It was the fall of 2020, and the effects of COVID-19 were coming to a head.
I was homeschooling my second grader every day – something I swore I’d never do. Teaching her meant I had to do the second thing I swore I’d never do again (at least without a calculator) – math.
Have you tried to figure out this newfangled Common Core math approach? It’s a nightmare for anyone over the age of 20 that self-identifies as a “words person.”
Also, childcare wasn’t exactly a thing during the height of the pandemic, so my 4-year-old son was home. all. of. the time.
If you’re not sure what it’s like to chase around a kid aged 4 or under, it works a bit like this:
You turn your back for 2 seconds and this happens:
To top it off, my son also learned how to use Alexa and gained a new-found love for – I kid you not – AC/DC.
Try explaining to your clients why they are suddenly hearing “Back in Black” blasting in the background of your Zoom call.
A day in the life involved simultaneously:
- Wrangling an enthusiastic 4-year-old Rocker
- Trying to make sure my 2nd grader learned something
- Alternating WFH schedules with my husband
- Squeezing in a demanding, full-time freelance writing job into the pockets of the day where I could find 20 free minutes
It wasn’t going well.
I had absolutely no time for myself and you can probably guess what happened:
I burnt out to the point where I was stressed, depressed and ready to quit freelancing entirely.
But instead of going off the deep end…
I went surfing.
I spent the early hours of my day watching the sun rise as I walked along the gorgeous Paseo Lineal in 80 degree weather.
(Then, I worked.)
I finished my days by taking surfing lessons with my children and reading on the beach.
Wondering how I went from cleaning up 25 pounds of spilled flour in between Zoom meetings and math lessons to surfing and reading on the beach?
Well, I changed my priorities and:
- Moved my family to a warmer climate in a later time zone (this meant I could work uninterrupted for 4 hours in the morning – before my husband’s job even started – and he could take over homeschooling)
- Fired clients that weren’t a good fit
- Compartmentalized my time so I could focus on writing for 4 hours straight – uninterrupted
- Refocused my writing goals to include creative projects
- Committed to engaging more in activities that bring me joy – like reading, surfing and hiking
As soon as I took these steps to manage my burnout, I made more money than ever before and accomplished long-held career goals. For example:
- I rarely work more than 5 hours a day
- I boosted my rates by 50%
- I finally created digital assets for other freelance writers – something I wanted to do for years
- I focused on my newsletter and gained 2,000+ subscribers (and counting)
- I wrote my first TV pilot, submitted it to the Austin Film Festival, and it made it through as a “Second Rounder”
- I freed up time to exercise, eat right and lost the 45 lbs I gained during pregnancy
- I stopped over-caffeinating and started sleeping for 8 hours
- I made new, interesting friends on the beach
- I read 15 books in January alone
- And, as you’ve already read, surfing with my family
While my days still include 4-5 hours of researching and writing about the latest ecomm trends (thankfully, no longer to the tunes of AC/DC), they also include regular exercise, watching my kids learn how to swim and surf, and the occasional whale sighting.
And I accomplished all of this by shifting my life to center around joy – not work.
It made me wonder: Why isn’t everyone doing what I’m doing?
Freelancer Coach and Content Creator Matt Lady found something similar to me – that working less made him more productive.
It’s easy as a self-motivated freelancer to run on cortisol fumes day after day. After all, it’s up to you – and you alone – to put food on the table, pay for your health insurance, acquire more prestigious bylines and scale your business.
But always striving for more and never slowing down – a phenomenon I call the “more mentality” – can lead to massive burnout. In a recent interview, Kaleigh Moore, an ecommerce freelance writer with a flourishing coaching business, elaborated on this idea.
“If you are a self-starter, working to get more can create a slippery slope of self-competition. If you’re always trying to do more and earn more, you will eventually burn out. Period. One person can only do so much.”
Here’s a closer look at the harmful effects of burnout.
Overworking? Burnout is lurking around the corner…
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first published about occupational burnout in 1974, specifically pertaining to healthcare worker stress.
The consequence of severe stress (aka burnout) meant “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.”
Burnout resulted in physical and behavioral signs like exhaustion, listlessness and an inability to cope.
Fast forward to today and occupational burnout is still a hot psychology topic. If you search “occupational burnout” on DeepDyve, you’ll turn up 2,959 different studies – 542 in the last year alone, including burnout for probation officers, oncologists, public administrators, academics and entrepreneurs, to name a few.
Occupational burnout is even officially listed as a phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases.
