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June 27, 2017

Chronic Problems: Writing and Burnout

Burned Match with text: Writing Burnout: When Life Takes Too Much

Last week I announced that my annual Blogiversary contest is now open for entries. Come July 12th, I’ll have been blogging for seven years. I have over 700 posts available here on my blog.

Not surprisingly, I’ve struggled with various forms of writing burnout over the years. Sometimes, post-NaNoWriMo, I need a fiction-writing break. Other times, when my story has ground to a halt, I need a break from that story while my subconscious/muse works through the block.

And yes, sometimes I’m burned out on blogging.

I’ve mentioned before that my publication schedule in 2015 led to an overall burnout at the start of 2016. Then the physical issues (some of which had been ignored during the previous year) piled on, adding even more to a sense of burnout.

Now, here I am, halfway through 2017, and not a single one of those health issues has been solved yet, and I have several other big projects going on, taking up way more time than I’d planned, and writer’s block has been plaguing my exhausted brain, etc., etc.

In other words, health issues have drained my energy and caused oodles of frustration, neither of which is good for my creative side—which leads to writing frustration. Add in the problem of too much to do and not enough time (more frustration), and it all leads to one thing:

Major, long-term burnout… *sigh*

I’m sure many of you can relate. We all probably have some amount of too-much-to-do going on. But this is the first time I’ve dealt with such a long-term burnout, and honestly, I’m struggling with how to deal with it.

Recovering from Burnout: The Usual Advice

I’ve written before about burnout and how the usual techniques to avoid burnout (getting enough sleep, saying no to deadlines, not taking on too much) aren’t always compatible with a writing career. Sometimes overdoing it is just a fact of life for us.

In that post, I shared 12 ways we can recover from burnout, as that issue often is a given for us. I want to take a fresh look at them today to see what might be helpful. (Yes, I often look back at my old posts to help me too. *grin*)

These suggestions from that old post are roughly in order of light to deep recovery strategies:

  • Sleep: Deep sleep is most helpful.
  • Relaxing/Socializing: In my case, this often translates to playing on Twitter. *smile*
  • Replenish the Words: Do activities that fill us up again and give our muse new ideas, such as reading for pleasure, watching TV/movies, or listening to music.
  • Exercise: Get the blood moving.
  • Explore Other Creative Outlets: Gardening, painting, etc.
  • Be Mindless: Wash dishes, do laundry, vacuum, etc.
  • Change the Scenery: Try writing in a different location: at a cafe, in a park, etc.
  • Rediscover the Passion: Remind ourselves why we want this career, such as by rereading the story that first made us want to be a writer or by reading one of our own stories for pleasure.
  • Resolve to Cut Back: Sometimes our dread of upcoming stresses makes us feel burned out before we even start. Try eliminating some of those stresses.
  • Take a Vacation: Ditch the kids at the grandparents for a weekend for a stay-cation or get away and have new experiences.
  • Identify Our Blocks: If we’re feeling negative about doing writing of any sort, there’s usually an underlying reason (resentment, self-doubt, depression, etc.).
  • Evaluate Priorities: Are we happy with our current path, or do we need to change our approach? Are our deadlines the career equivalent of busywork, or will they help us achieve our goals?

Chronic Problems Can Cause Long-Term Burnout

One thing I’ve learned with this year-and-a-half-long sense of burnout is that it’s virtually impossible to “get over” something when it’s still going on. *head slap* Duh.

I’ve tried many of those techniques over the past 18-ish months, and they’re helpful for a few hours or days. But when the problems causing the burnout still exist, nothing is going to “cure” us.

Chronic problems need to be dealt with differently. And yes, chronic problems can lead to long-term, not-easily-fixed-by-the-usual-methods burnout.

Living with Chronic Issues

When our burnout is caused by chronic problems, we can look at the item in the above bullet list “Identify Our Blocks” and see that our writing issues are caused by something.

We're not at fault if chronic issues interfere with our writing life. Click To TweetProblems such as chronic pain or exhaustion (or even things like depression or poverty) interfere with many aspects of our writing life. Because the problem is ongoing, we can feel drained before we even start—simply because there is no end in sight.

