Are You Overworked? How Freelancers Can Avoid Burnout

Are you overworked? Here's how freelancers can avoid burnout.Many writers tell me they wish they could find even one client. But today, I want to talk about the other side of the coin: how freelancers can avoid burnout.

Once you get rolling in freelance writing and word starts getting around about your talents, you can quickly find yourself overbooked, overworked, and exhausted.

I recently had a chat with freelance writer Alyssa Ast about this on my Facebook chat — she was getting overloaded, and her personal passion writing projects were sitting idle. She’s got a passel of young kids to care for, too.

And she was nearing her breaking point.

 

A tale of overwork

Here’s Alyssa’s story:

“Basically, things have taken off, which has left me working 16 hour days — and I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up.

“I’ve cut all of the small fish and narrowed it down to three well-paying clients– two full-time contracts and a part-time one. I don’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket [and cut down to one client], as the main breadwinner. We NEED my income.

“I refuse to outsource, because I don’t trust anyone to produce the quality I expect or my clients expect. I thought cutting out the small clients would help more than it has. I’ve scheduled everything out to a T, but as soon as I start to get my head above water, I get slammed again.

“How can I keep my sanity without losing my income? I am open to just about anything at this point.”

This is a good problem to have — you’re in demand! But we all need a personal life, too, and some downtime.

How can you turn this around and stop being an overworked freelancer? Here are my tips:

1. Charge existing clients more

Tell all your clients that your rates are going up in 30 days, and drop the clients who won’t go for the raise. With luck, you now have less work to do, but a similar amount of money coming in.

2. Drop your lowest payer

If everybody goes for that and you still have too much workload, figure out who is worth the least to you. Check your stats from an hourly-rate point of view, and an annual-revenue perspective.

Somebody’s got to go — those two stats should tell you who. As soon as you have that breathing room, often, you’ll find a way to land a better client.

3. Get better clients

It’s possible that your entire client base is at inappropriately low rates. That’s a common overwork scenario.

In that case, you need to start marketing — yes, even though you’re super-busy. You need to learn to qualify better prospects, and how to do effective marketing that gets you hired by them.

If you have a lot of small, one-off clients, you will earn better in less time if you can find bigger clients with more ongoing work. That cuts your admin and marketing time relative to your billable hours.

4. Get referrals

The first question I always ask writers who want better pay is, “Have you let all your current and former clients know you’d appreciate their referrals?” I rarely hear a “yes.”

If you’re busy and overworked, this is a request that takes but a moment to make, and can often bring you new and better clients. (Remember, there’s no reason that new client needs to know how much you were paid at the old one.)

Once you’ve got some referrals, you’ll have more choices on who to drop and who to keep, and should be able to more easily get your rate to where you can work less.

5. Consider the agency model

If you’ve really got enough work for two or three people, you could consider going to the agency model. This wasn’t for Alyssa, and there are many risks to being an agency — flaky writers whose quality of work doesn’t equal yours, for instance. But it could be a way to reduce your workload while enabling you to continue growing your income.

As an agency, you’d have even more bandwidth to take on clients. It could allow you to more easily service bigger clients who might be overwhelming you as a solo writer.

6. Outsource other tasks

How much time do you spend vacuuming, doing laundry, transcribing interviews, running errands, doing software updates on the laptop? I thought so.

If you’re leery of the idea of outsourcing any of your writing assignments, consider what else you could outsource at an affordable rate that might free up your time. You might be able to do the same amount of work and not feel overworked, if you could reduce your load of other chores.

7. Set better boundaries

Sometimes, the overwork is about writers’ own failure to set office hours. You let work creep into every corner of your time, even vacations.

If you’ve got boundary-pushing clients who want to IM you on the weekends or at 10 p.m. and expect an immediate response, you might want to replace them. Set business hours, let your clients know what they are…and then, do not respond outside your set hours.

You may discover you can get the same amount of work done in less time, once you refuse to be available in the off hours. Nothing concentrates the mind — and cuts the Facebook doodling, or checking email for the 5th time today — like the news that the computer must go off for the night in an hour.

8. Reduce expenses

If you have to overwork in order to pay your bills, maybe you could take a look at the expense side of things. Do you use that cable TV subscription? Do you need a cell phone, really? Are you paying for services you might trade someone for, say, babysitting?

Write down everything you spend for a month. Every dime. And then look at how much value you get from each of those costs — and cut accordingly.

