You're feeling guilty because you haven't written anything this week.
You know that A.N. Other writer is making far more money than you and seems to be able to write so much faster – why can't you be that good?
You're behind on your writing goals or coming up against a publishing deadline and you have to get this thing written.
You're struggling for money so you need to get books out there.
Or you can't spare the time for your writing because you're working so hard.
You're snappy and angry and annoyed.
Your family don't understand why you're spending so much time writing when it doesn't make you happy and they put pressure on you to do less of it.
Your sleep is suffering because you're worried about all the things you should be doing.
You're trying to blog, write guest articles, do social media, master advertising and connect with other writers, as well as writing books. There's never enough time to do it all.
You're not making progress and you don't know what to do.
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
[ This is an excerpt from The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson. Available now in ebook, print and audio editions.]
One of the reasons that we become writers is to live a different kind of life, a more creative life, more fulfilling and hopefully, a healthier life.
But the incredible opportunities available to authors now have turned out to be a mixed blessing.
Writers are focusing on productivity and word count, on a book a month, feeding the hungry algorithms and the voracious appetite of readers. There's a constant stream of social media notifications that urge us to write more and faster, stoking the machine that provides cash flow as well as an ego boost.
Then there's the marketing side, all the things that you could be doing to get your books into the hands of readers, the technical stuff around categories and keywords and algorithms, and the sociable aspects like social media and blogging, as well as events and conventions.
There are so many things that you could be doing right now. So, many authors are doing more and more and they're not taking a breath and they're getting stressed and burning out.
Part of the reason I co-wrote The Healthy Writer was to reflect on how I've fallen into some of these traps myself.
My husband, Jonathan, even said to me the other day, “You're the Creative Penn, not the Productive Penn. Take a break.”
We all need to stop, take a step back and think about what we want for our lives in a holistic sense.
Burnout happens in the writer community when we forget why we're doing this in the first place. We bury the joy of creation in all the things that have to be done, or specific sales and ranking goals, or we write in a genre we don't really love, and some end up quitting writing altogether.
“When I first started writing, it was therapeutic, like an escape from reality. But now it feels like a burden and I don't know how to get back the good feelings.” Alexa, The Healthy Writer survey
One of the reasons I left the corporate world was to change my life in a physical way, to be more healthy, hoping to add years onto my lifespan by removing bad stress and living a life I really wanted.
I burned out several times in that career, lurching from day to day powered by caffeine tablets, sugar and alcohol until I had to leave the job in order to take a break. I didn't think the same existence would be possible for writers, but I've seen it in the community.
Because writing is hard work.
Sure, it's not physically hard but your brain uses a lot of energy and we have not evolved to spend hours a day trying to produce words from our heads. But there is a difference between being tired and feeling fatigued, stressed and on the way to burnout. Here are some distinctions.
“Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” Lily Tomlin
Stress can happen in any job, even one that is supposedly an ideal occupation. The myth of the writer sitting in a gilded salon with Gauloise and black coffee in hand, writing perfect words while a publicist does all the heavy lifting is (sadly) indeed a myth.
Writing is intense work in a deeply satisfying way but it takes its toll as much as any job – especially if we lose the passion, the reason why we started writing in the first place, replacing that with deadlines and writing books we don't care about.
The idea of work-life balance springs from doing work that is not integrated with your life. Certainly, I used to think about balance when I worked as a business consultant because my day job was not something I thought about out of hours or on weekends. It was something I did to pay for the rest of my life.
But being an author is all-encompassing and as a full-time writer, I don't separate my work from my life anymore.
The two are so entwined, and that is wonderful in one way as I am doing what I love. But it can also be the basis of burnout as there is no reason to ever stop working.
I'm an even-tempered, naturally happy and optimistic person. So if I find myself snappy, negative or persistently unhappy for days at a time, annoyed at the slightest thing, then I know something is wrong.
Stress is the feeling that everything is too much. You are juggling things and just about managing, but you're on the edge of collapse if you push too much further.
