Coping with Burnout: A New Study Reveals What Works (and What Makes it Worse)

Exhaustion. Lack of interest in work. A desire to strangle your clients.

These are the symptoms of burnout, an enemy to freelancers everywhere.

You probably know what you want to do to cope with burnout: sleep, stay in bed all day, or book a cruise to Hawaii. But as business owners, we often don’t have those options. How do we push through? How do we keep our businesses going when we’re feeling sucky?

Common burnout strategies

As you might suspect, there’s been a lot of research that links burnout to poor job performance. When you get tired and don’t care, you generally don’t produce your best work.

However, research has also found that workers who get tired and overworked can develop successful strategies for coping with burnout on the fly. This month, scientists out of The Netherlands published a study (LINK) about three of these different strategies:

1. Selection: Look at all the things on your plate and decide to pursue just a few of them.

2. Optimization: Refine your existing resources -- learn new things, model successful people, invest more time in building better overall strategies.

3. Compensation: Get other people to help you, outsource your work, use technology to do what you normally do.

What works

The study found that getting other people (or technology) to help you -- compensation -- is the best way to keep up a high-quality of work during burnout.

Yet again, we see the power of a network and a supportive circle in your freelance business.

Here’s what this might look like:

  • Outsource accounting, bookkeeping, taxes, organization, and other tasks to a virtual personal assistant (LINK to
  • Subcontract your projects
  • Refer gigs you can’t handle to another freelancer
  • Get advice on projects from other freelancers/friends/contacts
  • Talk through tough spots with your network

What doesn’t work

Optimization -- learning new things to help you work smarter -- does work, but the study found that people don’t usually do it. They’re already too exhausted to learn something new.

So even though it might help to go to that workshop, you’re too tired to get up and go.

What really doesn’t work

Selection, or choosing only some tasks to do (crucial ones) and eliminating secondary tasks, either didn’t help at all or actually hurt job performance.

Why? The study proposes that investing time in secondary tasks is what makes you able to adapt to change or unexpected circumstances. This should make sense to freelancers: for example, when you’re tunnel-visioned on one or two projects (primary tasks) and push marketing efforts (a secondary task) to the side, the end of your project or other unexpected circumstances can catch you gig-less (which is bad).

Another example: You stop meeting friends because you’re too busy, and as you might suspect, this makes you even more burnt out and less productive.

Unfortunately, selection is also the easiest strategy. So when you get burned out, it’s important to maintain your regimens and fight against the impulse to drop everything but your work.

Freelancers, how do you cope with burnout?