12 Tips for Avoiding Burnout as a Freelancer

by Steven Snell

on April 21, 2010

in Business/Freelance

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Freelancing is attractive to a lot of people because of the opportunity to work on your own and to set your own hours. However, in reality most full-time freelancers face a lot of stress and experience burnout in their work on a regular basis. In this post we’ll look at some things that you can do to avoid burnout and to maintain an efficient and rewarding work process while still having a life outside of work.

1. Establish Reasonable Working Hours

One of the most obvious contributors to burnout is simply working too much. Most freelancers, myself included, struggle with setting working hours and sticking with them. It’s easy to work more hours than you plan when things don’t go as you expected, or when you have a lot that needs to get done. Certainly there are times when upcoming deadlines may force you to work longer hours, but that should be the exception not the norm.

The first step towards avoiding burnout is to have some sort of a set schedule that involves only working a reasonable number of hours each week. Most freelancers cherish the freedom that they have to work whatever hours they choose, and this often leads to a hesitance to establish a normal schedule. Setting working hours doesn’t require that you have a boring schedule with no room for flexibility. You can work varied hours that change from one week to the next, but the important part is that you set a schedule for yourself that will help you to avoid working ridiculously long hours on a regular basis.

2. Separate Your Work Space from Your Living Space

Equally as important as the number of hours that you work is the ability to truly get away from work during your off hours. One of the difficulties for freelancers is that the work space and living space are often the same or they may overlap. Ideally, you should have a separate space in your house (or even an office outside of the home) that is used only for work. If you can close off this space when you are not working and not let it interfere with your personal life, you will have an easier time relaxing and getting away from work during those off hours.

3. Charge What You are Worth

If you are trying to limit the number of hours that you work each week, you should evaluate the rates that you are charging to make sure that you are not underpricing your services. Many freelancers charge less than they are worth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. By pricing your services too low you will be forcing yourself to work more hours in order to earn a living. If you’re able to increase your rates and still retain the same interest level from clients, you can reduce the number of hours that you’ll need to work.

4. Work with Clients on a Selective Basis

Not every client that will contact you about doing work for them will be a good fit. Take some time to think about what types of clients are ideal for you, and what types of clients you tend to do the best work for. As you are in communication with potential clients, evaluate them to see if they are the type of client that you are looking for. Make sure that you are not missing out on good opportunities because you are too busy working with clients that are not ideal for you.

Hopefully you will have enough inquiries and potential clients that you won’t feel like you have to convert every lead into a client. Don’t be afraid to tell a client that you are not the best fit for a project or to refer them to another designer. For more see How to Determine if You Should Accept a Freelance Project.

5. Accept Projects that Interest You

As you are evaluating clients to determine who you should work with, consider the types of projects and how they match up with your own interests. It’s inevitable that certain projects will interest you more or less than others, and each designer has things that they are passionate about. Finding work that allows you to focus on things that interest you will go a long way towards avoiding burnout. Spending all of your time on projects that have no meaning or significance to you is a good way to lead to burnout.

Your interests and passion could be related to doing work for a particular type of company or organization (such as non-profts or start ups), working withing a specific industry, or specializing in a particular type of design or development (e-commerce, working with a specific CMS, etc.)

6. Prioritize Long-Term Relationships with Clients

The stress of finding new clients can cause a lot of stress and burnout for many freelancers. If you’re able to establish long-term relationships with some of your clients you will reduce the need to always have new clients coming in, and hopefully it will result in lower stress levels. In addition, you can reduce the amount of time that you need to spend getting familiar with new clients, their customers, and their industries because you will already know a lot about the clients that you are working with.

Finding long-term clients is not always easy, but it’s also not impossible. Chris Coyier wrote an interesting article, The Heating Company Analogy, that discusses a method of attracting long-term clients by offering a set monthly fee for site maintenance and on-going services. It’s a pretty interesting concept if you’re not currently doing much to build long-term relationships with your clients.

