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.
Completely echo your thoughts Jemi….We all need #selfcare as part of our routine
Thanks Phyllis! Your post is so on point – even machines need care, so why not us!
I’ve been struggling with this a lot recently. I love my laptop. It’s my creative space, my work and my downtime. But the light is seared into my retinas and I’m fatigued by online outrage and chasing clicks for work and in my private life.
Think I’m going to schedule some time off.
Some nice myth busting here around working for yourself or as a freelancer. It’s great fun at times and always stimulating but can get overwhelming if you don’t set your limits because there isn’t anyone to tell you to stop, when you need to stop.
Yes, the light on the screens can do so much damage. When I was still in my 9 to 5 I had migraines about two days a week. I started minimizing my screen time and it worked wonders. We do have to sign off from time to time. All the best!
Interesting read… Keep going!
This is a big wake up call for those still contemplating on going this way. Is it then a matter of success begets success, or that at the beginning, things are really tough but they ease up later on when you have had a better grip of how far you can go?
Honestly, I think it depends on the individual. On my front, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and so I tend to stress the little details. I guess the main thing is to check in with yourself from time to time, come up with a routine that allows you to get a breather (and stay social), and hold yourself accountable. It helps when you have other entrepreneurs/freelancers to talk to.
This article articulated something I’ve felt the last couple of months. It led to deactivating my Facebook account for two months and purging my 3 active gmail accounts of media subscriptions. I’m just about to delete my work email account from my phone and I have you to thank for that.
I’m 3 weeks away from a sabbatical of sorts during which my only occupation will be attending evening software development classes (twice a week and a few hours on Saturdays) in addition to helping with a newborn. Yes, I’m going to be a new Dad and it does sound like work but compared to a 50+ hours/ a week regimen over the last 2 years I reckon I could do it with my eyes half-shut. In Florida.
My main reason for the sabbatical is to seriously consider going solo. And although my current and soon-to-be former job required entrepreneurial drive and its skill set to run a business, it did not involve any personal financial commitments. Over the next 3-6 months, I intend to explore and engage in the process of product development and hopefully end up with finished one. I expect two things from my myself – to become a full-stack programmer and to document the process along the way. Am I setting my expectations too high? Maybe. It will require focus and discipline and I hope to find digital zen along the way :-)
Hi David, lovely to read from you and thanks for sharing your story! Sounds like you are on track – congratulations! I know how much of a big decision it is! – I wish you all the best and please don’t hesitate if you have questions or want to share your insights for others looking to go a similar route. Would love to have you as a guest contributor. Look forward to reading from you.
This article is one of many that I plan to immerse myself in this evening and for the next couple of nights. I found myself immediately drawn to your decision to leave the 9 to 5 professional world. I have been in this world for 16 years and the thought of leaving scares me. Well, I should say the thought of not having the security of a steady stream of income scares me. That said, I am impressed by your courage to step into entrepreneurship. Bold and courageous move!! You mentioned a believe in your project as the catalyst that sparked your decision. A similar belief started my journey into blogging so i can relate. I love the idea of giving yourself deadlines especially in a world where you have to self manage yourself.
I am hoping the power crises in Ghana has gotten better. The uncertainty of when the power will work is enough to give any small business owner the jitters. :)
You offer some good tips on how to unplug from social media. I tried that once and I was back with 2 weeks after I missed my then girlfriend’s birthday. I know right!!? How did I manage to do that? I was oblivious to my reliance on social media to keep me in the loop on all family and loved one affairs. I did not write down birthdays anymore. Facebook events will take care of that. I did not write down graduations, anniversaries etc, anymore. Facebook events will take care of that. That said, I will suggest adding getting back to actual face to face updates and happenings with families and loved ones as part of your getting back to a regular routine.
I love your style of writing by the way! Looking forward to reading some more pieces.
Thanks for your comment Kwadjo and also for your suggestion! Yes, the financial decision is not an easy one. If it helps, I give more insight into my financial preparation via the ‘Africa Saves’ series > https://www.circumspecte.com/tag/africa-saves/
Thanks Jemmy, this is awesome.
I enjoyed every bit of the article…..Kudos
Glad to hear Amina, thanks for reading!
Hi Jemila. Thanks for a good read. I approached your piece with a degree of trepidation, because I pretty much got a sense of what you were going to say?. Currently at home preparing/producing the next edition of my radio show. I have 90 episodes behind my belt in what is arguably the only radio show in Ghana demystifying Ecowas/AU/East Africa…but I am on the cusp of burnout.
I can so relate with the diminishing resources; the working from home; the lack of a steady income; the fact that I sometimes miss my 9 to 5 job I enjoyed for 10 years and all the other benefits that came with it.
My home is my office, and it’s been so since I started radio and news-production. That can sometimes be messy and demotivating, even inasmuch as it offers freedom from the structure of 9 to 5.
I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur at all — even though most people believe what I have started is media entrepreneurship. The side projects that make up the “Africa in Focus” show universe (East Africa Rising; AfriTourism) add up to what my trusted confidentes consider serious attempts at an African news agency.
Sometimes that emboldens me; other times, it fills me with dread because of all that work to make it happen. Then I think about how much easier it would be to get a 9 to 5 that pays me even half of what I was earning in my last 9 to 5. I would manage like that, but would I be fulfilled? Decisions, decisions!
Thanks for the tips — especially checking in with yourself.
I realized the other day that I have been writing a diary/journal since age 11. That’s a whopping 28 years of documenting my thoughts on paper. And if I can do that, then I ought to get more serious on writing those books I had always dreamt of writing.
You and I are both content-creators in different ways. I think our redemption could just be that elusive book. You’ve been published elsewhere a number of times. Probably time to scale-up to a book?
No matter how much burnout I experience, I always get back to writing in my journal, and I feel the catharsis that helps renew my spirit.
There are so many lessons I have picked from your article — keep the fire burning. Thanks!!
Dear Emmanuel, as always thanks for sharing so openly. It really is a common experience it seems and I totally relate on the occasional musings about going back to 9 to 5 and then remembering why you are doing this in the first place. Yes, writing in a journal definitely helps. I think I had sidelined that a bit so getting back into it – thanks in part to your comment :) We shall persevere, keep up the good work!