9. Learn to say ‘no.’

When you’ve been a starving freelancer, and then things start to hit, it’s hard to turn down work. You continue to worry that you’ll hit a drought.

So, you say ‘yes’ to every client who approaches you — even if they’re not a fit for your goals, or don’t pay what you want. I know writers who’ll turn their schedule upside down to fit in a $100 press-release or resume, from a client who’s unlikely to give them anything further.

It’s also easy to get inappropriately attached to clients who don’t pay you that well, and feel a weird sort of misplaced loyalty to sticking with them. Simply put, don’t.

This is your life you’re trying to reclaim here. Writers move on all the time. You can do this. Give them adequate notice, refer them another writer if you can, and then move on.

10. Ask yourself — is it workaholism?

If none of these other points are resonating for you, it may be time to look at a bigger issue: whether you might be addicted to work.

Overwork can be a way to avoid dealing with other problems in our lives — the abusive spouse we should leave, the friendships you’ve neglected, the workouts you dread but desperately need for your health, the disrespectful teen you can’t seem to reach.

When your writing business is humming along, it can be more enjoyable — in the short run — to spend all your time meeting writing deadlines, instead of working on the tough personal-life areas where you feel like a failure. But eventually, that leads to even more unhappiness and personal problems.

Remember, there is always more writing work you could do, and income you could earn — but you’ll only go around once. It’s up to you to keep it in balance.

Most of us started freelancing for the freedom. Don’t let this turn into another kind of round-the-clock work bondage that’s even worse than a day job.

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29 comments on “Are You Overworked? How Freelancers Can Avoid Burnout
  1. Linda H says:

    Love this post and I’ve implemented several points after experiencing a type of burnout.

    I’ve set boundaries and stick with them on writing days and after hours. As a resume writer I get clients demanding my time on weekends, after 8 p.m. and I truly needed to set boundaries.

    Much of my business is now referrals. It’s great, but sometimes I’m swamped and then have a ton of projects with similar deadlines. Think I’ll use Tracy’s tracking ideas to see which projects take longer. I have a tracking spreadsheet for due dates, but need to project how to get those completed so I don’t miss anything.

    I’ve also just gotten in two new freelance writing gigs. Both long-term and rewarding. But this will require cutting back on short-term projects, so I need to reflect on time needs and pricing.

    All your points are great ones Carol. I appreciate your thoughts on them. I can very near burnout until I stopped and reviewed many of these points. Now I’m busy but not working all the time and hating it.
    Linda H recently posted…What Do You Say When an Interviewer Asks β€” Why Should I Hire You?My Profile

  2. Actionable ideas here, Carol. Thanks for being resourceful.

    Tip #1 resonates with me the most. Raising your fee is a great way to kick out the lowest payers and the time wasters. With a raise, some clients will flee but the rest will be worth it and you’ll have more time to rest and spend with your family.

    But I was so scared to try it for over a year. Once I’ve tried it and found out how magical it works, I was going to stick to it. πŸ™‚
    Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin recently posted…How to Choose the Best Theme for Your WordPress BlogMy Profile

  3. Daryl says:

    Great tips here Carol! I think something that I, and other freelance workers struggle with, is definitely setting proper working hours – your personal life starts to bleed into your freelance time and vice versa. Sometimes you just have to bloc out the time for both and learn to say no to anything outside of that
    Daryl recently posted…The Roundup: The Best Freelance Writing Posts for January 2015My Profile

  4. Aleksandra says:

    Thanks for sharing this Carol. I feel like the number 10 is the most important one. Sometimes freelancers get so overwhelmed with work that they forget about work and life balance and it tends to be a very negative habit. Setting boundaries and doing other activities besides working is very important, it will keep you motivated and prevent you from burning out.
    Aleksandra recently posted…Appointment Setters Wanted – April 14 Virtual JobsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, to me point 10 goes beyond ‘I forgot to have work/life balance’ — it’s work as an addiction. One that medicates and insulates us from other, more difficult problems. I think if we always seem to work a million hours, we owe it to ourselves to ask whether it’s a form of avoidance, or whether we really ‘love’ what we’re doing all that much.

      • Alyssa Ast says:

        I agree with both. I got to the point of being so overworked that I began to dread working every day, which made getting through the long hours that much harder. The passion was gone. I was really starting to wonder if I had made a mistake choosing this career path despite loving to write since I was a young child. But, now that I have rebalanced my life, the passion is back and it isn’t a daugnting daily task any more. I think if you aren’t loving what you’re doing any more, than you need to reevaluate just what exactly is going on.

