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I recently took a six-month sabbatical from freelancing to ease some underlying anxiety and stress I've been experiencing. Taking time off helped me decompress and reflect after being on the grind.
I've been back to work since February and I'm staying busy. Not so busy that I couldn't get this published sooner, but such is the way for my not-so-timely life updates.
Alright, let's get into what I've been up to and where I'm headed.
My relationship with stress has changed a lot as I've gotten older. The more responsibilities I gain and the better I understand the world, the more stressed I become.
This undercurrent of stress has made me feel more anxious and uneasy in my day-to-day life. My capacity for optimism has slowly dwindled as I feel a greater weight on my shoulders and view the world through a more nuanced and critical lens. 
Paradoxically, the older I've become, the better my life has objectively gotten:
- I met the love of my life
- I have a successful career
- I've made lots of money
- I have a significant amount of freedom and autonomy in my day-to-day life
So why the stress?
Understanding and eliminating my stressors were the focus of my sabbatical.
To reduce my stress, I needed to understand it. As I identified different stressors in my life, I began grouping them into two buckets, "global stress" and "local stress".
Global stress we experience together:
- Global pandemics
- Climate change
- Corrupt politics
- Income inequality
- The oppressing wave of late-stage capitalism
With global stress, I feel like I have little control over the outcome of my actions.
There's only so much one person can do to improve the state of global stressors 🤷🏻♂️
I do what I can through political activism, awareness, and volunteering, but I'm a tiny piece of a massive puzzle.
I'm trying to focus on global issues while not letting them overrun my life.
aka: no more mindless doomscrolling and unproductive YouTube binges.
I spent a significant amount of my time during my sabbatical reflecting on my local stressors.
Local stress is largely contained to my life and relationships:
- My career
- Financial wellbeing
- Family/relationship wellbeing
- Mental wellness
- Physical fitness
- Personal satisfaction
- Work/life balance
With local stress, I feel empowered to change my circumstances however I prefer.
I wanted to bring these into focus to understand how I could reduce my anxiety and improve my day-to-day happiness.
The local stressors I focused on were my relationship with my career and money.
After returning to freelancing in 2019, I had clients as far as the eye could see. I had an extensive network of friends and colleagues I met and collaborated with during my first decade working to thank for this.
Doing great work for great people pays off.
I accepted client after client, juggling multiple projects at once. On average, I launched a client project every 36 days!
To make my life easier—since I had deliberately made it harder by accepting so many clients—I hired some buddies to lend a helping hand (shout out to Jamie and Nels ✌️)
Suddenly, I was not only a freelance web developer but a project manager and people manager.
Managing the planning and execution of everything was exhausting and stressful. Each project had different goals, different stakeholders, and a different process for how we would complete the project.
Meeting the demand of my client projects while balancing all other areas of life took its toll. I was feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious. I frequently felt like I was teetering on the edge of anxiety attacks while working.
My increasingly anxious state made me resentful of my life circumstances.
Instead of viewing my career as an opportunity, rife with abundance and pleasure, I viewed it as a burden.
All of this led me to burnout.
I won’t go deep into my experience with burnout in this post, but it’s something I want to talk about more in the future. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced burnout several times during my career. It sucks.
Burnout is something that can happen to anyone in any profession at any time under any circumstances. It’s a severe problem for folks experiencing it.
Ultimately, I was battling negative feedback loops that impacted my ability to enjoy life:
- Mindlessly accepting too many client projects
- Orienting my career and my contentment around money and wealth
- Accepting projects I could complete easily, rather than work that would push me to grow
- Not pushing myself to grow in meaningful ways
During the past two years, I've succeeded in some ways but failed in others.
I've succeeded in overwhelmingly stressful things like managing multiple projects and optimizing my work around money.
I've failed to orient myself around enjoyable things like optimizing my work around enjoyment/growth or spending time doing intrinsically enjoyable activities.
Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.
Kevin Kelly, 103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known
I needed time to decompress, so I took a sabbatical. It was time to prioritize my mental health and wellbeing above work and money.