Of course, there are good types of stress. The edge of trying something new that pushes us outside our comfort zone. That might be a new writing technique, a different point of view, or going deep into a topic that might be uncomfortable.
On a physical level, when I did a double ultra-marathon, 100km in a weekend, the physical stress pushed me way past my comfort zone. I finished the course weeping with pain but the achievement of the goal was worth it. I feel the same way when working hard to finish a book sometimes.
Humans need stress in some way or we wouldn't achieve so much.
We need to push ourselves beyond what we're comfortable with. But the problem comes when that stress goes on too long, when it stops us sleeping or when, over time, it leads to destructive behaviors like drinking or eating too much.
Back when I had a day job in the corporate world, there were constant project deadlines that were often impossible to reach, accompanied by stressful status meetings, even though it seemed that the deadlines were arbitrary and there was always another project right behind the one I focused on.
Financial stress is common, and family stress might be another issue. If you have young children at home, or you're a full-time carer, the level of stress is qualitatively different to the stress someone might feel in an office job with project deadlines, but it's no less real.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James
So how do you know when stress is getting too much?
When tiredness becomes fatigue
Being physically or mentally tired is completely normal at the end of a day when you have worked hard or done some physical activity. If you're not tired, what are you doing with your life?
But fatigue is waking up tired every day, with a deep exhaustion that seems to pervade your bones. It's like layer upon layer of tiredness, like a chronic syndrome, where every day you wake up feeling heavy and spend your whole day feeling more than tired.
It can be associated with other conditions, so definitely consult a medical professional if you're concerned, but it can also be down to persistent stress and overwork.
When I gave up my day job back in 2011 to become an author-entrepreneur, it took me a few months to get over the fatigue of constantly working in that toxic environment for so long. Some nights, I would sleep for 11 hours as I caught up on 13 years of sleep deprivation and overwork.
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” T.S.Eliot
Anxiety can take many different forms. It can be a persistent low level of worry and concern that disturbs your sleep and may progress into mood issues like depression. Being unable to control that worry is often a marker of anxiety ramping up. You might feel restless and irritable.
Some people will get symptoms such as their heart racing and feeling sweaty or shaky, or it can kick off gut or digestive issues. Others may get panic attacks where they feel they can’t breathe or that they are being choked and their throat is closing up.
If anxiety is severe, then see a medical professional, but low-level anxiety is common and The Healthy Writer discusses mood and mental health further.
There are three major components to burnout.
Emotional exhaustion (feelings of being exhausted and overextended by your work); depersonalization (a feeling of being removed and separate from various aspects of your life); and personal accomplishment (an absence of the feeling of accomplishment which may also be characterized by feelings of incompetence).
Creative work is often emotionally draining, and while it is normal to feel a certain level of exhaustion after the end of a project, you might be approaching burnout if these feelings are persistent and continue for months or even years after you've finished a book.
The domain of personal accomplishment will be particularly important to writers who suffer from self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that whatever you do is never quite good enough, could always be better, and the persistent nagging sensation that your writing is terrible. Even when you have enjoyed some commercial and critical success, Imposter Syndrome will often remain as you wait for someone to pull back the curtain, Wizard of Oz style, and expose you as a fake and a phony.
This can result in symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. There may be other physical symptoms such as teeth grinding, palpitations, or headaches. There might be increased anxiety or trouble sleeping.
“If you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have long-term perspective.” Dalai Lama
Managing stress, burnout, and anxiety
Part 2 goes into detail on many of these aspects, but these issues are so prevalent in the writer community that we wanted to make sure you had some action points upfront!
(1) Acknowledge your feelings and where you are right now
We like to think we're super-human, but everyone experiences these periods of stress and overwhelm, and many of us progress through levels of anxiety to burnout. The first step is to recognize the symptoms and acknowledge that you have a problem. Then you can look at ways to fix it, or at least manage it.
(2) Get organized
If you're feeling overwhelmed, it's a good idea to write down everything you think you should be doing so you can begin to organize it all.
I use two tools to manage the bulk of my life these days: Google Calendar and Things, a list-making app which syncs between my Mac and iPhone. Of course, there are many tools you can use, but if you have a calendar for scheduling and a To Do list app, you can manage pretty much everything. Of course, you can use paper for the analog option!
