How to avoid burnout

May 11, 2017

“I am not sure if this is for me.”

I could hear the angst in my friend’s voice. After months of chasing leads and looking for new clients, she was running on E. She was ready to quit freelancing.

“We all experience burnout,” I said reassuringly. “Remember, even Superman had Kryptonite.”

She chuckled a little and agreed to take some time off to readjust.

It is not uncommon for entrepreneurs to hit a wall, which may be the result of unfulfilled promises, unpaid invoices, monthly shortfalls, saturated markets, and/or poor payment rates. It is enough to make the most seasoned person take a time out and even contemplate quitting.

Unfortunately, there is no way to forecast exactly when it is going to happen, but it happens. The key, ironically, is not attempting to avoid it, but to come up with coping strategies to help you deal with it when it does occur. Like Kryptonite to Superman or a heel to Achilles, we have to do our best to protect ourselves in uncertain and difficult times.

Too often in the pursuit of entrepreneurial freedom, we get lost in the process and the pursuit. It is not uncommon for some freelancers to work 60 plus hours per week or odd hours. Have you ever noticed who else is up with you at 1:30 am or the messages that are timestamped at 4:30 am? I am even guilty of sending emails at 3:00 am assuming that my client would not get it until the next morning, only to get a reply within 10 minutes. After apologizing profusely to him, he reminded me that it was ok because he was up “working too.”

There have even been occasions where freelancers have been so engrossed in projects that they have forgotten to, or didn’t have time to, eat.

Many of us are willing to go above and beyond because we are working for ourselves. The drive to be the owner instead of the employee creates not only passion and drive, but also an added kick of adrenaline to help us push through tight deadlines. It reminds me of Pinky and the Brain, who plotted to take over the world every day. Of course, this is a hyperbole, but some of us to have lofty goals and we literally chisel away at them on a daily basis. But at what cost?

Unfortunately, some of us sacrifice our well-being and are in perpetual Hamster-on-a-wheel mode. We are moving, but we aren’t going anywhere. When this happens, ask yourself: When is the last time that I did something for me? Not my career, not my family, not my friends, and not my community, but simply for me because I deserve it. If it helps, start keeping a log or journal of how many hours a week you spend on you versus on other people.

For many of us, we are goal-driven, overachievers who have found a way to convert our skills, talents, and gifts into profitable enterprises. The thought of slowing down or stopping may seem oxymoronic, but it is necessary. I find that burnout often occurs when we don’t have the stamina to keep up at our current pace or we are engaging in practices that are not sustainable. Let’s be honest, operating on 3 to 4 hours of sleep is not optimal, yet some of us do it on a daily basis.

My antidote is self-care. Take the time to do things that refuel you. Be around people who care deeply about you and not just your success. Go to a movie, go see a play, do a weekend get-a-way, and/or play outside. And my favorite cure for burnout is to make sure that you laugh frequently and authentically. I am a pretty serious person and I sometimes write about heavy topics, but I invite humor into my life because it feeds my soul.

If you spend much of your time pouring into others—as most of us do—it’s just a matter of time before you will feel depleted and burnt out. You cannot be your best self or do your best work if you are not in a good space, especially if you are a creative entrepreneur.

The key, for me, is being proactive and not reactive to the demands of entrepreneurship. Once you sense that you are losing vigor, it’s time to rethink your action plan.

I do three things that have worked quite well: 1) step back, 2) reevaluate and 3) re-prioritize. In other words, tackle the things that are most time sensitive and urgent then make a plan for everything else, keeping in mind that you need to set aside some time for you. If it is appropriate and the project calls for it, lean on others to help you with it or see if someone in your support system can help you with your other responsibilities so that you can place your attention elsewhere.

I plan to circle back with my friend next week. I don’t believe that she is going to quit. In fact, I know that she loves freelancing, she’s just hit a wall. My hope is that she will either climb over it or find a way around it.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.