Imagine you’re a canary in a coal mine:
You’re healthy as you enter the mine – full of joie de vivre. Singing to your heart’s content as you enter into the darkness. Fluttering your wings as only birds like you can.
Later, you exit the mine. Except now you’re:
Covered in soot. Frail from disease. Your song is gone.
And you’re no longer able to do what you’re uniquely qualified as a bird to do:
Was it you that made yourself sick? Or was it the coal mine?
To most of us, the answer to these questions likely feels fairly obvious:
Of course it was the environment. Why would you possibly make yourself sick?
Except people like you – freelancers – and me – full-time employees – are exposed to risky work environments every day. And there’s a key proponent that intensifies this in our environment:
Many of us – including me, when I was a freelancer – buy into it hook, line and sinker. Even if it seems to be abundantly obvious that it can create a risky work environment.
If you’re running a freelance copywriting business, chances are good that hustle culture probably already has its gnarly little hands around your business’s delicate neck – ready to strangle it if you’re not careful.
“I’ve got a dream that’s worth more than my sleep.”
I bought into the always-on hustle for most of my adult life – I spent most of my career as a freelancer until a year ago when I joined the Copyhackers team.
I’m coming to you from the other side – from my 9 to 5 at a company that values rest – to pick a serious fight with the idea. And with hustle culture in general.
As Aytekin Tank, founder and CEO of JotForm, puts it:
“In the western world, for example, success typically means money, power, and public recognition. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But a single-minded, sleep-deprived race to attain them can come at a price.”
Here’s what hustle culture isn’t:
- Working hard to achieve your dreams.
- Staying disciplined as you work towards your goals.
- And doing the not-so-fun but oh-so-necessary stuff that’ll benefit your biz.
No, the hustle culture I’m picking a fight with is the always on, always available, “go big and don’t go home” mentality that has seeped into so much of our daily lives. Especially in North America.
Stay motivated? Sure.
Find the discipline to do the work? Sure.
But go big and don’t go home? Rise and grind 24/7?
No thanks. I’m calling bullsh*t on that one. ‘Cos it’s not good for you. And it’s not good for your business.
And there’s one big, dark reason why:
That type of hustle and grind can be a slippery slope towards burnout.
Dr. Christina Maslach first defined occupational burnout in 1976 as “a level of continuous emotional stress caused by the working environment.”
Since then, our understanding of burnout has evolved, and with it, our definitions.
Maslach and her coauthor, Dr. Michael Leiter, propose that:
“Burnout is a psychological syndrome of chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, and is experienced as a prolonged response to chronic stressors in the workplace.”
And in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), here’s how WHO defines burn-out:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
- and reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
So we know what it is. And what it looks like. But what really causes burnout?
Here are the 5 key factors most highly correlated with burnout:
Gallup’s burnout study concluded that:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication and support from manager
- And unreasonable time pressure
Were the factors most likely to contribute to burnout.
As a freelancer, you are solely responsible for managing your workload, deadlines, client communication, client boundaries and project scopes. All of which, if handled poorly, create a work environment that exposes you to the 5 key factors listed above.
Now, compare Gallup’s 5 key factors list (above) with Maslach and Leiter’s 6 areas of work life that can reduce the risk of burnout:
- A manageable workload
- Job control
See the overlap between the two lists?
That’s actually great news for you and I because the overlap demonstrates that preventing burnout is a totally realistic and achievable goal if you give it the focus it deserves.
So, who does burnout affect?
In short, burnout affects anyone that’s in the workforce.
For example, a 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that:
- 23% of participants reported feeling burned out at work very often or always.
- 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.
Tally those numbers up and you’ll arrive at the startling realization that approximately 2 in every 3 full-time employees feel burnout on at least a semi-regular basis.
Right now I can almost hear you saying to yourself:
“Ha! But Carolyn… I’m a freelancer, not a full-time employee. These stats don’t apply to me.”
Here’s the thing:
Freelancers are self-employed. Even though you might not call yourself an entrepreneur, you’re an entrepreneur. You’re both the employee and employer.
The bad news?
Entrepreneurs seem to be at an even higher risk of burnout.
