Inspiration Engagement Pieces 2020-12-18 00:00

Stretched to Your Limits? How to Avoid—and Cure—Writing Burnout

Matchsticks burn, one piece prevents the fire from spreading

I blinked my weary eyes, trying to pull them back into focus. My eyelids paused every time I blinked, just for a moment, as if they were begging me to just go to sleep already.

But I wasn’t in bed. I was sitting at my desk, staring at the blinking cursor in front of me. The last two sentences that I had managed to get out of my brain and onto the page made absolutely no sense.

I was frustrated. Angry, even. I glanced at the clock.

After 2am. How did I get to this point? What am I even doing?

Let’s jump back a few hours. It was almost 5pm, and normally my family would be expecting me to knock off for the day and make dinner for them. My wife came into my office to see if I was going to be eating with them. I told her that I couldn’t.

She gave me a sad smile. She understood what I was dealing with. She walked out of the room to make spaghetti for our two boys.

An hour later, she and the boys came into my office to say goodbye. My son Jack had a t-ball game. I was still working.

I kissed my wife and kids and watched out the window as the van drove off. I sighed to myself and continued clacking away at my keyboard.

I never wanted to be one of those dads that was too busy working to go to their games. And here I am. I can’t get out of this.

When I became a full-time writer, I never expected to be stuck at my computer for 19 hours at a time, neglecting my family so that I could get work done.

Nor did I expect to be clinging to my keyboard at all hours, desperately trying to string sentences together that made any sort of sense—and failing.

I was stressed beyond belief, anxious at the feeling of being trapped, and I could hardly see straight.

I was in a bad situation.

  1. How a huge opportunity turned into a miserable albatross
  2. The problem with burnout
  3. How does burnout happen?
  4. The 5-step plan for overcoming and avoiding burnout

How a huge opportunity turned into a miserable albatross

In 2018, I quit writing full-time to build things out of wood in my basement.

That’s a true story. I had become so disillusioned with copywriting in the industry I was in that I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked away from it because my brain wanted out—and my success had been on a steady decline for several years.

Unfortunately, I undercharged my customers for 8 months. My shop was slammed with orders, and I worked day and night to keep up with them.

My dream was to be a full-time author. I had no time to write because I was spending every waking moment in the wood shop.

I discovered ghostwriting in August 2018. When I started to pursue it a little more, the opportunity seemed to be a slam dunk for me.

I scaled back the wood shop to start dedicating time to building up my ghostwriting portfolio. In a matter of weeks, I was able to land several clients paying me an average of $0.04/word for full-length novels.

In my infinite stupidity, I viewed this as an opportunity to clean up all the financial mess that I had created over the previous few years. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt could be washed away within months.

How? (See if you can spot the mistake in my logic…)

I write really fast. On average, I can write 4,000 words in an hour if I have my writing planned out ahead of time. If I “only” write for 4 hours a day, then I will knock out 320,000 words every month. That’s $12,800 a month, or over $150,000 a year… working part-time! This will be amazing!

Did you see the problem?

My plan was to write 3 to 4 full-length novels every single month.

I attempted this, repeatedly, over the course of a year. And until that fateful evening in the summer of 2019 when I missed my son’s t-ball game, I refused to admit to myself that this plan wasn’t working in the slightest.

I was burned out. Hard.

Burned out

The problem with burnout

Being overworked isn’t just about managing your stress. It’s also about managing your productivity.

If I planned to write for 4 hours per day and comfortably meet my deadlines, why would I be writing for 19 hours one day?

Because the harder you work and try to power through burnout, the worse the effects are. My brain couldn’t write anymore. Words weren’t coming to me. Storylines were getting muddled. I was running out of ways to describe stuff.

I got behind on my work. Then a little more. Then a little more.

When you start to burn out, your productivity takes a nosedive. So you try to power through it. And your productivity keeps going down. But your responsibilities haven’t gone away, and you now have to be even more productive to make up for lost time.

The pressure rises.

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, you might ask yourself the same thing I did: How did I even get here?

How does burnout happen?

If we all know burnout is bad, then why do we let it happen to us?

Well, as it turns out, burnout is sneaky. It doesn’t suddenly jump out at you one day. It starts small… gradually building up until you suddenly realize you’re in a bad way and are already feeling the effects.

Generally speaking, burnout happens through a few different causes:

  • You overestimate your abilities. This would be my problem. My foolish thinking that I could keep up a 4,000-word-per-hour pace indefinitely directly led to a plate full of writing that I couldn’t handle. Just because you can theoretically handle a workload doesn’t mean you should. Often, your ability to take on work has more to do with your energy levels than the hours available to you.
  • You overextend yourself. Perhaps you understand your limits, but you take on the work anyway. Why? Because you “have to.” That’s another reason I was stuck in my burnout phase—I needed to get that work done so that I could pay off our debts! This might be the most common reason people burn out: because they think they have no other choice.
  • You put too much pressure on yourself. This is a problem that gets worse the farther down you go. As the work piles up and you can’t handle it, you blame yourself for the inability to get on top of your work. It’s foolish, but we all do it. And that pressure leads to paralysis, which leads to even more burnout and frustration.

Knowing this doesn’t help you when you’re in the middle of burnout. If someone had marched into my office at 2am and slapped me on the side of the head, telling me that I overestimated my abilities, that probably wouldn’t have helped matters.

You need a plan.

The 5-step plan for overcoming and avoiding burnout

If you can follow these five steps—and you can—you will push past burnout, fix your brain, and get back on the right track.

1. Extend any deadlines you can

If you are doing work for a client, reach out to them. Don’t make up an excuse. Be clear about what it is you’re struggling with and why. They don’t need your life story, but often just talking to them about where your head is at can go a long way.

Most clients will understand that you are a human being. You might be surprised by how many give you a break.

2. Reduce your overhead as soon as possible

If you think you can’t take a break from writing because you have to pay for stuff, it’s time to reduce your needs.

Yes, you can do that—and that’s an entire article all to itself. Cut costs. Learn to cook more with cheaper ingredients. Sell your house if you have to. Do whatever you can to reduce your overhead so that you have margin in your financial life. Take control of the situation.

3. Step away from all of it

Once you have a handle on things, it’s time to take that break. Do it guilt-free. Don’t do a little bit of work here and there. Stop altogether.

My parents gifted my family and I a weekend at their timeshare when I was in the midst of the struggle. It was just two nights away at a hotel, but I didn’t bring my laptop. I completely disconnected from all of it and gave as much attention as I could to my wife and kids. It did wonders for my mental health.

4. Start bringing self-care into your routine

As you return to work, schedule breaks. Determine a hard end time for your day and cut your work off there. Take up meditation, exercise, and eating healthy. Find ways to reward yourself for your work throughout the day.

You are not a machine. You need to replenish your energy levels as much as you can.

5. Get realistic about what you can accomplish—and take on less than you’re comfortable with

If you don’t want to repeat your burnout a few weeks down the line, you have to make uncomfortable changes to your life and your work. Taking on less than you are comfortable with is a very effective way of doing that. Even if you think you “can’t,” try it anyway. You’ll be surprised at how busy you still will be, and you might discover that you can manage on a lower workload anyway.

Dealing with burnout takes a bit of humility. Sometimes it takes tough love. But you can’t work burned out forever. You have to find a way to handle it, recover from it, and avoid it again in the future.

Then you can be sure to catch your kid’s t-ball game. And that’s the important part of life anyway.

Take your writing to the next level:

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20 Editing Tips From Professional Writers

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This guide contains the 20 most important writing tips and techniques from a wide range of professional writers.

Be confident about grammar

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