scorecardI've freelanced for 10 years and experienced burnout multiple times. Here are 5 habits that help me avoid it.
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I've freelanced for 10 years and experienced burnout multiple times. Here are 5 habits that help me avoid it.

Lee Escobedo   

I've freelanced for 10 years and experienced burnout multiple times. Here are 5 habits that help me avoid it.
Careers4 min read
Author Lee Escobedo says keeping a manageable workload is crucial to avoid burnout as a freelancer.    Lee Escobedo
  • Lee Escobedo is a freelance writer and artist based in Texas.
  • In 10 years working as a freelancer, Escobedo has adopted several habits to help avoid burnout.

Freelancing may sound fun and flexible to those who work a strict 9-to-5, but in reality it can be very challenging. Whether you're freelancing full-time or using your side gig to expand your resume, burnout is real at all levels and experience.

As a freelance writer for the past 10 years, I've experienced burnout from various situations. I've taken on too many projects at once, accepted offers below my value, and even worked for free. I thought writing about what I loved was enough, but it's not — there have been months where I barely paid my rent and had zero spending money despite writing 15 to 20 articles a week, which only worsened my anxiety and depression.

To avoid making these mistakes again, I've adopted specific strategies that help me stay balanced and avoid burnout as a freelancer. Here are five tips I follow.

1. Don't judge yourself by other people's accomplishments

If you follow other creatives in your field on social media platforms, on some days it might feel like everyone but you finished a successful project or is touting their latest career accomplishment.

In these moments, I try to remind myself that perception is not reality. For example, I know that another freelancer could have been working for months on the articles that they posted all at once.

There's no right or wrong way to approach your workflow, and comparing yourself to others will only distract you from doing your own great work.

2. Don't overcommit

Setting a workload cap is tough when your freelance work pays the bills, but overcommitting can lead to missed due dates, dropped assignments, and lost wages.

If you're feeling overwhelmed with the freelance work on your plate, try setting a limit on how many projects you'll take on each week or month.

For example, I aim to publish two articles a week at no longer than 2,000 words each. If the number of deadlines I have feels overwhelming, I make sure to complete everything that I'm already working on before accepting any new assignments.

Also, be careful when committing to multiple projects for multiple clients in the same time frame. In my experience, I've found I'm most efficient when all of my writing work is going to the same place, as it allows me to focus on the tone and voice of a single publication. For example, I'll maybe try to avoid working on a retail marketing campaign the same day I write an art review.

3. Keep your inbox clean and don't constantly check emails

Checking your email at all hours can eat into your personal time outside of work. Personally, I don't check my work email at all on weekends or before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. on weekdays. This helps me disconnect and avoid feeling like I should constantly be plugged into work.

It can also be a nightmare when an agreement form, payment invoice, or accepted pitch email gets lost in an overstuffed inbox. Sometimes the solution is as simple as having two emails, one for work and one for personal use.

4. Don't try to pay today's bills with today's projects

Almost every freelance or contractor has experienced the difficulty of chasing down an overdue payment from a client at least once, and it's an uncomfortable and awkward situation.

A good rule of thumb I use is to work two months ahead of time — meaning, don't try to pay today's bills with today's projects. Instead, structure your workflow so that payment from the projects you're working on now will cover bills two months from now. This will give you breathing room for late or delayed payments and help you avoid gaps in work.

If a payment is late, I try to find the contact for billing or accounting online or within my editor's email chain and then contact them directly. A gentle nudge explaining your situation usually does the trick.

Following up on an overdue payment can be frustrating and stressful, but in my experience I've found that there's usually a reason for the delay that's eventually resolved.

5. Know your worth

This one comes with experience, but knowing the minimum payment you'll accept for a project is vital to avoid being taken advantage of by clients.

I recommend browsing gig sites like Upwork to see what other freelancers are charging for similar services, Freelancermap to compare rates by experience and qualifications, and Glassdoor's salary database to find industry averages.

Once you decide how much your services are worth, it's easier to say no to freelance projects and clients that pay less.

As a freelancer, it's up to you to organize your workload and routine to avoid burnout. Your time is money, so organize it wisely and only take on what you can handle. Establishing these healthy boundaries is key to a successful freelance experience.

Lee Escobedo is a Latinx poet, writer, and artist based in Texas. He's the five-time recipient of the special artist grant from the City of Dallas. He's the publisher of two award-winning art periodicals and a contributor to Artforum, Terremoto (Mexico City), Berlin Art Link (Berlin), Temporary Art Review, ArtDesk, and Texas Monthly.