There are many misconceptions of working as a freelancer. It is not all smelling as roses. Working for yourself is difficult.

    When you are employed you “have a job”. When you’re self-employed you “own a job”. Working as a freelancer, is about searching for: clients; constant marketing; networking; accounts and invoicing.

    If you work hard and are self-motivated to reach your goals you could be very successful. However, there are things when you’ll work late hours and often.

    Many web designers become burnt out by doing web projects in their spare time and espcially if they are working for a company.

    It is very important to balance your time. Having some hobbies that are located away from a computer screen such as: cycling; going to the gym; playing football or any type of exercise will help you so much.

    I enjoy walking, spending time with friends and being away from a computer. Being a freelancer can be an isolated way of making a living. We all communication with other people.

    The personal projects are something that every creative must do. I highly suggest that you start blogging. Businesses are interested in new methods of marketing and you will surprised what opportunities your projects could develop in.

    Further more, learning about your niche is vital. Not only, for personal enjoyment but to stay ahead of the current changes in the web, internet or design industry. The worst thing that any creative person could do is fall off the treadmill of technological change.

    I enjoyed the blog post and I can relate to burnout on many occasions.

  2. Re: “If we do not force ourselves to unplug and clock out each day, then these extended work sessions are carrying us full speed towards burning out.”

    Couldn’t agree more! I disciplined myself to stay on task and commit to certain work hours by eventually going to a co-working space or working out of the local cafe. This forced me to get things done during a certain time-frame, it allowed me to get out for some fresh air, and ultimately, allowed me to get a break in my day.

    When I learned to commit to certain work hours and unplug for the remainder of the day, I definitely felt refreshed.

  3. Great post, i really do agree with point 5: maintain non-work related hobbies , because after plunging entirely into freelancing i forgot what my hobbies really are.., thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for the fantastic follow-ups, you guys! Some really great points made. I’m excited to see a conversation brewing already in these few replies.

  5. great tips listed here for every freelancer. must read for eveyone. getting outside and keep learning is must and helps you to make productive at work

  6. I have this so far, I’m 18 btw, made my birthday 2 days ago =]:

    1) Exercise before taking a shower
    2) talk with people and have fun!
    3) play basketball and practice dribbling/shooting and do interior designs
    4) Develop/design websites to exercise skills: make challenges and goals for myself, like doing sites faster and having a certain amount of sites done a day/week/month
    5) Use skills I learned to help people!! (make money doing it, but the purpose is to help them really – to make my career fun =])
    6) Repeat all steps over again and scream “life is a beach”, instead of “life is a bitch,” several times :D

  7. I tried freelancing once but my biggest problem was that I could not manage time. I have had few bad habits like playing games 24/7, getting stuck in youtube loops chatting etc. However when I do 9-5 job I am restricted for such activities so I do fine with my job but freelnacing is kinda hard for me.

  8. I’m actually in a burnout losing my creative energy. Sadly is an ill of this internet age and crazy productivity. An open mind post.

  9. I think for me it’s a case of being over stimulated that leads me to being burned out. Sometimes just a simple walk in the woods or getting back to nature really helps me clear my head and focus. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  10. I think I would add one more to the list – learn to say NO to clients.

    I understand that as freelancers one would take as many projects that one can handle. But sometimes too much is just too much. When this happen you become you will start feeling the pressure and burnout will slowly start. So work on what you can handle so that you can still have time to enjoy the rest of those written on this list.

  11. As a small business owner, it is so easy to break these rules getting caught up in growing a business. For longevity, it is important to follow this list. Thanks.

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