Have you ever worked 12-hour days for a full week? Have you ever found yourself obsessively checking your to-do list and emails out of fear that you’ve forgotten something? Have you ever spent so much mental energy on work that you hit a point where the creative juices just don’t flow?
These are signs of burnout. Burnout not only saps productivity, it’s a silent killer. Work-related stress can lead to heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and depression. Stay in this chronic stress long enough under abusive conditions, and it results in burnout, which is one step away from a mental breakdown.
The dirty little secret about burnout? We writers, freelancers, and creative professionals tend to do it to ourselves. (Gasp!) We love what we do, and so we want to stay in a creative mode all the dang time. And we direct ourselves, so we have no one to tell us to chill out for a moment.
How can you blame a boss when you’re your own boss?
Writers tend to be the hardest on themselves. If you’re staying up late pounding out drafts, if you’re working on your stories every spare minute of the day, you’re on a fast track to burnout.
Writer’s block is a common symptom of burnout. If you feel like the words won’t come, it’s not because you’re a terrible writer (you’re not!) — it’s because your brain is tired.
The key to overcoming and preventing burnout is to take a damn break.
I mean it. Take a break. Take a 15-minute break for every couple of hours of work. Take a 30-minute break for every four hours of work. Take a full. day. off. for every week of work.
Your productivity will increase — if you care about that. But you’ll also feel rejuvenated if your brain has time to rest. And I mean rest. Don’t use your “break” to research for your next article, organize files, or do anything vaguely work-y.
My suggestions are to go for a walk, play with your pet, do some pushups or jumping jacks, tidy up your house, or just sit and … do nothing. (Double gasp!) Anything that is low-key that doesn’t require creative effort.
Here’s how I know I’m burned out:
I can’t stop checking my email or social media notifications. This, I’ve learned, is a sign that I’m anxious. I’m fearful that I missed something important, or I’m seeking a “boost” to help me get back on track. That’s the addictive power of notifications, but its promises of making you feel better are lies. Un.plug and take. a. break.
I feel jittery while working. This is also a sign that I’m anxious. My workaholism compels to sit at the computer while my body and brain are screaming at me to take. a. damn. break. I have to tell myself that I need to distance myself from work for a while.
I can’t stop napping. Cat naps are great for productivity. Feeling wiped all the time and finding yourself sleeping at odd hours is not. Drinking coffee at 8pm to try to squeeze more productive hours out of the day is not healthy. Taking a day off is the best way to get back on track.
Simple tasks take me longer. Today, I spent 3 hours on something that should have taken me an hour. What’s more likely: that I became stupider or that my brain is exhausted after running laps for days? So I took a break and ended up not getting back to work. That doesn't mean a break wasn’t warranted — it means I needed a day off.
Sound like you?
Take. A. Break. Listen to your body and brain.
If your job prevents you from taking time off, find ways to incorporate breaks into your routine. The law usually provides for you to take 15-, 30-, or 60-minute breaks. Take advantage! Use that time to go for a walk, find a quiet place and meditate, or just look at funny videos (although I recommend not looking at a screen if you spend your working time looking at screens).
If you’re under deadline and feel like you can’t take a break, make the break short but powerful. Run through a quick exercise routine to release some endorphins and stimulate your brain. Hop on a treadmill for 15 minutes, or do some Pilates or yoga. You’ll be more likely to meet that deadline, trust me.
And if you’re being an abusive boss of yourself, cut that out. Be forgiving of your needs and compassionate to your mind and body. Don’t feel guilty for taking a break and don’t punish yourself for “failing.” If your to-do list doesn’t get all checked off at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean you failed. It means you’re human. And humans need rest. Take care of yourself first.
And take. A damn. Break!
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