Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: I’m About to Burn Out, What Can I Do to Get Back on Track?

By Nicole Dieker May 12th, 2015

I’ve been freelancing for a few years now and feel like I have a decent process in place where I’m getting consistent work, but lately I’ve had trouble staying motivated and engaged with my work. Any advice for what I can do to capture that interest I had when I was just starting out?

—Keeping the Fire Going

I am writing this at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning while riding a Bolt Bus from Seattle to Portland. This was supposed to be a weekend vacation, but I lost a big chunk of my workweek when water began spurting out of a crack in my bathroom wall and I had to notify my landlord, explain the problem to a plumber, and call my renters insurance agent.

So I know the feeling of waking up and dreading the amount of work you have to complete before the day is over. I also know the feeling of looking at your organizational spreadsheet and thinking, wow, this week I have to interview three people, transcribe two interviews, and find three new sources for another piece—and that’s before I even start writing.

Freelancing can often lead to an overwhelming amount of work, and it’s even worse when you’re facing an overwhelming amount of work you don’t want to do. So what can you do to avoid burnout? Here’s what I do to stay on track.

1. Think of the money

I keep a running tally of every penny I’ve earned as a freelancer, as all good freelancers should. I also keep a tally of how much money I’m going to earn from my current jobs. Sometimes, just looking at those numbers is enough motivation to keep going.

Let’s be honest: Regardless of how much you’re earned as a freelancer, you need that money, right? And if you decide not to complete those assignments, you lose that money (along with your reputation and the respect of your clients).

More importantly, if you decide to take the easy way out and say, “I just don’t want to work for a while,” you set yourself up for a lot more work in the future: finding new clients, building new relationships, or sending out hundreds of applications for another day job.

If you feel like you’re burning out because your assignments aren’t as creative or engaging as you might like, I give you Hugh MacLeod’s Sex and Cash Theory:

The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often. […] As soon as you accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster.

Sometimes freelancing really is just about the money, so focus on that, get your work done, and watch your career move forward. Working on the assignments you have today puts you in a better position to pitch those projects you really want in the future.

2. Take care of yourself

I love the Captain Awkward blog, and last week the Captain had some great advice for a woman who felt overwhelmed with work and responsibilities:

Right now, put a vacation on the calendar for sometime in the next 6 months, even if it’s just a long weekend away. Schedule doctor’s checkups for you, regular haircuts for you, the odd massage or other self-care pampering thing for you.

I absolutely agree with this. If you are not taking care of yourself, you are going to burn out. Some of us might like massages and haircuts, while others might like a new video game or a night out. You might still feel overwhelmed with work from time to time, but you’ll probably be less likely to feel run down.

(By the way: I know that the self-care equation changes if you are also responsible for taking care of other people, including children/partners/parents. My advice is to read the Captain Awkward piece since she has solutions for those situations as well.)

3. Split your projects into small tasks

Some of us feel burned out when we look at a long list of freelance assignments and feel like there’s no way we’re going to get it all done. This is when splitting your assignments into manageable tasks—and scheduling those tasks into your calendar—really helps.

When I write a piece that requires interviews, I set specific time in my calendar to complete four separate tasks:

-Researching the source

-Contacting the source and requesting an interview

-Interviewing the source

-Transcribing the interview

And I repeat that process for every source I plan to interview. This means that some days get pretty full with those four tasks even before I actually start writing anything.

For whatever psychological reason, being able to see all of the individual steps involved in completing a project makes the project feel less overwhelming. All you have to do is send one email asking for an interview. All you have to do is make a 15-minute phone call. All you have to do is transcribe 15 minutes of conversation. You can do that.

4. Say “no” more often

Breaking up your freelance workload into smaller tasks also helps you see exactly how much work is on your plate—and when you need to turn down new assignments.

Right now, for example, I know that I am almost fully booked for May. I have started turning down additional assignments that clients want me to complete before June 1, especially if those assignments look like they will take more time than I have available.

It’s hard to say no to clients, because you want to be the type of freelancer who is always there for them. But if you are lucky enough to have a full workload, you have to learn to decline some work. Otherwise, you’ll end up overworked and burned out—and as a result, the quality of your work will probably suffer too.

5. Make a major change

Finally, if you are burned out or approaching burnout, you need to make a major change to your schedule. Maybe a change means going for a 30-minute run before checking your email in the morning. Maybe a change means giving yourself 60 days to fire your lowest paying client and find a higher paying one, thus reducing the amount of assignments you need to earn the same amount of money.

Maybe a change means promising yourself an hour-long lunch break every day. Maybe a change means signing up for a swing dance class in the evenings, which also puts a hard stop on your workday.

Find a change that makes your everyday life feel interesting again, and figure out how to implement it. That is, in the end, the one true way to get your freelance career back on track.

Nicole Dieker is planning to go to the movies this week, since she didn’t get to go last week. It’s an important step in preventing burnout, after all! If you have a question that you’d like to see answered in Ask A Freelancer, send it to

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