How to Stop Working, Avoiding Burnout & Other 2015 Musings

I want to talk about several things in this post. About the rough year I’ve had. About being dead slow in work and then over-scheduled. About being burnt out, stressed out and learning how to stop working.

I’ve been in business for over five years now, and this has been one of the hardest years I’ve ever had. Except for when I first became a freelancer, I’ve always been scheduled up nicely a month or two in advance. However, most of 2015 has been either very slow or very over-scheduled. At one point I was paying my mortgage with my credit card and considering a full-time job. I felt like I was working day in and day out (and weekends too) and not getting paid. I was close (and am still trying to recover) to burning out. So what happened?

I think it was a combination of several things that all came together, and led to two very different kinds of burn out.

First Came The Silence

From the New Year until around September, it was deadly quiet around here. All of a sudden, work dried up. No emails came through (and yes I made sure it was working). I never really had to look for work, as it seemed clients found me either through great SEO, social media or the events I attended. But something happened and I wasn’t getting any new clients.

Work slowed to a trickle and I started panicking. While I always tend to panic as soon as things feel slow (I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder for a reason), this time was different. I started to have a deficient in my bank account. I paid 2-3 months of my mortgage on my credit card. I didn’t even have money for groceries or gas.

Why did this happen? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. I had stopped doing the little extra things that got my name out there and people “forgot” about me. I hadn’t blogged in months, because at the time I was so slammed I forgot about my blog, and when I did try to write, I felt like I’d run out of things to say or that my “voice” sounded weird. I didn’t write any tutorials or do any side projects. I had stopped replying to job adverts months ago, because again I was super slammed at the time. I barely even tweeted or checked social media and I stopped going to events. I hadn’t read any new coding or business books or articles all year.

I also realized that although I kept my portfolio updated, the website itself was sorely out of date. The design (and the code…yuck!) was over three years old. That’s ancient in the web world.

Basically, I was so busy with client work I’d stopped taking care of my business.

So around September, I had the first part of my burnout. I made some tough decisions and decided that I wasn’t going to go quietly, if at all. I stopped looking for a “job”, because I knew I’d never be happy working for someone else. I decided to rededicate myself to my business. I started writing again and did a few extra small side projects that not only helped me learn some new skills, but was also fun because I got to incorporate a few hobbies outside the internet. I started tweeting helpful articles and writing a few tutorials. I started emailing for new work.

Then Came The Flood

Around September, business started picking up for me again. I soon had a full schedule of both new and returning clients who needed work done. And so the pendulum swung from having almost no work to being so busy I had to turn work down.

It’s hard for me to turn off all of my notifications for the day and relax. I pride myself on having good communication skills and getting work done on time or even ahead of schedule. So I started working crazy hours. I’d get to work at noon and work till bedtime. I’d also work on the weekends. It got to the point where I was so worn out from working odd hours that I couldn’t focus or work during regular business hours. Which lead to more guilty feelings and affected my well-being.

It’s even harder for me to not check emails all hours of the day. I’d gotten good at answering emails only once or twice during work hours, but I’d still check them all the way up until bedtime. And then I’d get so frustrated over a revision request or a client response that I couldn’t focus or do anything (or fall asleep) until I stopped and addressed the email. Once clients realized I was answering emails on weekends and late hours, they started to expect it of me and so I continued doing it, making the problem worse.

Once on a Saturday, I was in a bookstore with my partner when I checked the email on my phone. There’d been a major bug I’d been working on for several days that I thought I’d fixed. Turns out I didn’t. I was so upset and frustrated that I couldn’t focus on what I was trying to do at the moment – spend time having a nice day out with my partner. It actually ruined the rest of my day and I was so stressed out it made me sick.

Did I mention that this happened just a week or two ago? And so I’ve come to the second part of my burnout.

A Business Manifesto

I believe that we have to constantly be learning or we’ll fall behind. Every site we code should be slightly different than the last, because each time you should be learning something new. The same goes for being in business. You can’t stand still and you should be constantly tweaking the way you do things. So this post wouldn’t be complete without my new manifesto – without my goals and ideas for getting out of 2015’s rut and getting into a smooth groove for 2016.

  • Business Hours – from now on, I’m keeping strict business hours of 11-6 CST, Monday-Fridays only. No working late nights and no working weekends. This means I’ll have to make sure to stay focused and productive during the regular work week, so I’m not tempted to “catch up” on weekends.
  • NO work emails after work hours – I’ve been good about this the past week and I love it. The only issue is that I use the same email address for both client work and personal stuff, so I’m still checking my emails, but trying to ignore (and not read) the client ones. If this becomes an issue, I might separate the two so I can only check personal emails on my phone.
  • Non-tech holidays – I’m good about these but I want to take more “at home” non-tech holidays. This year, I’m taking the last two weeks of December off. I’m not going anywhere, but I’m going to take the time off to do a few projects around the house, decompress and allow myself to miss work.
  • Always learn – stay up to date by investing in good tech books, going to local events and conferences and keep creating tutorials for both myself and others. I recently signed up for a Codepen account (yes I was THAT behind), and hope to create some time to add a ton of stuff I’ve learned recently.

Money isn’t quality of life. I could be working 24/7 and make buckets of cash, but where does that leave me? Tired, unhappy and probably sleeping the hours I’m not working. On the flip side, I have bills and responsibilities like everyone else. It’s difficult to find that middle road: making enough money to enjoy the things in life, while having the free time to do so. I’m hoping that by setting strict rules for myself that I’ll once again enjoy what I’m doing.

It’s scary to write an article like this. No one likes to admit they’re weak or hurting. You’re afraid potential, or even current, clients will see this and take it the wrong way. But I feel it’s important to share this stuff with others in the industry. No one’s a machine and we all need a bit of self-maintenance. Even after running a successful business for so many years, we still run into issues and need a reinvention.

I’m looking forward to 2016 being that for me. It’s going to be a big year. I’m turning 30 (gulp), which means I really have to start adulting. I’m working on a total website redesign. I want to make sure I stay in love with the crazy web industry for years to come. And I’m looking forward to new challenges and kicking ass.