There are several causes of occupational burnout, including a lack of autonomy, engagement and motivation. People taking on more work and working more hours are also common causes of burnout, according to research by HBR and an Asana study.
What’s particularly interesting is that entrepreneurs are often at a higher risk of burnout because they tend to be extremely passionate and socially isolated.
A study of 6,000 freelancers shows they work more than the average non-freelancing American, and 26% of those report they are taking on too much work.
Here’s a recent tweet explaining this very problem from Kat Boogaard, a professional B2B freelance writer who offers stellar advice to her 12K+ Twitter followers.
For me, the “feast or famine” mentality is real and sometimes drives me to accept more work than I can calmly handle. And CNBC reports that turning down work for time off may mean lost revenue for many self-employed people.
So a whopping 92% of freelancers report they work while they are on vacation.
It also turns out that pandemic burnout puts work demands and priorities all over the place. Not to mention entrepreneurial superstars like Gary Vee who place so much value on hard work that the message is: work until you bleed out of your eyes.
Professional freelance writer and owner of Stories By Us, Emma Siemasko struggles with slowing down. When I interviewed Emma, she said:
“I find it very difficult to say no to projects. It’s easy enough to say no to things that aren’t a good fit, but when projects are a good fit, I find it nearly impossible to say no. Maybe totally impossible. This perpetuates this idea of more projects, more work is better, more lucrative, etc. It’s really hard for me to slow down and not see more as the goal. More money, more work, more notoriety.”
When you’re chronically overworked, stress levels rise and burnout is likely.
The worst part? Experiencing chronic burnout is devastating in more ways than one.
The World Health Organization reports the following signs of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion. You know. That feeling that you *just can’t* so you eat a box of cookies and watch an entire season of The Bachelor and cry.
- Negative feelings about work. When your favorite thing – sitting down to write – feels worse than going to the dentist.
- Feeling incompetent and inefficient at work. When thoughts creep into your mind that you’re not good enough and you should’ve been a trash collector because that’s all you’re good at.
As you can see, burnout does a real number on our emotional and mental health.
And, it affects nearly all of us. In fact, a 2020 Gallup poll reported that 76% of people say they have experienced burnout.
Which raises the question:
“What’s a freelance writer to do about it?”
Here are the 7 golden strategies I use to manage burnout as a freelance writer
1. Limit writing hours
Historians report that back in the late 1800s, it was the norm to work most hours of the day under horrible working conditions.
Eventually, people realized long workdays were detrimental to quality of life, and activists and labor unions started advocating for a 40-hour work week.
In 1940, the 40-hour work week became the norm and is still the gold standard for what is considered “full-time” employment today.
As an interesting sidenote, an 8-hour work day was a regulation for Alcatraz prisoners. But, even Alcatraz prisoners had Saturdays, Sundays and holidays reserved for recreation.
But here’s the thing:
We don’t live in the Industrial Age or the 1940s anymore – nor are we prisoners on the most infamous US island.
We live in the Information Age, and much of the work we do today is centered around exerting brain power – not physical labor.
Furthermore, we have learned a lot in the last 200 years about how productive we can be during a day’s work.
Over the years, I’ve made it a rule to limit my writing hours to an average of four hours a day. It’s been revolutionary.
Kristen Hicks, a highly-successful freelance writer who often writes about burnout, adopted a similar workflow. When I interviewed Kristen, she said:
“I don’t even try to work 8 hours a day – it’s more like 4 hours most days. I make time for exercise and rest, because I know I get more done and do better work when I do. I try to take at least three weeks of vacation time every year, and really feel the difference if I fail to take vacations.”
What’s more, research from HBR shows that people are actually more productive when they limit their work hours and manage overload properly.
My best work happens in a three- to four-hour window. When I accept so much work that I’m writing for more than four hours per day, quality suffers.
Worse, I start to resent my job. In Asana’s Anatomy of Work Report other workers report similar impacts of burnout, like:
- a lower morale (36%)
- making more mistakes (29%)
- and a lack of engagement with work (29%)
Takeaway: Let our grandparents’ idea that you’re only a hard worker if you get up at 4 am to
milk the cow clack away at the keyboard. Instead, embrace modern research and try limiting your writing hours.
2. Take vacations (yes, plural)
The majority of workers report positive effects from taking vacations, according to the American Psychological Association. The study states that:
- 68% say their mood improves
- 66% have more energy
- 58% have improved productivity
- 57% are more motivated
- 57% feel less stressed
- 55% report better work quality
Taking vacation time is also associated with health benefits. For example, a study published in Taylor & Francis found that employees who took more paid vacation days had better health and life satisfaction.