This study sums up the heightened entrepreneurial risk in a few words:
“The role of the entrepreneur is subject, more than others, to psychological and nerve pressure, loneliness, lack of time and total involvement, especially during the first years of the entrepreneurial process.”
Sound familiar? It did to me. This describes a good chunk of my years as a freelancer.
Authors Amina Omrane, Amal Kammoun and Claire Seaman go on to explain that:
“Nascent entrepreneurs are frequently subject to a great number of professional stressors caused by their work activities and thus making them potential candidates for burnout. This phenomenon may threaten their health as well as their new ventures. Indeed, it has some detrimental effects due to the fact that those new business owners have few resources, energy and skills, enabling them to deal with the psychosocial risks derived from the entrepreneurial burnout.”
In other words, typical constraints – like limited resources, energy and skills – make new entrepreneurs particularly susceptible to burnout.
Likewise, an HBR study found a direct correlation for entrepreneurs between burnout and:
- Job fit. Defined as the degree to which the entrepreneur thinks their current job matches their ideal job.
- Job passion. Defined as how strongly the entrepreneur is inclined to agree that the work they do is what they like and find important.
- Job mindset. Which measured how the surveyed entrepreneurs thought their career would evolve over time.
And, similar to the findings of studies done on burnout in full-time employees, studies (like this one and this one) demonstrate that factors like the manageability of workload and responsibilities are directly correlated with an entrepreneur’s likelihood of experiencing burnout.
Then layer on the glorification of hustle culture. Where you see your fav biz gurus (and colleagues!) post on social media about their always on, go go go mentality. And you feel the pressure to keep up. And immense guilt when you take a measly 10 minutes to sip your coffee in peace, device-free.
The “go big and don’t go home” side of hustle culture only increases your risk of burnout.
As a freelancer, you are your business’s single most valuable asset.
This is especially true if you’re just starting out:
You’re the rainmaker, the sales person, the operations manager, the communications manager, the event manager and the talent. If you’re unable to work, then your business is unable to work. Which means your business probably isn’t earning any money. And all of this means:
Burnout could kill your business.
For example, a Gallup study on burnout revealed that:
- Burned-out workers are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
- And burnout typically lowers confidence in your performance by 13%.
Whether it’s your mind or body, burnout has some pretty nasty effects.
Yikes. So… what now?
In this HBR article, workplace expert Jennifer Moss recommended the following solution:
“We need to stop offering better protective gear and actually do the work to make [the workplace] healthy and free of the toxic conditions that are contributing to their burnout.”
I’m arguing that one of those toxic conditions is hustle culture.
Here’s the kicker for you, my freelancing friend:
As a self-employed person, it is your sole responsibility to ensure healthy working conditions.
The good news?
As the great Maya Angelou said: “When you know better, do better.”
Hustle culture doesn’t have to be your thing.
“Rise and grind” doesn’t have to be your modus operandi.
Burnout doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of your future either.
You know better, so now you can do better.
It’s absolutely possible to work hard, achieve your goals AND live a fulfilling life outside of work.
How do I know? I’m livin’ proof. Here are the two things that changed:
- Intentional rest.
Are focus and rest the antidotes to hustle culture? I think so.
If we look at the opposite of unfair treatment at work, we find fair treatment at work. When you’re a freelancer, “fair treatment” is often a result of creating and enforcing boundaries with clients. And sometimes it looks like letting poor-fit clients go. But you need focus to determine what your own boundaries are. And you need time away to reflect on how you will enforce said boundaries.
Now consider the unmanageable workload and unreasonable time pressure:
If we look at the opposites – a manageable workload and reasonable time pressure – there are some ways to help manage this in your work environment:
- proper project planning (i.e. a booking calendar, accurate project scope estimates)
- a good understanding of your own personal workload capacity
Maintaining reasonable time pressure also relies on an up-to-date booking calendar, scope estimates, an understanding of your own personal capacity and boundaries to say “no” or “not now” or “how does 4 weeks from now sound?”
On the other hand, if you subscribe to hustle culture mindset, you might just book the project, get those coins and convince yourself that you can simply sleep next month.
