Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece for the Telerik blog on how to stay productive during COVID-19. At the time, none of us really knew what was on the horizon—not just in terms of the pandemic, but in terms of the never-ending onslaught of stressors we faced.
These were the tips I gave at the time:
While I think these productivity tips are useful for short-term disruption, burnout is a different beast altogether.
It’s been a hard enough year for everyone, the last thing you want is to let your mind and body fall victim to burnout and to drag your business down with you. So, today, I’m going to provide some suggestions on how you can beat burnout one day at a time.
Here are some common symptoms that’ll let you know when you’re experiencing burnout or on the verge of burning out:
As web designers, there are other burnout symptoms and side effects to worry about. Pay close attention to what psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee has to say about burnout:
“Increased negativity, resentment, ambient inertia, and feelings of incompetence are all related to burnout as are critical changes in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. Creativity, problem-solving, and working memory are often impacted, meaning cognitive function and acuity is reduced when we are burned out.”
Your entire business is dependent on your creativity and problem-solving abilities. If burnout has dulled these skills, that’s a huge problem.
For most of my 20s, burnout was my constant companion. Any time I started to feel it getting worse, I’d just work more hours or stay out later. If I didn’t give myself time to think about how poorly I was feeling, then it wasn’t real. Of course, I’d inevitably crash and burn and it would take me at least a few months to recover from the fallout and to get my life back together.
You can’t afford to ignore or try to wish away burnout—not with the way things are right now. It’s really important to protect yourself and your business as best as you can, which you can do by methodically chipping away at the things that are breaking you down and burning you out.
Here are some ways to do this:
It’s a good thing to have a predictable routine for your business. However, the optimal schedule that worked for you under ideal circumstances might not be working as well for you now.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new routine if you’re struggling to get everything done within the time you’ve allotted for yourself.
Using a time tracker, have a look at which hours of the day and even days of the week you get the most work done. Your peak productivity hours may have changed. If so, restructure your workweek around them. So long as you get your work done, it doesn’t matter when you do it.
Your physical workspace might also be the problem.
Prior to the pandemic, remote workers had a choice as to where they worked. Coffee shops. Cowork spaces. Libraries. Their home offices. Now, however, you might find yourself feeling cramped or claustrophobic.
Something I’ve done is to move my desk between two giant windows. And because it gets a ton of natural light between about 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., I’ve rescheduled my workday around those hours. It’s been great for my productivity.
If you’re feeling like your workspace options are limited, find a way to shake things up. Bring in some plants. Invest in a soundbar that plays your calming soundscapes. Get a sunlight lamp. Do whatever it is you need to do to feel energized while you’re at work.
I don’t know about you all, but it’s been really hard for me to feel excited about my job. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with what I do, it’s just hard when every day is exactly the same.
I’ve also found myself spending a lot of time worrying about the instability of work. I realize there isn’t a whole lot I can do to control this except to keep doing good work for my clients and to always be on the lookout for new opportunities. But this is part of the whole burnout thing.
When you’ve pushed yourself past the edge, it’s hard to see things clearly or with a positive attitude.
While reading up on this particular burnout issue, I saw many mental health professionals suggesting that people take up new projects. Here are some of the projects I’ve started the last six months:
If you’re having a hard time getting excited about your work right now, it’s unlikely to be because your projects are boring or you’re over it. You just need to shake things up and give yourself a fun challenge. Maybe try building an app for a new niche. Or learn how to play the guitar.
Just make sure the challenge brings you joy.
A 99designs’ report from last year reveals that many freelancers are struggling due to the events of 2020:
With the market being flooded with new freelancers (thanks to the rise in unemployment), it’s only going to get harder for established freelance designers.
I by no means want to discourage you. You should still be out there chasing down leads and selling them on your design services. You have a huge advantage in that you’ve been a long-time designer and you have a strong portfolio to show for it.
That said, it’s always a good idea to plan for tough times, starting with your budget.
The tools and services you needed prior to 2020 may not be as valuable to you right now. So the first thing to do is ditch them or cut back how much you spend on them.