And research from HBR shows taking vacations gives our bodies and brains the necessary time they need to recover.
Despite vacation being essential to health and efficiency in the workplace, only 41% of working Americans say their organization encourages employees to go on vacay, states the American Psychological Association study.
What’s more, it can be especially difficult for freelance writers to take vacations.
On the Freelance Writing Coach podcast, freelance writers Kaleigh Moore and Emma Siemasko spend a full 28 minutes explaining how challenging – yet necessary – it is to take vacations.
Kaleigh and Emma’s main reasons for why it’s so challenging to step away include:
- Emails are always pouring in
- It’s hard to delegate
- Clients and subcontractors depend on you
But, even though it’s challenging to turn off notifications and get out of dodge, taking vacations is critical to helping you manage burnout. And, it’s primarily up to you to make vacation a priority.
Professional freelance writer Tiffany Regaudie offers insight into how she manages burnout by prioritizing vacation and rest. When I interviewed Tiffany, here’s what she had to say.
“I try to take at least one week off every quarter. I delete Twitter on the weekends. I plan my days around my exercise plan, which includes biking, weightlifting, and bouldering. And when it comes to meetings, I do them in sprints, which means I’ll dedicate a few weeks to prospecting and networking, then have larger periods of time without any meetings at all.”
And in a recent SparkToro article, Rand Fishkin explains that he has also seen his new company grow at a faster rate than his previous company, even though he’s working 60% of the hours he previously worked.
The last 6 months, I’ve been experimenting with a new model that prioritizes vacation. I’ve been working for three weeks and then taking a week off.
(Yup, I take a week-long vacation every month.)
And the Copyhackers team – i.e., the people who published this post you’re reading – takes every seventh week off. All 11 team members. In addition to getting several weeks’ paid vacation every year.
We need breaks. And it’s best when we can spend those breaks totally decompressing.
Traveling – whether to an exotic location or a more Covid-friendly campground – energizes me. It gives me space to meet new people, read profusely and rest – all of which are essential to making me a better writer.
Since adopting this new burnout management strategy, I have more energy when I do work. Interestingly enough, I’ve already seen my overall YOY income increase by 25%. As I’ve been prioritizing time for myself and limiting my working hours, I’ve become more selective about which clients I accept. So that means only accepting ideal-fit clients with larger budgets.
I’m not going to tell you how many days of vacation you should take every month, but here are some strategies I use:
- I schedule all of next month’s client work during the last week of the previous month and leave a few open days for the unexpected
- I frontload my months and schedule all of my client work for the first 3 weeks of the month, leaving the last week open for travel
- If needed, I hire help from subcontractors when I know I’ll be out of town
- I set up systems and processes to manage my workload
- I set expectations a month in advance to let clients know when I’ll be unavailable
Takeaway: Be a good boss to yourself and schedule in vacation time.
3. Say no
When I first started freelancing, I committed the freelancing cardinal sin – I said yes to nearly every client and project.
It didn’t matter what the project entailed or how the client was treating me, I was grateful to have new work. So I said yes.
- My clients paid me whatever they wanted
- Sometimes my clients didn’t pay me at all
- I put up with aggressive language
- I answered emails on evenings and weekends
- I let the scope of work get out of control
- I was taking on projects outside of my niche
- I wasn’t specializing in one type of content
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my Amy Poehler “Yes, Please!” enthusiasm was translating into letting Miranda Priestly-type clients rule my business. I was spending hours researching new niches and working was a total drag.
Emma Siemasko offers excellent advice on dealing with client burnout by implementing strategies to prevent it in the first place. During our interview, Emma related the following.
“My chief burnout strategy is prevention. My strategies for prevention are making sure I’m getting compensated, outsourcing when I feel even slightly overburdened with work, regularly talking with other freelancers and only working with clients I respect and like.”
Emma’s last strategy – only working with certain clients – coupled with niching down has been huge for me.
As soon as I focused my work on long-form content for SaaS companies and kicked bad clients out of the driver’s seat, my business started to boom. I was able to focus my work on my niche, doubled my rates and increased my yearly revenue by 25%.
Here’s what I didn’t realize when I first started freelancing:
By filling all my time with overly demanding clients, I wasn’t creating the time or the room to take on work from the right clients.
Additionally, taking on all the work, instead of the right work, was taking more time and energy, which caused me to actually lose money.
