What is Burnout?
Burnout, not just for writers, is a form of mental exhaustion. It is usually caused by a variety of stressors taking place in either the workplace, family life, health, or social life. It can be caused by any or all of these stressors, making you feel overwhelmed, depressed, or just overall emotionally fatigued. Most of the time, you just feel like you can’t keep up with everything.
For writers—especially those who rely on their writing to make a living—burnout is particularly harmful. Writing is intensive and takes a lot of brain power, so it is very easy for writers to burn themselves out. This, sadly, is a common issue for authors.
The most common causes include:
- Disorganized work environment
- Excessive or prolonged stress
- Feeling undervalued at work
- Lack of sleep
- Lack of success
- Lack of support from family, friends, and/or coworkers
- Taking on too many responsibilities
- Work that does not align with personal values
Burnout affects writers commonly, but it’s not just the stereotypical writer. It can affect not only novelists, but online content creators, bloggers, freelancers, and scriptwriters. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid experiencing writer burnout, and how to bring yourself back from the seemingly inescapable pit once you’ve found yourself there.
How to Prevent Burnout
While there are ways to recover from burnout, being proactive is always the best way to go, because if you do not take the proper precautions, burnout can pull you right back. So what strategies can you use to avoid writer burnout?
1. Take Care of Yourself
The best way to avoid emotional exhaustion is to first make sure that you are not physically exhausted. Make sure to sleep enough at night. Maintaining a healthy diet and daily exercise are also helpful in reducing stress and improving your mood and productivity.
Disclaimer: Now, I am no health expert. I am not a doctor, so don’t take this as medical advice, but from personal experience, I’ve found that I always perform best after a full night’s sleep.
Something I’ve personally observed is that I always fall asleep faster at night if I turn all screens off an hour before going to sleep and read a book. Reading always tires me out, so I’ll read a chapter or two, and I’ve found that I fall asleep right away. On other nights, I’ll use a meditation app.
As for a healthy diet, I know that this isn’t possible for everyone. Sometimes, all you have time for is fast or frozen food. However, if you have the option, it is definitely a recommendation. Ever since improving my own diet back in high school (eating full meals and snacks every two hours with 2 litres of water a day), I not only improved in classes, but in my personal writing as well, and was able to complete my first novel.
[Keep in mind that every person is different. The diet that works for me may not work for you.]
I also strive to exercise twice a day. I think the recommended amount is 60 minutes, but the intensity of the workout also plays a role. If you are stuck inside in front of a computer, getting out for a walk once a day is the best way to give your brain a break.
Look at the science! Serotonin, also known as the “mood stabilizer” hormone within the brain, is triggered by activities such as meditation, running/jogging, enjoying the sun, walking in nature, and swimming. This and dopamine (the reward hormone) are the best combatants against burnout. Dopamine is usually activated by finishing a task, celebrating achievements (big and small), eating nutritious food, and other self-care activities.
2. Establish a Routine
Studies show that following a regular routine decreases the amount of willpower it takes to complete a task. It makes writing a consistent fact of your day, and you’ll find that you spend less time worrying about when you’re going to write or how much, and instead sit down to let the words flow.
How much you write every day is completely up to you. It can be as little as 15 minutes a day to several hours. It could be every day, only weekends, or even on a single day every week.
I work entirely in literature almost every minute of every day. As a freelance editor, book designer, and book reviewer, I am either reading, editing, or writing, but luckily, I can split these into different aspects. I designate the first hour of my workday to reading the book I am currently reviewing. Then, I take a 30 min break for a morning jog, after which I shower and have a snack. This refreshes me, and at that point, I am ready to dive into whatever project I am working on for my current client, be it book doctoring, copyediting, or otherwise. From there, my day is split up into sections, typically one or two hours each, until the end of the workday. I have another hour set aside entirely for writing/editing blog articles (writing tips, book reviews, or opinion pieces), and before bed, I read along with the book I have for fun. This last part is important because I don’t want reading to just be for work. Yes, I still write a review for every book I read, even for fun, but it’s not a book someone sent along with a request for a review.
Back to your own schedule: whatever you decide to do, keep it consistent. At first, it may seem awkward, and you’ll probably just sit in front of your computer or the blank page of a notebook with nothing to write, but don’t give up. Continuing this routine for a couple of weeks will eventually make it seem natural, and one day you’ll sit down and begin writing right away. It will become an automatic process, reducing the mental stress that occurs when you sit down and have to write. This initial boost will get you started, and therefore help you avoid burnout.
3. Reorganize Your Workspace
Sometimes, getting back on track with your writing is as simple as cleaning up your workspace. Having excess papers and knickknacks flying around can decrease productivity for a variety of reasons, from distracting you to lack of comfort to mental disorganization. There is a reason why no one is ever able to clean out an old attic—too many distractions. Sometimes, this is a good thing. Not so much when you’re trying to get something done.