Sidenote: I fully recognize that financial circumstances do not always afford individuals the luxury to say “no” to projects. That said, you allllllwaaaaayyyyyyys have the agency to negotiate timelines. Even if you don’t feel like you do. Clients will always want things done yesterday. And they can almost always wait a little bit longer than they initially say to get their deliverables. As a freelancer, you are the sole owner of your calendar. If you feel stuck managing your calendar, the 14-Day Freelance Bootcamp can help.
Here’s the thing:
Focus allows you to make the most of the limited time you have available.
Rest allows you to make the most of the limited time you have available.
Here’s how focus and rest have changed the way I operate:
Your time is a finite resource.
As author and productivity consultant Chris Bailey writes in his book Hyperfocus: “your ability to focus isn’t limitless—while you can improve your attention span, it’s only a matter of time until it begins to waver.”
Managing focus can help you make the most of this finite resource.
So, what’s occupying your focus?
Focus and your business:
As a freelancer, you likely wear many – if not, all – of the hats in your business.
But if you feel like you’re doing all the things and not getting anywhere, it might be time to look at your focus. What’s the overarching goal you’re trying to accomplish?
If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend reading The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. Keller proposes one simple question to focus your energy and efforts. It goes like this:
“What’s the ONE Thing I can do / such that by doing it / everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Notice that it doesn’t ask about ALL the things. Just. One. Thing. Which requires focus to determine what you’re aiming at. And focus to determine which one thing will get you there in the simplest, most direct way possible.
It also requires you to say “no” (or “not now”) to things that are not your one thing.
If the thought of saying “no” makes you break into a cold sweat, consider what Seth Godin’s approach:
“You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work. Saying no to loud people gives you the resources to say yes to important opportunities.”
At Copyhackers, we’ve also recently adopted a similar approach. It looks a li’l something like this:
- Our CEO Jo determines the quarterly goal and supporting success metrics for marketing and product.
- In consultation with Jo, our VPs Paul (marketing) and Cristina (operations) determine team focus for our 6-week cycles.
- Throughout the course of the 6-week cycle – 5 weeks of focused work and 1 week (typically) of rest – each team member works through projects that directly support their team’s focus.
There are an infinite number of things the Copyhackers team could be doing.
Truth be told, the MKTG backlog alone is already rather long – and we’re just 1.5 cycles into this new work rhythm. But this new working rhythm is really excellent at forcing us to focus. We have to say no (or not now) to great ideas, simply because it’s not our team’s one thing.
And – let’s be clear – it’s really, reeeaaaaaaaally hard to say “not now” to great ideas.
But saying no ensures we accomplish what we’ve set out to accomplish. It also helps ensure we’re not burning out trying to do all the things. And, most importantly, it supports Jo’s vision for Copyhackers.
There are an abundance of great ideas. The great ideas will still be there next cycle. Or the cycle after that. Or the cycle after that 🙂
Here’s how you might apply this type of focus to your freelance business:
- Set ONE big quarterly goal – could be a revenue goal, could be a visibility goal, could be something else. Then, determine what your supporting success metrics look like. For example, if you’ve set a revenue goal, maybe your success metrics are tied to cold emails or sales calls or proposals sent.
- Consider creating a standardized work cycle, like the Basecamp six week cycle we’re using at Copyhackers. Or use theme days, which the 14-day bootcamp touches on. And 10x Freelancer covers this A LOT (plus, heaps of other ways to find the focus to do what matters most for your biz). You could even use a standardized work cycle AND theme days.
- Be brave. Say no. So you can keep your workload manageable, your deadlines reasonable and give yourself the resources to say yes to your one thing. All of which will help you keep those 5 burnout factors in check.
Real world freelancer example: The team at Content Bistro follow a similar 90-day goal-setting approach to stay focused and integrate it with their revenue roadmapping to create predictable profitability. So saying “no” is easier than ever.
Focus and your process:
Beyond your biz, you’ll also want to find focus in your day-to-day work process.
As Bailey explains:
“Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, estimates that our brain receives eleven million “bits” of information in the form of sensory experiences each second. But how many of these eleven million bits can our minds consciously process and focus on at once? Just forty of them.”
