How To Stave Off Burnout When You Write Full-Time

How To Stave Off Burnout When You Write Full-Time

A fellow writeblr on tumblr recently asked me: I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a full time author, but then I worry that I’d get burned out and it wouldn’t be fun anymore. Is that something you’ve ever experienced?

While I contemplated my answer, I realized I have a lot to say on this topic.

I will preface this by saying that writing full-time was always my goal. Even when I studied IT and subsequently worked in the field full-time, it was always with the goal of becoming an author and making writing my full-time gig. I will also add that without my husband, his career choices and his fantastic support, I would not be able to do what I do. Some of this may affect my opinion and I’m well aware that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for all. So take what follows with the appropriate grain of salt.

Writing full-time wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be at first.

I started writing full-time in 2011; my husband had just gotten his first full-time teaching job in Quebec. He was teaching at an English school but we lived in a French town. Having not grown up in Canada, and having taken only two years worth of French classes in high school, I spoke not a word of it. I was okay with not being able to work in a French community because writing was what I really wanted to do. I struggled my way through writing my last novel while working full-time, squeezing scenes into my lunch break and evenings after work. It had taken me three years to finish the first draft. I was eager to put the constant lack of energy behind me and dig into the creative process.

I learned quickly that wanting to write all the time doesn’t make it easy to actually write all the time. Having experienced this once before, while I was getting my citizenship and was unable to work, I knew I could overcome it. But it wasn’t easy. I found myself up against a lot of obstacles at this point in my life. One was simply not knowing the best way to proceed. Another was probably depression, although I was never formally diagnosed. I woke up every day wanting to write and went to bed every day lamenting that I hadn’t. I’ve written about this struggle before but, suffice to say, burnout wasn’t on my radar because creation didn’t happen as steadily as I hoped it would.

Creative production gets easier as time goes on.

It took about three years to get to the point where I produced regular content without having to force productivity. I tried several tactics during that time but the one that worked best for me was butt in chair until the work was done and not allowing myself to do much else until I finished. During that time I learned that writing is a mental exercise. Writer’s block is a state of mind and it can be countered with other states of mind (or sometimes just pure, stubborn muscling through). But in all that time I never suffered the dreaded burnout. I never sat down at the computer and felt like I couldn’t bear to write another word. Sometimes I lamented that the words wouldn’t flow fast enough or that I my pace was too slow, but I never had trouble creating because the fire had been snuffed.

In 2014, I launched my 100 words of work experiment where I committed to doing at least 100 words worth of work every day for one year. At the time I counted creative writing and editing as work but not blogging (I have since revised that stance and now count my blog posts as words of work). The goal was simple; I could write or edit more every day, but as long as I hit 100 words I would satisfy the goal. I learned enough that by June I had already written about my experience. And if you peek at the post you’ll notice my last point: don’t forget to give yourself a break.

My first brush with burnout opened my eyes.

I was three years into writing full time, and had already published my first book, before the first tendrils of burnout crept into my life. I had been looking for ways to increase my productivity, and I found them. At the expense of myself. At the expense of relaxation and spending time with family and friends. I had found ways to push myself to new and formerly unprecedented levels of creation; and I had learned about the cost.

Since then I have struggled, on and off, with burnout. For those unfamiliar with the term, burnout is a type of creative fatigue that makes it difficult to think or act creatively. The mere idea of putting words onto the page makes you want to do literally anything else. Like clean the entire house. Or curl beneath the covers and go back to sleep for at least a week.

But as time has gone on and I’ve continued to track my writing progress, continued to increase my yearly goals and my monthly productivity, I’ve learned some interesting things about burnout.

Burnout is not born from an abundance of creativity.

I’ve made no secret of how I’ve struggled with work/life balance. Being an author, especially a self-published one, demands a lot of time and energy. There’s always more to do. It always feels like you can never get enough done. And it inevitably feels like everyone else is out-performing you (dangerous in a competitive market). I hit a point where I was working 14 hours a day. Not all of that is writing. There are a lot of marketing and social aspects to my job. But they all count as work. I was working so hard that I completely neglected my health and developed cubital tunnel in my left arm (that’s the less well-known brother of carpal tunnel, which happens in the last two fingers of the hand instead of the first three). My husband noticed the degradation of my health and put his foot down; enough was enough.

But once you open the faucet, once you get into the habit of working until you drop, it’s surprisingly hard to turn it off. It’s surprisingly hard to walk away without feeling guilt over all the things you think you should be doing while you’re resting or having fun. And this is an insidious thing, because not only will it affect your health, it’s what ultimately leads to burnout. The harder you work to the exclusion of all else, the harder it is to keep working.

Because writing, like any other creative activity, requires energy. The more energy you put into it the less energy you have for other things. And in order to generate new energy to keep pouring into the creative pool, you need to stop. You need to relax. You need to enjoy yourself and get refreshed.

Burnout is born from a lack of time spent recharging.

The short answer to the question have you ever suffered burnout as a result of writing full-time? is yes. I certainly have. And I have hit many places where writing feels like work (mostly because it is). But it has never stopped feeling fun or fulfilling.

Because I don’t believe those burnouts were caused by creativity. I don’t think it happens because I write too much and I just can’t find any more words to put on a page. Though certainly it is possible to write so much in a condensed period of time that you feel exhausted. I think the burnout I have suffered came from making poor decisions. From pushing myself when parts of my body screamed at me that I needed a break. I think burnout is born of imbalance between the creative/working portion of your life and the relaxing/social aspects of your life. If you can find balance, you can keep burnout at bay.

Being a full-time writer has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. When I do get exhausted from a blast of creativity, I fall into bed at night reasoning that at least I got that way doing something I love, something for me.

So balance is key. If you can find a happy work/life balance, you need never worry about burnout again. I’m still looking for the balance that works for me (honing steadily in on it), but I have at least learned to recognize the signs of burnout enough to slow down and relax enough to stave it off.

One Reply to “How To Stave Off Burnout When You Write Full-Time”

  1. Work/ Life Balance is the key to a happy life no matter what your career- but so much harder when you don’t have a 9-5 job. And when you also push yourself towards a creativity goal. Thanks for sharing your story.

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