If you have burnout, this is not a post about what you should do, but about what I’ve been doing so far. You might find something helpful here, and that would make me the happiest person on Earth, but this post is mainly a reminder for myself because it’s hard to break the habits that caused the Burnout in the first place. At least, it’s good to know that you’re not alone in your struggle, so I hope you take that away, if nothing else.
Burnout is a syndrome that affects people with chronic stress. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, specifically work-related, and its symptoms are:
- “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.”
For writers, it can cause what is commonly known as writer’s block.
In fact, when I wrote my post about fighting writer’s block, you will have noticed that I linked it to my anxiety, burnout and depression. That’s because writer’s block is not a cause: it’s a symptom.
In my case, I frequently feel exhausted, I often hate my writing or think I should give up, and I sometimes can’t keep writing, no matter how hard I try (the actual block). I’m glad to let you know that I’m getting better little by little, especially the last part. But I confess that, when my burnout was at its worst, there were times in which I just wanted to throw my whole computer through the window, burn my notebooks and forget about writing.
Well, good thing I started going to therapy instead of doing that, right? Because, in order to get better, this is what I had to do:
- Stopped writing or doing anything stressful that wasn’t necessary (hiatus).
- Got a diagnostic from a mental health professional and started behaviour therapy with a psychologist.
- Tried to change my habits once I started writing again after the long hiatus.
- Stopped doing anything that could relate to my job when I’m relaxing after work.
- Allowed myself to be mediocre, following Tim Wu’s opinion article.
Of course, each person has a different road to recovery, and I’m still working on my new habits with my psychologist: after the hiatus, I wrote only one day per week for a couple of years, and I’m now writing more often, but only 100 words per day and taking good care to stop and rest when I realize it’s getting worse. I try not to be a perfectionist, just writing what comes to mind. I will worry about making it sound better during revisions, but I don’t want to get stuck on one place for long. I keep changing projects, in fact, instead of trying to focus on one single project. Yes, writing will go even slower than before, but at least I’m getting somewhere now and not torturing myself too much in the process.
I’m also still looking for new hobbies I can use to relax after work. And I want them to be something I don’t monetize, I want to not care about being good or bad at them. It’s very difficult to “allow myself to be mediocre”, but I want to learn. What I took from Tim Wu’s article is that being mediocre means doing stuff for yourself just because you want to, even if you’re not good at it. My anxiety tries to make me feel guilty, and some days are worse than others, but I think I’m ready to take on a new hobby now that my good days are getting better with each passing month.
I was lucky, I guess, because I could take a 2-3 year hiatus from writing while still looking for a psychologist and working on my translations (which is the stressful thing that had to remain, as it was necessary to have a paying job). If your work is writing, it might be more difficult to achieve, but, on the other hand, the sooner you start and the more you rest, the better you’ll heal. I’m still having trouble with burnout, especially lately, and it’s probably because I never got to stop completely and rest.
So if you can stop writing for a while, I encourage you to do so. If you’re afraid you won’t go back to writing after taking a break, let me tell you now: you’ll write again.
My first writing hiatus was 10 years long. My second writing hiatus was 2-3 years long. I’ve been taking shorter breaks for the past 3 years.
But I’m still here.
The first time, I also thought I would never write again. I didn’t even try. There was just this story I kept thinking about. The characters would always be in my mind and, one day, I opened a notebook a friend had just gifted me and decided to write everything down so I could stop thinking about it and focus on other things I needed to get done.
As you can see, it didn’t work the way I expected, but I’m very glad it went this way.
If you don’t want to read everything, just know that these are the steps I take when my burnout is getting worse and I want to write:
- I just don’t write: Seriously, even if I want to. It’s hard, but if you take 2-3 days before it gets too bad, you won’t need to take 2-3 years when it’s gotten worse.
- I go to see my therapist: Not everyone can afford this, I know, but please do try if you can find a way (NGOs, universities, the hospital, etc). I had to wait one year just to get an appointment because there’s a long queue for those of us who can’t afford a private doctor, but it was worth the wait.
- Writing session goals: I used to hate word-counting because I always felt like a slow writer. I wanted to write 1000 words per day, and I spent 10 hours looking at a blank page instead. Now my goal is 100 words per day, and I try to make it an average and not an obligation.
- Feasible monthly goals: I used to set goals that were too ambitious. Maybe they were feasible as well, but then I had to work long hours, or something came up, and I couldn’t reach my goals. That only made me feel guilty, so now I choose goals I know I’m going to reach for sure. Still, sometimes I can’t, so I swap them and try again the following month. Instead of feeling guilty, I get to feel accomplished!
These tips may not work for everyone, but they work for me, as my Word Count posts can prove. Please take into account that I’m counting everything, not just the manuscript. This is very important to me because I think worldbuilding and research also count as writing.
The Oracle project is too old, over 10 years now, so let’s look at one of the others.
Brothers is very old as well. I’ve been writing that one for… 6 years, maybe? It’s mostly just world building and research. But, until last year, I’d been focusing on writing for one project each time, 1000 words per day, trying to write even when I had to work long hours, and the result was… a disaster. In 6 years, I’d written 19000 words on the Brothers project. Do you know how many words that project has now? 43000 words in total. That’s 24000 words in eight months. And yes, that’s 100 words per day, but as I said, now I don’t focus on one project, so I haven’t been writing only that.
One of my newest projects is Sanctuary. I started it last year, and by November I had written 6000 words. Right now it has about 60000 words. That makes one think, doesn’t it?
I might need to keep adapting to the situation and taking better care of myself. Right now, my Burnout is getting worse and I need to rest more often. I also need to find the new hobbies I mentioned. I’ve been playing videogames and watching series, but I would like to do something craft-related and not too expensive. Do you have any ideas? Do you already have hobbies you only for your own enjoyment? Or do you find yourself thinking of your new hobby as something you MUST do?
If you want to talk more about burnout (or anything else) or ask anything about my experience, just let me know. I’m always willing to help if I’m able to.
If you want to read more about this topic on my blog, I also wrote a post about “Writing with Anxiety“.