Info: This is part three of the Freelance & Prosper series, a series about how to prosper in a job that can feel very insecure and not very stable to some.

Burnout and stress are things everyone should be concerned with. As freelancers, it’s vital because we often have less of a safety net, economic, social, and otherwise. I’ve always had a high degree of self-reliance. I’m still not very good at listening to what my body is telling me. I’ll keep pushing myself and telling myself I just need to push through this one thing to be done. Upon reflection, it comes as no surprise that I burned myself out and that it took almost six months to recover.

My burnout story

Early in my freelance career, I was allowed to take the lead on a major project. It sounded complex, challenging, and fun, everything I wanted. I was excited and energized to get started, and I went at it full throttle working 45-50 hour weeks from day one. It turned out to be the start of 2 years full of adrenaline, frustration, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and stress. It eventually led to my burnout and multiple health complications. I am lucky to have left all that behind with no permanent damage and caution everyone to take care of themselves. Taking on a challenge is fine; taking on too much is not.

I was responsible for my own downfall through my choices, and I could rationalize everything and say I didn’t see the warning signs until it was too late, but I’m not going to do that. I didn’t know the warning signs, and I had plenty of chances to make different choices. But I didn’t because I was too inexperienced to recognize the problems before they became severe. I have decided to tell the story in a different post because I feel it’s important to tell, but I also don’t want it taking over this whole post. If you want to read my burnout story, you are more than welcome to do so, but it’s not required to read the rest of this post.

Just one more contract

It’s easy to fall into a pattern when you’re working as a freelancer. Get a contract, finish the contract, start a new contract. You fill up any short periods where you have no contracts with personal projects or pick up small 10-20 hour jobs from smaller clients. It can feel like you’ve gotta keep working to make money, so you have to continue picking up contracts. This is the trap, and having a buffer + knowing your burn rate helps you avoid it. I fell into that trap when I failed to realize I was already burned out from a previous contract. I failed to realize I had plenty of money to tie me over for a little while and that I needed the time to recover from what was a very stressful contract.

There is a reason vacation time is part of almost all European employment contracts, and you shouldn’t forget that when taking on a new contract. As freelancers, we sometimes work insane hours for short periods, and I’ve met many who forget to take time off after such periods. I used to push myself to take on a new contract whenever offered because I didn’t know when the next one was coming. That’s why I came up with “always another contract.” It has become a mantra because it both reminds me that there is plenty of work out there and to remember to take time off to recuperate.

Choosing to take time off

Taking time off is something I’ve always struggled with. I was guaranteed six weeks of vacation per year when I was permanently employed, and I barely even took two. Taking time off felt unproductive, and most of the time, I simply visited family for holidays and worked on personal projects even on those visits. Visiting family for holidays was what I always did, and working while there was to feel productive. I was usually the first one in and the last one out of the office when I was working. What am I supposed to do when I have time off? That’s been a question I struggled with a lot until I realized the question isn’t right. Why am I supposed to do anything when I have time off?

Doing nothing

I forget where I read it, but it stuck with me. Doing nothing is the most important thing you can do. The nature of doing nothing is to do something which can be seen as “unproductive” but brings you joy anyway. Doing “unproductive” things is supposedly good for mental health, but at least my mind doesn’t like to be still for very long. You try sitting still, not thinking about anything in particular, and see how long it takes for your mind to wander. Mine wanders to work more often than not, but I’ve found a few computer games that can occupy my mind even when I’m not playing them.

An exercise I sometimes use is to sit for a while and simply look at a view, and after a little while, I start noticing things like how the light falls on a particular tree or reflects off a roof. I also look at the sky to see the clouds moving. I find it takes a certain kind of calm for me to be able to look upon a windless day and see the clouds moving. Finding appreciation in things like the sounds of birds or the moving clouds came after my burnout. We spend a lot of time looking without seeing because we’re always in a hurry. I’m not saying these are things you need to be able to appreciate. Everyone has their own thing. Someone once told me they found the same state of mind while riding his bicycle around 50 km into his trip. Nerd.

Relaxing

Relaxation is subjective. I like walking and looking at things, speculating about random stuff that comes into my mind. A nice long walk, nice weather, and noise-canceling headphones to turn down the volume of the world. Sometimes I’ll turn on some music, but I only have the noise cancellation on most of the time. I find the world is too loud for me to hear my own thoughts when I want to achieve that calm, and noise cancellation helps. As a bonus, most people leave me alone on my walks. I also enjoy fishing, although I haven’t done it much these last few years. An early spring morning, a fishing rod, and the sound of water all around me. Catching fish doesn’t really matter, which is good because I rarely catch anything anyway. I like many things about fishing, from the gear to being outside at times when nobody else is.

When doing any of my relaxing activities, I try to get away from my computer if possible. When I was a kid, programming and computers were my hobbies, and when I turned them into my work, I realized I would spend a lot of time doing it outside work. I enjoy it and a certain kind of satisfaction to make progress on personal projects, but I never set a minimum amount of hours to work on a project per week or set a certain deadline. Deadlines are for clients. I work on these projects for my benefit, not for money or anyone else.

Traveling

I used to travel. Most of us did until Covid hit, but I used to do it to visit friends abroad. I didn’t travel anywhere just to experience it and relied on my friends to show me their area instead. Some of that is because I’m a nervous traveler, and knowing someone is waiting at the other end is comforting. I also didn’t have anyone to travel with until I met my girlfriend, which made traveling abroad something only I experienced. I traveled alone for a bit, but most of those experiences felt different than traveling with someone.

