Freelance Business Burnout

Don’t let the sun go down on you.

With a limited amount of energy it is easy to succumb to freelance business burnout.   Many of us have been programmed to work 9-5 jobs with the salary or hourly paycheck arriving in our checking account every two weeks.

Suddenly set free from our 40 hour work week we go on over drive.  We have to get stuff done.  We have to get paid.  Like, right NOW!

If you are just starting out with your freelance writing or photography business don’t be depressed if you don’t make as much money from your 9-5 job the first year.  Don’t be depressed if you don’t make a quarter as much money in your 9-5 job the first year.

Your first year in business for yourself will be one of mainly education.  You will be learning the ropes of running and maintaining a successful business.  Think of all you have to learn:  marketing, finance, organizing, etc.  I’m sure you can think of many other things.

I was reading in my local newspaper that entrepreneurs are on the rise in Michigan.  This doesn’t surprise me since we have the crappiest economy in the nation.

The article talks about how it is no small trick staying sane while developing comprehensive business skills.  And if you don’t have a business background, like myself, it is even more challenging.  The trick, I guess, is staying sane while you figure it all out and are trying to make ends meet.  Because now you aren’t just thinking of just a couple of things, you’re thinking of everything.

Signs of Burnout

There can be a change of personality and behavior, and are a lot like the symptoms of depression which include:

  • loss of appetite
  • increased anxiety
  • can’t sleep at night
  • lethargy
  • don’t want to get out of bed in the morning

Ways to Combat Business Burnout

Put things in perspective

Recognize that there will always be difficult situations and people in your life.  The only thing you can change is how you relate to the situation.  Don’t let it suck energy from you.  Become the captain of your own ship, not the sailor of your buffeted emotions.  In other words, don’t get blown away.

Give Yourself Rewards

If I have been working non stop on some tedious task like cataloging photos, or writing an article that I just want to be completed, I will promise myself a small reward when I finish.  Sometimes it is as simple as visiting a Website I really like, or getting a diet Coke.

Let Yourself Be Free

No one owns you anymore.  You are the master or mistress of your time.  But don’t enslave yourself to periods of procrastination or frenzied work, either.  I know this is easier said then done, especially with writing projects with a deadline that suddenly require you to work 10-12 hours a day.  No one can maintain that type of overdrive.  Instead, develop a healthy schedule you can stick to for the main, with revisions if need be.

What do you do to keep from getting burned out in your business?  Is is a problem for you?

Photocredit: © Ellen Wilson

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26 thoughts on “Freelance Business Burnout”

  1. Noting the many ways in which you are now free is essential to maintaining an eagerness for the work. I cannot imagine not calling my own shots after 35 straight years of self-employment. Independence from the whims and decisions of others who do not have your best interest at heart, is much more valuable than newly arrived freelancers can imagine. It’s all well worth it. You’ll figure it out just like Ellen suggests. Hang in there.

    Tom Volkar / Delightful Work’s last blog post..Everything Counts So Make It Count

  2. Ellen,
    Although I know that most teach us work at home types that we need to be more disciplined, I find that most of us are much harder on ourselves than a boss would be.
    So one trick I use to bless myself and remind me that it pays to be Self employed is to go with the sunshine. I wait until I think the sun is perfect, and no matter what time of day it is and how many projects I have on the go, well except for meetings :-), I call Ginger ( my puppy) and off we go for a long walk and often coffee for mommy. 🙂
    I often work until 2 am too, so the freedom feels fabulous and feeds my soul.

    No doubt some readers will read this post at just the perfect moment and you will have been the blessing they needed. Thank you Ellen.

    Harmony’s last blog post..Whistle While You Work

  3. I get burned out every few months and have to veg out for a few days. Sometimes I work from the time I wake till I go back to sleep. However, I’m still in my first year, and I feel that this sort of goes along with the learning curve. I think that in the second year (it starts in just a couple of weeks!) things will level out.

    I love that song, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Love it, love it, love it!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Slam Poetry’s Wonder Woman

  4. I keep in mind why I am doing what I am doing and try to enjoy the little things. I also set time time limits for myself! And try to stick to it!

    Which reminds me- My shower was to start 15 minutes ago!

