Your Three-Step Blast-Away to Avoid Freelancer Burnout

Your Three-Step Blast-Away to Avoid Freelancer Burnout

People who work on the web commonly run their own business. All of it. They work on projects, they do their own customer service, their own customer management, their marketing and networking, their project scheduling, admin and bookkeeping. They have to stay on top of everything.

The funny thing is that when you look at the list of your weekly tasks on paper, it seems like you should be able to get everything done. You have the hours available to you. You have the resources and you certainly have the skills.

So how do you keep winding up working until 3 am to make up for lost time? Why are you still feeling completely overwhelmed by everything you have to do when it seems like you should have enough time to do it without freaking out – or burning out?

Most often, bad habits are the culprit. Sloppy work habits are far more detrimental than many freelancers realize, and they’re keeping you from rocking out everything you should be able to get done in a day. Use this Three Step Blast-Away to get rid of those bad habits for good – and stop feeling so overwhelmed.

Step One: Show you’re Serious

A common issue web workers face is that we’re not quite yet at the point of having our career choices respected as much as “real jobs”. Friends and family tend not to take your work very seriously, and that means they often interrupt, distract, and derail your focus and concentration.

Perception is projection – people see us in the way we project ourselves to them. In this case, that means that if no one’s taking your job seriously, you may not be projecting that your job is serious.

For example, you might complain about being too busy… but when a buddy calls, you drop everything and cut out for some playtime. Or you might feel like too many people disrupt your workday, but when they do, you greet them with a welcome.

Not only does that send mixed signals to your friends and family, it’s also completely destroying your productivity. If you drop everything to take a long lunch with a friend, you’re going to wind up taking two hours out of your workday. Those hours of work don’t just magically disappear – you’re still going to have to do them.

The difference is that now you’re going to have to do them late into the evening. That’s no good. Show your friends and family you’re serious by taking your freelance work as seriously as you would a nine-to-five, and you’ll find you get a lot more done in “normal” work hours. You’ll also find that other people are showing your work a lot more respect – because they see that you do, too.

Step Two: Set Clear Boundaries

It’s not enough to simply decide that you’re serious and that this is a real job. You need to set some clear boundaries for everyone’s benefit – your own, first and foremost.

Write down boundaries that would help you get more work done. For example, decide which hours you’ll work each day – firm ones, not flexible ones. Close the door to your office to signal you’re busy. Turn off the phone while working and don’t answer every call. Turn down invitations to go play. Keep a steady schedule so that friends and families can learn which days you work, and when. Limit your social media activity and try not to be omnipresent all the time.

Enforce your rules – with yourself first. Don’t expect people to respect new boundaries unless you respect them as well. If you’ve said you won’t take calls until 2pm each day, then don’t. Let the answering machine pick up the phone and focus on getting that work out of the way. They’ll survive without you, don’t worry.

When you decide you’re going to make some hours of the day sacred to work, you’ll get more done in that time. No matter how good you are at multi-tasking, you’re going to get a lot more done in a single hour of uninterrupted work than you would if you answered an email every five minutes and picked up the phone halfway through your 60-minute time frame.

Set those boundaries and start abiding by them strictly.

Step Three: Shed the Unnecessary

Many people tend collect tasks and work they don’t really have to do, and when you’re a web worker, that collection can take on phenomenal proportions. We’re talking about things like answering every email within five minutes, or doing extra work for a client for no pay, or simply checking blogs and other forums for new information on your industry.

But all this “busy” doesn’t really get anything productive done for your business. Being overly busy creates a false sense of energy, but it really just adds extra stress. You’re probably even feeling guilty that your real priorities in your business aren’t being taken care of while you run around commenting on blogs and sorting through your spam filter.

So get rid of what’s unnecessary. Go on a wild rampage. Cut out anything that isn’t critical to your business survival for two full weeks – blog commenting, RSS reading, social media, IM chats and emailing friends.

With no “busy” cluttering up your days, you’ll find yourself with a lot more time to get out from that pile of work you’ve been putting off – and when you’re done, you’ll have way more free time to enjoy.

Give It Two Weeks of Commitment

Two weeks is often enough time to break a bad habit. Give each of these strategies two solid weeks of your full commitment, and you’ll discover just how much these time-wasters were cutting into your day. Most likely, you won’t want go back to them.

