How to get your life back when freelancing has taken over

As a hard-working freelancer, have you ever suffered burnout? That horrid state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress?

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

It's a common affliction in the creative industries when clients, deadlines and all the usual pressures can tip our work/life balance off kilt and leave us feeling miserable, lost and drained.

If you feel as though you haven't laughed – let alone smiled – in months, it's time to address your situation and change your freelancing life for the better. There are practical things you can do to get your life back without compromising your business. The following suggestions will help:

Consider if you're to blame

Before you do anything else, consider if you're partly to blame for feeling burnt out. Are you strict with your working hours? Are you switching off during evenings and weekends? Because if you're chained to your desk 24/7, perhaps it's time to ask yourself why.

Ask yourself the following questions, and be honest: Do you feel guilty if you're not sat at your desk? Are you feeling pressure to "make hay while the sun shines" but have perhaps taken on too much? Are you using weekends to catch up on your work, and not getting any rest? Are you feeling low, negative and tired all the time? Are you worried if you turn work down, you'll annoy a client or suffer a quiet period?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then your work/life balance could be suffering, and you should make immediate changes.

Change your attitude

Work pays the bills, yes. Clients must always be kept happy. But if your attitude to freelancing is negatively impacting your life, then you have to make changes. Life is too short to be a slave to work.

To change the way you think about freelancing, print out the following statements, paste them to your wall above your desk and read them aloud every single day:

  • Working all hours does not get more work done
  • Rest is incredibly important to ensure optimum health and productivity
  • Sticking to a sensible work routine will be far more effective than working 15 hour days
  • Taking regular breaks during work hours will help me stay focused
  • Weekends are sacred and should be celebrated, not sacrificed
  • Holidays aren't for losers; they're good for the soul
  • Working all-hours negatively affects all my family and friends.

By always considering the above statements, you'll remind yourself that the power does lie with you, and you can make positive changes to lead a healthier life.

Change your business

If your attitude is fine, but you're still working too hard, there could be something wrong with your business. For instance, you might not be charging enough. In which case, test the water and increase your rate with one client, and then do the same with everyone else, one-by-one. The idea is that you work fewer hours for more money. Read our tips on how to raise your rates without losing clients.

However, it might be that you're taking on work you can't cope with and are therefore suffering. For example, are you saying yes to projects that could do with support from another freelancer? In which case, next time you begin a new challenge, can you bring someone in to help? Don't know anyone locally? Then perhaps it's time to build a network of freelancers who could support you in future.

Bottom line, you don't have to suffer alone. Support is out there if you look for it. Be open to making new connections by attending events after work and being friendly on social networks like Twitter. You never know who you might meet.

Change your clients

Got someone who's always crossing the line and phoning you at weekends? Is a particular client not paying you on time and messing up your cashflow? Is someone mistreating you and abusing your trust?

Assess who you currently support and whether they impact your work/life balance, and then either put systems in place to deal with them positively or consider ditching them altogether.

My advice is always to try and make things work before you dump a toxic client. But if this approach fails, you have every right to walk away. Read our advice on weeding out unwanted clients, so you tackle things professionally and without burning any bridges.

To tackle clients who cross the line, but you want to keep, you need to establish boundaries. Make it clear that you're not available out of regular office hours (except for real emergencies), and then switch off your phone and work email during evenings and weekends. Don't ever respond if they do phone when they shouldn't. Otherwise, they'll assume it's ok and repeat their behaviour.

And if they're failing to pay on time? Consider putting all work on hold until they've settled late invoices. Read our tips on tackling overdue invoices for further ideas.

Change your life

If freelancing still feels like it's taking over – perhaps it's time to change your life outside of work. What do I mean by this? Well, are you on the treadmill? Do you feel well and truly trapped in the rat race? Because if your outgoings are through the roof, then perhaps that's why you feel the need to work and forget to live.

If the mortgage, household bills and spending seem to drain your income and leave you staring at the ceiling every night with worry – maybe you should consider changing your entire life by moving to a cheaper existence.

You don't have to be drastic and buy a cheaper house (although this might be a good idea if you're living beyond your means); there are small steps you can take to make a huge difference. For instance, could you negotiate expenses and shop around? Can you live without expensive TV subscriptions and gym memberships? Could you shop at Aldi rather than Waitrose (other supermarkets are available)?

Saving a little goes a long way, and will certainly help stop you feeling as though you have to work all the time. For further tips, check out our quick and easy tricks to save and make more money as a freelancer.

Establish some rules

Now that you've assessed what needs to change, it's time to lay down some serious ground rules. Here are a few examples to help you craft your own:

  1. Work eight hours a day, Monday to Friday only
  2. Have the 'out-of-office' function on emails outside office hours
  3. For clients who might need 'out-of-office' support, establish a higher rate to cover those potential interruptions
  4. Preferably use a separate mobile phone for work, which you switch off outside office hours
  5. Turn off digital technology after 7pm each night; and avoid altogether at weekends, if possible
  6. Embrace evenings and weekends – see friends, family or indulge in your hobbies or passions
  7. Move your body – sitting at a desk five days a week isn't healthy; make the most of downtime to walk, cycle or run
  8. Prioritise family time – they won't be around forever.

Make mornings enjoyable again

When you've readdressed the balance, and you're sticking to a sensible routine, it's time to take back your mornings too. Get up early and enjoy one or two hours of 'me' time before the day gets underway.

I love to leap out of bed at 6am (on a good week) and jump on my spinning bike to enjoy a half-hour cycle while watching something interesting (non-work related) on my iPad. I then shower, dress and laze around and read books until it's time to catch the tram.

This healthy, somewhat slow start to the day makes me feel happy and glad to be alive. It's time every morning dedicated to myself. It makes such a difference to my work/life balance because I feel as though I've prioritised my life, my hobbies and my interests before I go to the office. This one simple action will transform your freelancing life.

Become a kid again

Finally, if you're still struggling to smile and work is truly getting you down, embrace your inner child and make time for play. Take up that creative hobby you've always complained you don't have time for – like painting or pottery, writing or photography.

Perhaps you've always wanted to play that sport you enjoyed in school, but never bothered to find a local team? There are likely dozens of options on your doorstep. From football and hockey to netball, rounders, even frisbee – there are loads of groups that you can join. And nothing beats being in a team, competing to win.

Or what about rediscovering the things you loved when you were little? Like visiting castles, climbing trees and going camping. Whatever it is that makes you feel that giddy happiness that you often felt as a 10-year-old, go out and find it – as much as possible, because in the words of Edward J. Stieglitz: "The important thing is not how many years in your life but how much life in your years."

Life is short, so don't make it all about work.


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