Start by writing down everything in your head until you can't think of anything else that needs doing. This can include personal and work tasks as well as writing tasks.
Once it is all out of your head, you can then start to organize and put specific dates when things are due. This will help you see what is urgent, what can wait and could be deleted. You can set recurring tasks and move dates if you get too busy. If I keep moving a task forward, I consider whether I should just delete it. Is everything on the list really so important?
I've also started scheduling downtime into my calendar. That might sound extreme, but without doing this, I end up constantly over-scheduling myself because I think I'm super-human!
I've made the whole of December a downtime period with no speaking, podcast interviews, or external commitments because I know my energy and mood are lower in the winter. I need to curl up and recharge, ready for January, which is when I perk up again. I also schedule a week every month where I don't have external commitments either and try to book in holidays as I used to do when I had a day job.
Running your own author business can take over your whole life, and I certainly work more hours than I ever did in the day job, so scheduling breaks is critical to sustainability for the long term.
(3) Assess, eliminate, and outsource tasks
You can't do everything, so these questions can help you work out what you should cross off your To Do list entirely and can be the most powerful way to reduce stress.
For example, if you are an introvert who doesn't enjoy speaking at events, then don't do it. Concentrate on internet marketing for your books.
If you enjoy watching YouTube videos, then consider using video as your primary marketing activity, but if you prefer writing short stories, then do that instead. Identifying your preferences will help you cull your To Do list.
For example, I tried doing Facebook Live Video, considered by many to be a powerful marketing tool, but I would dread it beforehand and didn't particularly enjoy it while doing it, so I have eliminated that from my marketing list.
You can also outsource tasks if you have the budget. I used to do all my podcast work myself, but now I have someone doing the video, a sound technician doing the audio, and my virtual assistant doing the show notes and transcript formatting. This means my own time has gone from five hours per show down to two hours per show, making it much more sustainable.
What can you eliminate or outsource?
(4) Say ‘no' more
There's a period of time when you are starting out when you say ‘yes' to every opportunity because you don't know anyone and you're building your brand. But if you're stressed and overwhelmed and you no longer have time for writing, then you need to say ‘no' more.
So when you're asked to do something, or you are asking yourself to do more, then stop for a moment. Give yourself space to consider it. Don't reply to that email immediately. Don't say yes before you've slept on it.
Do you really, really, really want to do this?
“If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’.” Derek Sivers
(5) Try a digital fast
The internet is amazing.
It's the reason we can actually make a living as writers and reach readers all over the world. One study even found that people would rather have the internet than have sex, chocolate or alcohol. So it's an important part of our social and business lives as writers – but it can also be the cause of much stress.
If you check the news too much, you can be crippled by fear and anxiety about the state of the world. If you check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram all the time, you might feel comparisonitis at all the successful authors doing better than you, or feel like you're missing out on various conferences, holidays or promotions. And all of it makes us feel as if we can never do enough and we are always behind.
There is an answer to internet overwhelm. Turn it off!
Sounds simple but I know it's not easy. I am tethered to my iPhone just as much as many others.
But I do have periods of digital fasting, where I deliberately turn my phone to aeroplane mode. I take my phone on long weekend walks because it's also my fitness tracker, but I don't check email or social media. If I do longer trips, like cycling in India or walking in Europe, I only check it once a day. I took Facebook off my phone a month ago and feel a lot better without its daily tyranny.
We don't watch the news on TV, and I really recommend you wean yourself off that if you're struggling with stress. I monitor the headlines on the Financial Times or The Guardian news app, but the written word is less sensational than the TV announcements, which are designed to spike your interest and make you want to keep watching.
What you feed your brain has a huge impact on your mental health, so turn off the news and you'll feel a lot better!
Pay attention to your breath right now.
Where is it in your body? Can you direct it into your belly? Or your back? Or into the pain you're feeling?
Can you slow your breath to inhale for a count of five, hold it, and then exhale for a count of five?
