dealing with year-end burnout

After a lovely and productive visit with Kate, I’m back in Chicago. We’ll resume the series on effective narration next week, so don’t despair. Here’s the post that I intended to run on Monday.

As the year draws to a close, I find myself being more and more overwhelmed by all of the things I’ve told myself I was going to finish by the end of the year. I’ve also gotten increasingly more frantic emails hoping that I’ll still have time to work on their project even though it’s later than promised–everyone is buckling down and trying to get things done before the calendar year flips.

But, if you’re anything like me, instead of becoming super-productive as the year wraps, I become more and more paralyzed by my mounting to do list. It’s more than just managing my time (and resources and energy, of course). I also throw on pressure to finish those projects I had intended to complete this year and beat myself up about New Year’s resolutions left unresolved, a lack of thoughtful holiday planning…the works.

While the end of the year is a superb time to self-examine, wallowing in a pit of self despair is probably not going to make for the most enjoyable December. Something that I have been working on is developing the skill to tell the difference between the times where I really need to push myself through the work to the other side and the times where my subconscious is crying out for a break.

It’s really easy to assume that you always need to push through. I mean, we’ve talked about resistance and emotional roadblocks, and sometimes the best plan is really to just grind out a thousand words and call it a day. Authors are notorious for this kind of behavior–our cultural stereotype of the brilliant writer is someone who locks themselves up to achieve their word count 365 days of the year.

But the truth of the matter is that this kind of persistence isn’t always the best for us. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that we need a break. And sometimes it’s really just not worth it to spend four hours grinding out our word count when we’re just going to delete it the next day anyway. We’re not creative robots–we can’t always create on demand.

The worst thing about this phenomenon is that when you do this to yourself–when you force yourself to eke out just a bit more, even when it’s nigh impossible–you’re setting yourself up for failure tomorrow. I have noticed that the key difference between the times that I should push myself through and the times that I really need a break is in the way I feel after the work is finished. 

When doing the work despite the resistance is a good idea, I feel renewed after I’ve finished. I accomplished something that was hard! I’m fantastic! I’m brilliant! But pushing myself up the mountain is only worth it if I can enjoy the view after I’ve reached the top. There are some days that I work and work and finish and feel like I want to die. There’s no cheerleading. There’s not even a sense of accomplishment. Just despair. I’ve climbed the mountain, and I couldn’t care less. These are the days I should have taken a warm bath instead.

The objective here is learning to identify the awful days before you slog up the mountain. I’ve noticed, for myself, that I can identify whether or not I should work by figuring out what I want to do instead. If my brain suggests other productive and vibrant activities as an alternative for the work that I wanted to accomplish, I should power through. If my brain suggests dying (or curling up in a small ball under my desk), it’s probably high time to do some rejuvenation.

And here’s a pro tip: a rejuvenating activity does not include sitting in front of the computer hating yourself because you’re not doing your work. If you decide to take a break, make it worth it. Do something fun. Meditate. Take a nap. Play Minecraft. Whatever it takes for you to feel better afterward. We don’t yell at babies for needing to sleep–don’t punish yourself for needing a rest.

And yes, it’s true that the book isn’t going to write itself. I know–I’m the first person to say that you do need to put in the time if you want to be a writer. But the key here is consistent behavior. You obviously have some soul-searching to do if you want to take every day off. But in the grand scheme of publication, you’re not dooming yourself to obscurity if you spend a single day drinking tea on your patio instead of pounding your head against the keyboard in frustration.   

Ultimately, learning the difference between a slow-starting day where the hour invested in front of the computer will pay off and a day where nothing will come of your noble sacrifice is an exercise in learning to take care of your creative self. So, if you’re looking for someone to give you permission to recharge, you’ve got it. Just make sure that you come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow. :)

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