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Are you experiencing burnout? How to tell, and how to get back on your feet

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Oh, burnout.

If you’ve experienced it, you know how crucial it is to avoid it.

If you haven’t experienced it yet, you must be new ‘round here.

What is burnout?

Generally speaking, burnout is when you’re overworked. It’s an easy thing for an enthusiastic creative to fall into, especially if you’re freelancing.

You can get burned out doing work you love all day every day. You can get burned out without working more than 40 hours a week. You also can get burned out and still not have enough money to pay the bills. Ultimately, burnout comes from overcommitment — doing more of something than you can handle.

Lots of factors can contribute to burnout. A few of the common ones are:

  • Working long days, every day (even if you like what you do)
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Having too many projects running at one time (draining your mental and organizational resources)
  • Extreme boredom or dissatisfaction with your work (even if you’re working normal hours)

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Burnout is something that can happen to anyone who’s ambitious and who works hard. Freelancers and entrepreneurs are especially susceptible to burnout because we tend to work long hours and don’t always have distinct “off hours.”

Recognizing burnout when it hits you

Burnout results from prolonged levels of high stress. It looks and feels like exhaustion of all sorts — mental, physical, emotional, even spiritual. It’s not something that you wake up with one day. Instead, it sneaks up on you. It’s not uncommon to be burned out without even realizing it. For that reason, and because it’s so prevalent, being familiar with the signs of burnout and how they might play out for you is the first step in cutting it off at the knees.

There are some major emotional warning signs of burnout. The most common symptoms are feelings of listlessness, and any sense of your motivation or inspiration disappears. Instead, you can’t focus and you dread even minor things. Everything becomes a struggle, and even thinking about what you need to do is physically draining. Following through on your regular routines and habits is like pulling teeth. And if you’re easily irritated with an unusually short fuse, you’re probably already deep into burnout.

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Burnout can also manifest itself physically. You may lose your appetite, start getting headaches, or feel more body aches and pains. Muscles can get tight (especially if you’ve stopped exercising). Lethargy is a major factor, as well. And, in a cruel twist, the exhaustion that causes burnout also makes it more difficult to sleep at night.

The most unfortunate thing about burnout is that it makes you feel miserable in circumstances that usually wouldn’t make you miserable. You can find yourself dreading the stuff you thought you’d love forever and ever.

But don’t worry! You won’t dread that stuff forever and ever; there is a way out of burnout.

Survive burnout by getting ruthless

Burnout usually comes from prolonged stress, and stress that’s been prolonged can’t always go away quickly. Overcommitment is the number-one perpetrator of burnout, and it takes time to extricate yourself from commitments you’ve made.

“The first step to surviving burnout is simply to go into survival mode. ” Think of it as an energy saver mode, if you will. Remove everything from your plate that isn’t absolutely critical and isn’t restorative. Skip the board meeting. Go to the gym and do some cardio with your favorite pump-up playlist. Watch some mindless TV instead of listening to business podcasts.

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While you’re in workload reduction mode, find ways to outsource as much as you can. Ask your colleagues if they can pitch in. Have the intern pick up some of your easier tasks. Pay someone to clean your bathroom and sweep the floors. Get takeout instead of going to the grocery store.

Once you’ve reduced your commitments and outsourced as much as possible, take a look at what remains. Is there anything you can delay? Some deadlines can be extended without repercussion, so try to give yourself some slack where you can. At home, dishes can go unwashed and laundry can go unfolded for a while.

Once you’ve cut down your to-do list as much as possible, incorporate some deliberate self-care. Take 10 minutes out of your workday and go for a walk. Schedule a haircut and ignore your phone the whole time. Dust off the hobby you used to enjoy and spend just 20 minutes on it. And don’t forget to take care of your health – lay off the alcohol, avoid excessive sugar, and sleep as much as you can.

Finally, take a hard look at your calendar and schedule a vacation — even if it’s just a weekend getaway — as soon as possible. Book it now and enjoy every minute of anticipating the break!

Travel is beneficial designers. Seriously! Read why here, and then go book those plane tickets!

Making the most of survival mode

Once you get into survival mode, there are a few things you need to do to make sure you don’t go right back into overdrive. The end game is to get yourself into restoration mode, and usually (but not always) that means rest.

