How I Bounced Back From the Brink of Pandemic Burnout

By Stephanie Walden March 15th, 2022

As a freelancer, I have a love/hate relationship with my email. New assignments come in, and I feel simultaneous satisfaction and anticipatory stress. A request for edits hits my inbox, and I’m both eager to get the project one step closer to completion and a little annoyed that I’m being asked to do, you know, something I contractually agreed to.

But in mid-2020, that ambivalence started feeling a whole lot more like unadulterated dread. I was constantly exhausted, creatively depleted, and running critically low on patience—telltale signs of burnout. Every email about a new assignment felt like a deep, dark hole. I wish I could tell you that I immediately set to work prioritizing my mental health, but in reality, I existed in that state for the better part of two years. (Research suggests I’m not alone in that experience.)

But then I hit a wall. I was almost ready to throw in the towel on freelancing altogether. Instead, I developed a plan to revitalize and reconnect to my career.

Here are the steps that worked for me.

I got more comfortable saying no

This year, I’m saying “no” a lot—especially when the very thought of a project makes me want to find an open field and scream.

I know that not every freelancer is in a position to turn down work, and I’m grateful that my career is at a point where I don’t have to take on every project that crosses my path. I have a robust portfolio and a solid financial cushion I’ve saved up over several years, and with those things, I have the freedom to be more selective.

I got to put this to the test recently when a difficult client I’d worked with more than a year ago came out of the woodwork with an “urgent” request: “We’re looking to create an article to publish by the end of this week. We’d like to hop on a call today,” the Wednesday afternoon message read.

This client had been a complete nightmare the last time we’d worked together—ambiguous briefs, same-day requests for hour-long calls, excessive rounds of revisions, and all the other red flags. Seeing their name in my inbox set my freelancer spidey senses on high alert. So I wrote back a prompt but polite response: “Thanks for reaching out! I’m actually at capacity and unable to take on new projects for the next three weeks, but best of luck finding the right writer for the job.” (The client, for the record, never replied.)

I developed a framework for taking on new work

Of course, I can’t say “no” all the time. I mentioned that financial cushion, and keeping it fluffy requires ongoing upkeep.

Knowing that telling every client to eff off isn’t an option, I created a framework to determine the types of work I find the most meaningful. Now, I’m only pursuing projects that fall into these three categories:

  • Relationship retainers: It’s cliche, but connections really are everything in the freelance world.
  • Revenue generators: These are what I call “juicy” assignments—the projects I know won’t take much time to complete but pay well.
  • Portfolio boosters: When a client comes along that either a) will look fantastic on a resume or b) piques my interest and shares my values, I’ll gladly take on work for them.

For me, evaluating every potential assignment through this lens has renewed my sense of agency. And what is freelancing about if not that?

I shifted focus

For years, I wore my “generalist” title like a badge of honor. But while writing about anything and everything is a great way to make money, it’s also an easy way to end up with a glut of assignments you’re not even slightly excited about.

So I decided to get more specific. I’m now in the process of building a niche portfolio that showcases the type of work I want to do more of—sustainability and climate tech stories. I’m cherry-picking assignments that fit into this category whenever possible. For instance, a client recently sent me a list of about 10 stories they wanted written about Web3 and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and asked me which, if any, I wanted to snag. One of the topics focused on the environmental impact of crypto/NFTs—so that’s the one I opted to tackle.

Hanging up my generalist hat will be a multi-year process. But after only a few months of focusing on this new direction, I’ve already taken on four or five stories that are a great fit. And while the end result of this experiment remains to be seen, I’m hopeful: In many emerging content marketing arenas, there’s a growing demand for specialists.

I took a real, actual vacation

Here’s an embarrassing confession. As managing editor of The Freelance Creative, I’ve helped publish countless articles about work-life balance, freelance sabbaticals, and how to take time off when necessary. But until about a month ago, secretly, I thought the idea of freelancers taking vacation was a fanciful myth—a flying unicorn sitting next to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed location independence since going freelance, working from beach bungalows, Burning Man (really), and the Alaskan bush. But I haven’t truly been unplugged since my last “real” PTO, back when I had a full-time job six years ago.

So at the start of 2022, I resolved to make it happen. I booked a flight somewhere tropical and went dark for seven glorious business days. Of course, I prepared for this in advance, both financially and logistically. I let all my clients know several weeks ahead of time, arranged for a substitute editor to fill in for my Contently work, and made sure there were no loose ends with any in-progress articles. I put my OOO dates in my email signature about a month before the start of my time off.

The Tuesday I returned, I opened Slack, composed my to-do list, and (reluctantly) redownloaded my work email onto my phone. Much to my surprise, my career had not imploded. Equally as surprising, I had a renewed sense of calm, more energy, and even the faintest hint of excitement to organize my overflowing inbox.

Do I think that seven days off is a sufficient cure for a severe case of burnout? In a word, no. But it’s a start, especially if, like me, you’ve long considered “balance” the stuff of freelancer fairy tales.

I still feel mixed emotions about the steady stream in my inbox, and I can’t say that I’m back to 100-percent—but that dark hole I was in turned out to be more of a tunnel. After a few purposeful steps, I can see the light ahead.

Image by holaillustrations
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