Exploring the world and spending time away from work is the best part of working as a freelancer because I can take as much time as I want to do it. I’ve spent a month traveling to Australia and New Zealand with my girlfriend and spent three weeks in Amsterdam and Rotterdam exploring those cities on my own. I’ve walked the rocky mountains, eaten exceptional food, fished for trout 2000 meters above the sea, and spent time talking to Maori natives about the legends of Pounamu. I still walk around with greenstone I found in NZ tucked in my pocket. I think about the sorrow in the stone, and the legend every so often. One day, I will return that stone to New Zealand.

I’m not great at taking the time to do these things because I’m always dragged back to one project or another. As the years' pass, it becomes less about the money and more about the projects. So maybe I’ll take more time to travel once Covid is gone.

Note: It’s illegal to take Pounamu from New Zealand. While in NZ, I’ve had an expert look at the stone I found, and he concluded that it’s not Pounamu but another form of greenstone.

Extended downtime

Extended time off is always tricky. Anything more than a month is what I’d consider extended, and it’s at that point I start thinking formulating a plan if I haven’t already. Whether I’ve chosen to take the extended time off or it occurred because of a dry spell, I find that I begin itching to get started after a month. I rarely call around to agencies, though. I’ve found the extended time off is valuable for my mental health because it allows me to do more things that align with my pillars of need.

Personal projects

Like most developers, I have a long list of personal projects I’ll get started on and never finish. At last cleanup, I had 86, though most of those could best be described as POC’s, not actual projects. I’ve started making bullet point plans and using GitHub issue tracking for my personal projects in recent years, and generally getting more organized. It helps with my focus and gives me some satisfaction in completing some of these POC’s or actual projects. I recently completed a multi-threaded web scraping tool, which can be scaled infinitely using the serverless infrastructure. This is step two in an NLP (Natural Language Processing) project I’ve started, which aims to understand the sentiment of articles. I’ve attempted to subdivide it into multiple smaller projects because of the sheer scale of what I’m planning to do and because it makes it more manageable to work with over a long time.

I categorize my projects as either a POC, minor or major to better find time to do them. A POC may take 20-30 hours to complete, whereas a minor project may take 50-70 hours. By estimating my projects, I am better able to complete them because they don’t seem so daunting, and I’ve also defined the scope for the project before I start. Open-ended projects should be avoided both here and in my freelance and career, simply because they tend to never finish.

Acquiring new skills

Another great thing about having an extended period is you can acquire new skills. Learning is one of my pillars, so I’ll often do this if I have lots of time. I take courses, certifications, or attend conferences. I can get stuck working on the same kind of things as a freelancer, and a way to get out of that rut is to acquire new skills. But skills related to work can feel like work, so I also focus on other skills. I took up baking for a while and geeked out on sourdough bread. I’ve taught myself fly fishing and started making my own flies. Lately, I’ve begun considering getting a hunting license, not because I really want to go hunting, but because a lot of my family does it, and I like being outside. I might only bring a camera, though. I’ve also geeked out on Coffee, and that’s still going on.

Exploring the world

When I’ve just mentioned traveling, it may seem redundant to say you should explore the world, but they are not the same. Consider all the places around you, you never see because you simply never pass by when moving from point A to point B. Not too long ago, I realized donkeys were grazing a short bike ride from where I live, and I live in Copenhagen. I’d passed through the park many times but never actually explored it, and last spring, I finally did. I found an area full of wild fruit, grazing cows, horses and donkeys, and footpaths leading into calm clearings full of butterflies.

To experience something new, you have to do something you’ve never done before. That’s where exploration comes in. Take a different path to the shops, a different route to visit a friend, walk a park or part of town you haven’t been to before. I often walk cities I travel to because I want to experience them, with their sights and sounds. Doing the same in your home town or country is well worth it. Walking is my favorite speed.

Establish routines

I like routines and find comfort in them. It gives me a reason to get up and make the most of my day because I make routines that advance things I want to achieve rather than work on something not my own. During my last extended time off - lasting six weeks - I made a plan to complete two courses on Udemy and get started on an online machine learning course from Stanford. My day would often start around 9am, and I get started on courses around 10am. From 10am to 5pm, I would go through courses and work on learning assignments. At around 1pm, I would take a 1hour walk to allow things to sink in. After 5pm, I would be done with skills for the day, and I would switch to working on personal projects or taking the evening off. The following days repeated in this fashion. Your routines will differ, but I think routines are great tools to helps me achieve what I want out of my extended time off.

Take advantage

Making a concentrated effort to learn something new brings me joy and aligns with one of my pillars. Pillars are personal, and I can’t give you a complete list of activities everyone should do because, in the end, it’s subjective. To me, freelancing is about taking advantage. I found a market willing to pay me a lot of money for something I already enjoyed and took advantage of that by becoming a freelancer. I found a way of working that allows me to do more of the things I enjoy, rather than have to get up in the morning and go to work every day. I like having routines, but I also like having routines I decide what are. I like having my freedom, and there is always another contract

Key takeaways

  • Avoid burnout
  • Choose to take time off
  • Doing nothing is important
  • Use your extended downtime
  • Acquire new skills or work on personal projects
  • Travel, Explore and take advantage of being a freelancer
  • Always another contract