It might start out resembling a normal workday.
Being a freelance writer is easy, and nothing ever goes wrong, you tell yourself.
You’re there. The requisite coffee is there. The well-worn keyboard sits just below the screen, which pulses steadily with notifications of various tasks, deadlines, and expectations. You’re used to this. Some part of you might even feed on it.
But then, something abnormal happens. Not that it’s unheard of to procrastinate on writing a little bit—even veterans who’ve hammered out dozens of books do it. But you find yourself spending an awful, just embarrassing amount of the day perusing the listings of dogs that are up for adoption at your local shelter. You keep cleaning your desk and finding creative ways to list the stuff you have to do instead of, you know, doing it. Did I remember to eat lunch today? Sigh. Do I deserve to?
Ding! A new assignment just landed in your inbox. The pay is respectable—the kind of day rate you drooled over in college—but you’re just not jazzed. What’s welling up inside you is dread. Please stop making me do stuff, you plead to no one. Oh no. Am I burned out? Maybe.
As a freelancer, your rent and food all hinge on your ability to dispatch assignments in rapid succession, ship invoices, and keep moving. That kind of frenetic pace can wear you down, and yes, sometimes it leaves you feeling burned out. How you might deal with it depends on the severity, as well as how much time you have. We’ll talk first about tactics you can use immediately, and then zoom out for a broader consideration of how you can surmount more lasting burnout.
Short term: Breathe it out
Are you facing a deadline today and worried you’re not going to hit it? Don’t panic. Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, hold onto it for just a moment, then exhale. You can get through this.
First, if you need to, log out of any social media that might suck away precious time. And while you’re at it, quash any extraneous conversations that have been blowing up your phone. That twenty-person text thread half-full of people you don’t know all negotiating the details of what kind of coleslaw they’ll bring to this weekend’s barbecue? Mute them.
Close any tabs related to ordering cute boots or obscure vinyl. Do not check the news. Take a couple of minutes to stand up, stretch, and get a glass of water. Find some aspirin if you need to.
How much time do you have until your deadline? If you can, divide what you need to do into smaller chunks, and budget time for each chunk. Try to leave a teensy bit of room for yourself at the end—that way you’ll have a moment to stand up again before you give your work a final once-over and hit “send.”
If the beginning doesn’t come easily to you, don’t waste time feeling stuck. Instead, start with what is easy—a middle section, perhaps. This may help you work backward and find your way in. Where possible, try not to overwhelm yourself with minutiae; don’t fiddle. Remember to break down pieces that feel unwieldy into simpler, more manageable components. You can work through them, so long as you remember to breathe.
If some part of you relishes this challenge—feels alive and appreciates the adrenaline and the suspense of pushing a tight deadline—then be conscious of it. But if that feeling is utterly absent, keep reading.
Longer term: Say no sometimes
Like a muscle, your writing ability can be built and developed over time. But also like a muscle, it can sometimes become overexerted and need time to rest and recover. Such periods needn’t feel like slow punishment; they can be chances to take care of and renew yourself.
As a freelancer, you might be used to pouncing on every possible gig that slides across your desk. You might also have several bosses. And your work may rarely stay confined to set hours, as the familiar cycles of feast and famine sometimes find you working long into the evening or on weekends.
But don’t overlook the advantages of freelancing. For instance, say you want to spend half your Tuesday morning at the gym and afterward hit up your favorite diner when it’s not crowded, possibly while reading something terrible you could’ve written better yourself: You can totally do that. And at least once in awhile, for sanity’s sake, you should.
In other words, you can occasionally indulge in the luxury of turning down work.
This is, admittedly, a balancing act. It takes a lot of effort up-front to cultivate a steady freelance hustle, and you might feel hesitant about giving up whatever hard-won momentum you’re enjoying. With this in mind, it’s good to communicate with the people you work for; freelancers don’t have to haggle over yearly vacation days, but the smart ones let their bosses and clients know what to expect and when they’ll be off the grid.
So why are you a freelancer? Maybe you detest fluorescent break rooms and office politics. Maybe some aspect of your life demands the kind of flexible scheduling that a salaried job can’t usually provide. Or maybe you’re in the midst of a transition—and enjoying the opportunity to branch out in different places and work on various projects without having to commit to any single role or employer.
If that’s where your heart is, then whatever ennui, malaise or general burnout you’re wrestling may soon pass. In the meantime, we know it’s a cliché, but don’t overlook the time-honored hallmarks of self-care, like routine exercise and eating well—two essentials that are often abandoned in times of high pressure and constant deadlines.
But if the work has truly come to wear on you in a way that “burnout” doesn’t fully encompass, know that no job is worth surrendering your happiness, and that this is something hard-working and exhausted people seek professional counseling for every day. There’s no shame in that.
If, after some reflection, you conclude you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, it’s okay. There might be other bosses or clients for whom you’d be happier writing, and other subjects you’d find refreshing to focus on for a while—or at least less draining. Freelancing affords you the freedom to keep exploring.