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Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Surefire Way to Beat Freelancing Burnout

Freelancing full-time has a lot of perks. You get to make a living from your words, you can write from a home office in sweats and thick fluffy socks, and you can work as little or as much as you want. (At least in theory—sometimes you face freelance droughts, or have to work weekends and nights to meet all your deadlines.)

Sure, there are the inevitable hassles with slow-to-respond editors, delayed checks, and mangled edits. But overall, most freelancers love what they do, and the way they’re able to work. The income survey of more than 200 freelancers I conducted earlier this year found that 90 percent “definitely” planned to continue their careers; another 7 percent said they “probably” would. So you may be surprised to find yourself suffering from burnout at some point.

With fourteen years of freelance experience, I’m far from immune to burnout. Instead, I can predict that every nine to eighteen months, I’ll go through a period where I seriously question my freelance career. Yet each time, burnout has helped jumpstart my enthusiasm for freelancing.

If you're falling out of love with freelancing, first determine what's causing the burnout. Do you have too much work overall—or simply too many deadlines all falling at the same time? Are your clients too demanding? Is it the type of work you’re doing? Or is it that you’re bogged down with “grunt work,” things like transcribing interviews, chasing down money that’s owed to you, or following up on queries you haven’t had a response to?

Once you've identified the burnout source(s), use my secret weapon. Sit down with your choice of caffeinated beverage and make a list of the pros and cons of freelancing. Look at this as a brainstorming exercise; don’t worry about listing them in order of importance or how many you have on each side. Then read your list and compare the pros and cons.

The first time I did this exercise, I’d been freelancing for almost eighteen months. My “pros” list included thirteen items like “no commute,” “it’s cool—I’m a writer,” and “seeing my name in print.” The cons included things like “I’m lonely,” “continual rejection is affecting my self-esteem,” “little or no feedback on work,” and “no clear goals except for money.”

Over years, my personal pros and cons list has changed, but some elements of my pros list have remained consistent. The freedom to set my own hours, the enjoyment of writing itself, and the fact that I’m building something that is mine are all reasons why I continue to freelance. On the cons side, I’m always frustrated about editors who are slow-to-respond or slow-to-pay (or worse, both), and I continually resent how much of my income goes to pay taxes. But on balance, is it worth it? Yes.

Seeing your personal pros and cons list in black and white should serve two purposes. Number one, it should get you excited about freelancing again. Second, it should give you insight into the parts of freelancing that aren’t working right now. You can’t do anything about what you pay to Uncle Sam, but if “bored silly by all my assignments” is on your list, you can start writing about a different subject area. Or maybe it’s time to do something completely different.

No matter how much you love freelancing, you will get burned out at some point. Make it an opportunity to reboot by focusing on the positives of your chosen career. I promise there are a lot of them.

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  1. Great post, Kelly. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. This was informative. I like to think of it as an occassional slump instead of burnout.

  3. As a part-time freelancer with a full-time job, it's easy to be enviable of the full-time freelance life. I appreciate your transparency and sharing of reality, reminding me that once I make the leap, it's not always sunshine and lollipops. Thanks Kelly.