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First and foremost, don’t take on any additional work until the thing that’s breaking your back is resolved. Give yourself plenty of breathing space in your schedule so you can build in some “off” hours to rest and repair yourself physically and mentally.

If the idea of shrinking back and sitting around in your new spare time seems torturous to you, and something stimulating or enjoyable is the only way you can fathom surviving, this is the time to find something new and exciting to do. If there’s a facet of your work you’ve been meaning to learn more about, stop putting it off and start learning it. Take an online course, join a meet-up, or try making something physical with your hands. Even learning to cook a new recipe can inject some liveliness in an otherwise cringeworthy period.

Most of us, though, need space and quiet. We need to stop doing the things that make us frantic or stressed. This may mean changing commute routes. It probably means deleting the social media apps from your phone for a while. It definitely means not multi-tasking. “Let yourself go quiet, and your body and mind will repair themselves in the peace. ”

As you get some of that space and there’s a little less sand in your gears, you can start to look for things that add little hits of pressure or irritation in any part of your life. This could be a slew of invoices you’ve been meaning to process, an annoying beep or reminder you want to figure out how to turn off, or a toilet that won’t stop running.

If something will take you two minutes or less to handle, just handle it. The satisfaction of the accomplishment will be a boost, and the relief of having that annoyance gone will clear up more mental space than you’d expect. I once tripped over the same empty laundry basket at the foot of my bed for days; when I finally put it away, the tremendous relief from not having that basket there anymore made a big difference in my day. Little things like that really do add up to noticeable positive changes in your day.

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How to avoid burnout and not have a “next time”

Because burnout most often comes from being overextended, the key to avoiding burnout is taking control of your schedule and not overextending yourself. A lot of this boils down to scheduling.

Take a realistic look at your turnaround times. Are you booking projects back to back to back with no room for error? That’s asking for trouble. Start padding your deadlines and build in some margin for yourself. That way, you’ve got extra time to handle all the surprise issues that pop up. Plus, if you end up not needing the extra time, you make your clients extra-happy by delivering early!

Another scheduling trick — one that’s especially important if you work a flexible schedule because you need the flexibility (for example, if you’re an at-home parent or web design isn’t your primary job) — is to set internal deadlines that come earlier than the real deadline. Aim to hit your milestones 2 or 3 days before they’re actually due; that way, if something comes up or if you hit a wall, you aren’t jeopardizing your ability to hit your deadlines.

The other side of the “schedule better” coin is to be more selective about what you’ll take on. Learn to say “no” to opportunities that will take too much of your time or energy. If you find yourself working on lots of small projects, rethink your strategy; it’s easier to work on fewer large projects than lots of small gigs.

Need help saying “no” to clients? Just follow these tips.

On a day-to-day basis, take more control of your schedule. Find a time management system that helps. Practice new habits that leave you feeling like you’re in charge of your day, rather than being at the mercy of whatever hits you and constantly feeling like you’re in triage.

Keep running to-do lists so you can jump right into your work instead of getting reacquainted and possibly distracted every time you sit down. Schedule out blocks of time to work on one task, and one task only. Avoid interruptions during those blocks of time, and don’t try to multi-task. Having the space to focus on one thing at a time will make it more satisfying and enjoyable, and you’ll be more effective at it.

Once you get a handle on your work schedule, turn an eye to your time off. Keep your non-work life non-negotiable. Book time for yourself and don’t let work encroach on it. Step back from social media and computer time regularly. You need to take time away from work regularly and allow your body and mind to repair itself. Don’t skimp on your non-work time.

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Finally, think about making a mindset shift. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as indispensable, we’re often not. The committee will continue to function even if you’re not on it. The towels can get folded satisfactorily even if you aren’t the one folding them. The Twitter-verse will continue to churn out more information than anyone can handle, even if you aren’t there to monitor it.

Final thoughts on burnout

Burnout is something that happens to many of us. Learn to recognize the early warning signs so you can begin repairing your mind and body before you get too burned out. Generally speaking, good self-care is the foundation of recovering from burnout.

The key to avoiding burnout is to manage your schedule in such a way that you’re able to be productive without becoming overextended. Maintaining your life outside of work, which can be tricky for entrepreneurs who continually blend the boundaries, will go a long way in keeping burnout from cropping up. And once you sense that you’re getting burned out, slowing down as much as possible will help you recover quickly.

What are your best tips for surviving or avoiding burnout?

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