Professional freelance writer Kristen Hicks expressed a similar sentiment:
“I try to avoid working with clients that aren’t a fit for my working style because that mismatch means having to draw more boundaries and do more communicating, which takes up energy that can be better spent on other things.”
Lasse Rheingans is a business man who introduced the 5-hour work day into his company while honoring existing salaries and vacation days. And while this reflects studies that show working less lets you achieve more, his advice comes with an important twist.
He says that to work less, you have to remove time-wasting distractions. And that includes clients who aren’t right-fit money makers.
And, yup, it’s hard to say no. That’s normal. In fact, Psychology Today reports that – in many ways – it’s against human nature to say no. Namely, we humans have a fear of conflict and we don’t like to disappoint people.
It truly takes work to learn how to say no and to cultivate the skills to overcome the fear of conflict, according to the book Dangerous: Transforming Fear and Conflict at Home, at Work, and In the World by Chad Ford.
But, it’s possible to learn this skill, and as soon as you prioritize yourself and your business by saying no to clients that aren’t a fit, your business will transform.
Ford makes a clear argument by contrasting what your life might be like if you don’t learn how to deal with conflict.
It’s also essential to address the anxious idea that if we say no to any opportunity, we won’t have any more opportunities.
Even now when I say no to projects that aren’t quite the right fit, I sometimes think, “What have I done? My business is going to fall apart and no one is ever going to hire me again.”
That’s anxiety talking and it’s never true.
With over 31.7 million small businesses in the U.S. alone, not to mention mid-sized and large businesses, there is plenty of work to go around.
Takeaway: Don’t say yes to every client that comes your way. Learn how to say no to the wrong clients, so you can eliminate unnecessary work and make room for the right clients.
4. Implement processes
You’ve probably heard the stat that 20% of small businesses fail within their first year, and 50% fail in their fifth year.
To dig a little deeper into why so many startups fail, CBInsights looked at a small sample of startups and found that 23% of businesses fail because they didn’t have the right team running the business. And 17% of businesses fail because they lacked a business model.
And for freelancers, a working business model is all about the right systems, processes and client management techniques.
Before diving deep into what you can do to stay organized, let’s highlight a few stress-inducing scenarios every freelance writer has experienced:
- You say yes to a project before you know the details of the project
- You say yes to the wrong type of project
- You finish an article and the client’s feedback is something like, “start over, you missed the mark”
- You get feedback from more than one point of contact and aren’t sure what the client wants
- Clients ask you for several rounds of revisions and there is no end in sight
- Scope creep
- Clients don’t pay you
All of these scenarios are uncomfortable at best.
The good news is it’s possible to reduce these potential stress-inducing problems with the right business model and strategies (e.g., learning to say no).
Here are the processes that have worked for me:
One: Send an initial contact email
Before I hop on the phone with a client, I send an intro email that outlines everything they need to know when working with me.
The email I send potential clients includes info on the type of content I write, my niche, links to samples, prices, engagement rate info, my writing process, and how to take next steps.
Laying out all of the necessary information from the first contact helps me save time and decrease stress by weeding out clients who aren’t a fit and moving forward with those who are.
Two: Communicate your writing process clearly from the get-go
Because clients typically aren’t sure what needs to happen to move forward, it’s up to you to communicate expectations and how to keep a project on track. This keeps stress levels down, therefore managing burnout.
Unclear expectations are one of the biggest contributors to job-related stress. In fact, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that only 60% of workers strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work, and that employees can get exhausted by trying to figure out what is expected of them.
So take the reins and tell your clients how to work with you. Communicate your writing process from the get-go.
For example, in my intro email and proposal, the process outline I provide includes details like:
- I will send you a content brief to gather information about the project
- I create an outline and send it to you in a Google Doc for your approval
- I will send you the first draft (~5-7 business days for turnaround)
- You leave edits in the draft (prices include one round of revisions)
- I’ll address the revision requests and send you a final draft
- I invoice at the end of the project (Net-0 payment terms)
And the email looks like this:
You’ll find those process details in the bulleted list – easy to spot even for the busy, not-reading-every-word client.
My email is simple, it works like a charm and it helps me avoid the headaches of not being on the same page as my client.
Three: Insist on having only one point of contact
Before I start working with a client, I set the expectation that I only work with one point of contact, and that I only offer one round of revisions.
This doesn’t mean that other critical stakeholders can’t offer feedback on my work. It means that I ask my clients to follow a process to make editing and revisions easier for everyone involved.
