by Amy Winters-Voss
As creatives, we feel the push to keep producing and hustle culture says we always have to be as productive as possible.
When the finish line is on the horizon, those tasks we have yet to do multiply like rabbits. And we have a hard time saying “no” when others ask for help or to join in on a group activity, thinking we can stack one more project on our plates and keep balancing everything. After we complete a project, we don’t feel we have time to celebrate and just jump into the next one. Each deadline looms, a specter on the horizon. Fans ask when the next book is coming out. And people always want assistance with their writing and creative projects.
But we aren’t machines. We burnout. What does that mean? The American Psychological Association says burnout is:
“physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”
Jessica from How to ADHD quoted her research consultant saying that “Our bodies are not designed to run from a bear everyday” as she described what happens when we work under the gun long term.
When the adrenaline and cortisol are gone, there’s a crash. Sometimes a hard one, leading to feeling lost and even depressed. Anxiety can kick in, because of the rush to get to the point we need for our careers.
I’ve heard it said people will often jump right into the next big project, so they don’t have to face the post push blues. But our bodies, minds, emotions, and even our souls need the reset—the refresh—to remember what calm is like.
If you don’t listen to your body and the warning signs of burnout, chronic stress can lead to being sick more often, depression, heart disease, insomnia, and many more health issues. Always pushing hard uses up your ability to make good choices. A common one I’ve seen is spending too much on eating out because we don’t have the energy to cook.
I volunteer often and like to have several interesting projects at once so I can hop between them. But filling my to-do list plate to the point it was impossible to keep up was becoming the norm. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t be the answer to every need. I’m learning to say “no”, so more people can help and feel the joy of being there for others.
I’ve also found that I don’t recognize the signs of burnout until I’m pretty deep in it and feel a strong need to withdraw for a while. Knowing I can only handle so much gives me the opportunity to plan rest times.
For example, after last year I had to slow down. I went from one tough project to another starting in July 2022 until May 2023. Those months were crazy! I was dealing with the editing, release and promo of my second book, being in the leadership for a very active online writing game, supporting people after a stressful parting of ways in an author group, replacing several expensive things for our house and family, an anniversary trip to japan and ensuring my kids who weren’t coming along would have what they needed in an emergency, my youngest graduating, my husband traveling more for his job, and supporting my eldest as he worked through whether or not going back to college was the right choice for him, and more!
Needless to say, I was frazzled (mentally, emotionally, and physically) by the end! But I knew myself well enough to expect the crash and planned ahead for recovery time.
On the surface, it’s easy—doing what you need to maintain yourself so you can be your best. Usually self-care allows you to mentally and physically step away from whatever your stressor is. But these things feel like a luxury and are often the first to go when we’re under the gun.
During events like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I’ve seen writers skip sleep, forget to eat and drink, and push their hands so hard they can’t type anymore. None of that helps an author be at their best.
I’ll encourage you to find ways to step away from your stressors for a while and try to find at least some balance. Self-care areas you might want to look at include physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional, and social care.
Remember, not everyone views self-care the same way. We have different needs. Guys may be drawn to try different self-care ideas than gals. It’s ok. The important part is stepping away from the push and doing something to renew you.
Need a few ideas to get started? Consider exercise (even a simple walk to take in the world around you), yoga, meditation, stepping away from social media for a while, hobbies, listening to music, reading, or napping. For me, yarn crafts with their simple repetitive motion help me process overwhelm. You know the t-shirt that says, “I knit so I don’t kill people”? There’s truth to that! 😉
Before taking on a big project or stepping away from putting out content for a while, consider what you can do ahead of time to lessen your stress.
Ensure you’re not overbooking yourself. Keep your project list smaller, if possible. “On Substack” had a post with several ideas about how to ensure you have content for blogs and social media during a big push where you need to step back or simply take time off. Ideas they listed that were particularly good included asking for guest or cross posts and re-running your popular or favorite articles.
It will be tempting to skip aspects of self-care during stressful times and when that deadline is looming. But doing what you can beforehand can help.
Food is a big one where people skimp. Here are some ideas I’ve used.
Prepping for routines can help too. Feel free to try these.
Last fall, I was pushing hard to finish my second book and an authors’ group I was heavily involved in had a falling out. That’s when I started knitting a blanket, a super simple pattern. At night, if I didn’t get to knit on it after a rough day, I’d feel jittery because I hadn’t had down time. I teasingly called it my stress blanket. Just knitting half an hour to an hour most nights during the crazy times allowed me to calm down and fall asleep.
Having something simple and relaxing to look forward to after the stress of the day can really help. Some people like crafts, to watch TV, read a book, or listen to music. Pick something to help your mind stop churning.
It can also help to keep a small notebook, pen or pencil, and flashlight near your bed for those ideas that keep poking at your mind.
Years ago, I read the book Margin by Dr. Richard Swenson about putting space in our lives again timewise, emotionally, etc. to avoid being overloaded. It was a game changer. While I can’t say I’m perfect at making sure I’m not “taxed to the max” all the time, the lessons from it stuck long term.
So after my insane year and the end of May arrived, I was more than ready for a break. I’d planned at least a month to just slow down and explore what “normal” was again.
When you escape being under the gun all the time, you might feel a little lost and be tempted to jump into another project right away. I’m challenging you to give yourself space. Let your nervous system recover and breathe. Pick something completely different to do for a while.
For myself, I chose not to jump into writing book three immediately. Oh, I was tempted! Right after I released book two, people asked about the next one. It was awesome to hear! But I needed time to recover or I’d break. Anxiety was already creeping into everyday activities. Does that mean I’m not thinking about the third book? Nope. I can’t stop my brain from producing ideas. But as they occur, I stuff them away in a list for later.
For now I’m doing some worldbuilding. I’ve really missed it. Also, writing a “sleep story” has been on my agenda for a few months and it’s time to try my hand at it. This style of short, quiet tale helps my brain to stop churning so I can rest the night through. Additionally, I’m spending more time walking outside and playing RPGs with my gaming group.
There are times when we need to keep pushing. I get it. But please respect yourself, your mind, and your body. Find ways to rest and take breaks—escaping a bit by listening to books, taking a long bath or shower, going for a walk, scheduling time at a retreat center, etc.
Always going full bore on projects will wear us down and burn us out. We need margin, space to breathe so we can recover before we’re ready to start another big push. Our sanity and our health are worth more than any project.
So I’ll leave you with a question and invitation.
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Amy is the author of the Liminal Chronicles series, a mythological/urban fantasy set in small town Japan that focuses on social redemption and found family.She runs the vssCollab very short story challenge on Instagram, and Substack and publishes the best of the entries in the online zine--'In Threads'. Additionally, she founded the Anvilite Streamers Corps and streams her writing and crafts on Twitch.
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