They told me it would happen, I just didn’t expect it to be this soon. About two months ago I sat on a “From Day Job to Freelance-Entrepreneur” panel in Cotonou, Benin talking to women entrepreneurs and “boss ladies” about how passion keeps you going. And it does. Until it doesn’t. Why? Digital and/or occupational burn out.
Preparing for the Freelance / Entrepreneur Life
It’s been eleven months since I left the 9-to-5 world; eleven glorious months of creating, engaging, traveling, exploring, sharing, teaching and experimenting. Before opting for this solo ride, I did my research: I talked to other entrepreneurs, diligently scoured platforms like Fast Company and Entrepreneur.com, and asked myself some tough questions about whether this is what I truly needed – or if I was simply going through a bout of “missing out” looking at all that appeared to be greener on the other side. I questioned my motives. Did I want to be an entrepreneur just to be called an entrepreneur? (no, it’s an action, not a title – and besides I could slap it onto my LinkedIn byline if necessary as many of us do); was I just tired and stressed from too much bureaucracy and too little creativity? (maybe); did I really and truly believe in my ‘project’, that it was necessary and would have some impact? (yes). I also started saving, and back-saved (meaning, I calculated what I should have been saving when I was indebted and locked it up in my bank account).
In order not to dive in totally clueless, I gave myself deadlines – the first being that I would return to Abidjan after three months if Accra’s energy crisis proved counterproductive seeing that much of my work would be digital. Thankfully, the key practicality I hinged my move from Abidjan to Accra on stayed largely consistent: very few power outages in the area I live in (knock on wood). I also gave myself a year to experiment and research. After the year, I would reassess and determine if my quest was feasible; if I should push on, transition or shut down. That year is just around the corner.
The Money Element
Like any good economist would do, I strapped a string of assumptions to my back, and then proceeded to dive headfirst into the unknown. And boy, did I assume. I knew that my initial income from working in the digital sphere would be nowhere close to what I earned working for a well-established development organization, and that I might have to pick up odd jobs here and there. This has proven to be true, and although I haven’t exactly announced my freelancer status, I haven’t sent in any applications for waitressing gigs yet.
I also assumed that my savings would last me close to a year and that living expenses in Accra and Abidjan would be comparable. Wrong – Accra is way more expensive than Abidjan, the Internet costs are horrendous, and the taxi men will have you pulling out your hair, literally. I resigned myself to the fact that at some point I would either have to get a loan from a bank – forget the fact that I’m still clearing my college loans – or that I would have to move out of the entrepreneur nest I share with two friends and back into my parents’ house. Worse case, I would end up destitute (okay, that’s an exaggeration). Thankfully, this is a far cry from my current reality. While I have one or two moments of panic about how quickly my savings are being drained, the consulting jobs in digital strategy, event planning and policy have shored me up. That, and being pretty stern with my expenses. The downside? By focusing on keeping myself afloat financially I actually neglected to keep myself afloat.
Routines and Social Media Time-Outs
Remember when I said focus is more important than discipline? Well, I’m about to backtrack (hey, life thrives on contradictions). Focus is as important as discipline. Going into this, I knew time and self-discipline would be my greatest challenges and assets. I came up with a routine for myself, made sure I was eating right, getting some exercise in – when you work from home there is very little motivation to move; simply switching rooms and activities help, but do not suffice – and not being the stereotypical entrepreneur who never sees light of day, much more people. For a while, I was in my groove. Until a few months ago.
Between May and July I traveled no less than six times – Sao Tome, Zambia, Germany, Guinea, Benin, and Northern Ghana. Generally speaking, all of these trips were related either to a client or to Circumspecte. Basically, work. Traveling is fun, don’t get me wrong, and I am so immensely thankful for the opportunities, people, places, stories I encounter. But traveling for work is an entirely different matter altogether as I have come to learn over the years. Which brings us to my recent predicament: burn out.
In 2011, I decided to take a break from Facebook. Not because of a break up or because I was tired of the constant stream of information, but rather because I had exams (boring, I know). I had exams and I needed to concentrate. So I shut down my Facebook account for a month. My life changed. I was refreshed, seeing things like a new-born babe. I hadn’t realized how exhausting (and time-consuming) information could be! Since then, I’ve taken a social media hiatus each year – often during Ramadan or for a month, sometimes for all platforms, but most times for specific ones. I also encouraged other digital professionals and social media users to factor in a hiatus into their year. This year however I find myself struggling on that front. Not because I’m afraid of missing out, but rather because I’m afraid of missing out.