  5. Tom Southern says:

    I think often overwork comes because many freelancers have entered freelancing out of a need for income. This need drives them to accept any work in order to make ends meet and ease their fear. They hope that once they’ve got enough money to pay off essentials, they can turn their attention to more of their desired clients and work schedule.

    I can understand this approach. However, I think it’s important not to “put off” growing a potential client base before this urgent need for income arises. Some contracts forbid employees earning income outside their jobs but even so, free or complimentary work can help grow this client base through reputation and referral, etc. It can be tough. But it can help a lot to stop the stress and overwork that comes out of need.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m not sure I follow, Tom — I think all freelance writers get into this to earn money! That is the point, right?

      I do think a lot of writers approach freelancing from a place of desperation — they haven’t planned well, saved, cut expenses, and then you’re in the trap of taking whatever you’re offered. Nothing improves until you move beyond that, get more leads, and start being able to pick and choose clients — but that wasn’t Alyssa’s situation, she already had some great clients.

  6. I vote for social media as the hardest place to set boundaries: for many of us it’s an important marketing tool, but it’s so full of distractions you feel you need blinders to stay in the top-priority zone.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Good Friday: A Wide ViewMy Profile

  7. Alyssa Ast says:

    Thank you so much for your great advice Carol. After our chat, I implemented many of the tips you had mentioned, and I already see a drastic improvement. Thank you again.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh, that’s awesome, Alyssa — I hadn’t heard back. Glad this helped you! Feel free to share what you changed to cut the workload.

      • Alyssa Ast says:

        Well, my first step was #1 and #2, which you suggested. That actually turned out very well and opened the door to a salary position, so I don’t need to seek out any additional clients right now. One client I did hang on to couldn’t afford the new rates, so I ended up outsourcing and plan to transition the SEM manager I hired to take over the account fully.

        I have set new boundaries, including new office hours. Although, I still go beyond those hours from time to time, for the most part, I am sticking to them, and it is making a difference.

        I also have a plan in place to begin hiring writers to handle my personal websites and some personal projects in the very nearing future.

        In addition, instead of trying to focus on numerous clients each day, each client now has a dedicated day(s), which has allowed me to get more done for each in less time.

        I’ve started turning off my cell phone and reducing how often I check emails and social media. So far, the little changes have added up to a huge change in how I manage my time.
        Alyssa Ast recently posted…Infographic: PR Metrics that MatterMy Profile

  8. Rohi says:

    Hi Carol,
    You are absolutely right. All the ten points you list are important.
    I feel setting better boundaries is crucial. I’ve decided to stop work at 9 pm each day but find it difficult to stick to it. (LIke now.)
    Also I try to get enough sleep, exercise, rest, and recreation. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope.
    Rohi recently posted…My Ten Favorite Humorous QuotationsMy Profile

  9. Amy Butcher says:

    Great tips!! I have probably been guilty of all of these things at one point or another as a freelancer and have felt the burn of the 16 hour days. Most of the advice for cutting back has been to outsource, but this has always involved more work! I am so guilty of not marketing my services to better clients because the call of the work on my plate is too easy to answer. My hope with Article Writing Master Class (and now pitch clinic) is to really get myself out of that mindset.
    Amy Butcher recently posted…5 Steps to Creating Content Your Donors LoveMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      What are you outsourcing? Because it shouldn’t be more work to outsource — if you tried outsourcing writing, I agree that can backfire. But housecleaning? Errand-running? Transcribing? These things should save you time.

      It can feel easier to keep grinding along for our low-pay clients instead of taking proactive steps to find better ones — but I can tell you, it’s worth it!

  10. Tracy Hume says:

    Hi Carol! Another excellent, relevant and timely post! I would like to add that something that has helped me say ‘no’ to projects is having the ability to realistically estimate the time it will take me to complete the project. I created an Excel spreadsheet on which I track every project. It includes (a) project type (for example, a particular kind of grant application, or article length); (b) start date of the project; (c) end date of the project; (d) daily hours log; (e) total project hours. I can go back nine years now and see how many hours a particular type of project really took me to complete, which helps me predict my bandwidth more accurately. (When I rely just on my memory or guesswork, I consistently underestimate how long it takes me to research and write a piece!) I also have a spreadsheet on which I track my invoices, and I can rank every project (and every client) by (a) rate per word (total project fee divided by number of words, whether they paid my on a per-word basis or not); (b) hourly rate (project fee divided by the hours I spent on the project, whether they paid me hourly or not); (c) annual revenue by client; and (d) percent of total annual revenue by client. (I think you have written about this kind of tracking before, but I couldn’t find the post(s) just now.) Having this kind of historical data really helps me make good decisions about what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to going forward. (P.S. I learned Excel by taking a one-semester class at the local community college, and it was SO worth it …) πŸ™‚

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think we ALL fail to imagine how time-consuming writing projects will be, Tracy — how dysfunctional the client will be, who won’t be available to talk to, how much rewriting they’ll want, and so on.

