A lot of folks claim the answer to overcoming burnout is to keep writing. The grit-your-teeth strategy may work for some people—indeed, there will be plenty of teeth-gritting no matter which path you take—but there’s a better way.
Writers are performers. We’re professionals. We devote a tremendous amount of mental-emotional energy to our craft. It makes no sense to keep that level of devotion constant. By definition, you can’t go 100% all of the time. Ask a professional athlete. Why does LeBron James sit out games even when he’s not hurt? To recover. Why does he take time off in the summer? To recover. This is the natural flow of things. We don’t live in the sweltering heat of summer year-round. There are seasons, and every now and then, there’s an offseason. Even for writing.
2. Write down your “symptoms”
Below is a starter list of burnout symptoms. Which of these resonate with you? How do you feel about your writing? Are you excited to sit down at the computer?
- Lack of motivation
- Writing losing its luster, becoming shallow/unexciting
- Writing projects taking longer than they used to
- Mild or severe depression
- Lack of energy – “when tiredness becomes fatigue” (phrasing courtesy of Joanna at TheCreativePenn.com)
- Feeling like you’ve been running on sheer willpower
3. Decide if you’re burned out or blocked
Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you’re motivated to write but can’t find the right words, you’re blocked. If you’re not motivated to write, you’re burned out (it doesn’t matter if you’re making progress on your manuscript—consistent lack of motivation is a symptom of burnout no matter how productive you are).
If you’re blocked, I’ll leave you with two of my favorite articles.
- How to Beat Writer’s Block: 36 Surefire Strategies for 2020 (A Definitive Guide) by Bryan Collins – the most comprehensive post I’ve found
- How to Beat Writer’s Block by Maria Konnikova – a fascinating New Yorker story about Yale psychologists vanquishing writer’s block
If you’re burned out, keep reading and we’ll see if we can beat it together.
4. Determine your root cause(s)
Some folks dealing with burnout take a short-term approach. They “tough it out”, or maybe they grant themselves an extra glass of wine during their writing sessions, then another glass, then another. These things might work for a while, but all you’re doing is pruning the top of the burnout weed. If you want to get rid of the thing for good, you have to dig down to the root.
Here’s a list of some common root causes of burnout, broken up into categories. Which ones resonate with you?
- Lack of recognition or reward for doing good work
- Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
- Not enough time for socializing or relaxing
- Lack of close, supportive relationships
- Too many responsibilities
- Not enough sleep (or other poor health habits)
- A need to be in control
- High-achieving, type A personality
- A need for harmony (wanting to make everyone happy; not wanting to disappoint anyone)
5. Address your root cause by breaking it into components
Say the root cause of your burnout is a lack of time for socializing and/or relaxing. Break that down into components. Maybe you’re swarmed by the kids as soon as you set foot in the house. Maybe your partner wants to sit down and talk when all you want to do is veg out for an hour.
When we deconstruct your root cause into component causes, you can start taking action. You might not be able to change all of your component causes, but you’ll be surprised by how manageable the challenge can become when broken down in this way.
a) Deconstruct your root cause into component causes
b) Pair each component cause with a micro action to protect your creative health
c) Take at least one micro action per week
6. Alter your habits
If you associate your current routine with a lack of creativity and motivation, shake that association; change the routine.
- Change the place where you write: Are you a café writer? Hop in your car and go find an empty parking lot. Write there instead.
- Change your schedule: Are you a night writer? Try writing during your lunch hour instead. Or wake up in the middle of the night and put in a few hours.
- Change your medium: Do you normally type your stories? Put away your laptop. Get a nice fountain pen and start scribbling.
- Change your form: Do you normally write novels? Try your hand at short stories. Or poetry. Or screenplays.
- Change your genre: Maybe you write sci-fi. Forget about spaceships for a while and try a Victorian vampire romance.
- Change your outfit: Try dressing business casual for your writing sessions. Or comfy+. Whatever your wardrobe usually is, change it up for a while.
7. Enjoy the process
The number one thing you can do to enjoy your writing is to prioritize a process-orientation over an outcome-orientation. The goal is to disentangle the enjoyment you feel for writing from the success of that writing. Here are some exercises to get you started.
- Focus on how your writing can help others, not how it can help you.
- Accept that writing might not be enjoyable all the time—cultivate a healthy enjoyment of the slog.
- Separate your writer-self from your self-self—know that a failed book does not imply a failed writer.
- Increase your competence—deploying your strengths is more appealing than exposing your weaknesses. So take a writing course or work with an editor, and in the long run, your heightened competence in writing will increase your enjoyment of it.
You don’t have to resign yourself to the rundown and fatigue of burnout. You can renew your passion for the craft and reignite your creative spark with the above seven steps.
But maybe these “steps” seem more like mountains. After all, if you’re burned out, how can you expect to muster the motivation and discipline needed to take these action steps? Isn’t that the whole challenge of burnout: not being consistent? Not being able to act?
Well I have some good news for you. You don’t need iron-clad discipline to make these positive changes for your writing. You don’t need superhuman willpower. You just need the right system.
What system, you ask?
It’s a FREE course to supercharge your creativity. You can apply by clicking here.
Mason Engel is the Amazon-bestselling author of 2084, the director of bookish documentaries for public television, and the founder of ClimbWrite.com. ClimbWrite’s video courses are designed for fiction writers who are looking to supercharge their creativity and pen the next bestseller.
You can find him on his website or follow him on Instagram.