So, out of the 11 million pieces of sensory info flying at our brain each second, we can only process 40.
Oh, and when it comes to trying to actually remember that info, the number shrinks down to 4.
In other words, your brain can focus on just a teensy amount (3.6363636363636E-5% to be precise) of the info flying at it at any given moment.
With such a teensy amount of focus to direct, the really critical question you should ask yourself is:
How are you managing your focus?
Here are two strategies I now use in my process to preserve my focus:
- Alternating between hyperfocus + scatterfocus.
- Controlling my distractions.
Let’s dig in:
How I alternate between hyperfocus + scatterfocus:
As a freelancer, I muscled my way through projects on the regular. I would sit at my computer, pulling my hair out, as I tried to solve the latest problem I encountered. I hated working like this – it made me truly miserable – but I felt like I was getting things done. The operative word in that last sentence is felt.
In truth, I was not getting things done. I was simply trying to feel like I was getting things done.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since then and I’ve discovered quite possibly my favorite way to work – especially when it comes to finding answers to challenging problems, like writing Solution Designs for a complicated 40+ behavioral-triggered email map for a technical enterprise SaaS.
Here’s how I do it:
I work in intervals, using Bailey’s hyperfocus and scatterfocus.
Bailey explains hyperfocus as “intentionally directing your attention toward one thing.” And if you’re familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, you might be happy to learn that pursuing hyperfocus is an effective way to enter into a state of flow. I find it makes work very enjoyable. As I write this, I’m in fact in a hyperfocused state of flow and lovin’ every minute of it 🥳
On the other hand, Bailey describes scatterfocus as “deliberately letting your mind wander.” I enjoy this type of focus as well, but it can be harder to use if you’re not accustomed to it. This type of focus also happens to be my solution for muscling through problems.
Here’s what I mean by that:
Hyperfocus is my default work mode in most of the projects I work on.
But, when I encounter a problem in hyperfocus that I can’t see a path through, I stop what I’m doing, walk away from my desk and use scatterfocus to work my way through the problem.
Bailey outlines three different types of scatterfocus, but my favorites for efficient problem-solving are problem-solving scatterfocus and habitual scatterfocus. I like to combine the two by doing the following:
- First, I use problem-solving scatterfocus. I’ll grab a pen and paper and set a timer for 5(ish) minutes. As the timer runs, I brain dump on the page, noting what I’m trying to achieve, what I perceive as the current blocker, any questions I have, possible solutions I’m currently considering, and any other bits and bobs of info occupying my attentional space. That last step – the bits and bobs – might not feel related to the problem in the moment, but it usually is. I brain dump until the timer buzzes. I read through my notes once, then I set them aside.
- After that’s done, I use habitual scatterfocus. I walk away from my desk to engage in an activity I can do with minimal effort on autopilot. Typically I’ll make a cup of coffee or tea if it’s a small problem, like organizing the structure of this blog post. Or I’ll go for a quick walk around the block if it’s a bigger problem, like organizing heaps of research into a complex Solution Design. As I complete the habitual activity I let my mind dance around allllllll the notes I just brain dumped.
- Once the habit is complete and my brain has danced around the problem, I return to my desk. And almost without fail, I’ve solved the problem I’m encountering.
Here’s what’s really cool about scatterfocus:
I used to (and still occasionally do) need to sleep on problems (or drafts) to come up with stronger solutions. And this makes sense – studies (like this, this and this) have linked creativity and problem-solving to sleep, specifically dreaming.
And studies (like this one) have used neuroimaging to study the similarities between daydreaming and actual dreaming. It turns out many of the same parts of our brain that fire during actual dreaming also fire when we’re daydreaming.
With scatterfocus being a slightly more focused version of daydreaming, this allows me to intentionally engage those incredible creative problem-solving parts of my brain.
As Bailey suggests:
“The mode helps you connect old ideas and create new ones; floats incubating thoughts to the surface of your attentional space; and lets you piece together solutions to problems.”
This type of dual focus method – switching between hyperfocus and scatterfocus – allows me to efficiently connect old ideas to new ones while relieving the time pressure I might be feeling on the project. Scatterfocus also fills me with energy – as new ideas often do.