      I love the data-tracking you’re doing — I used to be religious about this. You need this information, especially starting out, to get a sense of what you’re really earning on an hourly basis.

  11. Mai Bantog says:

    “Nothing concentrates the mind β€” and cuts the Facebook doodling, or checking email for the 5th time today β€” like the news that the computer must go off for the night in an hour.”

    I think I started to put things into perspective when I got sick last month. Though it wasn’t stress-related, I know my body needed a break from all those late night articles that simply piled up because I didn’t set work boundaries. Also, I had a huge problem with procrastination, as I check my social media accounts and email every so often within the day.

    I’ve been trying to change that ever since this month started, and so far, I think I’m doing well. As a rule, I stop working at 6pm so that I have time to bomd with my family over dinner, watch my favorite shows, and read a few chapters before sleeping. That also enables me to wake up early the next day and start my work day right away. And man, what difference it made. I sleep better, work better, and actually look forward to work.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Mai, thanks for sharing this. I think there’s a myth out there that logging more work hours = more productivity. But it’s not true. It’s the road to burnout. Setting those limits makes you so much more creative and productive!

      You could use a program such as Freedom to make your social media sites inaccessible while you write, you know. πŸ˜‰

    • Elke says:

      Oh yes, setting a time deadline works for me too.

      I now turn my computer off at 10pm (my alarm goes off to remind me) then read a book. I sleep much better now and enjoy the evening routine of reading in bed – so cosy – while stroking the cat.

      Plus there’s quite a bit of info out there now that light emitting screens do interfere with sleeping patterns and it helps to exclude all – including TV – a few hours prior to going to bed.

  12. Rachel says:

    I can’t deny that as I am still on the new end of things, the prospect of having too much work makes me giddy with anticipation. That being, said, I do relate to your remark about remembering the freedom this career is supposed to impart.

    Balance can be one of the most difficult things to find, and yet it was worth the effort as it is one of the most valuable.
    Rachel recently posted…Exciting news! Here’s Garden Clippings #1My Profile

  13. Great advice Carol, but oh, if only this were my problem!
    Right now it’s finding time to market during the whirlwind of a new baby and juggling a job that’s taking up more time than its worth.
    But I will echo a previous post you’d mentioned; setting aside time for the pleasure writing. The late Stephen Cannell also mentioned something along these lines. His advice was to make pleasure writing the first thing a writer does in the morning! I agree and actually miss the days of waking up at 4 am to sit in front my laptop and write my novel(s).
    Someday, sigh, someday soon that will be my reality again.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, congrats on the baby! I’d cut yourself a break — it’s pretty difficult to get much done with a newborn, except to enjoy them and take care of all their needs. Which is what you should do. Life will never get any better.

  14. Hi Carol

    Sometimes it’s not actually a case of being an overworked freelancer, but having fear of becoming an overworked freelancer.

    If my own experience is anything to go by then I expect many other freelance writers are the same – they won’t market their services through fear of becoming inundated.

    You feel your marketing could go to waste – because you may not have the time to take up any resulting offers of work.

    All visitors to your blog should know by now that marketing is the only way to step up and swap out those lower paying clients.

    And that often you have to hold your nerve, take on the work and worry about your ability to do it later.

    But many of us like to stick within our own little comfort zone. Don’t we?
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…Revealed: The marketing tactics six successful copywriters use to build a better incomeMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great point, Kevin! I do hear that worry a lot.

      And the answer to “What if I get inundated with offers?” is “say no.”

      Or say, “I’m not available for about three weeks — could I put you onto my schedule for then?” I’ve had more than one client wait me out! Just because a prospect says ‘jump’ you don’t have to do it right now.

      And as you say, you can only swap out lower payers when you have many other options. So keep marketing!

    • Not REALLY wanting to succeed–at least not if change or pain is the price–is an inner demon many of us are wrestling with. I got some interesting articles for the Google search “unconscious self-sabotage.”
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Good Friday: A Wide ViewMy Profile

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