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How To Defeat Burnout


Sooner or later, we all want to give up.

A few of us act on it and go back to the relative comfort of a “show up and get paid” full-time job, or in more extreme examples give up technology and computers altogether and get into carpentry or even farming (no joke — I know a few freelancers-turned-farmers.)

It’s no secret that burning out can lead to getting little done, staring mindlessly at your screen, and ultimately questioning your decision to become a freelancer.

But behind the symptom of burnout, typically there are a few root causes. Today I’d like to outline a few of the causes that I’ve identified in my own life, and share some of the ways I’ve overcome them.

“There’s always so much to do”

I’m a pretty busy guy. At any given time, I’m working on…

  • Supporting, marketing, developing and designing my SaaS, Planscope
  • Replying to the dozens of emails I get a day
  • Writing a weekly newsletter (for example, this post)
  • Writing and hosting a podcast
  • A half dozen or so one-off meetings or interviews a week
  • R&D on new products

If I put all this on a todo list, I’d wake up each morning overwhelmed with the mountain that stood in front of me. And for years, this is how I “worked” (if you even want to call it that.) Each morning my mind would race with what I had to do that day, and these mornings should have been spent enjoying breakfast with my kids. And each evening, I’d be mentally cataloging everything I had to do tomorrow, instead of focusing on my wife and my marriage.

So here’s what I started doing…

I’ve ditched my todo list. Each night, I close out the working day by writing on a big sheet of printer paper the things I want to get done tomorrow. The thoughts that would have formerly spun around all night in my head were now committed to paper and left on my desk.

And each morning, I wake up and enjoy the morning with my wife and kids. After brewing a cup of tea and heading upstairs to my office, I’d have a tiny hill in front of me instead of an imposing mountain of work. And as I’d get stuff done, I’d cross out the related task. Anything that was left at the end of the day either had to be rewritten on tomorrow’s sheet or tossed. (If you end up rewriting “redo homepage copy” a half dozen times, it soon becomes obvious just how unimportant that homepage copy really is for you.)

“Money is tight”

If you’re anxious about where your next client will come from or when your next invoice will be paid, it’s all too easy to want to throw in the towel.

Get paid upfront. This allows you to remove “Invoice Chaser” from your job description, and can help you put an end to wondering whether you’ll get paid before your personal bills are due.

To transition to upfront billing, with new clients start letting them know that you sell blocks up hours upfront (or, ideally, weeks at a time), and that you only work once you’ve been paid. Just be sure to be clear that you’ll gladly refund any unused time should you part ways and you shouldn’t have an issue. Seriously, try it. Many of my Masterclass students are now successfully getting paid upfront. Here are a handful of other tips I have for setting the right expectations with new clients.

Uncertainty about how you’ll be getting paid in the future is another reason many of us want to give up. Selling retainers, establishing a pipeline of future work, and diversifying your income through products are ways that you can hedge against uncertainty.

Here are a few resources I’ve put together that can help you do this:

“I can’t focus”

Having the world at your fingertips is dangerous. How many of us have sat down to do some work, only to end up a few minutes later on Facebook or Twitter, or idling around in your inbox, or on Reddit or Hacker News?

I’ve tried a number of different apps that lock down distracting websites, but — at least for me — that’s a bit like my mom trying to keep the Halloween candy on top of the ’fridge. I’m going to find a way.

The urge to waste time online isn’t something that can be fixed by just removing access to those websites. Instead, the time you spend on those sites just needs to blocked out and scheduled.

I stay focused by working for only 25 minutes at a time, and then rewarding myself with the carrot of Hacker News or Facebook. I’m still allowed ample time throughout the day for distractions, but these distractions are contained and timeboxed. This system is known as the Pomodoro technique, and there are a number of free / inexpensive Pomodoro apps available.

“I’m sick of freelancing”

I work by myself. And while I have a few subcontractors that I occasionally delegate work to, for the most part it’s just me. For a while, it was pretty lonely up in my mancave. But over the last year, I’ve gotten involved with a number of support groups that have kept me accountable to myself, to others, and have given me a group of pseudo co-workers who I can bounce ideas off of, chat about home life, and more.

