Everybody suffers burnout from one thing or another in their lives. It can be particularly challenging for writers because we’re in charge of our own time, and many of us are doing it in addition to a “real job” and the other responsibilities, so we’re already at an energy deficit before we sit down to write.
The bad news about burnout is it happens to all of us. The good news is, there’s more you can do about it than you think. In this article, we’ll talk about what burnout is, how to recover when you have it, and steps to take so you avoid developing it in the first place.
Writing Burnout Defined
Burnout is exhaustion, boredom, or a combination of the two. Writing burnout is when those factors lead to you not wanting to write anymore. The most important thing to remember when defining writing burnout is that it can have a few different causes:
- You can suffer from writing burnout because you’re tired of writing
- You can suffer from writing burnout because you’re tired in general, and the time you spend writing is time you could spend resting
- You can suffer from writing burnout because of stress about writing, like the need to earn money or the compounding burden of too many rejections
- You can suffer from writing burnout because of your general health
- You can suffer from writing burnout because you’re overwhelmed with tasks, or even with choices
Writing takes a lot of brain power, and when you’re working a regular job you do that brain work after you’ve spent energy seeing to other things. Burnout is very common among authors, especially after the excitement of those first couple of years.
How to Recognize Burnout
The thing about burnout is, the longer you try to power through it the worse it’s going to be. Early detection is key. So keep an eye out for tell-tale symptoms.
- Physical signs of writing burnout include headache, fatigue, and tummy troubles — especially if they keep popping up when it’s time to write
- Mental signs of writing burnout include depression, sleeplessness, not enjoying writing, moodiness, and signs of stress when you think about writing
- Behavioral signs of writing burnout include procrastination, indulging in your addictions (ranging from Oreos to heroin…it’s the behavior, not the substance), and finding excuses not to write
Recovering From Writing Burnout
The good news about writing being so demanding is that many writers suffer from writing burnout. That means a lot of people have experience with getting better.
There is no exact prescription for recovering from writing burnout, but finding your solution starts with figuring out what’s causing your burnout in the first place. From there, you can try from a group of common solutions and see what works best for you.
If You’re Tired of Writing…
…you need a break. This might be a break from writing in general, or just a break from the kind of writing you’ve been doing.
Start by spending your next couple of writing sessions on something very different from what you’ve been doing. Take a break from that big paying gig to try some poetry. Put down your epic novel and do some travel journaling. If you find yourself feeling brighter of eye and bushy of tail, then you know you just need to take a break from the writing that’s kicking your butt.
If you’re still feeling burned out even after the change of pace, you need a break from writing overall. Give yourself permission to take a real vacation from writing. That’s one where you intentionally don’t write, not one where you feel you’re supposed to write but keep not doing it. Try a month off, then come back and see how you feel.
If You’re Tired in General…
…you need a break, and not just from writing. This happens most of the time when your work-life balance is off kilter. If you’re working too much and playing too little, writing (which often balances in between) starts to feel more like work. Once it slides, the scale goes even worse toward work and your balance disappears entirely.
Find ways to work less and play more. This could mean opting out of some assignments at work, or asking your partner to take on a household task you do most of the time. It might mean adding stress-relief practices like exercise or a hobby, or time with friends, into your schedule.
Focus on reducing stress and commitments for a while, and don’t worry about your writing. Once you’re ready, writing will slide back from work to play, and your burnout will be gone.
If You’re Stressed About Writing…
…address the causes of that stress. This one takes a little sitting and thinking, because what you think stresses you out might not be the thing that’s stressing you out.
For example, our colleague Jason Brick had an assignment that was giving him burnout. He thought it was because of the high word count and repetitive content in the assignment, but after some thought he realized his editor’s unprofessional behavior was stressing him out. He ended up leaving that client, and his burnout went away.
Once you identify the cause of your stress, you have three options. One option is to quit all writing associated with that stressor. The second option is to find ways to manage the stress it causes. The third is to quit writing altogether, either for a while or forever. It’s your choice which to do.
If Your Health is Involved…
…get healthier. That sounds glib, but it’s the truth. Writing burnout often comes when you’re feeling exhausted, stressed, or unhealthy for other reasons. Because writing is hard, it’s often where that baseline unhealthiness shows up.
Take an inventory of your health habits. Are you sleeping enough? Are you eating well? Do you get enough exercise? If you take medication, do you do it reliably? Do you see to your relationship health and mental health?
Wherever you see a problem, find a way to improve your health in that area. It often takes just a little change to bring about big differences in health, and an end to your writing burnout.
If You’re Overwhelmed…
…eat the elephant one bite at a time. You might not have seen the expression before, but you know what it means. Take the time to break down your tasks into more manageable actions, then take those actions in order.
Start by writing a list of all the writing tasks you need to do. If the list is intimidatingly long, don’t worry. You’ll only focus on a manageable piece at a time.
Once you have your list, prioritize them. Then take one writing session’s worth of tasks, and do just them without looking at the larger list. Do another day’s worth the next day, and another the day after that. Feeling overwhelmed only happens when you consider the size of everything you need to do overall. It disappears when you focus instead on the small tasks you’re doing right now.
Preventing Burnout in the First Place
An ounce of prevention is worth way more than a pound of cure, because you’ll spend more time writing and less time recovering if you observe even one or two of the preventative measures on this list below:
Get Some Exercise
If you work out just 20 minutes a day, it increases your energy, improves your focus, and reduces your stress. Since writing burnout often causes and is caused by high stress, reduced energy, and dissipated focus, exercise is the closest thing to a vaccination against burning out.
Don’t have time to exercise? Au contraire! Studies show that the benefits in energy and focus from 20-40 minutes of exercise mean you get about 2 hours of extra productivity over the course of a day. It’s an investment of time that pays out between three and six times what you put in.
The health benefits of meditation are well-established and myriad, and most of them apply to the causes or effects of writers burnout. Even five or ten minutes of meditation, especially just before writing, can make a huge difference.
Don’t make the mistake of believing all meditation looks like hipsters in yoga pants sitting crosslegged. Walking meditation, martial arts kata, breathing exercises, even playing an instrument or petting a cat can be meditative if you do it with focus and intent.
Organize Your Work
If your work is disorganized, it takes an extra few minutes to do everything because you have to find the stuff you need. It also adds stress because there’s this nagging voice in the back of your head that keeps wondering if you’ve forgotten something, or left something out.
Take the time to organize your work with checklists, spreadsheets, notebooks, or whatever you need to keep your thoughts in order and your writing on track. Take the time to organize your workspace so the clutter doesn’t hide things or distract you.
Just be sure to avoid procrastination. You need to clear off your desk, not alphabetize all your research papers from college.
Write on a Schedule
Setting aside a time to write helps you stay on track with your writing. It protects you from feeling overwhelmed because knowing how much time you can write helps you choose reasonable goals. It also enlists your friends and family by telling them clearly when you’re not available because you’re writing.
Another, subtle benefit of writing on a schedule is you know when you’re done. If you write from 9:00 to 9:30 every morning, then starting at 9:31 you don’t have write, or even think about writing, any more that day.
You might be surprised how much pressure that small fact takes off your writing mind.
Okay. The ball's in your court…
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich