Burnout isn’t a new thing for most of us.
At some point, you’ll likely have encountered some version of the complete exhaustion—physical, mental, and emotional—that comes from being constantly overwhelmed, overworked, and under-rested. For those struggling with other factors like chronic mental and physical health conditions and disabilities, burnout can come swiftly and without mercy.
And writers and authors, as much as we love what we do, aren’t exempt.
Being a writer isn’t the easiest career to begin with. Imagine a perpetual machine of deadlines, revisions, editing, marketing, sales, and the knowledge that everything you write or publish will be seen by critical and judgmental eyes. Or worse, that awful feeling when it seems like nothing you write ever comes out the way you hope it will.
Add to that the need to perform on command (especially if you make your living writing); manage multiple clients, jobs, and projects; be responsible for families, caretaking, your home, finances, and whatever additional stresses you may have (and we’re not including Twitter), such as illness or money struggles. (And that’s excluding the wonderful year of manky dirt known as the pandemic, which has placed even more stress and distress in all our lives.) For writers and authors, as for many others, the work never ends, even at the end of the workday. And for those holding down other jobs and supporting families, the pressure can feel almost unbearable.
“Over the years I’ve worked with countless writers who’ve had to force themselves to celebrate milestones—finishing a chapter, getting over the hump of a tough revision—because they felt weighed down by the knowledge that there’s still more work to do,” writes Kendra Levin in Psychology Today’s “Burnout for Writers.” “I spoke with a novelist recently who told me she couldn’t even enjoy her latest book’s publication day because she was already worrying about how long it would take to finish her next book.”
But for many, points out Levin, the act of having a writing practice and an outlet can be the very thing that “adds fuel to their fire.”
“When writers and artists are pushed to burnout, they have a built-in reserve of mojo to draw from, an outlet for working out complex emotions and experiences, and sense of deeper purpose that can mitigate the frazzle of a hamster-wheel life no matter what happens with their work out there in the world. It’s not about how others experience consuming your work—it’s about how you experience the process of creating it.”
But the truth is that while writing can set you free, there can come a point when exhaustion takes over. It can affect your energy levels, your sleep, your concentration, your eating habits, and even how you interact with your loved ones. Depression, lassitude, ambivalence, and my very favorite, the I-Hate-Writing stage—where you think maybe you just need a new career altogether—are not uncommon.
Sometimes we can spot the signs early and adjust both our schedules and expectations a little bit. But what if you’re already in full-on burnout mode?
Start with getting a good sleep
Anyone who’s been overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders (and/or has kids) will tell you the same thing: getting a good night’s sleep sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Practice good sleep hygiene whenever you can, and as consistently as you can. Turn off any bright screens—including texting, social media, reading the news, and anything that might create stress—at least an hour before bed. My favorite trick late in the evenings is to dim any bright lights or switch on mellow, low-wattage bulbs. Create an established bedtime, and give yourself plenty of time to prepare for sleep. If you like to read in bed, ensure it’s low-drama, low-investment reading. Make sure your bedroom is as soothing and calming as possible. Try some relaxation techniques before turning off the light. And if possible, keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool, which will help you sleep better.
Take care of yourself
This is par for the course, but when you’re burned out, chances are good that you’re craving a lot of foods (and drinks) that aren’t good for you and spacing out in front of the TV. Try to eat nutritious, balanced meals, and stay as active as possible.
Take a break from writing
There are a lot of folks who will tell you that the best thing you can do is keep writing, and for some people, that’s definitely the case. But if writing is your full-time job—especially if you don’t always have a choice about your work—your brain might just need a bit of a break to refresh. Give yourself permission to take a few days off from writing with a scheduled “return to work” day. If the creative bug hits you, then pursue it with full zeal, as that’s the kind of writing that will feed your soul. Otherwise, it’s OK to take a break. (Tip: If you’re project-oriented, try doing a physical job like painting a room, rearranging your office, or digging in the garden. Sometimes keeping your hands busy is the nicest break for tired brains.)
Go on a vacation
If you have the means to travel, have at it. Go somewhere, read, see things, and get out of your rut. The more adventurous, the better. But not everyone has the resources to just travel to another country or even rent a cottage for a getaway. If you’re a camper, take a few days to go to your favorite national park. Visit a relative in another town. Or just spend a week doing fun day trips in and around your town or city, checking out places you’ve never really explored. Try a picnic in the park, a hike, cycling around, or even hanging out in a new coffee shop with a notebook in hand.
Change what you’re writing
For those of us who write for a living, sometimes the joy of what we’re doing—and why we love it—can fall by the wayside. All it takes sometimes is a few extra weights on the balance to throw everything off-kilter. Death, heartbreak, career setbacks, depression, and disappointments all can weigh you down and drive you further into exhaustion. So try writing either something real for you or something entirely new, whether that’s a new book project, an essay, a piece of poetry, or even a vitriol-filled letter to someone who’s angered or hurt you (just don’t send it, whatever you do—trust me). Sometimes it’s not the writing that has died, but the fact that for right now, you’re not writing the right kinds of things.
So switch it up.
Be kind to yourself
There’s always that voice in our heads driving us to work harder, achieve more, and be more successful. For writers and authors, those voices can be loud indeed. And with so many thoughtless comments like, “I always wanted to write, but then I got a real job,” we often feel more pressure to keep up with our friends on different career paths. With only ourselves as boss, our hours can vary widely, and often we don’t keep accurate track of how much we’re really working.
Take a few minutes every day to give yourself good feedback and remind yourself how well you’re doing. After all, we’re not exempt from comparing ourselves to our colleagues, feeling stabs of jealousy, or panicking about how far behind we feel like we’ve fallen. Be kind to yourself. Leave yourself little notes. And try not to drive yourself so hard that you forget what you love about writing.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.