Another thing to do is evaluate how much you’re charging for your design services. Now is not the time to be settling for lower rates. While it might help you compete against the new freelancers who are happy to be lowballed, it’s going to take you a long time to get your rates back up to where they were previously.
If you’re struggling to get new clients to say “Yes” to your rates, then focus your attention on clients that know and appreciate your worth. Reach out to existing and former clients and see what else they need. A redesign of their app? Maybe some conversion rate optimization? Or would monthly website maintenance be useful? Provide the value-add they need.
You know all those annoying tasks you have to do in order to find leads, onboard clients, manage your finances and so on? I’m not suggesting that you hire someone to do them. Again, now is the time to be budget-conscious.
But they do take up too much of your time, don’t they?
If you look at this thread on Designer News, many designers claim that they only spend between 30% and 50% of their time on billable work.
Admin tasks can be serious productivity killers and can make burnout even worse. You know you have a ton of work to get done, but the stack of admin work makes it all feel impossible.
What I suggest you do is automate as many of your administrative duties as possible. Here are some of the tasks you can automate and some tools to do it with:
Trust me, there are lots of ways to program software to handle these time-consuming and draining tasks on your behalf.
With many people not able to go out and do the things they once did, they find themselves at home, reaching for their laptops or smartphones, even when they’re already engaged with another screen. And why?
It could be to feel connected to others, even if it’s just digitally. It could also be due to doomscrolling. As Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer explains:
“A person who doomscrolls found at some point in the trajectory of their disorder that searching online for information on disturbing events gave them comfort. It gave them a sense of control over their lives and re-engaged their intellect. But while they thought they were being soothed by facts, what they were really doing was hyperactiving their emotional reactivity. In short order, the process of doomscrolling overtook them and they got lost in the cycle of angst, momentary relief from the angst and then a deeper more intense sense of angst from being out of control in an unsafe and catastrophic and dangerous world.”
Not gonna lie, I was doomscrolling like crazy last year. I became obsessed with needing to know about everything going on, from the latest pandemic restrictions to what sort of craziness was unfolding around the U.S. election.
I stare at screens for a living, and my eyes and brain couldn’t take much more of it. So, I did three things to break free:
If you’re struggling with too much screen time, set up your own system. Restrict what you can do online when you’re not working, get off of any social media that isn’t vital to your life or business and keep your hands busy. If you’re occupied with something else, you won’t be as tempted to reach for your phone anymore.
One of the most common symptoms of burnout is a change in one’s overall wellness. It makes sense. It can be very hard to maintain good eating, exercise, sleep and socialization habits when you’re feeling drained.
Speaking from personal experience, this one has been the toughest for me. Because if I don’t have someone to actually guide me in person, I’m liable to make any excuse not to do it.
I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the pandemic. Under “normal” burnout conditions, you’re still able to go to the gym or the beach or the therapist’s office—wherever you go to get well. With so many of our options virtualized now, it’s easy to just not do them.
So, how do you get around this roadblock? Here are some ideas:
Let someone else do your meal prep. It’s way too easy right now to open a food delivery app and order in food, especially when you have too much work to get through.
But there are ways to eat healthy home-cooked meals without spending an hour-plus preparing them. For this, I use a meal-kit service. Not only does it help me save money since I’m not paying insane DoorDash fees or throwing out uneaten food, but it also makes sure I eat healthy and properly portioned meals.
Find someone to work out with. I’ve tried a number of virtual exercise classes and fitness apps over the years. And there’s one in particular that I love for two reasons:
By having someone to cheer you on in the way that works for you, you’re more likely to commit to a workout program, even if you just do it one or two days a week.
Spend time with someone other than the voice inside your head. I have two dogs who keep me company and entertained on a regular basis. While I love my furry companions, I sometimes need to interact with humans as well. So, I also have a few friends that I spend time with. And I have a few online groups of writers and designers that I visit when I need a professional connection.
It doesn’t really matter what your “people” look like. You just need someone to give your brain a break.
It’s going to take some work and time to feel better and it may be even harder to do right now with all the uncertainty and chaos around us. However, if you work on making yourself feel better, little by little, day by day, you’ll eventually get yourself to a good place again.
A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.
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