I recently received a message from a fellow copywriter and friend. She’s going through a tough time at the moment – attempting to juggle her young daughter, more client demand than she’s ever experienced and a nasty case of general anxiety. In her message, she asked:
“Do you work in your business five days a week? And how do you manage overwhelm and burnout when you have lots of projects on?”
Having been freelancing now for two years, and with lots of friends and acquaintances who are also freelancers or small biz owners, I hear and see words like ‘overwhelm’ and ‘burnout’ on a daily basis. So many people in this field seem to be flat out, exhausted, anxious and unhappy. They’re working at the crack of dawn, at night, on weekends – and forget about holidays! They’re saying yes, when they should be saying no. They’re continuing to strive, to cram more in, to launch yet another thing, when – clearly – it’s time to pull back. Perhaps not forever, but at least for a while.
So, why do we do it? Why are freelancers working themselves into the ground? Surely it comes back to our current societal obsession with busyness – the busier you are, the more popular, prestigious and successful. Driven to do more, make more, and be more, fear drives a frantic level of activity, with a bad case of the ‘not enoughs’ running rampant. Not good enough, smart enough, successful enough, rich enough and on it goes. Of course, this is made all the worse by social media – a quick scroll showcasing everyone else’s perfect(ly curated) lives and reinforcing our list of shortfalls.
While many seem to wear this overworked exhaustion as a badge of busy honour, others (particularly newbie freelancers) seem genuinely befuddled and reluctantly resign themselves to this simply being ‘what it takes.’ No wonder. A quick google search reveals countless articles, books, podcasts – all reinforcing this notion of the exhausted entrepreneur, detailing how you too can succeed in business despite feeling absolutely zonked. But, are you really successful if you’re too tired to enjoy the rewards of what you’ve sewn?
I wanted to reply to my copywriter friend and be useful, but two years into freelance life, I feel so far removed from this way of working and living. I realise I write this from the luxurious position of being a child-free person with dual income, and no debt other than a manageable mortgage. Though, in terms of how I found myself in this comfortable position, there is much to be said for being sensible and living within your means – perhaps a whole other post! Nevertheless, yes, I realise I’m in a fortunate position. And yet, I still maintain there are many freelancers (and people in traditional jobs) who could be doing things differently – but aren’t.
I know this because I used to be one of these people myself – getting up every day at 5.30am and working 45+ hours a week in a job that was clearly no longer right for me. When my Mum would suggest gently, knowingly, that perhaps it was time to do something more creative and take better care of myself, it annoyed me – because I knew she was right. And yet, I was failing to act on that knowledge. Let me tell you: there is nothing more deflating than the feeling of ignoring that deep self-awareness, of shushing that silent plea for change.
But, that’s exactly what I did. Looking back, I think I was content to work long hours because they distracted me from how deeply unhappy I really was. After all, free time gives oxygen to that inner voice we otherwise drown out. In that space, the truth of our lives reveals itself in the simple call of how we really wish to spend our time. As Anthony Hopkins said, “None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an after thought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth that you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.”
Two years since leaving my job and completely overhauling my work-life balance, I know this to be true. I’ve discovered firsthand that things can be so different, and life so much better as a consequence. So, my answer to my friend’s question of, ‘How do you manage overwhelm and burnout?’ was simply: DON’T. Don’t manage it. Don’t think about it. Don’t even entertain it. How? By fiercely refusing to allow yourself to even get near that point in the first place. Reclaim why you chose to start freelancing in the beginning. I bet it wasn’t money, prestige or fame – but rather, freedom. Flexibility. A life!
When I finally quit my job, and took six months to get to know myself again, my inner voice told me some surprising things. Things like: I want to work less. Make more art. Read again. Grow my own vegetables. Spend more time with family and friends. Spend more time doing NOTHING. And as for money, as long as I have enough to live comfortably, to feel abundant, that is enough.
I listened to that voice and took action. I built a business that allows me to earn a sizeable income doing something I love, working no more than 25 hours a week. I work on a maximum of three projects at a time, and refer the rest – happily supporting other copywriters in the process. Because I’m not exhausted, I get things done quickly and well. (Sidenote: if you’re a creative freelancer, energy and inspiration are your lifeblood!). I often take Fridays off – just because I feel like it. I take long breaks during the day to get outside and walk. I spend my free time doing the things I love, running a calmer, more cohesive home and often (God forbid!) doing absolutely nothing. I like to call this human BEING time. And, let me tell you, it is life-changing. I know, deep in my bones – even when uncertainty, fear and comparisonitis occasionally strike – that the extra money I could be earning by working myself into the ground is not worth my time or sanity. Not even close.
If you resonate with words like ‘overwhelm’ and ‘burnout’, I implore you to do the same. Give yourself some time to be still and listen to that voice. It will rise up like a thin plume of smoke, a whisper at first, then louder as you start to listen. It is not so scary, I promise. In fact, it might just change everything. As the effervescent Dolly Parton said, “Don’t get so busy making a living, that you forget to make a life.”