The last word from my dad before he passed away almost two decades ago was this: do your best, improve what you thought was your best, and wait for the magic to happen.
Sorry, dad. I know you meant well for me.
I did all that until I can’t.
My dad was right for the most part, except that he didn’t foresee the Internet or the kind of clients we freelancers have to put up with.
Most importantly, my dad didn’t see one thing coming for me: It’s called total burnout.
Burnout kills you.
Even “doing whatever it takes”, or “getting by” seems hard when you get here.
Merriam-Webster defines burnout (applied to freelancers and business owners) as:
‘the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength of motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress of frustration’
Physical strength? I do have a lot of it. In fact, I can put in 14-16 hours Monday to Monday, without a fuss.
Emotional Strength? It’s gone out of the window.
Now 10X the emotional loss by the number of years (about 15 in total, and 3 years of burnout phase), lack of certainty, ongoing bills, fluctuating cash flow.
My life can only be described as complete chaos.
Most people must have only read about it but never actually know what crashing and burning could be like.
Some people — this includes a lot of freelancers, artists, and entrepreneurs — experience it at a certain level which can only be explained like this: I am dragging myself to work. I love what I do but it kills me to chase invoices, deal with clients from hell, and having to eat up all kinds of uncertainty.
A few of us, however, reach a point when we can’t take it anymore. I am at that point with freelancing now.
Total burnout is when you actually hate waking up to read email, check social media, respond to a client’s inbound query, send out another proposal (like the last 12,345 proposals were opened but not responded to?), make another pitch, place another bid, and get on a Skype call with another potential client.
You just go numb.
But because you are so used to it, you come for work but you don’t do anything anymore.
You stare at the never-ending stream of tweets and you keep refreshing your Google Analytics.
You head out to send out cold emails, but you don’t send any.
You receive inbound emails saying “We are looking for….”, but you don’t reply.
You wonder what happened to you. Things weren’t like this before. You ask: Why not? What happened? You were so good at pulling this off. You loved your work. You loved freelancing.
Normally, we start out as eager beavers. We are enthusiastic about it all – being in business and making money from the kitchen table (or the French Riviera).
It’s exciting to do something you love and get paid to do it.
We are serious about the hustle. We know that we have to put in all the effort.
It all wears off if you do it for long enough. We just don’t see it clearly enough while we are at it.
Today, I don’t want to see another ugly, non-performing website that requires an audit anymore.
I am weary of sending out another proposal with my pricing when I know that my clients will mostly chase low ballers elsewhere.
I no longer argue passionately about the importance of landing pages, when clients will listen to you but choose to go for a joke that now lives on a web server without no call to action button at all.
I wanted to share what I plan to do about my burnout phase so that you can plan an “exit” before you crash:
Front Load Cash & Build An Emergency Fund
I saved up $10,000 in 3 years and I plan to bank on it when I have bad months (or I chose not to work).
Let me explain how I did this: all the time I worked, I had siphoned off 80% of what I make each month into a separate fund (mutual funds and other investments). I did that for years because I had a feeling I might need it.
Now, thanks to those disciplined investments, I have a cash buffer to take care of me for at least a year before that cash runs out. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to invest when I can.
This helps you with your otherwise fluctuating cash flow. Instead of relying on monthly income from freelancing, you can survive on the fund you built up.
I borrow funds from my own emergency cash fund when a month goes bad and invest back into when I have a better month.
This solves the cash flow problem, allows me to focus on working only with clients I like to work with, and keeps my stress levels low.
Slow Down or Choose Not To Work a While
You need a break; you know that right?
I mean, you are reading this and then you’ll go back to hustle. If you’ve been freelancing, you know you are working every day, Monday to Monday (I admire some people who still have a semblance of work-life balance).
If you can front load cash into your own life somehow, you can afford to take a break. You can step away from this circus and get a breather.
Head to the surface, grab some oxygen, and then float about wondering what you can do next.
Take a step back and see what else you can do to make your business better. Maybe switch from freelancing to a course creator? Perhaps start something else?
You don’t have to make big moves; you just have to start thinking big (and not just about the next couple of hours, like you do when you have that looming deadline).
Choose Your Clients Carefully
If you are like me, you might not be able to jump off this ship onto another one, just like that.
Even if you thought of something else, it’s bound to take time and you might not have that long before the next bill arrives.
So, that brings you back to what you do right now: freelancing.
Only this time, I’ve learned that choosing clients carefully helps.
Put up a “qualifying wall” as like to call it (like firewalls and paywalls). Get on a call with your client but don’t jump like a bunny yet. Ask a hundred questions if you have to get to know a client better.
Make it feel like clients have to apply to work with you. Push your prices higher, disqualify them, vet them, have them signup to work with you.
I only realized this after losing exactly $13,226 (really, I counted) in unpaid invoices, the time I couldn’t track or bill for, endless meetings, and scope creep.
There Are No Dead Ends. Go Find That Door
What we are, what we do, and how we live now has everything to do with the choices you made in the past.
Yet, there’s something really deep and satisfying in knowing that you can continue to make changes that’ll steer your path in a direction you choose at any time starting now.
There are no dead ends here. You don’t ever reach walls of no return. You can’t bring back the past but you can carve out a future.
A future you want “now”, after experiencing something like a shredded engine casket that now popped and melted. A future that’ll come out even better than your present because you are now wiser and more experienced. You only know better now.
When I started backing off from client work, I could make time for several courses and new projects that I am building from scratch. I had the time to write regularly for my own agency blog and focus on things that I was never able to.
There’s no revenue from the new projects yet. But guess what? I am in total control once again.
If you feel the way I do, I want you to take control of your life.
Go find that door, because there’s always one.
Even if you have no choice but continue with your freelancing business after total burnout, you’d find hope in the fact that you still have it in you to make something of the situation now.
Take it easy. Give yourself some space. Try to see it from outside of the usually hustling, always critical, close to being a perfectionist “, you.
If I can, absolutely anyone can.
About the Author:
Ash is an end-to-end digital marketer with a singular focus to make businesses profitable on the Internet. He runs a digital marketing agency at FetchProfits. If you need help with Blogging, Social Media, Marketing Funnels, and Paid Advertising. Check out his PeoplePerHour Profile.
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