How about you? Have any tips that have worked to keep burnout at bay?

Originally posted at The Web Squeeze

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Cool post and spot on. I think a lot of business owners can associate with this.

    Taking breaks is also pretty damn important. I suspect most online entrepreneurs have a bad habit of sitting in front of the computer for “work time” and “play time”.

    Shaking up your environment, even for just 3 minutes of outside time, makes a huge difference to combat stress and overwhelm. Regular breaks make for a clear head and more work that counts.

  2. Guilty of all three. Especially where friends and family are concerned. I know my parents respect what I do, but it’s still seen as a personal slight if they call and I’m busy. Same with friends.

    It annoyed me because I thought their actions betrayed their words of saying they understood but I know it’s my responsibility to set those guidelines and not confuse them when sometimes I can play and then sometimes I can’t.

    I can see a massacre of unneeded chores on my to do list happening today. 🙂
    .-= Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Are You Turning Away Customers By Sounding Stuffy or Stroppy in your Web Copy? =-.

  3. Great article, James. And so easily applied to other things, such as studying.

    What I´d like to add, is that we must be careful to set boundaries we can handle. realistic ones. Don´t expect ourselves to turn super-human just because we have a plan… Even if we decide to be extra hard working and devote the whole day to whatever it is we do, we still need to do certain other things. Like eat 😉
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..(a Poem a Day) -colour- =-.

  4. Ok, so does the fact that I’m leaving a comment mean that I haven’t taken your advice? Or does the two weeks start after I leave this comment? 😉

    One step that I would add is before the two week abstension from blog commenting etc, go through your feeds and cull any you don’t receive value from. If that blog isn’t regularly delivering posts that give you enough value to justify you spending the time reading it, delete it.

    Newsletters the same. Delete those that don’t deliver top value (and under those criteria, you’ll obviously be keeping both mine and the Men with Pens newsletter). I did this about six months ago and it was fantastic. No longer was I looking at feeds that had been unread for weeks, there was no guilt in not reading, it really felt physically lighter.

    The hard part is being brutal in the culling. I deleted well over fifty feeds and email newsletters and ended up with just six. I’ve since added to that number, but there’s no way I’ll end up getting that many again. It’s a waste of my – and your – time.
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..How not to receive feedback =-.

  5. It’s not so much the task list that gets me, it’s the space it takes up between my ears. Clearing the clutter does wonders for clearing my head.

    It’s the same with unfinished projects, or the small things I tell myself I don’t need to take care of. They lurk at the back of my mind and add to the noise. So I have to finish ’em or ditch ’em, because either way, they aren’t paying their way.

    Good stuff, James, as usual.
    .-= Stacey Cornelius´s last blog ..Online selling – how to figure out your prospects without going crazy =-.

  6. My husband insists on talking to me while I am trying to write blog posts.I should take the train to London one day and stand by his desk while he is trying to make editorial decisions and see how he likes it?
    Bottom line is money.
    When I pull in what he does, he will take me seriously.
    .-= Lucy Thorpe´s last blog ..Teach Your Kids Bureaucracy =-.

  7. This is so true. When you work for yourself, you can end up wasting a ton of time doing little, pansy tasks that don’t add up to any sales.

    What I like to do is to take each task that I need/want to do and ask the question “will this cause me to make or lose any money?” If it doesn’t, then usually you are just spinning your wheels and you can probably skip that task for now.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..You Have Only 10 Seconds to Get Rich… =-.

  8. Hi Lucy,

    I’m gonna chime in here with a respectful, friendly question or two, just because Im dead curious….

    Do you think that when you pull in what he does, you’ll take YOU seriously?

    If so, do you think that he will take you seriously when YOU take you seriously?

    Blow off these questions if im way off…. but think about it 🙂

  9. Thanks for posting this. It’s always good to have a reminder of the need to set boundaries. I’ve been making more and more structured rules for myself, including turning off email and Twitter for large blocks. It’s been a big help. I’ve also instituted a “to-do” list and forced myself to plow through it before doing “fun” things like blogs. It’s been just what the doctor ordered.

    Great post.
    .-= Jake Johnson´s last blog ..Top 3 Reasons I Ghostwrite for a Living =-.

