The Burnoutville Express: how to handle excessive workloads and stay sane | Coding Ninjas
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September 2019
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The Burnoutville Express: how to handle excessive workloads and stay sane

Ksenia LarinaKsenia Larina

As a content creator who works full time, loves her job, and does a side hustle to keep up with the content marketing trends and fill in the early-morning productive windows with something meaningful, I feel like I always keep the Burnoutville Express tickets in my pocket.

But you know what?

I don’t get on that train anymore.

Not because I’m that smart and wholesome. I just asked some marketing agency owners for advice about handling stress and anxiety from extreme workloads (who would have known better, right?), and they delivered.

All I had to do next is to follow the wisdom others have suffered for. And, I also talked to a professional therapist about what should I do to avoid emotional burnout and feel as happy about the work I do, as I wish I was.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

The birth of burnout

My slow journey to burnout began with a… New Year’s resolution. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t planning to work so much I’d never see my family and friends again. Wait, you know what? Let’s rewind the tape just a tiny bit earlier. Ah, yes, yes, good, Christmas!

So here am I, a sleepy and happy weirdo in an ugly sweater unpacking the gifts. Most of them are books, of course. Everyone knows I’m a chief bookworm! Nabokov, Woody Allen’s “Mere Anarchy”, graphic novels, ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, and… ‘The Miracle Morning’?!

If you’ve never seen this book in your local bookstores on the shelves with all the other non-fiction self-help bestsellers, here’s a brief summary for you:

  1. Get up as early as possible or at least an hour earlier than you’re used to.
  2. Spend that extra hour on self-improvement. The book suggests spending 10 minutes on each of these 6 things:
    1. Exercise
    2. Meditation (aka sitting in silence trying not to think of things that make you anxious)
    3. Affirmations
    4. Visualizations
    5. Reading
    6. Writing

The other 200 pages are just the author trying to convince you how amazing his morning routine is.

Sounds cheesy, I know. But nevertheless, I decided why not give this a try and had amazing 10 days of living by the book followed by another 4 days of frustration trying to understand why I spend 10 minutes every morning telling myself how beautiful and smart I am.

What else happened two weeks later? I realized my mornings were indeed incredibly productive and actually picked up this new habit of waking up at 5:50 a.m. every morning and spending this time to work on the most difficult tasks.

The next thing I knew — I’ve got time and energy to pick up several freelance projects and made more money than I’ve ever seen in my life before.

And you probably already know what’s happened after that. Yes, the reality of my new schedule hit me hard. I got overly confident and was overloaded. I’ve missed several deadlines, started stressing out, slept 4 hours a day, couldn’t concentrate on anything, and was stuck in the infinite loop of procrastination, feeling bad about procrastinating, and procrastinating again because I was feeling bad.

That’s how I knew the burnout began.

Agency owners vs. burnouts

At that point, I got too used to having a side hustle that was bringing me extra money and experience. Naturally, I decided to look for another way to handle the workload and pressure, instead of giving up the extra workload. And while having freelance projects wasn’t making me an agency, I realized that the problems I was facing were the exact kind of problems any digital agency owner is perfectly familiar with. So, I decided to ask people who, I figured, knew better: the marketing agencies owners.

And my exact questions to them were these:

  1. How do you manage the stresses of increased workloads?
  2. What to do if you end up with too many tasks to handle on your own?
  3. What keeps you going even when you get negative feedback?

The responses I got could have been divided into two parts: the common tips of getting over the burnout which work for everyone, and the gems every person who is at the start of their own agency should know. I’ll go through them all, though. Just in case you are suffering from a burnout, but don’t plan on starting an agency.

Feedback

Negative feedback is what makes you better at your job. Yeah, right. Tell that to a person who’s spent a week crafting copy for an advertising campaign, striving for their very best, after they receive a list of «89 things you got wrong about our business» from a client.

Truth is, no one loves editing the final drafts — the whole process, although inevitable, is always quite discouraging, and can turn into a straight road to burning out. But here are a few ideas that can help you deal with the negative feedback without losing your face and/or mind:

  1. Keep a swipe praise file for all the times your clients or colleagues have shouted out for your perfect work to feel better whenever you get that «yeah, kinda not what we wanted»
  2. Take a break, do something that helps you to take your mind off work, and take a second look at all the comments and suggestions your client has given you, but this time try to only notice all the good things they’ve said about your work. This trick doesn’t always work, but often you’re likely to discover, that in fact your client is quite satisfied with your work, and the edits they want to make are not the critical errors.
  3. Don’t take the negative feedback personally. Simply because it isn’t. The specifics of running a digital agency imply that the quality of your work is not always defined by your professional qualities as much as by matching your client’s needs to the final result you provide. So instead of letting the negative feedback crawl under your skin, take it as nothing more but a sign that you need to make a few shifts to meet the client’s expectations.
  4. Once you learn to do all those things I’ve listed above, return to where we began: negative feedback is indeed what makes you a better marketer/writer/designer/strategist/developer. But don’t get over-cautious. A single mistake is not something you should be obsessed about, but if you see a pattern — that’s a clear sign you need to work on your weak spots.

Pro tip: remember, there will always be the «I’m just trying to be helpful» people, who feel the need to make as many remarks as they find possible. In case you’re working with this type of clients, the next rule will be especially helpful.

The Agency Ride Rule

Another way to get a burnout as an agency owner or a freelancer is not to set up a limited edits policy, or, as I call it «to break The Agency Ride Rule».