These exercises may sound simple, but being aware of your breathing and taking time to just sit (or lie) and breathe is one of the most powerful, yet under-used, relaxation techniques. Because who has time to sit and breathe? There's always more to do.
When things used to get too much at work and I would be hyper-stressed, I would hold my breath, skip-breathing, yet unaware of it. Jonathan would put his arms around me and hold me against his chest and breathe with me, slowing our breath down together until I was calm again. I know parents who do this with their children and it really works, because you suddenly become aware of what your body is doing.
I tried meditation a number of times but always struggled to find the time – a classic case of the person who needs it the most and continues to resist it. The Headspace meditation app helped a little, but then I started to go to yoga several times a week to help my back pain, and breathing practice is part of those classes. It's now one of the main reasons I go. Time to breathe feels like a luxury, which is crazy, right?!
After a year of consistent yoga, I'm much more aware of my breath and realize that I tend to hold my breath or take shallow breaths when I'm stressed. Now I can feel when it is short and take steps to deepen and lengthen my breath in order to calm myself. It's helped me manage my stress, so if you're struggling, then consider incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine.
(7) Develop a regular physical practice
Exercise helps to manage stress and anxiety. People who exercise regularly and are physical active have better health-related quality of life.
There is also evidence that exercise can be used as a specific treatment to help manage anxiety. A regular physical practice will help your body cope with long hours of writing and with emotional ups and downs. People who are physically fit are more resilient and able to cope with the stresses and strains of life.
(8) Consider a seasonal approach to your energy and creative patterns
Stress and burnout can happen because we try to achieve at the same level all the time, but that's just not natural.
Think about the rhythms of your energy, of your life. There are ups and downs, ebbs and flows with everything and that's the kind of cyclical and seasonal approach that can help us as creatives.
For example, during the period when I'm writing the first draft of a book, I will often work very hard. I will write almost every day for hours at a time, and I will get that first draft done. It's a very tiring period and I probably won't do much else other than write.
But then when that draft is finished, I stop and take a breather and start the editing process, which takes a different kind of brain power.
The preparation for a book can often take a lot of time thinking and plotting: not so much brute force creation of words, but the time it takes for the thinking and composting of ideas to occur. Later, there is launching and marketing, a different kind of energy again. Plus there are life events that happen, seasonal changes, so you can't expect to operate at the same level 100% of the time.
You need to allow for seasonal shifts, in your life, your location, and your creative projects.
There are big events that will occur that might be ‘up' periods (e.g. birth of a child, wedding, moving house) and also problem times (divorce, death of a loved one, moving house, loss of a job).
Then there are the seasonal shifts in a year.
For the last few Decembers, I ended up talking to a friend about how terrible I was feeling and how down I was. Last year she said, “You realize that you're like this every December?”
Of course, I hadn't realized and I was being hard on myself, trying to maintain the same level of productivity in what is a down energy time for me. I don't like the end of the year, and England gets pretty dark over the winter.
But I love January. I love new beginnings. I love achieving things in the New Year.
So now I am being gentle with myself and allowing December to be fallow, a time of rest and reflection, and it's blocked out in my diary with “Don't book anything” for the whole month!
This type of cycle can also happen within the working week and within the day. There are times of the day when you're more energetic, more creative. Then there will be times when you dip.
You have to learn your cycle and create within that cycle rather than trying to brute force your way through, unless, of course, you're on a writing deadline.
But if we're thinking about burnout versus being sustainable in your creative life, then we have to be looking at practices and self-understanding, self-awareness that promotes a more healthy, creative life.
Questions to consider:
• Do you recognize any physical or mental symptoms of anxiety or even burnout? Write them all down even if they are not specifically related to your author life, as it is often the cumulative effect of everything that results in stress.
• What action can you take right now to reduce some of your stress or anxiety?
• Are you allowing for the seasonal shifts of day, week, time of year, time of life in your schedule? How can you factor that in more effectively?
[ This is an excerpt from The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term by Joanna Penn and Dr Euan Lawson. Available now in ebook, print and audio editions.]