Before going solo, I thought my main preoccupation would be creating content. What a laugh. It’s so much more than that! Besides writing, there’s trying to grow and work with a team, managing partnerships, handling PR, keeping yourself accountable, delivering on services. It goes without saying that it’s harder for me to just throw those deuces up and bounce, especially on the content front. Why? Because credibility. And practicality. When you visit a website of a company that hasn’t been updated in months, what is your immediate impression? Go on, you can say it: they’re not serious. What business would I have calling myself a digital strategist and content creator if I’m not actually present and current online? And then there is this crazy idea about making your own rules. I can call recess and let our audience know we’ll be out for x amount of time, like this guy did. But then, is that like, umm, quitting? And what if you have something to share. And what if something important happens that needs writing about. And what if? Ladies and gentlemen, the voice inside my head.
After almost nine years, I realize it’s okay to admit that I’m tired. I have been for a while. In-between my every-other-week travels all I’ve wanted to do is sleep. But then there’s family and friends, you know, the people who support my craziness. I want to be present, but I’m constantly tired. What gives? I’m still deciding, but what I can say is, something has to change. And soon, because it’s not sustainable. Essentially, I’m in the same place I found myself a year ago – overworked, stressed, and tired – and while I have so many great insights and experiences to share, more content ideas to develop than I count, my body is doing the sensible thing and putting me on timeout. Mother nature will not be ignored.
Dealing with Digital Burnout
The weekend after my Northern Ghana trip, I stayed indoors for three days. Not because of a snowmageddon or finals, but because I had both digital burnout and writer’s block; probably the most frustrating thing besides wanting to pee and not being able to. It was so bad, I even put my phone on silent on my birthday and took a nap (forgive, it was for sanity sake). Looking at all the emails I had to respond to, got me in a bit of a panic, so I just shut down my computer. I was forced to stay quiet, to read and observe, to actually look up from my pigeonhole and check in with other people, to check in with myself. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be and do, that we forget the mileage we have already clocked. In the never-ending hamster mind frame of “what’s next?” we forget to take care of ourselves. And that’s when things go downhill.
Go cold (or lukewarm) turkey: Honey, unplug. It doesn’t have to be for a month or even a week. It can simply be a few hours each day where you are not attached to a gadget, or more precisely your technological body part (your phone). Don’t compromise on this one.
Shh, minds at work: If you’re averse to turkeys, well how about silencing those notifications and alerts? For the longest time I haven’t had Facebook notifications on my phone. I simply turned it off because I knew I would log onto the app or the web platform at one point or another. Have your work email on your phone? Consider limiting it to your computer. Alerts from Whatsapp groups can drive even the most patient person insane. Go ahead, mute them when you need to and let the peace of mind roll! They will still be there when you get back, believe me.
Peace of Mind? There’s an app for that: Specifically of the “mindfulness and wellness” genre. There are so many out there! Like this one my friend shared or any on this list of Android and iOS mindfulness apps.
Clean up: Over the years cleaning has become therapeutic for me. When my mind is cluttered it’s usually a reflection of the state of my room. And so I clean up, and lo and behold, my mind and thoughts feel clearer. In the digital sphere, cleaning out your spaces would mean clearing your inbox of unnecessary emails or removing all those icons from your desktop. Can’t organize it just yet? Create a “to be organized” folder and dump them in until the next you’re bored (think of it as a delayed treasure hunt).
Treat (love) yourself: And by treat yourself, I don’t mean you have to splurge. Remember those little things you used to do that made you feel alive and energized? Go do them. For me, it’s usually writing, reading or tapping into my culinary creative. I also like to give myself a do-it-yourself, at home spa date. Quite simply, do whatever makes you feel loved and/or worthy.
Dare to live: Perhaps the most important thing is making sure that your real life doesn’t take a back seat to your virtual life. Even though Pokémon Go might be messing with our idea of what reality actually is, the fact is there are people to see, places to discover, foods to taste, moments to create. And in order for you to do that, it might mean switching off for a while. Next time you go out to eat, have everyone silence their phone and place it in the middle of the table. Then, talk.
Take back your routine and rituals: The train crashed when my daily routine and rituals went ignored. I’ve since gotten back onto the tennis court and resumed my indulgence in long-form content like books and podcasts. Ancient, I know. It’s making all the difference.
I am nowhere near my digital zen, and if anything at all my little efforts have triggered other things I need to deal with internally, but it’s one giant step ahead of where I was before. What about you? Experienced digital burnout? How did you deal?
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.