When You Need Work, But You’re Exhausted

The past few months have been kind of hard for me. I had a phenomenal start to the year and brought in $80K by the end of June. I was pretty ecstatic. But my goal for this year was not to make a bunch of money, instead there was a service that I was working on called StudyChurch and I wanted to get that launched.

Work started slowing down a bit come July and I used that opportunity to make some good progress on StudyChurch. At the same time we were also working on buying a piece of property with my parents that our neighbor was selling and we had just put in an offer on a house. Things were going well and I was enjoying a slow month.

July turned into August and I finally launched StudyChurch. We closed on both the property and the house in the same week and I realized it was time to start bringing in more work. It was still trickling in, but I was having $5K and $6K months now instead of $14K. If you own a business, you know that $5K doesn’t go very far to pay your salary and cover business expenses.

Going into September I was staying busy, but was not being nearly as profitable as I needed to be. Part of that was due to the conferences I would attend over the next couple of weeks. I did not realize how much they would wipe me out.

At this point we had a new home which we were working like crazy to renovate (oh yeah, I forgot to mention it was a bank owned home that had been vacant for nearly 10 years). We were moving our stuff, slowly. We were trying to keep our family with 4 kids sane. And all the while I was trying to maintain momentum with StudyChurch, bring in more work, and try to service the clients I already had.

By the end of October, I was fried and so were our bank accounts. I needed to bring in some more work and find my groove again, but I didn’t know how. That’s when I discovered I was experiencing Burnout.

My friend, Trent Lapinski, wrote a great article on Burnout which I think everyone should read. As I went through it, I realized I was experiencing most of the symptoms of burnout. And it was making me VERY unproductive.

I immediately started following the advice in the article to take time to rest and recover. After the first few days I could really see a dramatic improvement. And guess what? Work started coming in!

I’m still not out of the woods yet, but here are some of the principles I’ve followed to get back on my feet and start bringing in the work that I need.

1. Let Your Community Know You Need Help

I cannot stress this point enough. We are all surrounded by a support group of friends, peers, and colleges and I guaranty they want to help you.

My support group is on Twitter. So I would post messages letting people know that I was looking for work and asking for advice on how to get it. I was overwhelmed by the support that I received.

I am also involved with a few different private groups in Slack as well as a mastermind. Try to get involved with something like this if you can. Friends and colleagues on social media are great, just make sure that you are part of some group that engages regularly so that you don’t feel like an island.

Additionally, make sure to use this as an opportunity to expand your community. This is a great time to reach out to different agencies that you respect and see if they could use your skills with any overflow work they have.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to reach out to people.

2. You are Not in Control, Don’t Act like You Are

This was my biggest problem. I found that I would post a message to Twitter, submit a reply to a project request, or something like that and then I would waste the next several minutes waiting for a reply and willing them to respond. This strange behavior was causing my slow times of work to be my most stressful and exhausting times.

At times I would have 10 or more pending projects that I was waiting for replies on. More than once I’d have all the projects just cancel or never respond. That was very frustrating.

As I realized that I was burnt out, I started taking my slow times and using them to recover. I’d take a nap, watch some tv, read a book etc. When I did, I’d get to the end of the day energized and excited instead of feeling irritable and depressed.

Now this doesn’t mean that you should just flop in front of the tv and veg out when you don’t have work. Still do everything that you can to bring in more work. But realize there is a limit to what you can do, and when you have done what you can, relax and get ready for the work that will start coming in.

3. Work on Things that Make You Feel Productive

If you want to end your day satisfied and happy, work on things that make you feel productive. Now, productivity does not mean that you made a bunch of money or wrote a bunch of code. Productivity is when you accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

I find that the worse I feel the more I strive to feel productive. And the harder I try to feel productive, the loftier my goals get. It’s as if I am sinking in a sea of tasks and the farther I sink, the more I have to do to get out.

Don’t fall into this trap. If you don’t feel productive about yesterday, don’t think you have to get twice as much done today to be productive. That’s a sure fire way to make yourself depressed and burnt out really fast.

So what should you do? Well, what do you like to do?

When I’m waiting for work to come in, I’ll work on a plugin or write a blog post or do something else that I can share. Doing these kinds of things are a great way to help expand your community and meet more people who can help you find work (see point 1).

Sometimes, though, I just don’t feel like I have the energy to work on anything. When that happens it’s time to work on resting. Set aside some time to relax and do the things that will revive you and give you the energy to do the things you love.

4. Your Time is Not Less Valuable When You Have More of It.

When I feel like I have more time, I find that I will fail to set good boundaries. This normally means that I end up doing a whole bunch of client work for free because I misquote or fail to set good expectations. Somehow I think this is ok because I figure that if I am working on something that I am being productive.

This is one of the worst mistakes I made over the past few months. I did not realize that I was wasting so much energy working on these projects and as a result I did not have the energy to work on the things that I needed and wanted to do to expand my community and find more work.

Now there may be times when you need to lower your rates to bring more work in, but that is not what I am talking about here. Make sure that you spend the same amount of effort defining your client relationships when work is slow as you do when you are crazy busy. Otherwise, you’ll find your time will be taken up by doing things and not being productive.

In Summary

Owning a business is a constant rollercoaster of ups and downs, busy times and slow times, inspiration and depression, and so on. Realize that you will experience success and sometimes you will feel like a failure. It happens to all of us.

Remember your community. Surround yourself with others who can encourage you when you are feeling down and make yourself available to them when they need help.

You cannot control other people’s responses. So do the best you can and then rest. Enjoy life, even in the slow times… especially in the slow times.

When you don’t have work coming in, work on the things that you want to work on. This will keep you sharp and can be a great way to invest into the future.

Finally, remember to set good boundaries especially when you don’t have a lot of work coming in. Don’t be lazy about your free time. You’ve earned the right to some slow time every now and then. Make sure you maximize it!

6 comments

  1. Dan says:

    Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts. Even in the thick of it, I find your optimism and perspective very refreshing. In a way, just knowing that others struggle with similar trials, yet are learning and persevering through them, increases my own resolve to do the same! So thank you for being so candid and real! Onward….

  2. Love this! Well I don’t love that you went through a period of burnout but I love that you shared what you learned. Congrats on the rebound.

    >>>When I feel like I have more time, I find that I will fail to set good boundaries. This normally means that I end up doing a whole bunch of client work for free because I misquote or fail to set good expectations. Somehow I think this is ok because I figure that if I am working on something that I am being productive.<<<<

    Man, we've all been there/done that. My problem is I think, "I'll be home all day, I can do this later." But I'm often tired "later" and so my task list suffers. Becoming more consistent with my daily schedule has helped a lot.

    There's a lot of freedom in working for oneself, and we enjoy a fairly blessed career field. It takes a lot of self-discipline to pound these online pavements and make a real business out of it. You're doing an excellent job, Tanner. Keep on keepin' on, because as you've seen, it all works itself out.

    Congrats on the new house and new product and all the great things 2015 brought you!

  3. Josh C says:

    Delayed reply!

    Thanks for putting all this out there, it’s pain that all freelancers and agency owners know intimately.

    I would add that the one thing that’s helped me get through the doldrums – feast/famine, burn out, low energy – is good old fashioned money in the bank. Keeping 6 months of living expenses in your main account and a buffer in your business one lets you relax. Need time off? There’s your vacation pay. Considering a low-margin/red flag project? There’s your reason to say no. Slow month? There’s your reason to feel ok contributing or working on a personal project.

    Without a direct deposit check, PTO, and disability insurance, we’re really at risk for something bad to happen, at worst, or our fear to take over and make us act irrationally. In my experience, all of hat just comes down to money. Remove that stress and the panic fades away.

    Good luck my friend! You’re massively talented, driven, and a pleasure to work with … You will do just fine!

    • tanner says:

      Great advice, Josh! And thanks for the reply. I normally try to keep 2-3 months in the bank, but 6 would definitely give a lot more breathing room… now just to get there. 🙂

      Thanks for the encouragement, my friend!

Leave a Reply