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Is Freelancer Burnout Inevitable?


Today we are going to examine the frustrating phenomenon of freelancer burnout. That inconsiderate productivity killer, that can seemingly crop up to wreak havoc on any freelancer’s business. Hopefully through this topic dissection we can find out if in fact, this is an inevitability of working as a freelancer. Talk to nearly any freelancer out on the web and most of them will not only confirm that they are familiar with the burnout problem, but also admit that they themselves have come up against it.

Is this what we have to look forward to? Image Credit

Like the boogeymen of our childhoods, tales of this dreaded beast circulate throughout the freelance forums like campfire horror stories. For it seems burnout is a common suffered affliction among the freelancing masses, if you take to the number of posts and tips dedicated to combating it that exist within the community as any sort of indicator. But how truly pandemic is this problem? If there are that many mentions of it throughout the freelance community, will every freelancer eventually find themselves in its grip?

The Question

That is the question that was plaguing when we shifted our focus outside of our own limited experience and turned to a handful of freelancing friends online to ask them if they felt that burnout on some level was inevitable? And given that most of them had already experienced it in some form or fashion, you can imagine that the results were overwhelming in one direction. Which might make the answer seem like a given. However, most of the answers came with tips that could effectively keep this affliction at bay. It is always this point that keeps the issue churning. For if it is an inevitability, then how can we possibly have tips for avoiding it?

The Answers

  • sheenaoosten – I haven’t experienced it myself, but not sure it’s necessarily inevitable. If you work with clients/projects you enjoy it may be avoidable?
  • meredithmarsh – Burnout! Definitely! With no vacation days, sick days, personal days, or maternity leave I AM burned out. Still rather work for myself but..It’s really stressful to work like a slave to pay the bills, and feel like you can’t take a day off. But that might just be my experience.
  • iBlend (Louis) – Yes, if you decide to take on everything that comes your way. 1) I try to accept projects that interest me. 2) Balance time for work and fun
  • MichelleOxman – On some levels, probably & it’s personal. After 3+ yrs I’m starting to miss camaraderie of officemates but NEVER not having a boss
  • timothybsmith – I definitely think so. Take on projects that are fun and that you want to work on. Take only as many as you need and don’t get greedy. My 2¢
  • amytron (Amy) – I would say yes, but it can be healthy. When you realise, then take some time and come back fresh and inspired again…Yeah it’s so easy to slide into bad habits. I’m trying to get back into more of a routine as we speak lol
  • Brian Yerkes – Yes, very much so. A string of a few frustrating projects , or clients can take its toll, and one day you sit there and evaluate your current situation…and just feel like you really want to chuck it all in. I’ve definitely been there… twice i…n the last 6 years.

The Discussion

Now we were really excited at the amazing answers that we received, but at the same time we knew that even with our own experience added back into the equation, that was hardly a community wide sample group to base a solid answer on. Even though the evidence that we had amassed so far did make a strong argument in favor of this being a freelance inevitability. But as previously mentioned, even most of those who say it is unavoidable provide some selected personal insights into its prevention. Or at least some ways to hold it at bay.

This would indicate that there should be ways around it, if only we knew all of the warning signs to look out for. Right? After all many have written on the subject of ways to fight it, including us, all the while being plagued by this thought that no matter what we do as freelancers, eventually this unwelcome guest will show up on our doorstep. But if it is inevitable, then how could any of this advice or awareness be helpful? For if so many of us have ideas on how to escape the burnout, then why have most of us experienced it?

This became the new question that was glaring us in the face, begging for an answer. Is it simply that we as a community are not good at practicing what we preach? Or that we are preaching meaningless practices? Or perhaps, it’s neither. Perhaps the answer lies in a more thorough look at the problem itself and the solutions proposed from our freelance friends.

Feel the Burn

We all tend to be somewhat familiar with the overall concept of burnout. We get to a point in doing something, in this case our work, where our interest begins to dissipate, and our creative drive for that pursuit stalls. During these periods, working becomes nearly, if not completely, impossible. For freelancers, this can be an extremely scary sensation to come up against. Given that we are the ones responsible for, well, everything that has to do with our business.

We all know this fire. Some of us, all too well. Image Credit

As freelancers we often do not have the luxury of being able to let someone else pick up our slack while we deal with the impending burnout that we can feel approaching. Therein, lies the rub. Even when we can feel the symptoms creeping up on us, the thousand yard stares, the shortened fuses, work actually feeling like work, and so on, we still have no outlet to turn to. No one to whom we can pass this proverbial torch temporarily so that we can ease up on the throttle, and alter this less than productive course that we are heading down.

