I’ve been fortunate in my writing career to have not yet encountered burnout. This summer I’ve probably come closer than I ever have, though: the challenge of writing two newsletters per week while juggling family commitments during the summer holidays and a day job has been…intense.
It’s a potential risk we all have to contend with when working on major projects. In today’s discussion let’s share our tips for avoiding burnout. How do you stay healthy and happy while also achieving your goals?
If something has helped you in the past, chances are it can help someone else in the future.
Photo by Timur Kozmenko on Unsplash
As for my own thoughts on this:
A big part of it, for me, is setting realistic goals at the start. I always used to cram my writing in and do intensive bursts - this was back in my 20s, when I'd have a month of manic writing, and then go six months without doing anything (almost without even noticing). It's because I was trying to write a novel, or some other lofty Grand Goal, and felt like I had to go all-out to achieve it.
Switching to weekly serial releases was a big deal for me, because it built in a natural cadence and lots of little micro-wins, rather than only aiming for the big finale. I was also able to define specifically how long it would take me to write one of those chapters: I knew I could write about 1,200 words in a single evening. If I could afford more time, perfect. If not, one evening per week would be enough.
Small word counts, small time dedications: low stress. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, that led to me having a complete revolution in my output and productivity. Aiming lower helped me reach higher.
Brains are weird.
In the last two years I've ramped up considerably, at least doubling my workload due to the newsletter. I've absolutely loved it, but am conscious that something might have to change in order for me to keep developing (and it won't be a change to the fiction side). I also don't want to pump out weekly non-fic newsletters just for the sake of it. Again, less is more.
Apologies to anyone who couldn't comment at first due to being told that this discussion was only for paid subscribers. That's not the case and appears to have been a Substack bug (I've had it happen once before).
Hopefully everyone should now be able to comment (I went in and hit it with a hammer).
The strategy that works for me: build down-time into every day, go fo walks, read widely, spend time with friends, focus on doing the fun stuff first, regularly see what you can minimize or eliminate from the to-do list because less is more, stop everything at the point where it's still exciting/interesting and start there the next day.
I don't think I've ever experienced burn out with my writing. My burnouts usually involve my boring job.
I'm the one that took 20 years to publish a novella, and kept working until I thought it was right.
I'd pick it up and write a chapter, then put it down for a few months, then pick it up again.
I like substack, because I can write one episode a week, and then wait a few days to write again.
I'm working on my second novella, and am taking it slow. I've got too much imagery and not enough words. lol.
I guess the advice I'd give is not to put a deadline on it and let it flow at it's own pace.
This has been one of the busiest years i can remember - family, day job, new baby, contracts. I'm not sure I've avoided burnout, but i am learning to accept that some nights, i just gotta let my head hit the pillow early and that's ok
I’m emerging from the worst burnout cave EVER and I hope to never return! I realized a few things that led me into the cave and a few things to prevent me from going back:
• FOMO and genuine excitement for participating in multi author projects had me booking myself up a year ahead of time! Now I’ve learned it’s okay to say NO. JOMO is my new game (joy of missing out) lol
• I thought I wanted to be a full time creative, so that’s what I became. However, the full throttle approach to writing (although it did make me great $ and garnered me many thousands of readers/subscribers) had me wearing too many hats and bled my creative bank dry. Three lessons learned here:
1) I don’t want to be a full time creative. I proved to myself I could do it, but the cost is complete and total burnout. Not fun!
2) Just because my Jane of all trades nature generally means I CAN do it (whatever “it” is) doesn’t mean I NEED to do it. I misinterpreted having skills in an area as having a responsibility to use them. But nope! I get to choose.
And 3) I think I’ve proven to myself I’m capable of anything if I dedicate that full throttle energy to it. Which means now I know I only ever want to pursue things that truly bring me joy instead of for the sake of proving something to myself. I did it! Now it’s time for fun.
Whew! I think the big picture revelation from my burnout experience has been to do what I want to do when it comes to creativity and only when I want to do it. Otherwise the self imposed pressure makes it way too difficult to be freely creative and defeats the whole point.
But maybe that’s just me! 🤪
Daily word goals ranging from 1000-2000 words aiming for 4000-10000 words a week. Right now I aim for 2000 words a day at least 4 days a week. If I reach 2000 and want to keep going I do. If I reach 1500 but it's like swimming through custard I stop. There's a great deal of flexibilty but because I have to write and want to write even more now than when I started 6-7 years ago I don't need much enforcement.
I'd also say working like a lion rather than a cow helps, meaning DO NOT GRAZE. Sit down and write or don't. Do not write a sentence then flick to Notes, write a sentence then read an article, write a sentence then check email, etc. This is grazing and it kills productivity and motivation. Be single minded in your approach, cast all thoughts of multi-tasking to the Abyss. Stretching out tasks longer than they need will cause burnout. Work less, produce more. Be focussed in what you're doing and it leaves time for reading, family, church, and the pub. Allow a task to swell and fill all of your free time and it will start to feel like a burden.
