How to avoid burnout (and be more productive)

The life of a freelancer or small business owner can be summed up in one word: busy. In fact, when you work for yourself the lines between work and play often become so blurry that the whole “work-life balance” thing gets thrown out the window, along with your social life and self-care practices. The problem, however, is that this usually has the opposite effect that you want it to. Working hard at something you love is great. Working so hard that your physical and mental health collapses? Not so much.

How to avoid burnout? Here's 4 ways you can stay sane and actually increase your productivity — and happiness.

1. Don’t be available all the time

When you’re trying to grow your business, it can be tempting to take client calls without a scheduled appointment, answer emails at 2 am, and say yes to last minute projects (even when you don’t really have the time). This is one of the quickest ways to burn yourself out. It’s likely that one of the reasons you wanted to work for yourself was to have freedom over your time. Instead of letting everyone else dictate your schedule, set up expectations ahead of time and enforce them as needed.

Try this:

  • Use an email scheduling tool like Boomerang for Gmail or Rightinbox — you can write an email and schedule it to be sent during normal office hours

  • Send your clients to voicemail unless they have a scheduled appointment

  • Use a free tool like Calendly that allows clients to schedule meetings when you are available


2. Say no to low-paying clients

Every freelancer has been here: they take a client who is paying well below their normal rate just to get some cash flow. Onboarding (having meetings, getting contracts signed, etc.) clients for small, low-paying projects takes just as much time as doing the same for clients that pay you what you’re worth. The return on investment here is low and can cause a serious case of burnout. It might be uncomfortable to say no when you really need the money, but doing so will free up your time to do high-level work or expand your marketing efforts.

Try this:

  • Calculate your hourly rate and refuse to do work that pays less

  • Ask for a retainer — clients who don’t have a large budget may be willing to put you on retainer for a few months. While the rate for each task may be lower, having a chunk of money coming in can help alleviate financial stress and make the time you spend onboarding feel more worthwhile

  • Just say no — ask them to get back in touch if their situation changes. They won’t be offended. In fact, they may realize just what a professional you are if you don’t budge on your rates.


3. Set up systems that do the work for you

Freelancers and small business owners wear a lot of hats. Juggling client work, accounting, marketing, and every other administrative task it takes to keep a business afloat is exhausting. It’s also not very effective. You won’t be able to automate everything but identifying areas where you can set up systems will free up your time for more important things — like getting clients and sleeping.

Try this:

  • Subscribe to an all-in-one project management system like Honeybook or Dubsado — you can track leads, send invoices, and organize your projects all in one place. Most also come with the ability to set up workflows that free you up from doing repetitive tasks like sending contracts and following up on proposals

  • Use a social media scheduling tool like Hootsuite, so you can schedule all of your posts in one place and then put them on autopilot

  • Check out our guide on which systems you should have in place as a freelancer


4. Get some sleep

Sleep? What’s that? We get it. Burning the candle at both ends may seem like a better way to spend time than snoozing away but it’s a direct shortcut to burnout. In her book The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington talks about how not getting enough sleep decreases the quality of our work and the rest of our lives. Getting your 8 hours will help you feel refreshed, give your brain some necessary downtime, and help keep your cortisol (stress hormone) levels in check. If Arianna can find time to rest, so can you.

Try this:

  • Put your phone on airplane mode before bed so you can get uninterrupted sleep

  • Power down your computer and TV an hour before bedtime (too much screen-time can make it hard for our brains to shut off when it’s time to sleep)

  • Use an app like Headspace to meditate and wind down

How do you avoid burnout or recharge your batteries? Share your ideas in the comments below!