    Dr. Cason’s last blog post..Medicine Mondays #3

  5. @Writer Dad – I’m far from being there and having done that! This is my first year freelancing and I’m getting more insight as I go alone and can share with others.

    @Tom Volkar – “Independence from the whims and decisions of others who do not have your best interest at heart,” is so right on! Wow, I guess you should have wrote this post Tom, because you have been at it 35 years and me only one.

    @Harmony – Yeah, as a writer you cannot pick the “perfect” time for inspiration, because perfect never comes. Well, rarely anyway. But it’s nice you can wait for the time that you want to go out with Ginger. That’s the benefit of it all.

    @Melissa – You give out a lot of helpful freelance advice, also. And congratulations on your first year! I won’t have reached that point until January. I’m finding that adding photography to the mix has created a lot more work to the freelance equation. And what I mean by this is on my end, not “jobs” per se. But it’s all part of the footwork I have to do. I currently have to catalogue around 600 slides yet. It will probably take me 2-3 days.

    Yeah, I burnout every so often too. I think I’m getting better at it though.

    @Dr Cason – I hope you had a good time in Hawaii. I need to check on your new Medicine mondays. Sometimes my time limits for myself are to long or to short. I’m trying to balance it, but it doesn’t always work the way I want.

  6. I am not a freelancer, but I do need to manage my own time because I work part time from home (UpToUs) in addition to writing MomGrind and of course taking care of the kids.

    The best way I found to avoid burnout is to declare one weekend day (usually Sunday) as a day that’s completely computer-free.

    Vered’s last blog post..Aging: May I Please Get Off This Path Now?

  7. Vered,

    That’s a good way to avoid burnout and one I practice myself. I usually am completely computer free Saturday and most of Sunday.

  8. Hi Ellen,

    I’m not a freelance writer, but as a blogger I do find it hard to keep up on all I would like to do. I set priorities, do what I can each day and what I don’t get done, goes on my list for the next day.

    I make sure I take time off for family, friends and myself. Without that, burnout could easily happen.

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..NBOTW – Everyday Is Father’s Day

  9. Ellen, this is great advice. I am in year three of my business. Year 1 was pure adrenalin, year 2 was more thoughtful action and year 3 has been slow, organized growth. I still have a lot to learn too, and while my background helped, it is still very different when it is your business and tag you’re it for everything. It is critical to do what is so antithetical to the typical freelance thinking – set a schedule. Yes, you can go to the movies at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon and you know what some days you should. However, setting aside a specific time for work each day will not only keep you focused and more productive (rather than hey I could do laundry and get that done later, after all I am on my own schedule) and give you time to rest daily. In other words just because you CAN doesn’t mean you should.

  10. Whoa! For a very long time but especially lately, I’ve had every one of your signs of burnout. I’m in my 6th year, and to tell you the truth, my first year was the best. (I’m making some changes, as you know, with EditQuest.)

    What a wake-up call your list gave me, and just while I’m freaking about a 220-pg book I have due on the 8th that I was only able to start yesterday. (So why am I here?!) And then I’m the type who won’t allow myself to relax until everything is done first, because otherwise how could I actually relax? Which of course means, I never get time to relax. And if there’s nothing to do, then there’s the stress is not working and worrying about money.

    DEEP breath.

    Thanks for this post, Ellen. I’m going to read it again as well as the comments, and try to apply what I know to be good advice.

    steph’s last blog post..Voluntary Lab Rat

  11. Ellen,
    Burn out is insidious, most people won’t know they are deep in it until it is already affecting their work, home life and relationships. It’s amazing how it can creep up on you.

    I have been self-employed the vast majority of my adult life and the best advice I can give is to get yourself an appointment book/day planner and write in a schedule that you stick to. Karen is right, just because you are self-employed doesn’t mean that you have vast amounts of time in which to do anything you want. The truth is-which no one wants to hear- is that you probably have less. NOW, on that schedule, write in the important stuff first. Exercise, health, planning time, marketing and new client generating activities. ( I don’t care how busy you think you are, you still need to make time every day to work ON your business not IN your business) Then, after that, your head will be free enough to focus on the creative stuff because the shoulds will be out and the fun can actually happen.