Fueling the Fire

Now the advice that was offered from our social media pals actually point to the further issues that freelancers have to face, which sort of drive us towards this outcome being an inevitability. We know which behaviors often fuel this fire, but still we cannot help but pour it on the flames. Which seems to be somewhat of the freelancer’s curse. To know what is coming, and yet to be unable to avoid it.

Choosy Moms, Choose Jif

One of the recurring themes throughout the advice had to do with choosing the right clients and projects to work on. This way we can help to ensure that our work stays pleasurable. Indicating that the more fun we are having with the work, is vital in avoiding burnout. Which does makes sense. Most of us have had a difficult client or project in the past, so we know the taxing ways that it can weigh on us. But as freelancers, how much freedom do we truly have to be this choosy?

We might get to choose which track we take, but the tracks have to be there. Image Credit

Short answer: Total. Which technically is true. As freelancers, we do call the shots as to which jobs we want to take, and those we feel like we should pass on. But there are other factors that influence those decisions to pass. Like eating. Paying bills. Things like that, which we have grown accustomed to over the years. And not all freelancers have an overabundance of job offers coming in, that further give them the freedom to be this selective.

So even though, this can help stave off the effects of burnout, there are those in the freelance waters who must take every opportunity that comes their way. It is not a matter of being greedy, or even overzealous. It is just a matter of necessity. And as we all know, need can be the most influential and insistent of motivators.

The Balancing Act

As Louis mentioned, one way to keep from burning out is to maintain a hobby or some other fun aside that you can keep going along side your freelance work. And this is also something that others have written about in the past. How important it is for freelancers to not only keep fun side projects, but to be able to turn work off and get away whenever it becomes necessary. Even if it is just for a couple of hours a day. Being able to unplug your mind and let it reset is always beneficial to those working in creative fields. And time off is just as essential to anyone working in any field. But Meredith touched on how hard this can be for a freelancer.

Unplugging is essential, but not always a possibility. Image Credit

Even though as Amy pointed out, this is one of the ways that burnout can be beneficial for you. It can force this reset when we have not been able to get there ourselves. Which is also the biggest problem area for freelancers to this approach, getting there ourselves. When you are the only one holding down the fort, so to speak, it is not always easy to let your mind drift from work or turn it off when necessary. When you work as part of a team, and you need to unplug, there is that underlying comfort that there are others still working the problem. Freelancers do not have that comfort zone.

The Inevitable Conclusion

Even with our awareness raised, and our eyes open to the number of causes, burnout is very hard for freelancers to avoid, simply because of the way the field is structured. Given the daily demands placed on freelancers, and the number of outside factors all weighing in on us, we do not often have the luxury of heeding the advice that we know to be helpful. But as long as we do know the steps to take, we can attempt to build our freelance lifestyles around them, keeping the burnout card at bay when we can effectively afford it. Which is really the only option, because as we pointed out in the answers, it’s worth every instance of burnout to be the one calling all the shots!

What are your thoughts on freelancer burnout? Is it truly inevitable? Are there other considerations to be made that were neglected here which could also impact the outcome?

  •  TheKoolDots

    I’m pretty much cool with the burn-up aspect, unless I’m on a project that goes beyond the limits of the original scope of work and you can’t bill for extras.

  •  Kendra Gaines

    I am feeling the burn out now. I graduated in December and went straight into freelancing — i don’t want to work for any body but myself and I have great ideas. The issue is just that I don’t have clients who really want to pay; blogging is moving really slow and I haven’t even seen $1,000 in profits yet since I really started.

    It’s nice to know people who HAVE been doing this are going thru the same thing.

  •  Sheena

    Great article as usual Rob! Well worth a read by all freelancers! 🙂

  •  Robert Bowen

    Thanks, Sheena! And I appreciate your input when putting the piece together!

  •  Robert Bowen

    Hey Kendra,

    You are definitely not alone. It happens to bunches of us it would seem. The important thing to remember is to keep your head up and to keep trying!

  •  Robert Bowen

    Thanks for the feedback! Much appreciated. The above and beyond induced burnout can be the worst!

  •  Anonymous

    Passion burning

  •  Tino Cordes

    Very interesting. I have been working as a freelance graphic designer for 5-6 years and felt it in times.

  • Is Freelancer Burnout Inevitable?
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  •  Marlee

    · Hi Lisa,Thanks again for sponsoring me at WordCampNYC 2009! The event was amazing: a great place for learning and networking. Thanks also for signing your book, which is now part of my awesome autographed book cohiectlon!Best,Plil


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