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Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

The Friendliest Freelancer #10: How to avoid & manage burnout

Published 9 months ago • 6 min read

I had a burnout in early 2021.

We encountered a medical issue in the family in early 2020 (not COVID), and I kept hammering away at the client work throughout the year—even though I could afford to scale down a bit.

By early 2021, I was exhausted.

I took an extended break from contracting in mid-2021 to catch my breath. I barely remember doing anything on a computer during that time (besides hacking my way through Dark Souls…). Downtime helped, and thankfully, I was consulting for a client again after the summer.

I felt some warning signs again earlier this year, so I’m writing this article to A) help you and B) remind myself.

A final point: please remember that vast parts of the population live in chronic stress perpetually due to unavoidable pressures. Things get stressful fast if you are a single-parent nurse with health issues raising a kid, all while caring for ailing parents.

So, if you have sufficient margin to avoid/mitigate stress and enjoy a productive work life, take a moment and be grateful for that luxury.

Until next Sunday, have a great week! ☕


“I have all the client work I need, but I’m exhausted each night, grumpy as hell, and my body feels like dogshit!”

Congratulations, you’re probably burned out!

Freelancing, contracting, and consulting can be a way to avoid burnout in the first place: it gives you more control of your schedule (one common source of stress and eventual burnout is not having enough autonomy in your work life).

But on the flip side, work-life balance can also become harder to maintain when you’re self-employed.

What to do?

When times are good, prepare for the bad times.

First, here are a few things you should work on while things are still going well.

Build up your buffer. Pay yourself a moderate salary and accumulate liquid savings in your company to give yourself time and room to maneuver if you must dig yourself out of burnout later.

Build and maintain your network. Again, the idea is to have options. Stopping, finding, and scaling down projects becomes much simpler if you know that you can reliably find new leads from your local network.

Set clear boundaries and work regular hours. Some freelancers want that extremely open schedule, but I suggest you stick to a standard 9-5 cadence instead.

And try to do most of your client communication during those hours! Many of us are eager to please, and once the client is used to your rapid Slack replies late in the evening, well. Now you’ve put yourself on pager duty.

Personal self-care. Eat well, improve your sleep hygiene, and exercise regularly.

Reduce digital overwhelm. Turn off notifications for almost everything, mute Slack and Discord after working hours, and make your phone flip to grayscale in the evening. Less social media, less screen time.

These measures improve your odds of avoiding burnout altogether.

Spot the signs of burnout.

The WHO defines burnout like this:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Stress can sneak up on you. Part of the trap—especially when you haven’t experienced burnout before—is that you may not recognize the warning signs of chronic stress until it’s too late.

If you (or your spouse!) gradually see more typical symptoms in yourself, you should start taking action.

Different people experience different signs, but let’s run through some common indicators:

Physical

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent illness
  • Headaches, digestive issues, muscle tension

Cognitive

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Indecisiveness
  • Reduced creativity

Emotional

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Detachment
  • Cynicism
  • Lack of enjoyment in work and hobbies
  • Pessimism

Behavioral

  • Withdrawal
  • Procrastination
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Impaired performance

A disclaimer before we proceed

We’ll look at ways to decrease stress, but if things are bad enough that you’re suffering from deep depression and real physical health issues, you should seek medical help immediately.

Talk to a professional. Advice from people online is not a substitute.

However, if the situation is less dire, below are a few tips for giving yourself breathing room.

Manage your stress level.

What was the cause of burnout again? Oh yes: “…workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

So, if you’re barreling towards burnout or are trying to dig your way back out, find ways to decrease stress.

Figure out what the most significant stressors are. Is it specific tasks, people, projects, technologies, environmental factors in the office, or others? Are there things you can stop, avoid, or adjust—while still working for your client? Or perhaps it’s bad enough that you must look for a new project?

Talk to others. Don’t sit on your problems; talk it out with your spouse, other freelancers, and your friends. They sometimes see things you don’t.

Adjust your schedule. Weather, seasonal cycles, circadian rhythm—and menstrual cycles for women—can affect how stressful work feels. When you work as a freelancer or consultant, you usually have more leeway than an employee to adjust your daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly schedule to make your day less stressful.

For instance, I live in Norway. During winter, it stays dark until mid-morning and gets dark again early in the afternoon. I know that if I do a bunch of full-time, on-site work and don’t take breaks to see daylight during the days, I’ll get extra tired by February-March.

A chaotic client project does not have to equal stress for you. If people in your project often stress out, avoid mirroring them. Pace yourself. Detach. Try to differentiate between real and “fake” urgency—it’s easy to get worked up over issues that are not super serious. Always consider: “Is this urgent, important, or both?” Provide good work and a positive attitude—but set clear boundaries.

And I repeat: if the project is bad enough, find a new one.

Schedule regular vacations. It’s tempting to keep grinding when you’re self-employed: time off is money not earned. Take that vacation anyway.

A change of scenery. It could help to work from new locations or even remodel your home office.

Close your laptop on evenings and weekends. Remember that I suggested a 9-5 schedule up top? If you haven’t done so, try to constrain your working hours. If you’re constantly “on,” it becomes much harder to catch your breath.

Fewer projects at a time. Juggling several client and personal projects can be a way to diversify and “take many bets,”—but it can also be a source of overwhelm: more context switches, more spinning plates. Simplify your life.

Outsource tasks. If you’re doing everything in your business, maybe shift some admin tasks to your accountant—slightly fewer spinning plates.

Band together with others. If “I have to do everything!” is a significant stressor, starting a small agency with like-minded people might fit you better than working alone. If you band together with people you trust, you’ll still have autonomy, but it becomes possible to share the load of running the business—everyone won’t have to do everything all the time.

Scale down client projects. If you’ve worked with a client for a while and they’re happy with your work, it’s likely possible to scale down your work for them temporarily. “I need a breather” is a valid reason when you’re being transparent and genuine with your client. You are not a machine.

If you’re paying yourself a moderate salary and the hourly rate is good enough, you may have room to decrease your working hours for an extended period. (It helps if you know what your margins are for your business here. Build a spreadsheet!)

Take a complete break from client work. If things are bad enough, you may need to stop entirely for a while and recover—this is possible if you’ve built up a buffer of liquid savings, and it feels less scary if you have a good enough network to find projects again later reliably. Remember when we talked about networking up top?

Take care of yourself.

Be careful, look out for warning signs, and take action early if you start seeing warning signs in how you feel and behave.

Good luck!


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Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

The Friendliest Freelancer

Software dev of 20+ years now helping other devs gain autonomy and become calm, independent contractors—new issue every other Sunday

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