Beat Back Burnout

JordanA Writer's Guide to Persistence

The problem with being a freelancer, especially one who loves what you do, is that the line between work and the rest of your life is often so very slender that it ceases to exist.  Freelancers are often self-motivated to a fault, notoriously bad at stopping, especially if, like me, you work from home, your “office” your portable laptop. Add in the fact that inspiration and actual time to work don’t necessarily match, you may find yourself “always” working in and around the crevices of your life.

If you could peer inside my brain the past few days it would look like the opening sketch from the Muppets, with a lot less choreography and a lot more Animal flinging himself about. It might have something to do with writing 20 chapters of my book-in-progress in less than 30 days (and that’s not all). And yet, other deadlines press, more responsibilities loom. I keep plugging along through the work as though there is some overlord holding a burning hot firebrand just over my head if I don’t keep at it.

There is no overlord but myself. Oh there are deadlines and clients and book contracts but none of those are imminent today, certainly not right this minute, and even those that are most pressing could probably be given some wiggle room.

If you’re a freelancer or self-employed in any fashion, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. And you’re probably familiar with the following state, too:

Your subconscious mind tells you that you’re on overload before your conscious mind knows it. Like two magnets repelling each other, suddenly information can no longer go in; saturation has been reached. People repeat themselves to you after catching you staring off into space thinking of nothing for minutes at a time. You lose your train of thought mid-sentence and, if you’re like me, engage in joke-telling and other goofy steam-releasing silliness.

Other ways of discovering you’re burned out the hard way: getting sick, falling into a cranky state that makes socializing a chore; dropping the ball on your projects. A burned out brain feels the way muscles do if you’ve worked out too hard—sore and fatigued, every push an effort.

It occurred to me as I sat down to write this post that if I worked a job in an office somewhere I would probably be looking to schedule my vacation. Vacation? Ha! Unless it’s a family trip, taking a vacation from my freelance life would look a whole lot like sitting around on the couch reading; the furious, busy part of my brain says: that’s not allowed.

But breaks ARE allowed. They’re necessary. Crucial even.  Everyone needs a break.

As a freelancer of any kind you need to stay vigilant for burnout. Yes, you can burn out even on something you love to do. A friend of mine just wrote today on Facebook about the way her art can preoccupy her to the point of disregarding her physical needs, like food and rest, as well as toying with her brain chemistry. You have to impose the limits on yourself. Here are a few tricks for keeping ahead of it:

  • The Body Electric: My body is the first canary in the burnout coalmine. Something that doesn’t “usually” hurt will suddenly light up, electric with pain, unable to be easily quelled. When this happens it’s time to consider if I’ve been spending hours every day at the computer, and how to change this up.
  • Interchange Impressions: The work you do brings with it a series of mental “impressions”—these carry a sort of energy, and just like in the physical body, where repetitive motions can create “repetitive strain” or injury, I believe the mind needs a break from the same set of images, the same path.
  • Set Breaks. Use a timer. I’m serious. On your phone, on the kitchen stove, via a friend who texts you “stretch break.” It doesn’t matter how, but break it up. It’s also good for stimulating fresh clarity or helping you if you’re wrestling with something tough.
  • Retreat. I find great benefit in taking myself completely out and away from the work into nature or a place of restoration. If you bring the computer “just in case” chances are good you’ll work instead of rest.
  • Keep it in perspective. We have ways of lying to ourselves that if the work isn’t done “now” civilization as we know it will crumble; most certainly our business or project or family will. It’s not true. Most of the time, like 99.9% of the time, it just isn’t true. Especially if you schedule breaks in advance, so that you and your clients/employees know when you won’t be available. And even more, I like to ask you to consider, at the end of your life, will you be glad that you worked those extra hours at the cost of your health and well being, or will be glad you rested?
JordanBeat Back Burnout