  10. Ah, yes. I am told since I am at home, I can do this and this, oh and this too. Never fails, but that’s why I work with more boundaries in place, when possible. Being the stay-at-home Dad, I don’t get as many boundaries as I would like, but it gets the work done.

    I also started cleaning out my RSS feeds, and newsletter subscriptions recently. Makes a big difference! I have more time now to focus on working instead of going off like a spagetti head with no direction.

    Thanks again for another great post James.
    .-= George Passwater´s last blog ..Don’t Let Robots Take Over – Learn the Secret to Creating Success =-.

  11. This is a GREAT list! I’ve found that it takes 15 – 30 minutes to really get into the swing of things when you’re working on a project. So if you stop what you’re doing to answer the phone, check email, check Twitter or grab a snack at any point during this momentum-building phase, you’ll lose momentum that will take 15 – 30 minutes to regain. In other words, you’ll be working at a very low productive level all day long. Because you’ll be expending a lot of creative energy trying to get things going. It’s somewhat like getting on a bike and stopping every 10 feet. That would suck! You’d never get to enjoy the ride.

    Scheduling your work day ahead of time is also KEY! I know, I know. You want some flexibility in your day. But you can still build in that flexibility AND have some much-needed structure.

  12. @Ed – Peter Shallard taught me a little trick that’s awesome – not quite scheduling your work day, but a simplified version.

    Be “boss” – now pick three tasks *the night before* and email them to yourself. When you wake up the next day, sit down as “employee”. Do the tasks your “boss” assigned you. When you’re done, you can switch your mind back to boss for other tasks, or stay in worker and just keep going.

    It cuts down on that long list of tasks that you really never get done, keeps you focused on three main priorities for that day, and keeps your mind in one role – which is critical to freelancers.

    At least… that’s how it works for me. Everyone’s different – but worth a try. I’ve found it to be really effective to getting stuff DONE.

  13. @George – Yeah, that little, “Oh, because you’re home, you can surely…” is a real bitch. And because it’s usually family and friends doing that, setting boundaries can be tough. No one wants family conflict. But, it’s worth it, because the results are LESS conflict long term. And that’s awesome.

    @Jake – See my little tip above about the three-task system. That might work better for you than forcing yourself to plow through a list!

    @Joshua – The number of pansy tasks we take on and create for ourselves is ridiculous. Personally, I’m all about cutting that out, because I ain’t no pansy. 😉

    @Lucy – I hear you on the struggle to be taken seriously and craving that level of respect. But I think managing your expectations of what other people can and will give you might be helpful. We can crave that outside respect all we want – but we can’t expect people to give it to us. Once you stop setting expectations for others, you’ll find your expectations start to shift back to yourself… and respecting you for what you do now, not for what others expect of you.

    If that made sense. I might need more coffee. 😉

    @Stacey – YES! Clearing clutter opens up creativity like MAD. S’awesome!

    @Melinda – I’d save the culling until AFTER the two-week stop. Because when you come back and see exactly how much useless stuff you were doing, it’s easy to say, “UGH.” … then you delete a bunch with no guilt.

    @Thorey – I eat! I do!… uh… some… times… 😉

    @Amy – Go for it. It’s worth re-establishing all that good stuff for yourself. Even though it’s frustrating.

    @Peter – Your suspicions would be correct. For freelancers, the computer is pretty much our world – separating work from play, and separating play from computer can be a real challenge.

    And breaks. Yes. I’m on it. 😉

  14. Yeah, I thought as much (about being stuck in front of the screen).

    A lot of people have this weird belief that more hours = you’re being more productive. The truth is, breaks create a renewed focus that is MUCH more valuable than spending 12 hours starting at the computer.

    I work offline and sometimes get booked solid with face-to-face client consults. If I were to do even 6 hours of those sessions, where I have to be “on” and “in the zone”… withOUT significant breaks and breather…

    … Well, I’d be useless. A mess. The clients would end up having shitty, confusing sessions.

    Why should online be different?

    Thing is, consults are MY game. For a freelancer, whether its writing or design or … you have YOUR game.

    Just because its online, doesn’t mean you don’t have to take breaks, stay focused and deliver top notch work… mm?