  • Join or start a Mastermind group
    I’m a member of two Mastermind groups. I meet with one weekly, and the other bi-weekly. With these groups, I have a structured outlet for sharing what I’ve been working on, what I’m toying with doing next, and what’s holding me back. The members of my group are able to support me, and I help support them. These meetings are invaluable, and are the highlights of my week.
  • Hang out with more people like you
    There is a small group of freelancers and product people local to me. Every other week or so, we either co-work out of a coffee shop or meet up for lunch. I also have online equivalents of these — I loiter in a few chatrooms with friends of mine from literally all over the world who are facing many of the same challenges I face.
  • Hire a business coach
    I coach a few consultants, and in turn I have a coach of my own. While having a Mastermind is great, it’s never all about you. When I meet with my business coach, I work with him to figure out where I want to be one month from now, three months from now, and a year from now, and we stay focused on what milestones will help bring me closer to those goals. This helps me work on my business, and not just in it.
  • Hire a therapist
    Repeat after me: You don’t need to have a disorder to see a mental health counselor. I don’t meet with my business coach just when business is bad, nor do I meet with my therapist only when something’s wrong. While my coach helps me balance my business, my therapist works with me to balance my life. If my home life is suffering or I’m constantly anxious, it’s going to affect my work, my family, and my health.

How are you combatting the urge to give up? Sound off below!

  • Joanna Wiebe

    I listened to your podcast with Sherry Walling last week, and she mentioned taking the time to talk to someone, just as you note that it’s important to hire a therapist. I think that’s great advice – BUT it’s so often hard to find time to do *anything* regularly, let alone visit a therapist. (I can’t believe that you can fit a weekly mastermind, coaching sessions, interviews, blogging, podcasting and therapy – and running Planscope – into each week.)

    Would love to see how you schedule in vacations, etc. We’ve started turning conferences into mini-vacays, but the effect is hardly the same as taking a week (or two! imagine!) off and unwinding. Do you see vacations as part of the Defeat Burnout Strategy at all?

    • I’m all onboard with making conferences vacations (plus, business writeoff – hellllooo IRS!) When we went to MicroConf EU, my wife and I spent a week beforehand in London / Prague along with a few days after.

      We frankly haven’t been able to take too many vacations lately. With the kids in school and some medical expenses we’re more focused on “staycations” for the time being 🙂

  • Great post Brennan – I’ve used a similar tactic. At the end of the day I’ll write an email to myself for tomorrow where I answer two questions: “What did I accomplish today?” “What do I want to accomplish tomorrow?”

    Really effective.

  • How’d you find product people close to you? I’d like to meet some near me to meet up with in person.

    • Oh, and this is great stuff, by the way. 🙂

      Also – do you have a strategy for switching existing clients to upfront billing?

    • Meetups? Not sure. The locals are mostly former employees who are now freelancers. The remote groups are all people I’ve met at conferences.

  • amitupadhyay

    I have been following this on an adhoc fashion on a big white board. Instead of doing on a daily basis, I do it as project. Each project is a logical collection of things, I can do in 1 or 2 days.

    I have found putting a “Project Friday” like title really help emphasis these two points, its not about any feature, its about what I can do by Friday. And it has nothing other than things I can do by Friday, so it helps me really focus.

    • That’s a great point. A lot of people fail because they set goals like, “Write my first book”. That’s not actionable — at all. What is actionable and realistic is something like, “Outline a first chapter” or “Write the copy for an announcement page”… things that, like you said, can be done in a day or two. And ultimately, these small tasks / projects snowball into something greater.

  • Let me get this right. You do support, design, development, marketing, coaching, interviewing, and then a ton of writing each week. I’m just starting my career and find it challenging to do just the design, development, interviewing, and marketing at the same time. How are you also able to fit a ton of writing and coaching into this??

    I’m asking you this because I’ve played with various tips over the past 3 years, and even after I’ve mastered the concept of managing tasks and projects, 8 hours is just not enough to accomplish much for me. You on the other hand just seem to get things done faster.. like you worked 12 hours instead. I feel like the list you work with is too much for 8 hours of work.

    • I actually don’t work anything close to 8 hours a day 🙂 So the thing about Planscope — it’s more or less on autopilot. All the heavy design and development work was done over the last two years. Support is maybe an hour or two total a week.

      I just try to take one big thing at a time, knock it out, and move on. Additionally, I have a TON of automation in place. I have lifecycle emails in place with Planscope, a pretty advanced onboarding flow for my newsletter, and bridges in place between all of my different products. I spend most of my time in my inbox replying to emails from customers that started out as automated emails.

  • “I ditched my Todo list…”. Have you found that writing tasks for the next day each night makes them more actionable? Rather than sitting on a todo list for weeks at a time?

    • Yes, because a task can literally rot for weeks in your todo list, but if you need to keep writing out the same task again, and again, and again you’ll either ultimately get it done or realize it’s not worth it.

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