Dealing with depression / burnout
I wrote the core of this article about 3 weeks ago. I’ll write a follow up shortly with what’s changed and how I’m feeling. But for now, you can hear my headspace a few days after things had all gone wrong for me.
This has been the strangest, most confusing and frustrating period of my life. Waking up not being bothered to do literally anything, despite the consequences of letting other people and myself down. The worst thing about it was I didn’t have a clue why it was happening or how I could fix it.
I’ll take you back to November when I had my first head on collision with mental health. We’d just entered our second national lockdown in the UK, and after the genuine success of the first lockdown for my productivity I thought things were going to work out pretty well. I also got the exciting opportunity to make YouTube videos for a dream client. This would be a freelance gig on top of my full-time job and top up my income handsomely and giving me the chance to pay off some of my credit card debt. All was looking good.
It was literally the dream of 15-year-old James to make a living making YouTube videos, working at home whenever he wanted. As it turned out making 3 YouTube videos a week on top of a full-time job is really hard.
/I’ll also note at this point that I’d never struggled with any real mental health challenges before, so it was very hard for me to even understand what was happening./
Lockdown was hard
For almost a month I barely left my flat, didn’t do any exercise, ate takeaways most nights and the fact I hadn’t had a haircut in 4 weeks really pissed me off.
I was working 10-15 hour days, but they didn’t feel productive. It was only a 10-15 hour day because I struggled to motivate myself to actually do the work. This had a knock-on effect throughout the week as I got further and further behind.
This combination of terribly unhealthy things caused me to be unmotivated, frustrated, miserable and ultimately, depressed. So after a horrible month I decided to cancel my freelance gig and vowed never let myself get in that position again. I said I’d never go that long without leaving the flat, without doing exercise and taking on that much work (also I got some clippers to cut my own hair).
I took some time off over Christmas as we entered another lockdown and since stopping the freelance work I was trying to take better care of myself. I was making sure I was going out on runs every night, leaving the flat regularly, and eating more healthily. I formed a bubble with my sisters and spent as much time with them as I could. I also had some time to reflect on what direction I wanted to take my life in 2021, writing some insightful blog posts along the way:
Making a big change
After some thinking, I decided to go part-time with my job and pick up the YouTube videos again - after all, it was my dream. Theoretically, the work made sense:
“I get to make YouTube videos about the thing I’m passionate about, whenever I want and can spend the rest of the time how I like”
This kinda worked for a few months. We set out a schedule for 3 videos a week, with scripts on a Tuesday, shoots on a Wednesday, edits on a Thursday and delivery on Friday. Again, in theory that made sense, in practice not so much.
I always found I was chasing my tail with the schedule despite knowing I had plenty of time to do it. If I didn’t have motivation on a Wednesday morning to shoot, it could end up being in the evening or even a Thursday morning, which put stress on me making the deadline for Friday. /I felt it was self-inflicted/. It was telling myself it was my fault for not being able to motivate myself to do that shoot on Wednesday morning. This was the first sign of something not being quite right.
We go on for a few months with this semi-successful schedule, but every week I had similar struggles with motivation. I’d eventually get the work done, but it certainly wasn’t enjoyable (or sustainable).
Looking back, there were two inflection points in April that pushed me past my limit. One resulted in me quitting my part-time, regular, stable job and the other ultimately resulted in me cancelling my freelance gig for a second time.
Inflection point #1 - Quitting my day job
The first was at my day job (part-time at this point) when a project came up that was poorly managed (as was my transition to part time). Despite knowing about my drop in hours for a while, my workplace were pretty unprepared for me not being around during the week.
For context, I was the marketing manger at a London market research firm. I was getting texts on Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday - note that these were the days I was doing my client work - asking me for all sorts of things.
- “James, when can we get this live?”
- “James, can you show us how this works?”
- “James, how do things get added to the website?’
All small things, but enough to take my focus away from the work I was meant to be doing. But guess what? I didn’t notice it at the time.