By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve probably all overcome several problems and can use that knowledge for reassurance: bad times will end, this season of difficulties shall pass, etc. But chronic problems can test us on every level because those truisms don’t necessarily apply.

I’ve had so many setbacks that I’m not sure I even look forward anymore to the day that I won’t have these issues. Maybe I’ve gotten sick of being disappointed.

The tips above that I haven’t tried are irrelevant to me because I can’t do them. When I struggle to stand for more than a few minutes at a time, exercise is out of the question. When I can barely walk across a parking lot, all our family plans for vacations need to be canceled or re-thought.

The spoon theory has become far too relevant to my life lately. And I know I’m not the only one.

Dealing with Long-Term Burnout

So what can we do? As I said above, I’m struggling with this myself, but maybe my thoughts can help.

When many aspects of our life are difficult, we need to do as much as we can to take care of ourselves. That means that even though things like getting enough sleep won’t help for long, they can prevent our situation from getting worse.

At the same time, activities that remind us of our passion—whether that’s the many kind comments on last week’s blogiversary post here (Thank you!) or spending time brainstorming fun ideas for our stories—can help combat the burnout as well.

Long-term problems require long-term solutions. Click To TweetThe biggest thing we can do, however, is in some ways the hardest. When dealing with long-term problems, we need long-term solutions. For that, we might need to make permanent or semi-permanent changes to our schedule based on our priorities.

Personally, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can reduce the amount of time that this blog takes from me. I don’t have answers yet, but I’ve considered focusing on one post a week and scheduling reruns or guest posts on the the other day.

For my writing, I’ve already scaled back my expectations of what I can accomplish and what my release schedule should look like. But depending on how this writing block borne of frustration works out, I might have to change my plans even more.

As a perfectionist, I try to do All. The. Things, so believe me when I say that I understand how hard burnout can be. Too many of my days are a mix of too many things to do and zero energy or interest to do a single one. Of course, that leads to even more frustration, so it’s a hard sinkhole to escape.

I also talk a lot about knowing our goals and what will make us happy. Yet at the same time, sometimes life gets in the way of what we know will make us happy. Quite frankly, it often sucks.

Scaling back our happiness goals to match the reality of what we can do without burnout is hard. That’s why it’s so important to take care of ourselves—every day.

We have to try even harder to find our happiness wherever we can. We’ve heard that happiness is a choice, and that’s never a harder choice than when we feel like we’re being held back by reality. All we can do is try to make that choice whenever we can.

But if you’re struggling with burnout or chronic issues, know that you’re not alone. And please let me know in the comments if you have any other thoughts or suggestions (or want to help out with a guest post). *smile*

P.S. And don’t forget to enter my annual Blogiversary contest! *grin*

P.P.S. Thank you to everyone for the heartfelt comments! I haven’t had the time/energy/spoons to reply with the depth your comments deserve, but I’ve definitely been reading and appreciating every one. *hugs*

Have you ever suffered from writing burnout? What caused your burnout? How did you overcome it? Have chronic problems complicated your ability to overcome burnout? Do you have advice to help others in that situation?

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27 Comments on "Chronic Problems: Writing and Burnout"