I ask the client to gather all feedback, put it in the Google doc, and – as soon as it’s ready for revisions – my point of contact can reach out to me.
Having one point of contact streamlines the editing process, reduces confusion and makes it easier to deliver better content at a faster rate.
Four: Get your client to fill out a brief
Before every project, I send my clients a content brief to fill out.
What’s a content brief?
It’s “a set of instructions to guide a writer on how to draft a piece of content,” according to Moz.
In my content brief, I ask about content marketing goals, target audience, competitors, tone, due dates, points to cover, SEO, and more.
Freelance writer Komal Ahuja adds that writing without a content brief is like going into a project blind.
I cannot stress this enough.
The content brief is the single most important part of my process when it comes to managing stress.
It helps me gather all the information from clients that I need to hit the mark every time.
Whenever I’ve started a project with a content brief, I’ve never had a client come back and tell me I didn’t quite get the project right and need to start over.
Takeaway: Establish your business and writing processes. It can help you gather all the information you need to do your work more efficiently, quickly, and correctly.
5. Manage writer’s block
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Even prolific author Stephen King complains of writer’s block:
“There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn’t come at all; this is called writer’s block.”
For me, writer’s block is my first symptom of burnout.
When you’re overworked and overwhelmed – for any reason – some productivity blogs suggest strategies like The Pomodoro Technique.
In my experience, a better approach is a less conventional approach.
I don’t write when I have writer’s block. At all.
Instead, I close my computer, rest up, read or do something I love. Without fail, I come back the next day refreshed and ready to roll.
But this is important. If you’re going to start implementing this strategy, you have to plan in advance. I always leave days open so I have some flexibility to cope with days when I’m not feeling it.
If I’m fully booked or overbooked, there’s no room for R&R and I always get overwhelmed.
Freelance writer Nia Gyant follows a similar strategy to prevent burnout:
Nia underbooks herself to allow for days when her mind isn’t sharp and she balances her work throughout the week. Brilliant.
Professional SaaS freelancer Kristen Hicks also plans carefully for potential burnout:
“I schedule my life carefully to minimize the things that eat up too much of my energy. I’m careful to know my limitations. I know I can only handle so much writing time in a day before I’m tapped out, so I don’t schedule more than I can handle.”
Takeaway: It’s difficult to force yourself out of writer’s block. Instead, plan for writer’s block by underbooking yourself and leaving open days in your monthly schedule.
In Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s recent book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, they go deep into the psychology and physiology of burnout.
In the first chapter, they explain that the most efficient way to complete the stress cycle (i.e., reduce burnout and reset) stems back to our natural flight response.
The writers ask you to imagine…
You’re being chased through the savanna by a ferocious lion. Your heart’s racing as you scramble to safety in the nearby village.
It’s not hard to picture your body and brain’s natural response – heart racing and cortisol rising followed by an instinctive reaction – flight. When your cortisol levels go through the roof, the natural inclination is to run to safety – regardless of whether you are running from a lion or running from work overload.
The authors explain that flight (aka movement/exercise) is the most effective response to any stressful situation:
“Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live.”
This is the perfect explanation as to why you feel less stressed and more energized overall when you exercise.
Other scholarly literature supports the theory that exercise helps people cope with stress and burnout.
For example, one study compared people who use sedentary activities to cope with stress (e.g. watching TV, going online, etc.) and people who exercised to cope with stress.
The results were as follows:
- 62% of the participants that were active reported that exercise was an effective way to manage stress
- 33% reported that sedentary activities helped them handle burnout
And a study from Academic Psychiatry found that inadequate sleep and exercise resulted in not only burnout but depression as well.
For me, exercise is essential.
Before I sit down to write in the mornings, I take my dog on a walk. A brisk morning walk helps me reduce anxiety, calm down and get my creative juices flowing.
I’m not the only freelance writer that exercises to fend off burnout.
Freelancer Kaleigh Moore says she builds in time for movement into her schedule. She told me:
“Scheduling times for walks, the gym or yoga means that getting up and moving around was just another part of my daily to-do list.”
And freelance writer Frances Gatta does this:
Takeaway: Physical activity is the body’s way of letting go of stress. Schedule movement into your daily activity to help you complete the stress cycle and reduce burnout.
Stop burnout by setting boundaries
Now is the time to embrace processes and strategies that help you keep your stress levels in check and that help you enjoy your freelancing career.
Remember, the beauty of being a freelance writer is:
There are no hard and fast rules.
You can do pretty much whatever you want.
Create the business – and life – you want.