Writers: How To Recognize (And Cope With) The Early Warning Signs Of Career Burnout

career burnoutCareer burnout can affect people in any profession, but writers face special challenges. Writers often start out with high ideals and unrealistic expectations, picturing themselves churning out works of art and happily reaping the rewards.

But the reality of the writing life often doesn’t gel with these high hopes. It takes time, hard work, and self-discipline to become successful—usually LOTS of time and LOTS of hard work—which can eventually lead to career burnout.

How To Know If You’re Suffering Writing Burnout

Burnout is different from procrastination or writer’s block. We all have days when we just want to be a couch potato. But if you’re consistently avoiding your work, feeling disillusioned, or suffering from constant aches and pains, you may be feeling burned out—a problem that can strike anyone, whether you’re a writer, a doctor, or a lint inspector. Before you toss your laptop out the window, consider the following.

It’s important to recognize the early warning signs of burnout. You may avoid writing altogether, either by flat-out refusing to pick up a pen or procrastinating by doing other tasks.

Some writers blame their wayward muse or stare blankly at the computer screen before giving up. Others are able to write but are dissatisfied with the results…consistently. Signs of burnout can also include a lack of energy, a sense of disillusionment, depression, irritability, and a generally negative outlook.

Burnout can affect writers physically as well. It may manifest itself in headaches and backaches, joint pain, eating and sleep disorders, and physical exhaustion. Some writers find themselves self-medicating or more susceptible to illness. All in all, burnout is not a pleasant state of mind—and it’s not a pleasant physical situation either.

What Causes Writers To Burn Out?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you maintain a superhuman pace for too long. The brain and body can only take so much. And if your work takes up too much time, you may not have time for family, friends, or hobbies.

By not recharging your mental (and physical) batteries, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit the wall at some point. Writers are also susceptible to certain negative aspects of the writing life: rejection letters, a lack of control (the waiting game; being dependent on editors or agents), financial issues, a lack of social support, and/or solitude.

The first step to coping with burnout is recognition. Once you’ve identified the problem, you can take steps to alleviate the symptoms.

Six Tips For Writers Dealing With Career Burnout:

1. Don’t define yourself by your successes or failures. Even if your short stories haven’t been picked up by lit magazines or you’ve just received your fiftieth rejection letter from an agent…you are still a writer. (A published author? Well, that may require more practice, more time, or a better submission strategy.)

However…you are also a person with other interests and talents and aspects to consider, so give yourself a break, explore other passions, and see yourself as a whole person—not someone who is solely defined by rejection or publication credits.

2. Focus on the positive. It’s hard not to be negative when you’re feeling disillusioned and depressed, but negativity is an easy place to dwell and stagnate. Remember why you started writing in the first place and make a list of all the positive aspects of the writing life. Check out our article: How To Maintain A Positive Outlook For Your Submission Process.

3. Adjust your expectations and goals. Most writers juggle full-time jobs and have to make time to write on the side. Add the demands of family, friends, and all the other obligations of life, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Review your writing goals and make sure they’re realistic (you’ve got to sleep sometime!). Once you’ve got a schedule you can live with, stick to it and reward yourself for any progress you make.

4. Find a better balance between writing and free time. Designate time to be with your family and friends, exercise, meditate, or simply indulge in a marathon of your favorite TV show. Mindless chores like vacuuming or washing dishes can clear your brain too—and you might feel better when things are tidy. By scheduling “you time,” even if it’s only in small increments, you might feel recharged enough to get back to the hard stuff. See our article on refilling your mental gas tank for more ideas.

5. Concentrate on your health. Make a good night’s sleep a priority whenever possible, and eat a little better. Get your eyes checked if you’re suffering from headaches or eyestrain, or take a brisk walk if your back is aching.

6. Rediscover your passion. Read work by your favorite authors or poets, those who inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Or take a trip to the library and browse the aisles simply for the pleasure of seeing all those books in print. One of them could be yours someday!

The Long Run: Longevity In Your Writing Career

Unfortunately, writing is often a career dependent on deadlines, and it’s not always easy to take time out for mental and physical health. Overdoing it is an unavoidable part of many jobs, including writing, but it isn’t conducive to good, consistent, creative output. And the inevitable result is career burnout.

Before that happens, take control of your life and your career by scheduling downtime, setting realistic goals, focusing on the positive, taking care of yourself, and asking for help when you need it. There’s a big difference between being burned out and being washed up!

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: How do you cope when you’re on the verge of burning out?

5 Responses to Writers: How To Recognize (And Cope With) The Early Warning Signs Of Career Burnout

  1. Thanks for this informative article! I definitely see myself in this and only realized recently that I was in burnout mode. I took a two week vacation, then about a week after I came back to work my father passed away tragically so it set me back emotionally, of course. But taking a month off from writing between vacation and then grieving, I feel a sense of renewal now and today was my first day “back.”

  2. Jim Stewart says:

    How do I cope? I don’t do The Hemingway and drink heavily, but a free night out with close friends might be just the ticket. Laughter is key. Some kind of physical activity is also helpful. It’s all about balance. From what I’ve read, laughing does count as exercise.

  3. When the first sign of burning out creeps into my freelance writing career, something I consider a symptom that is in all types of careers, as a freelancer I have the freedom, since I’m the boss, to find a way to shake things up. I look to do something different in my work routine. It might be taking a trip to change scenery and mental outlook, attending a seminar to learn something new for my career, or just taking a day off for a break to focus on recharging myself. By recharging my soul in some way, I never fail to recharge my career, reminding myself why I chose this career path in the first place.

  4. Avoiding burnout in the first place is the best strategy. One of my secrets is to only write to the end of my inspiration. I don’t force myself beyond it (usually–deadlines notwithstanding) but wait for my subconscious to figure out the next bit. This time is not ‘lost.’ It allows me to see life as a source of inspiration instead of an interruption. I observe, takes notes and sometimes go on reading binges. (BTW, commenting on blogs counts as writing.)

  5. Good advice. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep despair at bay. :{

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