Writers, Beware: Burnout Doesn’t Always Feel the Way It’s ‘Supposed’ to Feel

What ACTUALLY happens when you’re burned out?

You’ve heard of burnout. A few months ago (maybe more now) basically everyone on the internet was talking about it. I can’t seem to stop talking about it, probably because it has happened to me more times than I’m actually willing to admit.

No, I’m not proud of this. This is not a trophy I keep on my desk and show to whoever happens to wander in. Burnout is not proof that you are working hard. It is not the necessary sacrifice in order to achieve long-term success. It is not “normal.”

I used to have a lot of misconceptions about burnout, and am going to assume you do too. As always, I can use what I have learned through experience to help other writers avoid my mistakes. It’s what I do. It’s why I’m here. I can’t prevent you from falling apart or guarantee you’re going to be OK, but I can try to help by sharing what I know.

I used to think burnout meant only that you worked until you exhausted yourself to the point of almost nonexistence. And for some people, this is often what burnout looks and feels like. Keep in mind that every person is different, and just because you experience something one way or another doesn’t mean that’s the only way.

Of course, I thought this because I spent about 90 percent of my college life overwhelmed, anxious, and terrified. We don’t need to talk about that in great detail. I just thought that feeling burned out meant you had to be curled up in a ball on your couch staring at your medical nutrition therapy textbook unable to comprehend any of the words.

But burnout doesn’t always mean you are unable to complete your designated tasks — which is why it’s so harmful to so many creators.

It’s not that you can’t do work or that you can’t go about your life as normal — it would actually be much less dangerous if that were the case. Much of the time burnout feels like slowly descending into madness. You just keep going on as you’ve been, feeling tired, feeling disinterested, feeling like you’re going to reach some kind of end to all this chaos with no end in sight.

Burnout hits you from behind and brings you down slowly — it doesn’t knock you out cold in one go, it drains the life from you gradually over time until you’re just on full autopilot, miserable and likely in a very dark and twisty place.

What does this look like? It looks like you’re currently as productive as you have ever been, if not more so … but you neither look forward to nor dread the work. You just mindlessly complete it.

You repeat phrases like “when I get through this week I’ll slow down” but you never do.

You’re very focused on your goal of finishing your current writing project but even as you inch closer to it you don’t feel at all thrilled or relieved about the possibility of finishing it.

You know you should take a break but can’t imagine life outside your current schedule.

And when you do try to step away from your writing and relax? You can’t. It seems impossible to stop thinking about the work you aren’t doing.

Burnout often creeps up when you suddenly ramp up your workload — maybe in the hopes of finishing something by a certain deadline or as the result of a much-appreciated burst of motivation — and ride that momentum until it starts dragging you along without your consent.

This hurts. It emotionally and mentally hurts and it can even physically start to hurt. That’s not good.

How do you fix it? You break your routine. I would say “take a vacation” except realistically, not everyone can just take time off from life and proceed to chill, and I want to respect that. For a week, you go to your day job, come home, and DON’T do the extra work you would normally do upon your arrival. You DON’T check your email, you DON’T make plans, you just SIT and BE COMFORTABLE and EXIST because your brain needs to remember what it feels like not to go 100 miles an hour all the time.

Eventually, the hope is that after some time of doing this you reset yourself, and you can ease slowlt back into doing the work you want to do without feeling like you’re doing it just to get it done.

For some people this reset takes a day or two. For others it takes weeks. There is no definite timeline because you are your own person and how it goes for you might not be how it goes for someone else, and that’s how it should be.

I’m not a psychiatrist and I can’t give you personal recommendations to make your life better. But I CAN tell you that if you’re constantly burned out and you’re trying to get all the writing things done and you know you should take a step back but you can’t, get help. Talk to someone. Your work doesn’t have to make you miserable all the time. No job is all fun at all hours, but it’s not healthy to operate on autopilot just to “get through” the day or week, constantly, week after week.

But if you can, try — please try — to slow down and give yourself some time and space to rest. You don’t have to stop writing, you don’t have to give up on all your dreams, and you definitely don’t have to be mad at yourself for not working “hard enough.” What does that even mean, anyway?

All you have to do, at the end of it all, is your best. That’s it. Some days your best will look and feel amazing and impressive. Other days you’ll barely get anything done, but you’ll just have to accept that you’ve done all you can and tomorrow is a new day.

Life is not all about work and being productive. Trust me. It is about so, so much more.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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2 thoughts on “Writers, Beware: Burnout Doesn’t Always Feel the Way It’s ‘Supposed’ to Feel

  1. Wow. This is an amazing post. Thank you so much for sharing. I need to print this one out and stick it where I can see it, for a reminder that burn out doesn’t always look like we think.

  2. Burnout is such an insidious thing, and frighteningly common. Some of my friends seem to spend most of their life in some stage of burnout, berating themselves for relaxing and having fun, even though their most common refrain is “I am so tired lately,” “There’s just too much to do,” and “Once I get this done things will be alright.” I feel like that last phrase in particular (and phrases like it) are strong indicators of burnout, that sense of “Right now I’m focused on surviving. Later I’ll start living again, later I’ll be happy.”

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