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Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry
Greetings, While we don’t know each other personally, I can surmise that you are primarily a perfect melancholy personality style. Highly intelligent, detailed, and can be somewhat negative, meaning you are so smart, so organized, get such an emotional zing from orderliness, that you see all the details that can go wrong, and fixate on them. See “Personality Plus” by Florence Littauer. I try to read this book yearly. If I have you pegged wrongly—oops. Figuring out your personality type can help you to communicate with others and yourself. http://www.rockthechurch.com/uploads/Personality-types.pdf I’m not primarily melancholy, or female, so communicating can be different for us. But I am thinking that you need some FUN, LAUGHTER, and not of a read or stay at home variety. Proverbs 17:22—A merry heart doeth good like a medicine–. Some ideas: 1. Go to a comedy club, drink some wine, and laugh your ass off 2. Get laid (Hey, I’m a guy—duh) 3. Go to the range, and bust some caps. All the women in my family LOVE doing this. These days, it’s a chick thingy (I don’t ask if they imagine my face when they target). 4. Stop using carbs for fuel. Use body fat for fuel. Change your diet, and you change. I listen to this guy’s CDs and audios all the time. http://www.drchet.com/ 5. Change your focus. “With focus you can accomplish anything. Without focus, you can’t accomplish anything.” Bill Gates, Sr. Terri Savelle Foy is probably the most dynamic speaker I have ever… Read more »
Julie S
Julie S
I have suffered from long-term burn out. I did NaNo for three years in a row. But at the same time, my marriage was rocky, I suffered from depression (independent of and also springing from the marriage problems if that makes any sense). After NaNo 2007, I couldn’t write anymore. It wasn’t there. I didn’t have it in me. I thought I had *nothing to say*. A friendship I had with a group of women exploded around then, too. It took until 2015 for me to get back into writing. In the meantime I’d gotten into crochet and knitting – wonderful for meditative mind-sets, by the way – and while doing something with an actual end product coming out of it, my creativity and writing came back. At the same time, my marriage was getting better; my husband was finally handing a long-term depression and anxiety problem of his that badly affected me. So, yes, there are a myriad of problems that can set you back, burn you out, make you believe you don’t have it in you anymore. Tackling the problem head on helps (marriage counseling, medication) and so does diverting the creativity into other venues (crochet, knitting, drawing, painting, photography). But one of the biggest things of all these big things that finally knocked me out of the block was the belief that yes, I had something to say. It wasn’t stupid. It was legit. And I had a right to go ahead and be stupid if I… Read more »
Pauline Baird Jones

I call my blog Life Happens because it does. Over and over again. I feel like I’d just start to get some writing momentum and Life would Happen again. Last year I lost both parents in an accident – just the latest Big Life Event to knock me off balance.

Like you, I’ve tried all kinds of “fixes” when I’ve been blocked. Sometimes it just takes time. And yes, you have to pursue long term solutions to long term problems. But also, giving myself permission to just stop and heal has been an important part of the process for me.

I’m also old enough to realize that nothing stays the same, even when it feels like nothing is changing. If nothing else, *I’m* changing. That means what I do and how I do it will change, too. Learning which battles I can fight and which I’ll lose…yeah, still figuring that out, too.

Just…be kind to yourself. Do what you need to do to survive in your real life. Shut out the voices that make you feel stressed and frantic. One thing I learned, this will all be here when you come back. It will be different, but that’s okay. Take care!

Faith Freewoman
Thank you for this terrific post, Jami. I don’t think I’ve posted here before, but I read your blogs religiously, and tweet quite a few of them, as I will tweet this one. The thing that’s helped me most with my chronic, incurable health condition is to make sure my immediate surroundings are as beautiful and comfortable and soothing as I can possibly make them. And having things I love to look at just outside my window. The soothing surroundings part wasn’t easy, because I tended to write things down on stray pieces of paper, and they could pile up like snowdrifts, and I also tend to keep things out in stacks so I wouldn’t forget to add them to a list, or make a call, or whatever. Fortunately (well, at least partly), I learned my chemical intolerances include paper and paper products (imagine living without them! not easy…) so the snowdrifts of paper and piles of things to remind me aren’t a problem anymore. And, happily, I prefer to edit on a computer monitor anyway. Anyway, surroundings that soothe and uplift truly do help. Especially since it sounds as if you, like me, can’t go much of anywhere these days. And the other thing that helped me most was one of your suggestions…scaling back happiness goals to match the reality of what we can do. Once I found out there is no cure for my condition (so far), it was suddenly very easy to scale back, not least because… Read more »
Nan Sampson

In there in the same ring with you, Jami , fighting right along side you. This past year has been… so much more than challenging, it’s not even funny. But I’m plugging through, trying to regain balance in the face of insanity.