I did a lot during my six months away from work:
- I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend Elaine, who just finished her master's degree and also lacked professional obligations for the foreseeable future
- I reflected and identified stressors in my life and tried to alleviate them to the best of my abilities
- I reoriented myself around what I value, not what I was conditioned to value
- I spent time engaged in intrinsically enjoyable activities such as writing, learning, reading, hiking, and creating (i.e., my practices)
- I worked with David Schlussel as my life coach and yoga teacher
- I remained intensely focused on addressing my chronic back pain through regular chiropractic sessions at PostureWorks and my daily yoga practice
All of these were tremendously beneficial.
- My anxiety reduced dramatically
- My body feels much better
- I feel more connected with myself and the world
- I feel re-energized and motivated
I'm so grateful I was privileged enough to take a sabbatical 🙏🏻
I don’t hate web development, nor do I dislike using my skills as a web developer to build things for others. In fact, I love both of these things! This is why I became a web developer in the first place.
What I hate are the circumstances I created for myself.
Why I was working, how I was working, what I was working on, and who I was working with were not providing me with a healthy working environment.
If I still love web development and I enjoy building products with and for other people, how can I change my circumstances to avoid anxiety and burnout?
Asking this question helped me flip the script.
I realized that juggling multiple client projects and outsourcing development work isn’t my cup of tea. This requires way too much client, people, and project management. 
- Why have I felt the need to accept so many client projects?
- What's wrong with working with a single client at a time?
- Do I think client projects are scarce? Therefore, I better feast while I can?
- How much is required to feast?
Questioning my actions helped me uncover my motives and predispositions. I learned more about myself and why I was on the path that I was on.
I realized a few things:
- I'm not immediately interested in building a creative studio or managing anything larger than myself
- I can afford to live working with a single client at a time
- I can scale up the amount of work I take on if I want or need to
These realizations helped me decide reduce the amount of work I had been doing and focus on a single client project at a time.
I can work on a project I'm passionate about and put 100% of my professional energy into it.
That sounds great.
I got into a groove working on projects with similar clients, stakeholders, problem domains, and technology stacks. This groove helped me carve out my niche as a marketing website developer.
As I found my groove, I worked on bigger projects with larger budgets for more prestigious clients. I made this possible by investing so much time in a single area.
In my groove, I became a specialist.
The problem with finding my groove is that my work became monotonous. Despite my efficiency and the increased scale of my work, I found what I was doing uninspiring.
After ten years of focusing my efforts on building marketing websites, I decided it was time to change things up. Not only was I overwhelmed with the amount of work I had been doing before my sabbatical, but I was overwhelmingly bored with it.
I'm reorienting my career as a web developer by sinking my teeth into new technologies and problems.
I turned my realizations into convictions as I redesigned my professional life.
- I will no longer optimize my career around making the most money I possibly can
- I will no longer optimize my career around doing the same type of work because I can easily do it
- I will only accept client projects that challenge me in compelling ways
- I will only work with stakeholders who are good collaborators
Affirming these helped me confront what's been holding me back.
Having clarity provided a guiding light to move forward.
I suddenly felt ready to return to work, but in a way that worked with me, not against me.
As luck would have it, shortly after I decided on the path I wanted to take in my professional career, the folks from Stable Auto reached out about collaborating.
The job? Frontend architect tasked with rebuilding a web application to meet the growing needs of the company's customers while providing a solid technical foundation for future growth.
I would be challenged with an unfamiliar codebase, technology stack, and problem domain.
I've been working on this project for a few months and I've been busy. I'm knee-deep learning new technologies to address the problem at hand. In doing this, I've found myself challenged in invigorating and rewarding ways rather than stressful and anxiety-inducing.
There's more I'd like to dive into as I think about my experience with burnout, anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. I also think there's more to say about the cultural indoctrination to value money in capitalist societies.
But I've gone on long enough for today. Now you know where I've been, where I'm at, and where I'm headed.
I'm trying to keep a better eye on my mental health in the future, so I can address things proactively rather than reactively. I don't want burnout and anxiety attacks to be the sign that I need to switch things up again.
To anyone who's experienced or is currently experiencing the same thing, I encourage you to reach out to others to share what you're going through. I wish I had reached out to others more during the past couple of years.
My propensity for independence works against me when I'm keeping things bottled up in myself.
If you don't have someone to talk to or feel like sharing your own story, please leave a comment below or reach out to me if you would like. You are not alone!
Upwards and onwards ✌🏻