Freelancer Psychology – How to Keep a Level Head and Avoid Burnout

stressed freelancer

Cover photo credit of tired worker via RawPixel

Freelancing can take its toll on your mental well-being.

That might sound dramatic and, if you’re just starting out, perhaps a little unrealistic – after all, isn’t stress-reduction a given if you take a boss, fixed working hours and a dull commute out of the equation?

Unfortunately, it’s not. Employee pressures are simply replaced by freelance pressures – and they’re the kind of pressures you’re going to be facing, for the most part, alone.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m a freelancer and I love it. I’ve been working for myself for over 5 years – but I’m also a qualified psychological therapist, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to experiment on my own brain when the going’s got tough.

I’d like to tell you about some of the habits, practices and tricks that will almost certainly help to keep your brain feeling positive and on-side, whether you’re new to freelancing, or a seasoned pro…

Go to work

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When I started to work for myself I waited until the family were out of the house before climbing back into bed and thinking “I’m a freelancer, this is a perk of the role!” – and I’m certain I’m not the only one who’s done this.

If you want a mindset that’s going to encourage performance, you need to get up and treat your role like you’re employed by the most important person in the world – because, quite frankly, you are.

Give yourself some working hours. When you’re ‘there’, knock off the non-work-related notifications and close the personal email inbox. Sure, check it all when you take a break, but if you want more ‘you’ time, the very best way to get it is to apply yourself 100% when you’re working.

Leave work behind

Woman falling asleep photo via RawPixel

As the perfect partner to the first tip on this list, you need to be ready to switch off the work email, shut the laptop and put the camera down when it’s ‘home’ time.

You might find this difficult, after all, freelancing often involves transforming a passion into work – but if you want to keep that passion, you need to make sure you don’t begin to resent what the constant work and hustle does to your life.

If you’ve got a partner or family, make sure you dedicate time to them. If you’ve got a non-work hobby, put some time aside to do it. It’s amazing how quickly and silently work can overwhelm your brain if you’re not actively taking breaks. This can also lead to burnout.

Setting aside the right amount of time for work and then fully disconnecting is one of the best ways to avoid burnout in the long run.

Use the right fuel

Clean food image via RawPixel

Your brain and your stomach are unquestionably aligned – it’s why you get ‘butterflies’ as a result of nervousness or lose your appetite when you’re stressed.

It works the other way around too, how your stomach feels can enormously influence how your head feels – and you can make it feel good by ensuring you put decent food into it.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting any radical diet plans, simply that you eat a balanced diet and try to avoid dense carb and sugar heavy meals or snacks when you’re trying to work. Foods like this cause your body’s blood sugar levels to fluctuate wildly, meaning you’re far more likely to feel fuzzy headed and need a mid-afternoon nap, rather than focused and ready to drive your business forward.

Declutter your brain

Eyes closed image via RawPixel

In his book, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss discusses the traits he’s seen shared by the scores of entrepreneurs, Hollywood actors, elite sportspeople and other masters of their field that he’s interviewed over the years.

He notes that a staggering 80% of those people practice some kind of mindfulness or meditation as part of their daily routine – and, as a freelancer, this habit can almost certainly offer you something too.

Again, no extremes needed – just start with a couple of minutes – and, even if you never build to doing more than 5-10 minutes a day, you’re still going to see a huge benefit.

The idea is this:

The chatter we experience in our mind is, essentially, a bad habit. It’s the place where all our worries, insecurities, potential disasters, ruminations, distractions and millions of possibilities play out, often at a staggering speed – and it can all impact our mood, focus and motivation without us really recognizing what’s going on.

A gentle meditation practice helps us to slow that internal chatter, and, when we do, we can begin to recognize it when it reoccurs – and how it makes us feel.

Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix – nor is it something you’re ever likely to master. Start small, use an app like Headspace, Calm or Aura and, don’t worry when your mind wanders, it’s all part of the process (hence, it’s called ‘practice’!) As your habit grows, you’ll start to notice improved focus, mood and heightened awareness.