    Wendi Kelly’s last blog post..Anniversary Stew

  12. Burnout is a kind of job depression caused by feelings of helplessness – uncontrollability. When funds are already low and incoming check too few, it is easy wonder if it is possible to succeed and to fear that no matter what you do you can’t.

    Burnout is a motivational problem. Constantly searching for assignments and getting way fewer than you need, having to take assignments below your capability or not to your liking, working on tedious projects that pay little and then having to wait for long periods to get paid – while watching prices climb – erodes motivation. And these are only a few of a long list of motivation killers. It is easy to become discouraged, and blaming yourself.

    It is imperative to manage your motivation if you expect to succeed as a freelancer. Giving yourself rewards is helpful. But you can’t wait until finishing an assignment. You need to reward yourself for small steps. Important to reward yourself for getting started, for doing a little bit, for getting started again, for doing a little more.

    We’ve all heard about the power of goal setting. This is when it is vitally important. But it is easy to set impossible goals and negative goals.

    Being a skilled self-manager is essential for succeeding as a freelancer – but awfully hard to develop when struggling with the challenges of freelancing. The problem is that when motivation is damaged, it is very difficult to revive.

    For considerable information about burnout, burnout quizzes, what causes burnout and what to do about it, as well as info on self-management, visit my site at

  13. @Barbara – Yes, I know you are very busy with your business and your blog. Setting priorities have been one of my main concerns this year.

    @Karen – Thanks for sharing all of this. You are an old timer compared to me! Excellent advice, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I like that. I will tape it to my wall.

    @Steph – I will have to check out EditQuest. Is it your own business? I hear you speak of it often.

    I’m glad you found out your burning out! That’s not good. I know how you feel because I often partake in the same perfectionist tendencies as yourself. Like, if my house isn’t clean enough I can’t possibly do anything else. And yes, sometimes I sleep in and I feel horribly guilty. But I’ve started to go easier on myself and realize there is no way in hell the income is going to come rolling in without doing the leg work. Like Wendi says.

    I also found I have to turn off my incessant thought by anchoring myself in my body (if that makes any sense) but my mind gets out of control and IS in control. While I, am not.

    @Wendi – Thank you for saying all of that! Yes, I agree, “the truth is that no one wants to hear is you probably have less (time).” And I also really like this to, “you still need to make time every day to work ON your business not IN your business.” Yes! I’m the only one in my family who is self employed so no one understands this. They expect the income to be rolling in all the time. At first I thought that it should be too. But this was part of the conditioning of working a 9-5. There is A LOT of work that goes into managing and creating your own business. So I have been taking a step back and have been working more on the ON part more, rather than the IN. I was trying to do both at an equal pace and burning the candle at both ends.

    @Dr. Potter – Thanks for stopping by and sharing your knowledge. I checked out your site and it looks like you have a lot of good advice to share. I will be stopping by again.

    Now that I think of it freelancers should read this kind of advice before they even get started. I wish I would have.

  14. I haven’t yet crossed over from a 9-5 job to freelance work. And this is one of the things that is probably holding me back – fear of burnout, and fear of making it work.

    I blog, and I have wondered about this with blogging as well. But, I find that there is much connectedness in writing for me. And burnout is nowhere near me right now. Will it be someday? I don’t know, but what you’ve written here will help me if I have to cross that bridge someday.

    Lance’s last blog post..What Are We Missing?

  15. Hi Ellen – I’m glad you posted this. I’ve read so many posts and comments by freelancers who have become overwhelmed with it all. I sometimes wish I could wave a magic wand and come up with a complete solution for them. If only it were that easy.

    I experienced burnout – even when I had people working for me. I wound up overworking and making myself quite ill. It was in the last year of a business I sold, so I guess I’d had enough anyway. But I felt so unmotivated and I was always getting flu and stuff.

    Your rewards tip is a good idea. As you say, you probably won’t make much cash in the first year, so you need little treats to motivate yourself.

    Trying to outsource some of your menial tasks can help, but again if you’re cash strapped often you can’t do that in your first year.

    On a really bad day – I just think of the worst job I ever had and it makes me feel better.

