Whether you frantically try to squeeze writing into every free moment of your day or go on biweekly rampages of 15,000 highly caffeinated words at 3am, the risk of burnout is real for every writer.
Burnout can occur at all stages of the writing process, from researching to writing to editing, and damage both your physical and mental health.
Your progress and output may plummet. Motivation to work on your manuscript may disappear entirely for months on end. You may also experience any or all of the following feelings:
- Internal deliberations of why you would ever willingly put yourself through the torture of being a writer
If you’ve fallen prey to burnout, don’t beat yourself up; self-care and understanding is the foremost way to break free (I have another post in the works with actionable tips for crawling out of a burnout hole!).
However, avoiding burnout in the first place should be a top priority throughout your writing process.
The following are five key ways to avoid burnout, reduce the risk of a month’s long crash in motivation, and create a sustainable writing process.
1. Consistently work at 80% output
You can’t go-go-go forever. It is physically and mentally exhausting to force yourself through your writing process at 140% every single day; at some point you will burn out.
Consistent work at a sustainable level is far more valuable for long term productivity.
This applies if you write in the quiet hours after your kids go to bed or if you have the ability to write for an entire day. Always strive for a practical 80%.
Give yourself permission to work at this balanced level of output, knowing you’ll be more productive over the course of, say, a month at 80% than four days at 140% followed by weeks maxing out at 20% (or wallowing on your couch at 0%!), mentally and physically drained.
2. Be both realistic and forgiving with yourself
From attempting to research and build your entire world in a week to setting a monthly writing word count of 50k (except perhaps NaNoWriMo 😉), it is very tempting to vow “no excuses” and plow onwards.
But more often than not, we drive ourselves right down the path to burnout with this mentality.
How relieved would you feel if you released yourself from the guilt and overwhelm that we impose upon ourselves with overly demanding to-do lists and tighter-than-literally-ever-possible deadlines?
You can only do so much in a day (at a sustainable level, a la #1). Be realistic about your goals, deadlines, and how long things will take to finish.
And, most importantly, be forgiving with yourself, even if you miss your more realistic deadlines.
You are human. You will likely always underestimate the amount of time a single task will take and overestimate the number of tasks you can do in a block of time (guilty!). Beating yourself up over missed deadlines will only make you feel terrible and likely restart your unsustainable work habits.
3. Equally prioritize self-care (both physical and mental health)
One of the most important concepts to internalize in order to avoid burnout is this:
Taking care of your body and mind is as equally important as your output.
The practical reason is that if you get sick or mentally exhausted, your output will suffer.
We have a tendency to place our writing goals and deadlines above our own health and wellbeing. But if you don’t take the time to take care of yourself during the day, your work will consume every “free” moment and you will eventually burn out.
Balance is key.
Maximize your output (at 80%, of course!) but also incorporate self-care into your daily routine.
This doesn’t have to be an hours-long self-care event (unless you want to!). Your self-care can be however long and in whatever style you prefer.
Snuggle your dog for 5 minutes. Walk outside for 15 minutes. Take a YouTube yoga class. Eat lunch (no really, take a break.) Call someone important to you. Start a daily face care routine. Have a 20-minute snack + TV show break. Take a shower.
The key is to give this self-care activity your complete and undivided attention.
Deliberately slowing down and concentrating solely on this moment has a magical effect of separating you from the trials of the day and giving you this peaceful, liberating feeling of “Yes. I took care of myself today.”
Whether you write in the off-hours or full-time, prioritizing even five minutes for self-care at some point during the day will help you build a sustainable life-to-writing ratio.
4. Give yourself permission to relax (aka refill your creative well)
You, as a writer, are a “creatively inspired” person, not just a word-generating robot. Take this quite literally. Spending time refilling your creative well is a necessary part of your job.
You cannot simply chug out words and ideas and a wealth of new concepts without building up a source for this inspiration.
Metaphor time! If you’re scrounging at the bottom of a chip bag, no matter how hard you try, all you’re going to come up with is crumbs.
And when all you’re pulling up for in terms of story ideas is crumbs, you are going to grow both increasingly frustrated and hopeless. Will you ever come up with a fresh new idea again? Will you ever finish this story so you can have your very own obsessively raving fanbase? Will anyone ever love this book as much as your mom said she does??
Don’t fall into this burnout spiral of self-doubt that leaves you squirreled up on the couch with a non-metaphorical empty bag of chips scrunched under your arm.
Watch that movie. Read that new release from the author you’re currently obsessed with. Binge the first few episodes of that series you’ve been putting off under the pretense that you “need to work”.
Give yourself permission to not feel guilty with this task.
Perhaps you spot a writing style you love or an inspiring idea for your own work. But more than that, simply take this time to recharge.
Refilling your creative well is an essential part of the writing process and crucial to avoiding burnout.
5. Actually(!) celebrate your victories
As you work through your writing process, from first words to publication, your journey is marked by many, many small victories.
But we as a group have a tendency to focus so single-mindedly on the End Goal (whether that be to simply finish your story or publish it for the world to read), that we don’t stop to realize what we accomplish along the way.
Writing that ten thousandth word gets passed over as we drive ourselves to the 20k, 50k, and 100k stages. And even as we accomplish each of these goals, we’re solely focused on the next step.
This inevitably causes us to push ourselves harder and harder until we hit burnout. If we don’t appreciate what we’ve accomplished, then we’re always piling more and more on ourselves until we hit that inevitable brick wall.
Pause for a second.
What have you accomplished thus far?
Have you spent three days researching 1920s bank robberies as they pertain to your story’s world? Wrote your first 5,000 words? Finished your first draft?
Each of these steps are worth recognition because every single one is required to reach your End Goal.
Celebrating each of these steps as you achieve them will help you realize that you are, in fact, making progress and it’s not necessary to force yourself to work at an unsustainable and unrealistic output level.
It is also incredibly motivating to realize what you’ve accomplished as you’re staring down a gigantic, overwhelming End Goal that feels like it may never come. Pause, look back, and consider how far you’ve come.
Now actually celebrate these victories! You are awesome. You have accomplished so much, even if all you’ve done thus far for this manuscript is spend a bunch of your hard-earned free hours learning about 18th century hosiery and how difficult it was for women to dress themselves each day.
Cultivating a sustainable writing process today will pay you back tenfold, not only during your current project but throughout your writing career.
You can accomplish so much, but if you burn out, your progress as well as your physical and emotional state will take a significant hit.
Be practical with your work output level and goals. Forgive yourself for missed deadlines. Create a mini self-care routine. Refill your creative well. Celebrate your victories. And most important of all, be nice to yourself.
Even during the NaNoWriMo rush. 😉
Do you struggle with burnout? Do you have a favorite technique to balance life and writing that you’ve found particularly helpful? Let’s chat below!