Get your finances right

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While mindfulness will help to tidy up the irrational or sub-conscious worries in your mind, it can’t do a great deal to lift the logistical stresses you’ll face as a freelancer – and for many of us, money is right at the top of that list.

Significant studies link financial worries with stress – they show that around 72% of people feel like money worries impact their mental well-being, which, as a cruel knock-on effect, then impacts their ability to perform at work. As a freelancer, this can be the difference between working and getting paid – or not.

One of the very best things you can do to manage your freelance finances is to separate them from your personal banking. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean you have to sit with a huge amount in your business account – it just keeps a clear picture of what’s coming in and what’s going out.

If, for any reason, you can’t open a dedicated account for your freelance income, make sure you keep a spreadsheet that lists your transactions. You’ll also be able to find some cheap (if not free) software that lets you invoice and scan receipts – ideal for keeping things in order.

Money can be a serious worry, and while good systems won’t necessarily mean you’ll make more of it, it will make managing it (and understanding how much you need to earn) easier. And it will take far less toll on your brain.

Do something physical

Photo by David Larivière on Unsplash

There’s really no ‘magic pill’ that’ll keep you brain right as a freelancer – but if one thing on this list comes close, it’s exercise.

As humans, we’re slaves to our hormones – and some of the most powerful of those hormones dictate our mood. Exercise, even in its most gentle forms, is proven to bolster the production of endorphins – a type of hormone the boosts feelings of contentment and well-being in our brains.

With elevated endorphin levels in our body, we’re more focused, we sleep more soundly and we manage stress hormones more effectively.

The great news is, you don’t have to do a triathlon to kick start your endorphin production. Taking a brisk 10-minute walk is a great way to begin, with an aim to building up to perhaps 20 minutes of light exercise each day. If you want to turbo charge your results, a gentle run, bike ride or gym session will do exactly that.

Keep a journal

Open leather notebook image via RawPixel

The final tip is a simple one.

Get a journal, either a paper one – or an online one – and commit to using it for 5 minutes every day.

When you write in it, focus on what’s going on for you in life and work – and start noting how those things make you feel. Don’t worry if you don’t have sophisticated psychological language to express your emotions, just write it as it comes to you – it’s not going to be read by anyone else.

Awareness is everything when it comes to keeping a check of your stress levels and how close you might be to burn-out. We’re only human, you simply cannot remember exactly how you’ve felt and why you felt that way when you look backwards – but if you note it in your journal, you can.

You might see patterns emerging – in which case, you might be able to adjust what you’re doing to better suit your mood. Hate that Friday morning catch up call with a client and find yourself stressed about it on Thursday? Ditch it. Struggle to get started on a Monday morning? Plan your day differently so you can take a walk or a bike ride first thing.

Of course, the possibilities are endless – but unless you become aware of how you feel, you’re likely to stay in a demoralizing loop of repetition.

Prevention’s better than the cure 

Mental health and well-being is a tricky area – mostly because it operates without us being overly aware of it. You might wake up in a bad mood, not quite sure why – or you might find yourself less tolerant of a high-maintenance client – and feel guilty about it after sending a snappy email.

In reality, there are millions, if not billions, of factors that impact our ability to keep a level head and avoid burning out as a freelancer – and sadly, most of them aren’t apparent until we lose our cool then later look back, wondering what went wrong.

If you’re at this point, now is a great time to put some of these things into practice – but also, if you’re not at this point and you’re feeling on top of your game, now is an equally good time to implement some of this preventative maintenance stuff, after all, it’s difficult to predict when something will come along that damages our sense of well-being.

True freelancer freedom

The truth is, leaving behind a job is only one of the ways a freelancer achieves freedom. If you want to be totally free, you need to work to remove (or at least reduce) the shackles of worry, stress and overwork that so often go hand-in-hand with working for yourself.

Don’t wait for the going to get tough before you act – start doing some of these things today. Even if you just start small – and you’ll be amazed to find that those freelancer hardships come around a lot less frequently.

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