Surviving burnout

I didn’t write for basically the whole of February. This is an unfortunate trend I’ve noticed over the past few years – I’ll go hard in January, all enthused with the change of the new year and my resolutions, and then fall flat in February when work starts back and my energy levels shift.

It’s a shame, but it’s a known phenomenon.

The difference this year was that I didn’t want to write. I wanted to do anything but: I dabbled in some crafts, I got very crabby and restless, I cleaned the house and cooked a lot. The thought of gong near my laptop was dull and off-putting.

But I knew it wasn’t right and that a) according to all the advice I should be writing even when I don’t feel like it (though whether this advice is correct or conducive to good self-care practices is contestable) and b) it’s rare that I’m not interested in writing. Even when it all sucks, even when I get a bunch of rejections or haven’t been able to put my butt in the chair for a while, it’s usually lurking in the background.

The utter lack of interest was cause for concern.

What caused it?

There are a few things, looking back at it, that contributed to this.

I had a series of job interviews and application processes on the go

My work is currently undergoing some changes and I applied for three different jobs in as many weeks[1]. Job applications take time and interviewing is stressful and doing a lot of it in one hit didn’t leave a lot of time and interest leftover for writing.

I was chewing on a thesis idea

At the same time I was applying for and taking prep classes for a research thesis that I wasn’t sure I was going to follow through on and which I was still working through my ideas for. Lots of reading, lots of chewing on possible research problems, and lots of doubt about whether the project was even viable.[2] Lots of stress and time here, too.

Honestly, those two things on their own should have been enough for me to cut myself some slack and accept that sometimes life does not allow adequate writing time or mental energy and that’s ok.

But there was a third thing that I think was the real reason behind the problem.

I had two ego body blows about my writing within as many days

I got some bad initial feedback about my thesis project, which started the whole stress-session about whether I even wanted to do it and if my project was viable. I’d been angling for this course pathway for ages and the prospect that it might not happen was initially upsetting.

The next day I got some bad initial feedback about my novel. Honestly, the feedback wasn’t terrible – it never is when you go back and look at it a few days later – but it was enough on top of everything else to throw me into a funk. I sulked and questioned my writing on all fronts.

In light of all of this it makes a lot of sense that I didn’t want to go near writing for a bit. I was stressed, upset, very busy and had had my confidence rattled.

I’m pretty sure this is a classic burnout scenario.

How do I fix this?

I did some initial reading on writing burnout and some suggestions kept coming up:

  • Write anyway
  • Sleep
  • Relaxing/socialising
  • Exercise
  • Explore other creative outlets
  • Scene change
  • Take a break
  • Read books

Chuck Wendig reminded me to get back to writing what I love.

I re-read Elizabeth Bear’s piece about stress and feeling obligated to write and not finding the joy anymore.

The problem was that I didn’t want to write. I had a lack of interest and enthusiasm and I didn’t think just going for a walk and coming back, or having a really good sleep was going to cut it. And the answer, this time, certainly didn’t feel like it was “write anyway”.

What worked for me

Eventually I found the things I needed to pull myself out of it and start writing again. They’re obvious in hindsight, but at the time when I couldn’t give a crap about anything to do with writing they didn’t seem so obvious.

Socialising & write-ins

I’ve discussed before how I like hanging around with people. I always, without fail, come away from talking to people about their writing more inspired to work on my own stuff. Despite not being enthused about my writing, or having done much writing around that time, I kept going along to writer hangouts. Seeing other people excited about writing helped to remind me that I do actually like doing this and that, while sometimes it sucks, on the whole there’s a lot more that’s interesting and inspiring about the work than there is that is off-putting.

Kicking the easy goals

I worked on some easy, non-revision based projects. Sometimes I look at my pile of “to be revised” pieces in various stages of completion and it can be weeks before I get to write any new words[3]. It’s important work, but it feels like a job and it’s not particularly inspiring a lot of the time.

So I picked up some smaller, half-finished drafts and put some new words down. I kicked the easy goals to get my momentum back.

I think I need to prioritise new words a lot more than I currently do because it brings me a lot of joy. I get stuck in this mindset that I’m “not allowed” to start new things until I’ve finished the pile of revision work. It’s like vegetables before dessert, and it’s not particularly useful as a creative motivational tool. It makes it a chore and something I have to convince myself to do rather than something I want to do.

There’s a time and a place for doing the work even when you don’t want to. Finishing things is important and revision is probably always going to be the lion’s share of the time instead of writing new words. But that doesn’t mean I’m not “allowed” to write new words. If anything maybe I should just accept that I’ll never get to a perfect, blank slate place where my revision and new work are moving in harmony and it’s all a neat production line. So, if that’s the case, what the hell does it matter if I throw more new things onto the pile to get revised? If anything it’s a good thing because it means more things to choose from in the revision pile!

Turns out holding off on the fun stuff until I’ve done the stuff I’m dreading working on is a recipe for paralysis and a big creative slump.

Weekly goals

At the end of last year, when I was close to the end of finishing my novel I set up a new tracking system for myself based on weekly rather than daily goals. Rather than setting myself a time or word count goal to hit each day, I had a weekly task – finish X number of chapters. More often than not I found I’d do more than the set amount for that week because I’d set the bar so low. It made the tasks I had to do both non-threatening and a lot of the time just starting is the hard part.

I find this way of working a lot more satisfying than the grind of hitting a word or time goal continually. I like completing things. I like to have things done or tick them off a list.

This coincided nicely with the kicking easy goals idea. “Finish the first draft of this project” as a goal for the week didn’t put pressure on when those words needed to happen or how many a session. But I did get the joy of writing something new and ticking something off a list.

I’ve set it up now across a few projects I’ve got going and it seems to be working pretty well.

Reading different things

This was a common suggestion and one I would have dismissed as dumb at the time, but I’ve got a pretty rigid reading strategy[4] so I started the Story Grid just after I burned out because it was the next book on the list.

And it was perfect.

The book is great and I’ve reviewed it here, but what was important about it helping me out from my slump is it made writing seem doable and not scary. It laid out its ideas about writing well and showed how they could be applied to write some really great things.

It helped me remember that I did, kinda, maybe, still want to try and write some great things.

I started outlining a new project and got excited about it.

Getting some decent feedback to balance it out

More recently and slightly after I got my groove back I also got some other feedback and some promising rejections which started to rebalance the flatlining I’d experienced after a run of tough critiques. I should learn how to balance out my reactions to things like this and usually I’m able to shrug them off or tag them as a badge of pride, but I think the closeness of the events and that they were about projects that were still in middle or early-ish stages rather than things I had worked until I couldn’t work on them anymore and then sent them out might have been the change.

Either way, getting more feedback from a wider variety of sources might well help me keep a good mix of input coming more often and help even out the lows.

How do you guys manage burnout?

[1] I got one – go me!

[2] Spoiler: I ended up ditching this and I had a hard time doing it because it was all wrapped up in ego crap.

[3] First drafts are my favourite part – if I could write first drafts forever I’d be happy!

[4] I’m not going to go into it, but it’s incredibly nerdy and involves books across 4 formats and a spreadsheet. I secretly-not-so-secretly love it.

2 Comments for “Surviving burnout”

says:

Wise words, my dear! Glad to hear you’re over the hump. A few callouses will make you stronger for next time.
How do I survive my burnouts? Movies, couch time, craft, artist dates, exercise/movement, talking to non-writers about everything else but writing, and meditation. But I’m a single-minded weirdo.

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