7. Don’t Agree to Unrealistic Deadlines

Another major source of stress for freelancers is the constant deadlines that surround our work. Deadlines and milestone dates are an inevitability of the job (although not on every project) and they’re actually a good thing for keeping projects on track and moving through to completion. But when deadlines are quickly approaching, they will cause stress and longer working hours.

While you cannot eliminate deadlines altogether, you can be more conscious to only accept deadlines that are reasonable and realistic. If you have a potential client that wants to hire you but with an unrealistic deadline, don’t just accept the job so that you can get some work. You’ll probably regret it later. Instead, take the time to explain to them why it is not realistic and how it can hurt the quality of your work, and suggest a reasonable compromise that will allow you to get everything done without working around the clock.

Another point to mention here is that before accepting a deadline you should communicate what you will need from the client in order to meet the deadline, and even place a deadline on the information that you need to get from them. This way if you are held up because a client is slow to get you what you need, when the deadline for your work is approaching, you can easily justify why you are running behind schedule.

8. Take Vacations to Re-Charge

Time away from work is necessary in order to re-charge and re-energize yourself. Freelancers often deprive themselves of adequate vacation time because they don’t want to miss out on potential work or because they don’t want their income to drop temporarily. Taking vacations is important, and with the proper planning and preparation a vacation does not have to hurt your business (see 9 Tips to Help Freelancers Prepare for a Vacation).

9. Outsource

If you feel like you don’t have enough time in the day to get all of your work done, consider outsourcing to other freelancers. There are plenty of opportunities for designers to outsource, although it needs to be done carefully since your reputation is on the line for their work. A popular option is to outsource PSD to HTML coding, which can help to speed up your development time and leave you with more time to do other things, or just less time for work.

There are plenty of other ways that you could incorporate outsourcing into your processes. Finding others who are interested in doing the work for you is not difficult, although you will need to be very selective of who you hire. Ideally, you’ll be able establish long-term relationships with other service providers that you know and trust to do quality work and to be reliable.

10. Prioritize Your Tasks

Efficiency in your daily work is really just as important as setting limited working hours. Without efficiency you will always find that you’re not getting everything done, and you’ll have more stress and you’ll wind up working longer hours on a regular basis. Focus on achieving efficiency in your daily tasks and waste less time. An important step is to create a prioritized to-do list each day that shows you exactly what you need to be working on and what is most important.

I find that when I do not have prioritized tasks that I need to get done each day, I wind up spending way too much time on insignificant work, and the important stuff that I need to get done winds up taking more time. Make it a habit to never go into a day without knowing exactly what you should be working on and what you need to get accomplished. This will lead to much less wasted time and you should be able to get your work done in less time.

11. Dedicate a Portion of Your Time to Personal Projects

One good way to fight off burnout is to have some time separated for working on your own projects that will provide a nice break from client work. This could be time that you use to update your portfolio, work on a blog, start some other type of website of your own, work on following tutorials that interest you, or just about anything else you choose.

Personal projects have been a big part of my own development as it gives me an opportunity to choose new things that I want to learn or areas for improvement. It’s also possible to use these personal projects to produce income that will reduce your reliance on client work, which can go a long way towards lowering the amount of stress in your daily life. But even if you are not pursuing personal projects that will bring in income, simply having some time to work on things of your choice rather than that of clients will help to re-fresh you and avoid burnout.

12. Take Care of Your Body

Stress and burnout are also effective by how you take care of yourself and your level of health. Make an effort to eat healthy foods and to get regular exercise and you should find that the stress of work can be reduced. Not only will stress be more manageable, but you should also do a better job of avoiding sickness that can result in lost work time, more difficulty meeting deadlines, and lost income.

Suggestions?

Is burnout an issue that you face, and if so, how do you deal with it? If you have any suggestions for our readers please leave a comment.

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design. Connect with Stephen on google+