A few weeks in, I was getting frustrated. However, there was one particular conversation that really pissed me off, and I can’t recall ever being that angry at work, so I sent my resignation there and then. At this point I was struggling to keep up with the schedule for the videos, I thought it would work out better being able to put all my focus into those. I could make it work financially, so it wasn’t too much of a risk.
Inflection point #2 - More, more, more
Back in November, I think we only actually got 7 YouTube videos live, despite agreeing to 3 per week. This was partly because of my motivation, but partly because of my frustration with the client’s expectations from a $300 video.
There were absurd amounts of changes to both the scripts and edits. Re-shoots and additional sections added to the video after the fact. I made it clear that if we were to resume again in future, we can’t have this level of scrutiny and stick to the schedule.
When I started doing the videos again in February, I was going at it with a fresh perspective. I had a part-time job and the videos would be my main source of income. I’d need to be pragmatic with my approach and do some extra work if required. I tried to disconnect myself from the work and not take any comments personally.
It started out much better than before. We had the schedule in place and each video had only a few changes - I was happy with this.
Then it started to get a little more. 6-7 comments per script and 6-7 more for the edit. Then separate conversations about how I should be approaching the writing of the scripts. Then complete rewrites and reshoots. There were a few messages back and forth saying that I was ignoring comments (I wasn’t) that stressed me out a little. With my fresh perspective, I was trying to stay calm and just get on with the work. A few rewrites and reshoots along the way shouldn’t be a problem - after all, I can’t afford to lose this work.
It all blew over a bit when I’d agreed to take on a 4th video. This 4th video would be different as it would be a 1-day turnaround, but much shorter and easier to produce. It was a hard deadline as it was going out on the Friday newsletter too.
The first time attempt would be tight. I wasn’t around on the Friday, but I made them aware. I had to complete all my edits, plus the extra video, all on Thursday night (I’d usually have the Friday to finish these).
I got up at 6am on Thursday and got to work. After almost 12 hours editing non-stop, I had 2 videos ready and was happy that I could do the 3rd on Friday afternoon or at the weekend. The 4th video with the quick turnaround I smashed out on Thursday evening. Scripted, shot, edited.
I got a few comments back, but one of them involved a reshoot which I explained wouldn’t be possible. On Friday afternoon I open my laptop to a plethora of missed messages. They’ve decided they wanted a reshoot and were fuming that I hadn’t responded to them. Unrealistic expectations.
Hitting my limit
Keen not to lose my main source of income, we ‘resolved’ the situation on Monday and continued on with the work. However, I feel this was the point where my subconscious decided it no longer wanted to continue with these videos.
I was feeling crushed creatively, with no opportunity to make good videos myself. I was second guessing every line of the script I wrote, any decision in the edit I made. I knew it would just be scrutinised.
I tried to push through but it was no use. I’d hit my limit. I had multiple breakdowns where I’m literally sitting on my bed crying thinking “why can’t I do this work?”.
It was a horrible, horrible situation.
Asking for time off
This all got a bit much for me, so I asked for a week off (I was a contractor paid per video so I wasn’t gonna get paid that week).
I took my week off hoping it would be what I needed. After all, I’d done 3 videos a week for 3 months alongside a part-time job and my podcast.
That week I thought I’d just chill out and then come back firing a week later. It was a huge relief and I had a lovely week off - but I knew things still weren’t right.
It wasn’t enough
So I come back a week later with the best intentions. I wanted to feel fired up and ready to smash out some videos, but instead I was dreading it. This Tuesday I was in my bed crying again wondering why I couldn’t push myself to get the work done - it was real shitty.
After my breakdown I went out for a walk with my sister (who just became a mum btw - woo 🎉) and it was then I thought I really can’t keep trying to push through with it. My body just doesn’t want me to do the work and I need to figure out why.
I sent a message over to the client and said I need some more time off again and explained the situation. They were fine with it, but I’m not sure there will be the opportunity to go back again after.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing 3 things:
- taking time off
- figuring out how to pay myself
- understanding burnout
I recorded a podcast talking through some more of my thoughts and explaining some of the nuance of the situation. The feedback I’ve got from this podcast has been overwhelming, and I’m truly grateful for having this community here. I appreciate you 🧡