6 simple steps to deal with writer's burnout

Oct 01, 2020

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We’ve all been there: staring at our laptop screens, knowing that we need to get words down, feeling the looming dread of deadlines at our shoulders — and being utterly unable to type a single word.

Ah, writer’s burnout.

Different from mere writer’s block, burnout is a distinct feeling that comes when you’ve been hustling so hard that part of you just… stops. No matter how much you need to get done or how much you want to get done, you just can’t get yourself to sit at the keyboard and work.

Of course, taking a vacation from it all is a great way to refresh yourself, but for many of us, that’s simply not an option. So, what’s a working freelancer to do when the words suddenly dry up? That’s what we’ll be getting into today.

1) Cultivate small breaks

At its core, “burnout” is just a fancy word for “exhaustion,” so the biggest key to curing it is learning how to be less exhausted. Right, right — easier said than done.

But the truth is, even if we don’t have time for a proper vacation, there are often small ways we can reclaim a bit of time and space for ourselves. Whether that’s ensuring that you actually take lunch breaks and that occasional day off or just making the most of a car ride or a shower, it’s important to cultivate the moments you’re not stuck at your keyboard.

Whenever possible, take 5-15 minutes at least once a day to:

● Go for a walk

● Do some breathing exercises

● Read something for pleasure

● Spend some time in nature

● Or whatever else calms you down and centers your mind

Still don’t think you have enough time for this? At the very least, try breaking up your day — if you normally write in the morning, do some admin work or finally build that portfolio. Even just mixing up tasks and doing things that aren’t writing can help give you mental space.

2) Leave your work at work

Taking these small breaks isn’t going to do you much good if you spend the whole time obsessing over the work you’re not doing. Which is why, when you shut the laptop and walk away, it’s vital that you actually walk away.

This is probably the hardest step of this whole article, and no one manages it perfectly every time. We’re conditioned to feel like any time we’re not working is a “waste” of potentially productive hours. Especially as freelancers — working for ourselves, with all the responsibilities for success on our shoulders — it’s hard to unplug.

Unfortunately, there’s no “one weird trick” to get ourselves to leave work behind at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s going to haunt you despite your best efforts, but here’s a useful tip: Have something else to think about. By picking some other topic beforehand — whether that’s chores, a friendly email, or the rearrangement of your Animal Crossing island — you can redirect your thoughts in that specific direction whenever work creeps back in.

3) Refill the creative well

You’ve probably heard this advice before, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Now that you’re taking a bit of time for yourself and clearing the stress of work from your mind, it’s time to start rebuilding your spark of creativity.

Now, you should already be doing a bit of reading for pleasure. So, maybe you’re thinking you’re set. Task done, item checked, time to move on to the next one, right?

Wrong!

While reading should be part of your creative well, it shouldn’t be the full extent. Make sure to consume a few other types of art outside your own medium as well, whether it’s visual arts, music, performance art, or film. Think outside the box when it comes to re-sparking your creativity. Can you try graphic design? Is there a photography class that you could take? Step by step, you’ll find your muse wanting to return to you.

4) Write something experimental

Don’t worry, you don’t need to invent a whole new form of prose. What this means is simple: Try some writing outside your comfort zone.

While writer’s burnout is mostly exhaustion, part of it is also fatigue from doing the same thing over and over again. One key to rebuilding a healthy writing habit is giving yourself permission to reconnect with the joy of writing in the first place, and the best way to do that is by breaking your mold and trying something new.

So if you normally write SEO copy and “how to” articles, try your hand at a short story or poem. If you’re a novelist, mix it up with a personal essay. Screenwriters, have a go at starting a novel or two. Whatever sparks your interest but isn’t part of your normal writing habits will do. New forms, styles, and writing prompts open our minds to new ways of looking at how words build on each other, which in turn lets us take new skills back to the writing we’re familiar with — not to mention a fresh new energy.

5) Break down your tasks into bite-sized pieces

OK, you’ve had your fun — now it’s time to start climbing that mountain again.

Getting back to work, whether it’s after a short break or a lengthy refresh, can feel overwhelming. There’s a certain creative flow that comes with being busy, and once you stop, it takes a lot of effort to build that momentum. The trick? Breaking the task down until it feels manageable again.

Think of it like this: You’re not climbing a mountain. You’re not even going on a hike. You’re not even worrying about going outdoors. Instead, you’re getting changed into appropriate hiking gear. Now you’re getting on your boots. Did you fill your water bottle yet? That’s your only task. Do you need to stretch? Focus on stretching. Even once you reach the base of the mountain, don’t look to the top. Take a breath, feel the breeze on your face. Just start walking, one foot in front of the other.

You won’t become a freelance writer if you don’t write articles. Likewise, you won’t become a novelist if you don’t write that novel. But here’s the good news: no matter what kind of project you’re working on, the truth is that the summit will still be there for you, waiting until you’re ready to reach it. But the only way to get there is one step at a time.

6) Trick yourself into productivity

If all else fails, try the “10 minutes” trick.

What’s that, you ask? It’s exactly what it says on the tin: Set yourself a timer for 10 minutes, and tell yourself that the only things you’re allowed to do are write or nothing at all.

This works on two levels. One, even the hardest, most stressful task can usually be endured for a mere 10 minutes. The barrier of entry is so low; it’s a lot easier to get yourself to sit down and go, “You know what, I can do that,” when you say you’ll work for 10 minutes rather than something like an hour.

But second, and perhaps more importantly, is that sitting and staring at a blank screen, even “just” for 10 minutes, is incredibly boring. Odds are, you’ll find yourself starting to write just for something to do.

The important thing to remember when trying this trick to make sure it’s honest. If, at the end of your 10 minutes, you still haven’t gotten any work done, get up and do something else for a little while before you try again. It doesn’t work if you claim it’s 10 minutes but know in your heart you’re stuck there until the task is done, no matter how long it takes. Nine times out of 10, you’ll start working without even realizing it — and get into a flow that continues long after you’ve turned off that timer.

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