I know how burnout feels all too well. It’s the sinking emotion of dread and misery that sits somewhere between my chest and my stomach. It senses like a spring that gets compressed just a bit more every time I think of the task to be done. It is the feeling that makes me wonder if I’m really just lazy, unmotivated, or ungrateful for the opportunities I’ve been offered.
In my experience, nothing about the last sentence is ever true. Turns out, the self-inflicted guilt trips are in vain. It’s never the inherent laziness or lack of motivation that prevents me from “just doing it”; the task simply sucks, and that’s why I have 0 interest in it.
As a freelancer hired to do all kinds of work, I’ve done plenty of projects that were less than exciting. And it’s all good at first. I keep my eyes on the prize, and I remind myself that I’ll be compensated upon completion. Nevertheless, it gets harder and harder to keep my focus with each new project. And at some point, all I want to do is sleep and never wake up. To be clear, it’s not about seizing to exist; more likely, I just don’t want to deal with everything that gets put in motion in the morning.
I’ve been a freelancer for a long time. Over the years, I developed some techniques that help me deal with creative burnout. It’s important to mention that I don’t use them to make the burnout go away. Rather, they are there to prevent it from happening.
Make room in your schedule for passion projects
I get it, sometimes you have to spend most of your time doing work that pays. Moreover, it often feels like this approach is non-negotiable. However, this is exactly how you reach burnout.
So make sure that there are still some things that you do for yourself and not just for work. It could be a hobby, a secret and exciting side hustle, or something you enjoy doing with other people like playing games or exploring new hiking areas with your family.
Time is your most valued resource. But just because its value is high, it doesn’t mean that it should always have a dollar sign attached to it.
I’m going to say cliche things, but good sleep is priceless. So is being able to get away from the thing that makes you miserable and spend your time doing something that you genuinely enjoy. Reward yourself with activities that make you happy, and your days won’t feel as monotonous and mundane.
Have a bigger goal in mind
Having a North Star, a reason why you do what you do, helps put things in perspective. It allows you to push yourself just a little further. It makes it worth it in the end.
Keep in mind; your bigger goal needs to be BIG. Otherwise, it may not be very worthwhile in the end, and you’ll feel like your effort was wasted for nothing. Additionally, the goal needs to be yours. Not your mother’s, not your employer’s; yours and only yours. You can’t survive on hollow “we can’t do it without you” motivation/manipulation too long. The things that you are doing every single day of your life need to be aligned with who you are. Otherwise, it’s a matter of time till you stop caring about them altogether. In my experience, there’s no amount of guilt or money that can make people do the things that go against their real nature. It is just that simple.
This technique piggybanks on the very first point. If you do things that are hard, acknowledge it. Calibrate it depending on how much effort a task took, but make sure to reward yourself. And if you’re lacking an incentive to finish your job faster, don’t shy away from bribing yourself with something nice. The real trick, however, is to always do as you have promised. You don’t get the treat if you didn’t do the job, and you’re not allowed to postpone the reward once the task has been finished.
It sounds crazy, but I’ve lied to myself too many times. I’d promise myself a nice massage at the end of a large project to help deal with all the stress I’ve accumulated. But the second I was done, I’d backtrack. I’d tell myself that I’d do it next week, or that the task wasn’t really that challenging to begin with. Hence, no reward this time. Sic!
But dangling a non-existent carrot has its repercussions. Sooner or later, your own words will mean nothing to you. That’s what happened to me a while back when I was going through a really bad phase of creative burnout. No amount of promises or bribes were working; I simply knew that I wasn’t being sincere in making them. I remember listening to “The 5 Second Rule” audiobook by Mel Robbins and wondering if her simple strategy even worked for anybody. That’s when I realized that other people weren’t in the habit of lying to themselves.
So these are the 3 tricks I use to avoid burnout. As a creator and a freelancer who makes a living by using my brain, I simply cannot afford to experience it. Pushing myself beyond the limit ends up costing me more money than I make in the process, and sometimes it’s accompanied by the damage done to the professional reputation and relationships.
So my advice is to avoid it as much as possible. Don’t let internet commentators shame you into thinking that you’re not professional enough because you can’t work 24/7 and need a break. And if a client or an employer takes the role of the bully, maybe it’s time to reconsider your contract.
The last point I’d like to make is that mental health shouldn’t be treated as a luxury. It is really a necessity, and it is absolutely horrible that people struggle so much due to the lack of awareness, access, and affordability.
This is not a new issue, I’m sure that every generation struggled with it. However, if you approach mental health purely from the perspective of having a job and a work/life balance, the lines have become too blurry. We have a huge amount of people participating in the gig economy and not knowing what financial stability is. And for people who hold a traditional job, wages have been stagnating for decades, so they only have themselves and the fairness of their employers to rely on when it comes to getting any raises, even if it’s as little as a cost of living adjustment.
The truth is, we’re all going through so much. We’re just so used to it that we brush aside all the causes and go straight to beating ourselves up over the inability to be a never-breaking piece of machinery. But that’s not how being human works.
So please, please take care of yourself. Money is important for your well-being, but so is the feeling of dignity, being proud of your work, and inner peace. Please remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and do what’s really best for you in the long term.