So cheers to more good days than bad and know that there are many of us in the trenches with you. I’m here if you ever need a shoulder or a hand or an ear. Thank you for sharing where you are and some great suggestions to help us pick ourselves up, even temporarily.

Take good care of yourself. We wouldn’t want it any other way!

Nan

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

I’ll write a guest post… about why I write. Seems to me people would relate to that.
Chronic pain destroys life, destroys love, destroys happiness. I found that out with experience. But, on the up side, I discovered I can reduce or eliminate extreme pain with Jin Shin Jyutsu. I learned it from a book. (You can get one from the website) Sciatica so bad I could barely stand. Gone! But, it took 3 years. Painful feet so I could barely walk……better. Perhaps in another year.

Marcy Kennedy

Recently, I looked at the constant barrage of things we’ve faced over the past few years and continue to face now, and I realized that I’d stopped expecting to “come out the other side.” Struggle is my normal. My normal will probably never again look like most people’s normal. That’s a simple fact.

In realizing that, it was actually freeing because now I can plan my life in a way that works for my unique situation. Since this is my normal, I can stop living in limbo and make the best of what my life is instead of wasting time wishing it was different. That’s huge for me.

Another big part that came with this was I stopped trying to live up to the expectations of people who didn’t get it. That was huge too.

Laurie Evans

Yes! I keep saying, “I’ll work on X when things quiet down.” But then something really difficult and disruptive happens again. There *is* no other side. I need to lower my expectations.

Have really withdrawn from others who just don’t (and could never) understand my circumstances. Just too tiring to explain, and no one really gets it.

Davonne Burns

This is a hard thing. And I think the point about taking care of yourself first, above anything else, is the major thing to do. As I’ve mentioned before I suffer from a chronic illness and have for a while now. Last month I ended up in the hospital for a week. While there I realized I had not been taking care of myself and my needs.

It might sound a bit Ayn Randish, but you are the most important person in your life. You have to be in order for you to get the most out of life. I’m not advocating selfishness, just being self-aware. You’re going to have days when nothing gets done because you woke up with fewer spoons than you usually do. And there will be days where you wake up and have plenty of spoons. But always make sure you don’t overspend them.

Learning to work within a ‘new normal,’ as Marcy put it, will take time and you will get frustrated, but we’re here for you.

Please take care of yourself. ^_^

Deborah Makarios

Ah, the spoons. Yep, we know about spoons round here.
My advice is to learn to be gracious with yourself. If you wouldn’t bawl a friend out for failing to meet a deadline, or snipe at them for falling short of (high) expectations in some other way when they’re sick, then don’t treat yourself that way! Remember, “love others as you love yourself” – so if you wouldn’t do it to someone else, don’t do it to you!

Sharon
Sharon

I feel for you, Jami! Chronic pain sucks the life out of you. I went through an extremely traumatic situation over a number of years and am still recovering. It finally dawned on me that even though my conscious mind knows this will not occur again, my subconscious mind has not caught up yet and is taking it’s sweet time processing all that went before. Then one day you’re better. It just takes time. Keep believing!

Laurie Evans

“I’ve had so many setbacks that I’m not sure I even look forward anymore to the day that I won’t have these issues.”

This. All of this. Constant, chronic health issues for years; plus difficult life circumstances make it so, so difficult to write. I have a lot of projects going on, but can’t finish or move forward with any of them. Very frustrating, since I want to do “all the things,” too.

Finally, finally figured out a health issue and will be having surgery soon. Not looking forward to that, but hoping it will help with so many issues and in the end help with my writing.

I’m sorry it’s been so hard.

