How to Detect the Ugly Grasp of Self-Employment Burnout


 It’s Monday morning. You spent the weekend with the wife and kids. You watched Moana for the 1,000th time and checked your fantasy football scores. You relaxed and even read a book for 15 minutes.

You’re feeling good.

However, unlike every other grown adult you know who has to show up for work today, you have to make the choice.

Self-employment has its perks, but it also has its hidden struggles. Monday morning is one of them.

While your friends can grumble all they want about Monday mornings, the choice has already been made for them, show up or lose their job.

For the self-employed, it’s a little bit different. We consciously decide every day when to work.

Some days that decision is easy to make. And then there are other days when the hesitation to show up is more and more prominent.

If that’s the case for you, you might be heading towards self-employment burnout. Here are three early warning signs to look out for.


1. Procrastination

You know the deadline is looming but you simply can’t convince yourself to work on the project. Tomorrow, you say to yourself.

The choice to put off working on something is easy to make and sometimes it’s quite harmless. We build in extra time into our projects specifically for this, right?

That’s fine every once and a while, however, when procrastinating becomes two days then three then four, you’ve got yourself a big problem.

The first sign of imminent burnout is procrastination.

We procrastinate because we believe some future version of ourselves can handle it later. It feels good to procrastinate. We receive that dopamine hit for doing something that doesn’t actually do anything.

It’s best to nip this in the bud early.

Instead of making the decision to show up every day to work, make the decision ahead of time. I spend most of my working hours writing. However, deciding what to write about was often hard. I’d find myself checking Twitter for two hours instead.

So I created a content calendar and at the beginning of every week I map out what I will write during each of my “blocks.”

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graphic by author

However, the point of planning out my week isn’t to follow it to the ‘T’ but rather limit the number of decisions I make throughout the week. I find this strategy helps to stave off burnout.

Notice your procrastination and make it easier to slip into your work.

2. Lack of patience

It’s perfectly normal to find your clients annoying. But when your lack of patience spills over to your personal life, it’s a warning sign.

I know I’m heading towards burnout when I snap at my kids. Being self-employed means I work from home which means a very fine line is drawn between my professional and personal life.

After 3 and a half years I’ve learned to balance the two sides, but there have been times in the past where it was all too much for me and unfortunately, my kids received the brunt of my frustrations.

We lack patience for a multitude of reasons:

  • Everyday stresses and anxieties of self-employment
  • Not hitting goals or milestones
  • Failed projects
  • Expectations don’t match reality

This warning sign doesn’t have a neat and tidy antidote. It requires the easy-to-say-harder-to-do act of self-awareness.

Acknowledging your frustration is the first step, not beating yourself up is the second. When you feel your patience dwindling, step away. Maybe it’s only for 5 minutes, 5 hours, or even an entire day.

Intentionally pausing to let your brain’s rational side catch up with the emotional one allows you to make better decisions (and your kids might thank you for it).

Once you’ve reset, you might realize that your lack of patience is justified, however, your reaction to it will be less snappy and irrational.

3. Avoidance

The easiest sign that you’re heading towards burnout is a simple fact that you are avoiding new opportunities.

Self-employment requires you not to just work in your business, but also on your business. This means that while you already have clients and projects lined up, you still need to search for more work.

However, if you are avoiding doing outreach or turning down more and more offers, then you are willingly avoiding something. What is that something?

Are you:

  • Scared of challenging yourself
  • Not enjoying what you are doing
  • Stuck and think hiding away will make things better
  • Letting imposter syndrome get the best of you

This is typically the third and final warning sign that burnout is right around the corner which means you have a choice to make: push through or let it happen.

Burnout isn’t always a bad thing

The indigenous peoples of North America used to use controlled burns to maintain the environment around them. These burns facilitated better growth of food and medicinal plants as well as countless other benefits.

What does this teach us about our own experiences with burnout?

My worst bout of burnout occurred a year and a half ago. I didn’t take on new clients. I purposely hid away. My business suffered. I anguished for over a year fo what I wanted to do next.

It took a year-long burnout to realize I was scared that the responsibilities of running a business would interfere with my responsibilities of being a stay-at-home dad.

My burnout was a cleansing fire.

After my experience with burnout, I became more selective about who I worked with. I created my own projects. I started writing again. My business became the business I dreamed about when I used to sit in a cubical all day.

Burning-out sucked, but it was also necessary.

With the right mindsets, it’s possible you can come out of burnout even stronger. But don’t let it catch you by surprise, keep a lookout for these three warning signs.