  15. Definitely agree 1,000% that setting clear boundaries (and set schedules) are important. Also, eliminating the ‘busy work’. You know, all that ‘other’ stuff that we inundate ourselves with on a day-to-day basis. Focus on the revenue producing activities FIRST, then you can venture on to other things (at least that’s how I see it).
    .-= Ricardo Bueno´s last blog ..Open Discussion: If you knew then, what you know now… =-.

  16. The bounderies are the big one for me. I’m not “really” working, so I can run errands, pick up the kid from school, run to the store. No, the truth is that I can’t. But convince someone unfamiliar with writing for a living of that.

    Even worse is dealing with the hurt feelings and attitudes when you finally have had enough and make it clear in no uncertain terms, that some peace and privacy is in order.

    I’m to the point now, that I have resigned myself to the fact that the only way I’ll be able to seriously work without interruption or distraction, is to have an office removed from the house.
    .-= Paul ,Novak´s last blog ..Paul Kurtz Resignation from CFI =-.

  17. This post was about setting priorities. You can get caught up in a lot of unproductive activities, that make you look busy, but nothing’s getting done. Believe it or not, I actually needed to read this today. Thanks.
    .-= City Sylvester´s last blog ..Personal Branding Star of The Week: Mr. T! =-.

  18. Hi James,

    All the points are helpful and quite valid but I’ve always read and thought that it takes tree weeks to break or replace a habit.

    Also, abstaining from some things totally is not really necessary. For example if you enjoy commenting, which of course requires that you read the posts, why not do it after the designated work time?

    The problem with total ban on enjoyable activities is that once the two or three weeks are over you may be so hungry to do those things you so forced yourself to abstain from that you may start doing them way too much to compensate.

    Following your suggestions to the letter may work for some but not for me.

    I would modify them slightly as I said above.

    .-= Vance Sova´s last blog ..Email List Building Ebook, How To Build Email List In Any Market =-.

  19. I agree with Peter that taking breaks is important. It’s also important as you said in your previous blogs to set structured hours and say no to unrealistic work demands and to stop checking your emails after your ‘official’ work day has ended.
    .-= Yvonne´s last blog ..Priority Club Rewards =-.

  20. Excellent points, it’s really easy to get stressed over meeting a deadline or working on multiple projects at the same time. I find sometimes it’s good to just walk away from work for a couple of minutes, just enough to help you unwind and not be lazy to get back into it.
    .-= Carl Johnson´s last blog ..747 WING HOUSE =-.

  21. Thanks for writing this post. It came at just the right time for me. I started a freelance writing business after losing my job in March. It seemed like I would have plenty of time to handle a few copywriting jobs, do some yard work and do all the other things on my to-do list. But bad sleep habits and poor time management have forced me to re-examine my schedule.

    I think I am busy all day, but checking email, reading blogs, watching reruns of Law and Order is not going to pay m mortgage. Starting Monday:

    I am making myself a written work schedule; just as though I had a ‘real job’.
    Scheduling specific tasks and projects for certain days.
    Going to bed before midnight & getting out of bed by 9:00 am.
    .-= Clara Mathews´s last blog ..Sex and the City 2: The Ultimate Chick Flick =-.

  22. BusinessHeadAche says:

    I do not completely agree with what you say about doing unnecessary tasks. I believe in quick customer service and whenever my clients shoot me an email I promptly reply. I have set gmail notifier to notify me every time an email comes. I have found that my client retention rate went higher after doing this.

    Also we have to keep abreast of the latest happenings. Especially when you are in the SEO industry. We cannot afford to be servicing clients all the time while not giving thoughts to the latest happenings or changes in the Google algorithm
    .-= BusinessHeadAche´s last blog ..Blog =-.

  23. @Headache – Actually, I said “We’re talking about things like answering every email within five minutes” – and I’m sure that not every email is a client-related one.

    I too subscribe to the “answer all clients within minutes” philosophy and it works very well. But for every client-related email, I have at least 5 others that aren’t. I’m sure other freelancers have just as many if not more – those are the ones that get cut so you can focus on what counts:


    @Clara – The theory that freelancers live the good life is part reality, part myth. I tend to believe that people who aren’t self-employed have much better work-life balance than freelancers do – they just don’t realize it until they’re in the thick of self-employment and think, “My GOD, how am I going to get all this DONE?!”

