How Freelancers Can Identify, Avoid, or Manage Burnout


Today we’re going to talk about something very important – burnout.

Some people will use the term loosely by saying things like, “Man I’m feeling really burned out today” when they are running short on sleep.

But what we’re going to cover is a situation that is more in line with the definition set forth by the good folks at Merriam-Webster:

Burnout – Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.

The definition above has a decidedly human slant, but the term is actually derived from a situation where a mechanical part (Example: a jet engine) has an operational failure because it has been working to hard and/or too long without receiving adequate maintenance.

In certain cultures, people who buy in to the “hustle” and force themselves to work at full capacity for extended periods of time are glorified by their peers.

They are given complimentary labels like being a grinder, a killer, or a savage.

But for most people – even those who present an outward appearance of being tireless – this level of activity is not sustainable over the long term.

And, if left unchecked, it can have disastrous results.

If you’ve experienced burnout yourself, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t, here are some references to get you up to speed:

  1. In this video, Dr. Geri Puleo shares some striking similarities between the effects of burnout and the symptoms of PTSD.
  2. When a group of researchers surveyed almost 250 entrepreneurs, they found that almost half of them reported having some kind of mental health condition.
  3. Even “celebrity” entrepreneurs like Tim Ferris, Elon Musk, and Rand Fishkin have struggled with burnout and shared their advice publicly.

What you already know is that being an entrepreneur is really freaking hard. 

What you need to know is that if you’re struggling with burnout or depression, you’re not alone.

Here are just a few ways to identify burnout and differentiate it from “normal” stress:

  • Burnout is the result of ongoing stress that has been left unchecked. If you’ve been stressed out for a long time with no break, there is a good chance you are either heading for burnout or already in the thick of it.
  • Stress is characterized by putting additional effort into the things that worry you, burnout is characterized by dis-engaging from things that are/were important to you.
  • Stress causes you to feel emotions more stronglyburnout is more likely to make you emotionless or disinterested.
  • Stress results in less energy, burnout results in less motivation, optimism, or hope.
  • Stress can lead you to be anxious or worried about a situation, burnout often leads to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or depression.
  • Stress generally manifests as physical consequences (Ex: tiredness, nausea, headaches, etc.), burnout often manifests as emotional consequences (Ex: anger, mood swings, depression, etc.)
  • Here are a few more resources that cover this topic in more detail: Psychology TodayMayo Clinic, and The U.S. National Library of Medicine

I’ve certainly overcommitted myself or have been over-leveraged by an employer in the past, but I’m lucky enough to have never truly felt the effects of burnout.

However, I have done plenty of reading on the subject and have picked up a few strategies from entrepreneurs who have tackled burnout head-on and come out happy and healthy on the other side.

Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Self awareness is a muscle, so make sure you exercise it. Carve out time in your day to be quiet and think about your life and your work. Journal, meditate, do whatever it is that helps you relax and give yourself permission to let your mind wander around work and non-work things. Also, don’t forget to ask yourself “Why?” a lot.

    Why am I feeling this way? Why did I say that? Why am I moving in this direction? Why did I start this journey in the first place?

  2. As “knowledge workers,” our mind is our greatest asset. You make a living for the way that you think, so if you are ever feeling less than 100% mentally or emotionally, that is a situation where you are putting your livelihood in jeopardy. Also, your physical health is a contributor to your mental health, so take that into consideration when you aren’t feeling great.  Renew your focus on sleep, nutrition, and exercise to improve your overall well-being.

    It’s like they tell you on flights – “Always put on your oxygen mask before helping others.” There are times when you need to make yourself a priority over your clients, your business, and even your loved ones. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be in no position to provide for anyone else.

  3. Communicate early and often. With clients, with your family, with a higher power (if that’s your thing) and with yourself. These things don’t get better on their own and there is scientific data out there that suggests that physical, mental and emotional healing can be accelerated by sharing your struggles with other people and leaning on them for support.

    Be as open and honest with your clients as you’re comfortable with and tell them that you need to push back a deadline, scale back your workload or take a break. Don’t let this conversation stress you out! The vast majority of people are going to get it and will work around your needs. If they don’t, drop them. They don’t deserve you anyways.

  4. Don’t get back on the horse too early or too quickly. If you experience real burnout, you might take a few days off and feel better, but don’t jump back into a full workload right away. Doing this can sometimes unravel the progress you made and have you starting over from square one.

    Think of this less like a light switch and more like a volume dial. Gradually ramp back up to your previous workload (or less, if that was the core problem) and give yourself the time and permission to hit pause again if you feel yourself slipping.

That’s the advice I have for you today, but I’m curious to hear if this is something you’ve dealt with in the past.

  • Have you ever experienced burnout?
  • If so, how did you handle the situation?
  • Looking back, did you learn anything that would help you identify the signs sooner or better manage the situation if it came back around?