Arrr burnout, it peeks into my office every Monday morning at 8 am when I sit down to write my paid newsletter (published under a different profile) before its 5 pm deadline!
I avoid letting burnout get the better of me by reminding myself of all the even-more-difficult and relentless processes I have successfully endured already - like raising two kids alone. Writing is a piece of cake - and an absolute privilege - in comparison.
.... the result is a sense of relief.... writing is my life, my newsletter is a major income stream, but if I trip up today, the world will still be okay. This gives me permission to be kind to myself, knowing that most of my readers will be understanding if I stumble a little that day.
Not as far as writing goes, but 30 years in retail and food service here.....when The Bug from Hell hit in '20, I saw a chance to GTFO and ran for the hills.
One of the best decisions ever in my professional life.
I took an online course on indexing and while I'm ultimately not going that route, finally escaping the dead end of retail, cannot begin to describe how good that felt.
Breaks are important. Putting less pressure on myself is a huge win. Meditating helps too. Thx for asking.
I'm in a similar boat right now, Simon! I have 3 businesses I at least partly run (although I'm trying to let the rock star managers run them as much as possible), and we're babysitting a senior (very high maintenance) dachshund this week along with our normal routine.
I go for lots of walks and sneak out for 30 minutes or so when I can. Getting into a little bit of nature always helps, as does solitude, and just plain stepping away.
When I return, I remember why I'm doing what I'm doing, and what motivates me to work so hard all the time.
Wow, that is impressive! For the most part, thinking of the writing as the escape from the day job has been helpful. Also, including different kinds of projects under the umbrella helps too - the fiction writing, comics, and non-fiction essays.
The two challenges are still that 1. it’s hard to switch mental gears sometimes, so getting on an art track definitely makes it harder to keep on track with book 2 writing goals; and 2. sometimes my brain just can’t. There’s just no fuel left for anything in the tank. The former is both a feature and bug, but the latter is unfortunately the price of having too much to do. Someday, hopefully, I can have a bit more agency to choose what I’m doing with my daytime hours instead.
Honestly, what’s helped me recently is giving myself a break from publishing regularly so that I can continue to write without continuing to feel so much pressure, pre-schedule content for the first month or so of the fall, and give myself buffer room to remain low-pressure instead of frantically hitting send on a half-baked thought the night before it’s due.
Two newsletters per week, a family and a full time job! That’s insane. Hopefully you can slow down a bit and take care of yourself.
I’m not sending out newsletters as often but I felt the intensity of working a full time job in a start up and trying to achieve my writing dreams at the same time. And now at the end of the summer I’m left with a feeling that I’m always plugged in and that I need to slow down. So I cut time on Notes and focus on writing and reading. I already feel a bit better but I need even more distance and time off for other activities that I’ve neglected this summer such as practicing tai chi, qi gong, going to the gym, yoga, mindfulness. The only thing I didn’t give up fully is my tea practice. In any case, I feel the need to have a fuller life and tank up some energy in the next months. Down time is fantastic for creativity.
I have the opposite problem to burnout... how do you find the energy for so much work?
Here's a little open secret (that some of us use as a get out clause.) Not everyone has good health.
Many authors I tracked for advice (long ago) would mention their struggles with depression, chronic disease, and other issues which healthy onlookers habitually label "laziness and procrastination."
Some of us have trouble maintaining or even turning up for a full time job and maybe because of that it's futile to even think we can make a go of things online. I guess it depends on the type of "issues" each writer may or may not be dealing with. And while some physically disabled writers are prolific and financially successful (putting the rest of us to shame) I just want to give a shout out to those of us who can barely get out of bed in the morning, keep our eyes open, lift our hands onto the keyboard (even after copious amounts of caffeine) and still manage to trot out the occasional article or chapter to keep the (probably delusional) dream alive in the hope that one day it'll pick up steam.
Anyway... just thought I'd mention "the strugglers" that are burned out before we even begin and yet here we are because others continue to inspire and give us something to look forward to every time we can "make it into work."
Ah, an actually useful thought...
Having a proper work area makes a huge difference. If I have a dedicated work area, I'm better able to focus. I can stop while leaving current notes out and pick up where I left off. When I don't have a proper work area - like our current rental, where we really just have the one table, the act of setting up and tearing down, taking current work materials and stacking them aside to, you know, eat. It's a killer.
Just one of those threads I'm gonna read.
In my world, not only can burnout happen without warning, it can affect an entire area of my life, and never go away. Quite annoying