These methods of focus help me fight off focus fatigue, makes my workload feel more manageable and relieves any time pressure I might be feeling. All of which help me fight burnout.
You are the master of your distractions. It may not always feel that way, but in most cases it’s true.
In order to control distractions, you’ll need to consider which distractions are truly worth being interrupted for. Especially when studies (like this one) have shown that any given task could take up to 40% longer if you’re multitasking.
For me, most distractions aren’t worth interrupting my focus (and, hint, Bailey agrees).
This looks like no email on my phone. No Slack on my phone. Silent Slack on my computer – I check in regularly throughout the work day, but only at designated times. I have designated time-blocks to check emails. And, as a team, we have a daily meeting window where meetings can be scheduled to help us protect our focus from unnecessary context switching.
As Bailey puts it:
“Setting a specific time to focus on distractions like email, meetings, your smartphone, and social media transforms them from distractions into merely other purposeful elements of your work and life.”
Lemme tell you. These sorts of boundaries have done wonders for my ability to do deep, thoughtful work. And maintain my energy throughout the day.
Focus also helps me disconnect efficiently, for better rest periods. Which brings me to:
Truth be told, I find rest a bigger challenge than focus. Bailey writes:
“Taking a break feels less productive than getting real work done, so you feel at fault when you even consider stepping back.”
And hustle culture only amplifies the pressure to always be on.
For me, I was unable to rest successfully until I learned how to focus.
And here’s what else I learned about rest from listening to my colleagues:
Everyone’s version of rest is different.
Our paid acquisition lead Erin feels totally energized and rested when she’s out and about on adventures, like hiking and horseback riding.
Whereas I feel really well rested when I get ridiculous amounts of sleep, enjoy little daily luxuries (like a slow-paced morning on the balcony with a latte and a book) and knock out habitual tasks on my to-do list (think: cleaning windows and large appliances).
Considering how varied rest looks from one person to another, this section is much shorter than the Focus section of this post. Because you’ll need to determine what rest should look like for you, so you feel rested and energetic.
Still, here’s something you might want to consider:
A survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence found that:
- 53% of employed adults check work messages at least once a day over the weekend ( ← typically considered days of rest)
- 52% check work messages before or after work during the week ( ← typically considered periods of rest)
- 54% even check work messages when they’re home sick ( ← definitely a time when you should be resting, so you feel better)
- And 44% check work messages when they’re on vacation ( ← also definitely a period of rest)
Granted, these stats are pulled from 2013. But I would be surprised if those figures have decreased, especially given the rise in tech use over the last decade as well as the sudden increase in blended work-life spaces caused by covid. If anything, the numbers have probably increased.
As a freelancer, my smart phone made it very, very hard to disconnect. Which made it hard to actually rest. Hi, hustle culture. Hello, burnout.
Here’s what I found when I turned my attention to focus:
The boundaries I use to control my distractions not only allow me to focus. They also help me rest.
For example, I can’t check Slack while I’m relaxing on the balcony, even if I have my phone on me, because my boundaries – no Slack on my phone – don’t allow it.
I like how Keller explains it:
“When you intend to be successful, you start by protecting time to recharge and reward yourself.”
I now feel confident and unapologetic in saying:
Focus is an essential part of my process. So is rest.
I so, soooooooo wish I had known this as a freelancer. If I had allowed myself the opportunity to actually experiment with focus and rest, I would’ve seen what a profound impact it could have on my work. And on my life.
I would’ve also seen that I don’t need to buy into hustle culture to get great sh*t done.
As Keller puts it:
“A new answer usually requires new behavior, so don’t be surprised if along the way to sizable success you change in the process. But don’t let that stop you.”
Which begs the question:
What behaviors do you need to change in the way you plan, execute and run your day or your projects or your business to rebel against hustle culture?
How can you create an environment conducive to more intentional focus?
How can you recover more of your time for rest?
I’ve outlined some strategies that helped me. I wish I knew them when I was freelancing – it woulda saved me a whole lot o’ frustration, heartache and, yup, burnout. But only you can truly determine what’ll work for you.