    Well, you’re not. Which is why being strict with boundaries, what you do in a day and saying no to lower priorities is a must. Then you’ll be on your way back to a normal lifestyle that DOES have good work-life balance!

    @Vance – It’s about 14 days to set a habit – three week is even better, though. You’re right about one thing: If you find that you’re restricting yourself and don’t spend time thinking about WHY you’re restricting yourself and also focusing on the life you DO want to live, you just might bounce back double-time.

    Take advantage of the break and spend time thinking about what you want more of in your life – and what you want less of that doesn’t get you the more you need.

    @City – It’s amazing how much we don’t get done when we think we’re doing stuff warp speed. Oy…

    @Paul – An outside office is one of my goals for this year. But you can create that “outside office” in your home – pick a room with a door, and close it. Not respected? Grab some work and simply leave. After you leave a few times like that, people start to clue in – especially when you tell them, “I’d really been trying to get work done so I could spend the day with you tomorrow, but since there have been so many disturbances today, I’ll have to cancel.” Ouch. 😉

    @Ricard – Ayup. It’s all about “show me the money”. 🙂

    @Peter – I tend to get a lot more work done when I work on one task, then get up and take a break when it’s done. While I’m on break, I think of my next task and when I sit down, I’m ready to rock.

  24. I thought the whole point of being your own boss was to have the freedom to take a two-hour lunch with a friend, then work until 7:00 instead of 5:00. Yes, schedules are important, but every small business owner should take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Otherwise, you could miss out on something important.

  25. I am probably the worst person in the world for sticking to a schedule, and as I take the first steps into a freelance life, I am terrified that I will screw it up; that I’ll “put it off ’til later” like I always do – and end up never doing it. I don’t have the best track record with Responsibility, and I worry that I don’t have the discipline to be my own boss. I *want* this, but I do have my reservations…

  26. James – I love the sound of that approach. I’m already very disciplined and organized (one of the few areas I excel in 🙂 … however, I’ll have to keep this in mind — great advice for others who need help here. Thanks!

  27. Excellent article. I’ve got burnout going on right now and am going to try these tips to help. Just gotta stick it out for 2 weeks. 🙂
    .-= Cashier´s last blog ..Part 2 of my Shitty Weekend =-.

  28. For me, the secret to productivity is to book a lot of assignments and accept reasonably tight deadlines from the client. I set up deadlines for myself to accomplish marketing and administrative tasks, but it’s as if my brain knows which assignments are for a real client. Those are the ones I get done on time, no matter how much time they require.

    Diana Schneidman : How to take control of your life and make great money quickly as a solopro

  29. @Diana – Many people do some awesome work under pressure in a crunch. Just be sure you have a backup plan if you get sick!

    @Cashier – It’s worth sticking with. Promise.

    @Shanna – As long as you keep listening to that inner critic (who’s currently kicking your BUTT, girl!), you’ll have a hard time. Someone once told me that the inner critic wants the same thing you do – he’s just more scared than you are. Pat him on the back, tell him, “S’alright, I’ve got it,” and go do what you both want.

    @Andrea – The point of being a freelancer means many different things to different people. Freedom of schedule is one of them. But, sometimes those lunches and that late work shift feel more like a chore than a luxury – that’s when it’s time to do something about it.

    And if they’re that luxury you love, then do something to make more of it happen!

  30. I think I am near burnout now.. for weeks, I have been trying to balance out 3 different projects. I think it’s affecting me more mentally now than ever, my life is 24/7 around it. =(


  1. […] Still debating whether to take up freelancing full-time or part-time?Men With Pens: Freelance burnout happens to us all and can be prevented. But the root cause: “Most often, bad habits are the culprit. Sloppy work habits are far more […]

  2. […] Your Three-Step Blast-Away to Avoid Freelancer Burnout. “Why are you still feeling completely overwhelmed by everything you have to do when it seems like you should have enough time to do it without freaking out – or burning out?” [Thanks to Pat McNees for alerting me to this item.] […]

  3. […] care of yourself. Eat. Sleep. Take breaks. Laugh with your family. Sit in the sun. Go for a walk. Work regular, normal hours each day and […]

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