Sieran
Sieran
🙁 I’m so sorry to hear this, Jami! Yeah, I’ve been dealing with some icky issues myself. 🙁 My eyes are STILL not better and I have to keep a cap on to protect them from the ceiling lights. My neck recently started hurting and I’ll have to go for an x-ray and massage therapy, goodness me. Also, I really need to keep applying for a practicum next year, so I need to keep writing cover letters. Yet, maybe it’s due to a lot of life anxiety (hello gender dysphoria and transphobia =_=), but every time I even think of writing more cover letters, I feel kind of nauseated…Which is really stupid because I truly need to get those cover letters done!! I informed my internships coordinator about this. In the meantime, I made an appointment with a doctor next week to see what’s wrong, but oh la la, the receptionist called me today to say that they made a mistake, the doctor is not in for July, so they’ll call me again on Thursday for what to do with my situation. =_= Why??? Well, I expect my neck should be a temporary situation, and my eyes are healing at a sluggish pace but they are healing. But the trans stuff, gender dysphoria, being misgendered ALL THE TIME, always being fearful of transphobia, etc., this is going to be with me for life. :/ I do believe our society will gradually become more open to LGBT people, but I will… Read more »
Kaja
Kaja

Hi Jami,

It is hard when there’s so much we want to do, and so much we tell ourselves we *should* do. It’s very easy to “should” ourselves into things.

My most useful “trick” is mindfulness. Just allowing myself to “be” for even a few minutes a day. It might be taking the time (15-20 minutes) to sit down with a cup of tea and just listen to the sounds going on around me. And then really taste the tea, notice the warmth, notice how it feels as I swallow. No judgements, just noticing. Or perhaps I stop typing for 5 minutes and watch play of dappled sunlight across my floor, listen to the sounds of the street outside my window, hear the birds. Again, no judgements, just noticing. Just accepting and appreciating this moment for what it is.

This practice doesn’t solve anything, but somehow, over time, it gives me more space and calm. It begins to loosen the knots that might be trussing up my sense of where I am actually at, and of how to move forward again.

Best to you.

Christina Hawthorne
At this point I can hear the weariness in your words, and, I fear, the big D. It’s all life telling you you’re still trying to do too much. There’s no “maybe this” or “maybe that.” There’s “do.” Writing commitments. Speaking commitments. Blogging. Contests. Editing. It’s all too much with what life is dropping in your lap. Yeah, I’m giving you a virtual kick because I’ve been watching this happen for a couple of years now. Really, I’m just pixels out here and easy enough to ignore if you choose. Are you looking for ways to cope in the short-term so you can do more again and add to the problems? Or are you looking for a long-term solution? I know about chronic conditions and have had Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis and Panlobular Emphysema for 8 years now. For one year it was misdiagnosed, which cost me over 50% of my lung capacity FOREVER. I manage, and if I’m at my best I get by without oxygen, which is a huge win. Unfortunately, I had inept doctors who’d improve my health for the short-term and *boom* I’d be sick again. Last year I begged my new doc here in Missoula for a referral to a pulmonologist. I got it in December when I was on the verge of hospitalization. I could barely cross a room. That doc, who just (sadly) retired, did more for me in six months than everyone before him in eight years. Hopefully he’s paved the way for… Read more »
Glynis Jolly

Jami, I do not expect you to reply to my comment. You are relatively new to chronic health problems and it does take oodles of energy out of you at first to learn the workarounds so your life will run more smoothly. I have been doing the workarounds for so long that I do not think I would know how to act if I did not have to bother with them.

Right now I am going through a funk of sorts. I cannot figure out if it is burnout or writer’s block. One thing is for sure though. It is stopping me from doing a rewrite I truly want to finish. I get the folder out, open it to the first page of my draft, put my hands on the keyboard, and freeze. My mind becomes completely blank. I get up to get some tea and my head goes into gear again. I can think of how I want to change things on that first page. I take my tea to the desk, place my hands on the keys, and freeze stiff. All that was in my head is gone.