    Cath Lawson’s last blog post..Blog Widgets And Other Great Stuff

  16. Right now I am working 9-5 for The Man and developing my own business. I have ALL the symptoms in your list. I realized yesterday I have to back off or I will burn out. As the Lion keeps pointing out to me, I reached my 1 year goal in 5 months. I am slowly starting to find the balance of what is reasonable to achieve in one day. And if that means it takes longer to get where I ultimately want to be, at least I will arrive healthy and sane.

    Urban Panther’s last blog post..A sacred space

  17. @Lance – You can do a little at a time while you work your 9-5. In fact, it’s probably preferable because you won’t be so strapped for cash.

    @Cath – Yeah, if only it were that easy. There’s a lot of variables in the whole equation, and you have to learn them as you go along. Overworking yourself physically and mentally makes your body ill. I’ve been pretty lucky this year. Even when I was smoking!

    @Amy – I like freelancing (most of the time). Sometimes a 9-5 seems easier. But of course it’s really not. Grass is always greener syndrome when things get tough.

    @Urban – I had no idea you were developing your own business. I thought you and the Lion were just pussycatting around! Ha! Well, reaching your goal is a good thing but killing yourself in the process is not. Now you have some more time for introspection. I have been doing a lot of introspection lately and I find actually that thoughtful analysis is better than frantic activity.

  18. Actually, I was completely burned out when I worked for the Panama Canal Authority. Mostly because a lot of my time was spent on office politics (I was a labor attorney and I had more trouble with the people from the administration–whom I represented–than I did with the union leaders). Now that I work on my own I find an enormous motivation from the fact that everything I do is to grow my own business. I make sure to eat well, get enough sleep, meditate daily, and I exercise 5 days of the week.

    Marelisa’s last blog post..30 Ways to Increase Your Creativity

  19. Ellen,
    You have had quite a converstation here. I think it is really interesting to see how as a trend, a slow but growing movement, people are realizing that everyday that we string ourselves out, is a day of life that we have allowed something outside ourselves to control. What else do we have really unless we have a good life expereince happening from within. All the rest is fleeting and comes and goes.
    To feel alive…vital, engaged, free, – no amount of accomplishment compares. THANK YOU again.

    Harmony’s last blog post..IF YOU HAD A CHOICE WOULD YOU SUCK LEMONS

  20. @Marelisa – I had a boss that told me that 90 percent of office work was spent on gossip and politics. She was right, because she was involved in it all. I do not like getting wrapped up in all the egoic drama. It really subtracts from your life like a parasite draining your vital force.

    I’m still thinking of that gumball machine.

    @Cath – I have quit cold turkey for like a week now. Before that I was smoking a few to around 7 cigarettes a day. I was getting really sick of it. You know, I read Vered’s post about smoking and I thought to myself after I had wrote a comment, yeah that’s all very good, but now why don’t you take your own advice again? So I did. I haven’t had any alcohol either for a week because that really does me in good. But Friday I will have a glass or two of wine and see what happens. But if I drank wine around smokers that would really do me in too.

    Everyday gets a little better.

    @Harmony – Yes, there is much in our life situations that is beyond our control. The only thing we can do is be at peace in the present moment.

  21. “Recognize that there will always be difficult situations and people in your life.”
    WHY?! WHY?! WHY?! Why does it have to be so. Uh, I have such a hard time with this.
    Then again, sometimes I am that person to someone else! 😉

    Excellent post. Love the language.

    I’ve been doing freelance gigs for 16 years, taking salary jobs for months or years in between for peace of mind. The financial insecurity can be too stressful, always chasing the next paycheck, so I do the 9 to 5er for a while to recoup.

    My short term burnout solution is to eat an amazing meal and dessert, maybe have a drink if no one is around to accidentally offend, go for a walk, and put on some music and dance around like a 13-year old.

    Jaden’s last blog post..Write a Screenplay in One Month: Week Four

  22. Jaden,

    I guess as a freelancer you have more power to extricate yourself from the drama than you would if you were stuck in an office situation. Maybe? I don’t know. Sometimes freelancers carry the drama into their freelancing career.

    Yes, it is very stressful chasing after the gigs, the assignments, the what-evers – and balancing all of it.

    I like your short term solution. In fact, I’m going to go work on that right now.

    I also like to sing and make ridiculous lyrics up to teenage sitcom songs on TV, like the Cheetah Girls or Hannah Montana. Well, that was my thing for today anyway.

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