Sort your papers. Clear off your desk. Whatever you need to make it as comfortable as possible. This will improve mental clarity by reducing clutter in your work area.
*Just be sure not to let cleaning/organizing your physical space be your excuse not to write. They also say that your house has never been so clean as when you have a writing deadline! This is such a huge procrastination tactic that I also find myself doing. That said, keeping your workspace clean in the first place is the best strategy to avoid giving yourself these opportunities.
This method was previously mentioned in “take care of yourself” but I feel like it’s also worth its own section. Not only can it help you get to sleep, but meditation—or rather, mindfulness—as a daily practice is infinitely helpful. It allows you to take a step back, be present in the moment, and realize that many problems you shoulder every day can be managed effectively with the right mindset. It’s not about pushing distractions away to have a clear head but to acknowledge everything that comes to you and allow them to drift away.
Daily meditation can be as short as 5 minutes. That’s it. Five minutes to slow down and move away from the “go-go-go” attitude of the modern age. Many of today’s stressors have to do with the neglect of your own mental health. People think that they don’t need help, that they need to be successful on their own, and to ask for help is a weakness. Seeing a therapist (which is becoming much more common nowadays) is, in my opinion, the best way to improve your mental health, but having a close friend or family member who you can share your problems with or taking a few minutes every day to look at your own problems from an outside perspective is another great method.
Burnout is mostly mental, so it’s a no-brainer that beating it involves maintaining your mental health.
Personally, I’ve found that meditating before bed (and even once or twice during the day as well) allows me to organize my thoughts in much the same way that I organize my desk. I can see the patterns my mind falls into, and I have a greater awareness of how my thoughts work and how I am affected by the world around me. I navigate the world with a greater understanding of myself, and I have a better idea of how my ideas come, which has had a definite impact on my writing overall.
However, if you don’t have much time, don’t worry. You don’t need to dedicate hours a day to this practice. The key is, like all things, consistency.
5. Take Breaks
Breaks are very important. Sometimes, ideas just come and work out for you, but no one can work on one thing for hours on end. It’s not healthy, and this overworking is what leads to burnout. One of the most prevalent stories of childhood is “The Tortoise and the Hare” which provides children with the vital lesson that slow and steady wins the race. Don’t power through your writing, as you shouldn’t power through with anything in life. Write a little, take a break, and so on.
Now, breaks can come in multiple layers. You can have small breaks: five to ten minutes to get up, move around, and have a snack. Best case, these happen multiple times a day. You can even have longer breaks (half an hour to an hour) for exercise or a relaxing activity. The best method I’ve found is the Pomodo Technique. This technique was created by university student Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s after he struggled to keep up with coursework. The idea is as follows:
- Step 1: Pick a task
- Step 2: Set a 25-minute timer
- Step 3: Work on your task until the timer is up
- Step 4: Take a 5-minute break
- Step 5: For every four pomodos (about 2 hours) take a longer break (15-30 minutes)
This method is especially effective if you have a notebook marking each session where you can check off one pomodo session each time you complete it, giving you a boost of dopamine (the reward chemical in the mind) for accomplishing a task.
Bigger breaks include taking weekends off or setting a schedule to do different things throughout the week, therefore remaining productive but for different things, to even taking a vacation (I recommend at least once a year if you can manage it). Even a staycation, where you stay at home for a week or two not worrying about anything work-related, can be a great change of pace.
I don’t work weekends. That’s my line. I do not work on anything for my clients, do not look at or answer emails, and do not worry about getting things done. These are the days that I usually go for a long 4-hour hike up the trails near my house or cozy up in my favourite chair with a mug of hot chocolate and read my for-fun book. Sometimes I’ll even lock all of my electronic devices (phone, tablet, laptop) in my desk drawer and take a “screen-free” day. This I find, has been the most helpful for me because not only does it get me outside or away from technology, but it acts as a sort of reboot for my brain every week. I no longer feel like I have to keep up to date on social media (which is one of the worst stressors for today’s youth), and I can enjoy the moment.
Together, these breaks keep your mind and spirit refreshed and help you avoid burnout from overwork or work-related stress.
6. Learn to Say “No”
Saying “no” is one of the easiest and hardest things to do, but you have to set healthy boundaries for yourself. A lot of the time, we feel guilty for saying no to someone, so we end up doing all we can to help and be useful. Unfortunately, that mindset typically leads to overextension, and therefore, stress.
Looking at my own life, I still struggle with this. I have a client for whom I edit and design books, but it didn’t start out that way. At first, I was also doing a whole marketing campaign, and I was “on call” to this client at all waking hours. This was stressing me out, and it wasn’t in our original agreement, though it wasn’t specified “against” in the contract either. This client just kept asking if I could “do this” or “do that”, and since I wanted the books to be successful, I agreed. I was compensated, I suppose, but I also struggled with charging after the fact, like “You asked me to do this, and even though we didn’t discuss payment at the time, I’m doing a lot of work…” So, my next step was, when drawing up the contracts for the next few books, to include in the responsivities section what I would do and what I wouldn’t do. I emailed the client about my time being important and asked him to consult me less about things that weren’t included in my duties, and I’ve been all the better for it. Our professional relationship has certainly benefited from the change.
