If you have been grinding away at your writing day in and day out, feel exhausted just looking at the blank page, and can barely put pen to paper, you may be experiencing burnout. If you know what to look for, there are several ways you can avoid writer burnout and still thrive creatively.
As Verywell Mind explains, chronic stress can lead to exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced professional ability, all of which characterize burnout. The Mayo Clinic also gives more details about the symptoms, as well as possible causes and consequences, of burnout.
Creative jobs like writing can entail a lot of giving of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Sometimes, when we go above and beyond the call of duty, we are left feeling depleted and as if we need a long vacation in order to recuperate. This can in turn lead to avoiding writing entirely and accompanying feelings of guilt.
Please remember that everyone is different, and different strategies will work for different people. Below are the things that have personally helped me avoid writer burnout at different times in my career.
If you need additional support or want to talk to someone, SAMHSA has a helpline you can call.
Self-Care: Fill Up Your Cup Before You Pour From It
Often when we think about burnout, we think of the things we can remove, such as stress. However, there are also things we can add.
As creatives, we must continually replenish ourselves. This includes getting enough food, water, sleep, and inspiration from a variety of sources. Imagine a glass of water—you cannot pour from it if that glass is empty! To avoid writer burnout, we must constantly refill our glass.
The top athletes know that they cannot perform at their peak unless they have enough sleep, their diet is optimized, and they stay motivated. Being a writer is no different, and we owe it to ourselves to practice this same level of self-care for our mental and physical well-being.
Make a list of the things you need in order to “refill your glass” every day. When you are feeling stressed or overworked, refer to the list and make sure your needs are being met.
Avoid Over-Promising and Under-Delivering
If you find that you are over-promising on tasks or assignments, but due to a high volume of work, stress, or other factors, you are under-delivering on those items, it may be contributing to your burnout. By setting the bar too high, you are setting yourself up to fail.
Not only does this stress and burn you out, but it can make you appear flaky and unreliable. Instead, set realistic goals and expectations and communicate those clearly to your boss and colleagues. If you are in school, have a discussion with your professor. It is better to consistently reach small goals than it is to aim for large goals and almost always fall short.
This does not mean you can’t have big goals; rather, break those big goals down into much smaller, more easily achievable goals. And celebrate each small success as a huge win!
Talk to Someone About Your Workload
As noted above, having an open and honest conversation about your workload with your manager, colleagues or professor is critical. If they do not know there is a problem, they cannot help you fix it. They may be able to help prioritize your work and identify projects that can be put on the back burner.
If you are the one running the show, you might have additional flexibility to decide what is most urgent, what can wait, and what can be delegated to someone else. Perhaps there are tasks on your plate that no longer serve you or your business. Or, maybe you decide to invest in hiring someone to do the tasks that you don’t enjoy so that you can focus your time on more creative pursuits, like writing!
Address Perfectionism to Avoid Writer Burnout
Is perfectionism driving you to spend much more time and effort on a project than you would like? If so, ask yourself where this sense of perfectionism is coming from. Is there a fear or insecurity you need to address? Are you afraid of letting someone down? Or perhaps you are struggling with imposter syndrome.
By digging a little deeper, you can identify these barriers and begin to address them. Also remember the old adage “done is better than perfect.” Put it on a sticky note and place it somewhere you see it every day! Give yourself a hard deadline (the shorter the better, which helps create a sense of urgency) and stick to it.
To avoid writer burnout, we have to let go of “just one more tweak.” Yes, we should always carefully review our work to ensure it’s up to snuff, but at some point, we’re the only ones who will even know that we changed that one word in the second paragraph of the third page 20 times.
Does your overall piece deliver the message you want to convey? Will it properly inform the reader or help them take action in some way, like clicking a button or filling out a form? In short, does it meet the ultimate purpose of writing the piece in the first place? If so, consider it a job well done and move on.
Know Your Limits and Take a Break
When you feel a sense of burnout creeping up, do something non-writing-related. Your best ideas won’t come from staring at a blank page, but while you’re taking a walk, cooking dinner, or doing a favorite hobby.
Sometimes, in order to write effectively, we have to stop writing. It sounds counterintuitive, but trying to “push through” doesn’t always work. There may be a time and a place for keeping your nose to the grindstone, such as when a tight deadline is looming. However, when you have time to spare, don’t take it for granted.
