Photo Credit: Matthew Henry | Unsplash

The Doing It For The Money–Burnout

If you are a creative person; freelancer/developer/illustrator etc. you are most certainly aware of the term burnout. You never think it can happen to you, until it does. The thing about burnout is there is no “one size fits all” type of burnout and there are just as many reasons you might hit burnout as there are reasons you love freelancing. Maybe your working with the wrong clients, or your not sure what kind of work you really want to be doing so your doing a little bit of everything, or maybe you’re just taking on to much work and taking less care of yourself burnout.

As freelancers and any self-employed individual you feel the need to hustle. It’s impossible to avoid in the beginning as your figuring out every aspect of your new role from what to charge, how to work with and deal with clients one on one to how pay taxes and keep the books. It’s a huge learning curve that involves a lot of extra hours. But at some point, if your not carful you end up burning the candle at both ends for too long. It can be addictive which always leads to trouble.

Even harder though, is to admit when it has happened to you. The thing about burnout is, you usually don’t realize your in it until it’s to late. I told myself, I had to work this hard to succeed. I had to hustle, but it’s very a fine line to walk. Many times we do it because we have other people depending on us, a spouse or a family with kids and that pushes us in the beginning to work more, to sacrifice our weekends and push through just until –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– (fill in the blank).

The Beginning

I began freelancing full-time in August of 2005. I had a hand full of existing clients. With more work, new clients coming in fairly steady to my surprise the paychecks were fairly steady. A lot was happening, and it was happening fast.

By mid of 2006 my now husband and I had gotten engaged; he was working, and making good money. But he was also gone a lot more than we were both comfortable with, and when your talking about spending your life with someone the last thing I wanted to do is start off married life to a spouse I never get to see. After a long discussion, about our future and what he really wanted to be doing with his life, he decided he wanted to go back to school and finish his degree in engineering. And I onboard with this decision, sure it meant a little sacrifice on our finances but we were just started out and didn’t need much. Plus we saw it as an investment in our future; plus I was making enough money to support us so he could focus on school 100%.

Little did I know at the time, how unprepared I was for the changes to come. Something happens when you become main provider. Your sense of responsibility becomes far greater than you could possibly have imagined. Without even realizing it, over the course of the next few years I had slowly begun taking on every job that came my way. I felt the need to take on more work in order to earn more money. Money became the reason to say yes to a project. Regardless of it being a project I cared about or whether or not the client was a good fit. It was another project that would put cash in the account.

Looking back, we were doing just fine financially with the clients I had. I enjoyed working with the clients I had and the work load they were providing me with. Yet, over that first year things slowly began to shift, it was so subtle I didn’t even notice it. We wanted to take a trip over his winter break and even though we had the money, I felt the need to pad our account just a little bit more; you know for the “just in case” situations. This was the start of the mind shift.

Before I realized what was happening, I found myself working with clients that had no respect for my time or my professional opinion is a few cases. I was working on projects I was less than thrilled with. I loved solving my clients design problems, I was eager to. Then what seemed like over night I found myself not wanting to work; on anything. I was unhappy, but I had no idea why. I mean sure, I complained about a few clients to my fiancé, but it was the price of business, right? On paper, it all looked great; I was getting married, we planning the wedding, we had steady money coming in, and I was my own boss. It was everything I wanted.

Doing It Wrong

Over the next few years I kept steadily going down this path of choosing new jobs and clients for the money. Then in 2009 the Recession hit, shutting down small business overnight sending everyone, including big businesses into a panic. Marketing and advertising were the first to go when it came time to trim the budgets. In the end. And while everyone was in a panic over lost business, slowing work and the uncertainty of what was to come. I was oddly relieved, over the course of next month or two half my clients disappeared, which also meant half my problems went with them.

Six months later, I was still standing. My only remaining clients were my original clients who, even through my bad decisions I always made sure they were well taken care of. The budgets weren’t a big, but work still needed to be done so I continued working until we hit the holiday season that year. I always had a general rule that after Thanksgiving, I went on an extended vacation period and my clients were always great about it. So from mid November to mid January I was officially on extended vacation and couldn’t have been more relieved.

When it came time to get back to work, I wavered. The damage had already been done and I needed way more than two months to recover from it. Once the new year started, I found myself still feeling like I was back on a sinking ship with no way off, and no one to help. The thought of going back to work made me anxious. I was stressed. I wasn’t sleeping well and I couldn’t focus. I made up excuses about why I needed just one more week, one more day before I got back to it.

To Far Gone

Eventually, I did manage to start working again. But only when my clients called. I was no longer checking in on them to see if they needed anything and I certainly wasn’t trying to find new clients. I muddled through most of that year, and at some point started turning down work. It was just after summer and I was miserable. My husband graduated in December 2010 with a great job already lined up, and I was counting down the days. All that money that I was working so hard for, came in handy at this point since very little was coming in, that was the money keeping us a float until my husband started his full-time job.

That November I found out I was pregnant with our first daughter and just like that, I found myself on a two year sabbatical. And lets face it, at this point, I was in serious need of a re-boot. I had lost my passion for design. I truly felt lost. Design has always been a hug part of my life, and when you feel like you’ve lost the thing you have always loved, it’s painful. It took me quite sometime to truly understand what went wrong.

I didn’t talk about because to be honest I was embarrassed. Somehow, I felt like I had failed. I felt like the damsel in distress, that had to wait for her husband to rescue her. So I kept up appearances. I told family, friends and colleagues that the recession had just slowly been wiping out my clients and the work just wasn’t out there any more. I would give it some time and slowly rebuild; and that’s what I told myself as well.

New Distractions

2011 became a very transitional year for me. All things considered, the timing was actually perfect. just before the holidays we found out we were pregnant and it was the perfect excuse to take more time off an prepare for life as parents.

That February we began house hunting, a project I was eager to tackle as it had absolutely nothing to do with design. By the end of March we were packing up to move in. The pack and purge. Whenever I would get a creative block, I was in the habit of getting away from it. I would go for walks, drives, the bookstore, anything and everything I could do to get me focused on anything other than design. That’s exactly what all of this was. I spent the better part of 2011 getting the new house (and nursery) ready for our daughter who was set to make her debut in August. My husband helped a lot too of course. But it was my main ’job’, it was how I filled my days, and my thoughts. Everything now revolved around babies, paint colors and home decor.

Once my daughter arrived, I filled the remainder of year getting acquainted with this amazing little girl and figuring out this whole Mommy business in the process. While I was still pregnant my husband and I agreed, I would spend the first year after she was born at home with her. It’s something I wanted to do as a mom, but something I also knew gave me a reason not to get back to work. In many ways I still had not come to grips with my failure. I still needed time. Time to process. I had spent the last year distracting myself, not really working anything out; mentally or emotionally.

My New Job

I spent most of 2012 being a stay-at-home mom. Over that time I had come to terms with what happened. I was finally at a place where I could look back and see what went wrong, see the mistakes I had made, and not hate myself for it. I had to learn the hard way. Looking back, I now realize I just simply ignored my instincts and I keep tuning out that little voice in my head that was saying “Are you sure you want to work with this person?” Instead I listened to the other voice saying “This is not the kind of project I usually like to do, but just this once, the money is to good to turn down.”

I was lucky, to have been able to take that time, thanks to my wonderful husband. He was the only one I had really spoken to about what was happening. He gave me the time he knew I needed and I know not everyone can do that, financially or otherwise. It didn’t go unnoticed and it is something I will always be grateful to him for.

Finally Coming to Grips

Right before my daughters’ first birthday I found myself really itching to get back to work. It had been building for sometime, I was ready. I had licked my wounds, regained my confidence and seen the error of my (previous) ways. I had finally come to terms with my mistakes, I knew what I had done wrong and exactly what not to do this time around. I had no set schedule to adhere to, I allowed myself to work around the clock, work through the night, weekends and even a few holidays. I allowed myself to take on projects I had no interest in what-so-ever and more importantly I allowed myself to work with clients who thought because I was a freelancer working from home, I was at their beck and call.

I did a poor job of treating my business like and an actual business. Not surprisingly that also lead to allowing some of my clients to see me, not as a business owner, but rather as a hired hand. It didn’t start out that way of course, but as I began to take on job and clients that were not a good fit, I allowed them to run a muck with my business. I allowed them to call the shots, I worked at their pace on their timelines, not what was best for the project or me.

I wasn’t having fun anymore. I didn’t enjoy the work and I absolutely hated having to work with some of the clients I allowed myself to work for. I put monetary value ahead of why I doing this whole thing in the first place; my joy for design and my love of creating. I had allowed myself to fall at the mercy of the dollar, without even realizing it at the time. My biggest mistake was that I wasn’t honest with myself.

Avoiding the Same Mistakes Twice

I was ready to get back to work, but I was still nervous. How do I keep this from happening again? I didn’t realize what was happening until it was to late. I wrote myself a list to keep me in check and my goals clear.

  • Remember you are a business, if you don’t treat it like one neither will your clients.
  • Take time off when ‘you’ need it. A long weekend, a stay-cation. The clients and work will always be there.
  • Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’. This one is huge and can make all the difference in your business.
  • Set a schedule and adhere to it, If you are only available to work from 9–5, make sure your clients are fully aware of that. Don’t answer client calls, email, or texts after that and don’t let them bully you into it. Even if you are working after hours on projects, clients don’t need to know. seriously learn to say “No”!
  • If a client or project doesn’t seem like a good fit, walk away. Be polite about it but say no.
  • Set aside some time occasionally for personal projects. Always working only on client projects can make you forget what you love about design.

The most important thing I failed to do was to re-evaluate my business every year. Take a long-hard look back and figure out what worked and what didn’t. If I had been more diligent about this aspect maybe I would have seen my mistakes before things had gotten so bad.

Burnout is not something that gets talked about in our industry a lot, in fact when looking up ‘freelance burnout’ all I could find were ‘How to Avoid It’ articles, with lists, but there were no articles from anyone who has actually experienced it. I hope talking about this openly helps someone else realize that they maybe heading down that road at this very moment, or maybe you’re already in it and like me, just didn’t realize it.

Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter anytime @hellodomeier.

A version of this article first appeared on my blog Communication Long Form.