Think of it this way:

It’s Friday. You are wrapping things up at work and have planned a night out with friends. You decide not to take your car because you’re a responsible adult, and instead decide to take an Uber to a bar. You open an app, find a car, have a nice small talk with the driver Larry, get to the «Buddha Bar» where you’re supposed to meet your friends, get charged $9 for the ride, but then realize that the bar you were supposed to go is called «The Buddy» and is two blocks away from where you are.

So, what do you do next? Well, you pretty much have two options: you can either walk those two blocks or catch another ride. What you certainly won’t do is call Larry and ask him to pick you up and drive you to another bar with no extra charge.

Same thing should go for your agency’s services: all the extra work should be paid. Most of the freelancers and agency’s have limited edits included in the price, and charge a by-hour rate for all the extra editing that goes on top of that.

Otherwise, you risk ending up burned out from doing the work that is not only emotionally exhausting but also unpaid. A big no-no!

The Overbooked Self

When you’re just starting out with any new project, there is no sure way of knowing whether you have too much on your plate or not. It comes with experience, so I’m not gonna lie and give you the false hope: you’ll just have to power through the times you take too much work for a person who doesn’t have a time-travel machine.

In the long term, though, there is much, much, much better news! First of all, whenever you get overbooked, it’s a sure sign that you have to raise prices. It’s a simple logic of an open market: if your services are good enough for you to be loaded at 120% with the current rates, you should raise the prices to the point when you’re left with the demand that’s enough to keep the 100% load, or maybe even less, but with the same revenue.

Another strategy, that in my opinion, works best when combined with raising the prices is to have contractors to delegate your overloads to. You can either choose other freelancers that do the same type of work you do and can finish the whole project for you, or hire people to do the specific parts of projects for you. For example, if you run an agency that does web design and development, you can either partner up with another web agency, or focus on design and delegate web development to CodingNinjas.

Break The Loop

If you notice that you always end up in some kind of a loop where procrastination is followed by intense last-minute work, you have to realize that you’re setting yourself up for failure. And you’re the only one responsible for this. It’s not somebody’s fault you’re burned out, and no one can do something about it except for yourself — not your partner, not your boss, not your clients, and not even your therapist.

The recipe is simple:

  1. Be honest about your work, first with yourself, then with your colleagues and clients. People who depend on you have a right to know what to expect. Also, it’s a great way to get the relief the burden of all that unfinished work hanging over your head. Try to shift the deadlines or find someone you can delegate part of your work to and win yourself some room for recovery.
  2. Take time off. As much as you can afford. Ideally, it should be at least a week, but if you’re caught up in a tight schedule and everyone expects their projects by yesterday, steal at least a day, or at least an hour if things are that bad. You have to unwind and take your mind off work: spend time with family and friends, go for a hike in the woods or ride your bike that’s been hiding in the garage for years, read a book, or do whatever you want. In other words, take some time to just enjoy yourself.
  3. Reassess your priorities. This goes for the most important and urgent tasks you have to solve in terms of work, as well as your life priorities in general. Do you really want to play the entrepreneurial masochism glorified by Gary Vee and his fans? Or do you want to be present in your life, enjoy your work, have time for hobbies, family, and friends? Whatever path you choose, you have to be honest and intentional about it. Unless, of course, you want to go through the guides on fighting the burnout every three months or so.
  4. Set a schedule you won’t break. You will never be able to work better if you don’t take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself includes:

    – good 8-hour sleep
    – regular workouts
    – time spent with family and/or friends
    – hobbies
    – education or self-improvement
    – taking time off and unwinding

    Those are all the things that help you maintain both physical and psychological health, the minimum requirements for a happy individual. So, whenever you are trying to steal an extra hour from your schedule to spend working, keep in mind, that you’re not stealing it from your fun-time, you’re stealing directly from your productive self, and there is no other way around it. Same goes for your limited work time. You need to have clear boundaries, with no «I’m gonna finish this later tonight when kids go to sleep» and the night version «I’ll just wake up 4 hours earlier tomorrow».
    Either this, or say goodbye to a balanced and productive life, and meet your new friends: constant anxiety and self-blaming.
  5. Optimize your work. Since you’ve already set the priorities, you need exactly what you have to work on first. My suggestions would be to do your best to cut off all the distractions, without turning these attempts into another form of procrastination. What works great for many people under pressure is the Pomodoro technique. The idea is simple: work for 25 minutes straight without any distractions, take a 5-minute break, repeat. The trick is to dive into work right away and get into the flow. Pomodoro browser extensions do help, this one’s great, don’t waste your time looking for a better one, they’re all the same. Once you make it through the toughest period, and have some room for self-improvement, spend some time reading a couple books on productivity, or what’s even better — see a therapist or a coach who’d be able to give you a couple ideas about things you should work on to become happier and more productive.  

Welcome to Balancetown

After all, due to various reasons, it took me several weeks to finish this article from the moment I thought I knew everything about fighting burnouts.

During those weeks I’ve spent several hundred dollars on therapy trying to figure out what exactly was holding me from being productive, missed at least eight more deadlines, and lived a completely out of balance life of a procrastinator.

Finally now, when I’m writing these very last words of The Burnoutville Saga, I can assure you: all the things I’ve learned from other agency owners and tried out myself do work. And the sooner you start practicing them, the sooner you recover. But if I only had one single thing to say about overcoming a burnout, I’d say this:

“Sounds terrible. What are you going to do about it?”

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