Good writing comes from a life well-lived, so go out and live your life! You’ll feel refreshed, renewed, and inspired to put pen to paper again.
Do More Things (Writing or Otherwise) That Get You Into Your “Flow”
When you’re in your flow, time seems to disappear, and you may write for hours at a time without noticing. This is an optimal state to be in, so when you encounter these moments, take note! What were you working on, as well as when, where, et cetera? The more you understand what puts you in your “flow,” the better you’ll be able to recreate that state in the future.
But be aware of your limits, and make sure you get enough food, water, rest, and exercise. If you start to feel exhausted rather than energized, you may be inching toward burnout, and you might need to take a step back to refuel.
Say No to “All or Nothing” Days to Avoid Writer Burnout
In other words, avoid burning the candle at both ends and then crashing completely, then repeating the cycle over and over. This is an unsustainable rollercoaster and can perpetuate feelings of exhaustion paired with guilt during the time you need to rest. I have personally experienced this after long days or weeks of work, and nights and weekends in which I wrestled with feeling “lazy.” You are not “lazy” for needing well-deserved rest. You do not always have to be “on” or working 24/7. To avoid writer burnout, it helps to find a little more balance when possible.
You can achieve this by doing the most important things every day, with strategic breaks in between. There of course will be days when emergencies come up and you might have to work a little harder and a little longer, then compensate with a little more rest.
A favorite strategy of mine is “active rest” or “active recovery,” borrowed from the world of sports. For a weightlifter’s day off, instead of just sitting on the couch, they might take a walk, do some yoga, or go for a light swim. In essence, they’re still moving their body, but they’re doing it in a very restorative way that replenishes them and still allows them to rest from their regular workout.
You can do this with writing, too. This could be physical exercise like a walk or another sport, calling a friend, reading a favorite book, going to a play, or anything else that replenishes you. Or, you could do a kind of writing that’s completely different from your day-to-day writing (e.g., journaling, poetry, or a hand-written letter).
The point is to avoid doing absolutely nothing or filling up on “junk food activities” like bingeing too many television shows or scrolling through social media. These can have a place in your recovery day, but try not to let it eat up your entire day. Get something—anything—on your calendar during your day off that motivates and inspires you. Use a different part of your brain and give your writing muscles a rest!
Use Your Calendar to Schedule Your Time (Work AND Play)
Calendars don’t have to be restrictive—in fact, they can give you massive freedom when used correctly. Build a system of accountability for yourself that incorporates work requirements as well as those items we discussed above that help “refill your cup.” This will ensure that you actually take time for yourself during your day and week.
You can also use your calendar to break writing tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks in order to help you deliver on the important tasks. This will help you be more productive while also giving you a chance to look forward to the fun things and self-care to which you have committed. In this way, you are prioritizing your own essential needs as well as work.
Remember That Being Busy Does Not Equal Being Productive
If you work a 12-hour day, does that mean you were productive? Well, it depends. Did you get the top items done that will truly move the needle and help you reach your bigger goals?
Often, that’s not the case. We write for long hours and feel tired and empty afterward, but for very little reward. Take a look at your workload and determine the top tasks that make the most impact on your work, which is where you should spend the majority of your time. As this Forbes article describes, you can use the 80/20 Rule, or the Pareto Principle, to achieve this.
Also, plan your week rather than one day at a time. This helps avoid trying to squeeze everything into one day. Pick your top three or four items for each day, and when you’re done, resist adding more! Check them off, log out, and/or move on to something else. Use the time to brainstorm or plan for your big-picture goals, make smaller goals, add them to the calendar, and prep for the next day so you can hit the ground running.
Practice Mindfulness to Avoid Writer Burnout
When you’re feeling overloaded, practicing mindfulness can help you refocus your thoughts, lower your stress levels, increase creativity, and develop greater self-awareness. Sometimes in order to best cope with our external world, we have to reconnect with our inner self.
As a writer, you can harness mindfulness meditation to engage with all your senses. You can also incorporate journaling into your practice, if you still get that itch to write!
A consistent practice may help you feel more grounded and resilient as you tackle your daily writing tasks.
How do you avoid writer burnout? Leave a comment, and you may inspire a fellow writer!