Whatever it is, I wish it would disappear so I can get busy.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Glynis, when I want to get writing, I find it’s useful to write a book review, polish it a bit and post it on Goodreads.
Then, when I get to my book in progress, I have already done some writing to engage the brain, some editing, and seen a published result.
And if you can’t start at the first page, I suggest picking a page at random and editing for grammar and typos. Just so you are doing something. The flow will happen gradually.
I’m sure others have their own methods!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Jami, we were always told not to make a toil out of a pleasure.
I blog monthly on Goodreads, weekly on my site. If that stopped me writing or was wrecking my health because I was doing too much, I would blog less often. Blogging is a means to an end – communication – rather than an end in itself.
Same goes for anything else you do regularly. Only you know what is imperative and what is nice to do.
A lady once asked me how to find time for writing. I suggested she make the time because nobody else would. If that meant buying ready made food she could slip into the oven rather than starting from scratch, or doing housework twice a week instead of every day, there was a good chance that she was the only one who would notice.
To make time to write I cut down on a lot of voluntary work, and it did help that I had less work coming in, though being unpaid has its own stresses.
If you have a clinical depression caused by your on-going health issues, I would suggest you see it as another health issue and ask for clinical treatment and medication.
Thanks for all you have been doing for writers.

Tonya

ahhhh… I feel for you. Seems like a lot of my writer friends are suffering major cases of Life In The Way. One who’s dealing with the lack of spoons from psoriatic arthritis blogs about it over at https://authorakanderson.wordpress.com/ framing her thoughts in a Jungian Shadow work context that I find both well-researched and very helpful.
The other thing my hubs has found very helpful in treating his depression and anxiety (he’s also a nationally board certified acupuncturist) is CBD oil. There’s a useful site with relevant research about that.
I hope these help you find a different kind of mental balance and clarity as you continue to move forward. In any case, you’re not alone in your struggles, and I wish you well on this journey.

Anonymous
Anonymous

This is a well-timed post for me. I’ve been grappling with a bad bout of depression that has made it hard to write or draw at all. As an unpublished writer it’s not a huge issue if I take some time off, but at the same time it’s so frustrating. I genuinely WANT to do it, but I can’t, right now. Unfortunately, past experience shows that I can’t do much but wait until it gets better…

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[…] my last post, I shared my struggle with long-term burnout due to ongoing health issues. Thank you to all who commented! I haven’t had the […]

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[…] those struggling to write, Jami Gold shares dealing with chronic problems that cause burnout, and Kathryn Craft relates 4 times inaction can help your writing life. If getting motivated is […]

Debby Zigenis-Lowery
Dear Jami, I am so sorry this has been such a tough time for you. I have recently gone through the Spring-from-Hell, and for over a month I could do nothing more than drag myself out of bed and stumble to the bathroom. I am now slowly rebuilding my strength and my life–re-evaluated goals, etc. (I had been overdoing for quite some time previous.) My mom, who has suffered with fibromyalgia for over thirty years, has been a great comfort and inspiration to me. Her biggest piece of advice is do what you can, stop and rest when you need to, and be content with what you are able to accomplish. She told me, since she can’t do a full day’s work, at some point midday she lays down on the couch and reads a book for about an hour. Most important, she has advised me, repeatedly, to be kind to myself. For me, this has translated to letting myself sleep in daily (it is summer, and I am a teacher). Instead of finishing all the projects I wanted to complete this summer, I chip away at them for limited amounts of time, daily, viewing them as an ongoing project I can continue on Saturdays during the school year. As an ambitious, recovering perfectionist, I have lowered my expectations for when my writing projects will be completed, and yet have prioritized them, because I love them, to an early place on any day’s chore list, but for shorter amounts of… Read more »
Tinthia Clemant

Hi, I suffer from severe depression and find that I start each day my spoons organized and ready to go but then find that I’ve dropped them and they’ve slid under the refrigerator and I can’t reach them. After that, it’s nap time. No writing, no reading, no anything.

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[…] Chronic Problems: Writing and Burnout  […]

Karen McFarland

I’m sorry Jami that I’m just seeing this. I am soo behind on my emails! I just wanted to say that you’re not alone. I have struggled with chronic health issues for a long, long time and it’s hard to be balanced. Especially when it’s with something you love to do. However, your health must take first priority. A difficult thing to learn, but if we don’t, we’ll be forced to learn it, which in turn means low or non productivity. It can be frustrating and defeating. So glad you’re sharing your experience! Hang in there my Phoenix friend. 🙂

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[…] of you who follow my blog might have heard about my horror stories of health issues over the past year and a half: a half-dozen surgeries, a dozen rounds of […]

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