7. Focus on One Thing at a Time
One of the main causes of burnout is taking on too much at once. It is terribly easy to overload yourself, but the best way to avoid this is to be deliberate in how you spend your time. Find the thing that generates the best results for you.
For example, if you’re writing a novel and want the whole world laid out before you begin, do that. Make notes and do your research. If you are determined to write the first draft of a book or even devote yourself to editing—divide it into stages.
Personally, I find writing easier if I have the whole story in my head in a single sentence (known as the “logline” or the “one sentence pitch”). This helps me focus on what the story is ultimately about. The next stage for me would be to organize my characters. Why does the plot progress as it does? Who is moving the plot along? (This should be either your protagonist or your antagonist or both. You never want a passive protagonist, as they are the one driving the story. Likewise, the antagonist is the one working against the protagonist, directly or indirectly.)
If I’m editing, I’ll focus on a specific type. Trying to do every facet of editing in one run-through is impossible and inefficient. Am I just looking for spelling errors? Am I working on the development of one of the characters?
Set aside time for yourself to work, and even if you have nothing to write, don’t skip it. The person who most often stops you from writing is yourself.
Of course, this doesn’t only work for writing (though if you’re here, I’m assuming that’s what you’re doing). Take a step back and sort your to-do list if you have to. Do the thing you’re dreading first thing in the morning, so the rest of your day isn’t spent worrying about it.
8. Try New Things; Never Stop Learning
Sometimes, burnout is caused by getting stuck in a rut. You’re doing the same things day in and day out, and there’s no escape. You hit a dead end. This could be a job, a responsibility, or even in your writing itself.
*Keep in mind that this is different from your daily routine, which is established for a healthy pattern. What I mention here is an unhealthy pattern—one that drains you rather than motivates you.
A way to prevent this is to simply try new things. Try writing in a different style, write a story that you’ve never written before (for a creative writing class, my friends suggested to me to write a 1920s mobster romance short story—something I’d never in my wildest dreams would’ve thought of).
Sometimes, it’s even just a change in routine that can help. Spend the day with a friend or loved one, or change up the order in which you do things (if it’s possible).
Meanwhile, at work, I normally read and edit fantasy novels, but I’ve tried other genres—recently getting into a bit of horror with Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These books are classics, which I like, but they offer a new genre I’ve not experimented with much. In my writing, I’ve tried romance, which isn’t something I’ve written before, and I’ve worked on historical fiction, in which I’m mostly out of my depth.
Try something new. Join a group or club in your community (whether you’re still at school or in college/university or are in the workforce). Maybe join an online forum of like-minded people or even people who can challenge your mindset in a healthy way.
If it’s your creative process that you’re struggling with, change it up. Try a different medium. Dabble in poetry, write in prose, write in script. Stuck with blogging? Try making a podcast or a vlog or even write some song lyrics.
You may look at some of these things and think “that’s not for me” and that’s a fair argument, but have you tried them yet? Try it once, and maybe you’ll be surprised.
9. Remember to Treat Yourself
This is a big one. It may be last on the list, but it’s certainly not the least, because you deserve to reward yourself for good work.
Set aside discipline and celebrate your successes because if you don’t, motivation is hard to come by.
This can come in many forms. Whether you take a day off after finishing a book or treat yourself to dinner out at a nice restaurant instead of cooking at home. Celebrate successes big and small accordingly, so that you remain motivated all throughout the week.
The best way to keep track is to set a new goal for yourself at the beginning of each week, and smaller goals throughout the week working up to that goal. “I will write the first draft” is not a very good goal unless you have a plan of how to get there beyond sitting in front of your computer for 60 minutes a day.
I reward myself in a rather simple way. I read books for review for 1 hour every morning, and as a reward for listening, I mark it down in my work notebook and make an update to my in-progress book review. When the book review is eventually posted, I can see the fruits of all my hard work through the number of views, comments, and likes the review gets. For other work, I feel motivated by the progress that is made, and I set it aside every evening with the feeling that I’ve accomplished something.
Every night, I eat dinner with my family and tell them all about my day; in turn, they tell me about theirs, and we feel happy for one another’s successes.
These are all small rewards. Big rewards can be vacations, or even a spa day getting a massage.
The big risk is treating yourself with rewards that are detrimental to your health, such as heavy drinking, extensive partying, or eating an abundance of sugary snacks.
Have you tried an of these methods before? Which ones have worked for you? If you have a method that I missed, please let me know!
The next article will be all about identifying the signs and recovering from burnout if you have it, so keep an eye out for it.
Leave a Reply