Being a freelancer can be grueling. You work long, odd hours, and you might even support your passions through multiple side hustles. If you’re like me, you work a 9-to-5 job and freelance whenever you can. For those reasons, and many more, it’s so easy for us to suffer from the burnout that has become synonymous with our industry.
“Burnout has become such a buzz word,” freelance writer Jonny Auping notes, “that it kind of loses its meaning.” Yet Auping, who has written for publications like Texas Monthly, Slate and The New Yorker, knows that burnout is anything but casual.
“Trying to avoid burnout sounds a lot like crowdsourcing your medical care,” he says. “What’s the best way to raise money when you get sick? Well, the best way is to have a competent healthcare system. But right now, the only people freelance writers can turn to for advice is other freelance writers.”
So that’s what I did. As I juggle multiple jobs and navigate a never-ending, overwhelming battle with stress, I turned to Auping and freelance writer Paige Skinner (The New York Times, The Daily Beast) to figure out how I can avoid burnout. Their tips confirmed what Auping told me: Our best resource is each other.
Here are some of my tips and some expert guidance from Auping and Skinner.
Don’t be an island
This is one of the earliest mistakes I made in my freelance career. Even though I was landing many stories on the merits of my connections, I seldom turned to my peers for help. But as John Donne recognized centuries ago, we can’t do this alone. If you’re stuck on a story, struggling with stress, or simply looking to make a new connection, my advice is this: Send that email. Writers love talking about their craft, and as curious kinfolk, we especially love to talk shop with each other. As you see from this very story, connections with other writers can lead to lots of helpful tips.
Don’t take it too personally
This goes for editors and pesky trolls on the web (or, as I like to call them, “my fans”). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve poured my blood, sweat, tears, heart and soul into a robust, lengthy story, only for an editor I revere to reply with a simple yet heart-searing “lots of good stuff here.” Likewise, I have foolishly read the comments on a litany of my stories, only to realize yet again just how creative commenters can get with name-calling. As my friend and fellow writer Paige Skinner told me, “the negative comments are good. That means they’re reading.” If you let the negative feedback get under your skin, you’ll inevitably start to question your ideas and abilities. That, my friends, is like booking a one-way ticket to burnout.
Pitch every day
This might seem counterintuitive, but Skinner and I both know how easy it is to let feelings of self doubt snake into your consciousness. “When I was living in L.A., I went through a dry spell,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m never gonna work again. How did I trick everyone this long?’ I think the true secret is pitching every day.” By pushing herself to create and send fresh ideas on a regular basis, Skinner honed her pitching skills and increased her confidence. There’s a fine line between being downtrodden and being straight-up burned out, and sometimes selling a great story is the best way to stray far from that line. At the same time, you have to know your limits. To that end, you may take a cue from Auping.
Focus on the work
Auping and I have FOMOW: Fear of Missing Out on Work (Has anyone trademarked this yet?) Anytime I see a writer share a killer story on a relevant topic, I feel the pangs of jealousy. Even worse, I wonder what I can do to “up my game.” Both emotions instill in me a painful kind of restlessness: a feeling that, if I take a breather, my fellow writers will undoubtedly surpass me in a competition entirely of my own making. As Auping reminded me recently, this kind of thinking is dangerous. Instead of focusing on others’ work, block out the noise and focus on your own. Maybe that means taking an extended hiatus from social media (I highly recommend this) or even taking a break from following certain beats that interest you. Either way, you can reduce your FOMOW and other feelings of envy and inadequacy by focusing on your own work (FOYOW: trademark pending).
Instead of focusing on others’ work, block out the noise and focus on your own.
Create a structured routine
Auping is a big believer in treating your freelance work just like any other job. That means rising early and calling it quits around 5:00 p.m. However, if that doesn’t work for you, or if you tend to be more productive at night than you are in the morning, he encourages you to create a schedule that works best for you – and stick to it. “Before dinner time, I’m not allowed to turn on the TV,” Auping says, “or do anything else that is very clearly not productive.” On that note, Auping adds that it’s also important to, “widen your scope of what ‘productive’ means.” “If you’re reading 3,000-word stories during the day at the same time that you’re working on your own 3,000-word story, that’s not a break,” he says. “That’s work.” It’s important that you not take this too far (as Auping says, some things are clearly not productive) but it’s equally important to give yourself grace. If reading stories or taking brief breaks help you with your writing, then who is to say those things are not productive? In the same way, if you're a graphic designer, part of your job is to look at other designs. Sometimes that can feel like a waste of time because you're not specifically working on the designs that are due, but anything that's helping you be better at your job is productive.
Take care of yourself
This might seem like the most simple tip, yet I have a feeling it’s also the most overlooked. We live in a country that romanticizes “the grind” and “the hustle,” where the mantra of “no days off” is something to be admired. But every writer I talk to (including the ones whose work can drive me insane with envy) espouses the importance of taking care of your health and your family. That might mean saying “No” to an assignment that pays well, even if it pains you to do so.
“The reality is, if you don’t feel accomplished enough when you write one story,” Auping says, “you’re probably not gonna feel accomplished when you write three.” You may find yourself hesitant to tell an editor “no” because you don’t know when you’ll get the chance to write for them again. But trust me: If you’re overwhelmed, it’s because you have talent that people covet. The opportunities will continue to come, and your health demands precedence.
If you’re overwhelmed, it’s because you have talent that people covet.