No matter how enthusiastic you are about your career, you can’t work all the time or your health and personal relationships suffer. That’s why we have weekends and hobbies.
But what happens when your hobby starts to take over all your free time and causing you stress?
It seems counterintuitive that an activity designed to help you enjoy your leisure time and forget about work could end up winding you even tighter, but it happens all the time.
Fantasy sports enthusiasts spend countless hours and often dollars on building their teams, and they follow on-field performances religiously. If the slugger you’re counting on to carry you to a pennant spirals into a slump or sustains a big injury, you have to scramble to find replacement production and your stress levels skyrocket.
Collectors enjoy the hunt for items to complete their sets of baseball cards/limited edition plates/Elvis statues, but that joy can turn to anxiety as they obsess more and more about securing the perfect, elusive specimens.
And “aspiring” writers or those who claim to write as a hobby? Forget about it.
Passion Begets Stress
In my experience, writing is not an activity that you can pursue in any sort of passive sense. In fact, most writers are the exact opposite — passionate.
We’re passionate about our subject matter, we’re passionate about our word choices, we’re passionate about the projects we undertake. All that emotion is great for our finished product, but it’s not so wonderful if we hope to keep our “hobby” in perspective.
After all, how can you take your thumb off the throttle when you realize you’re within 25,000 words of finishing your novel? You can’t.
Heck, if you hunker down, you can finish up this weekend!
But it’s a never-ending treadmill, because once you finish that rough draft, then you have to edit it, send it off for more editing and proofreading, get a book cover, promote the book, publish the book, promote it some more, fix the typo you and your editors/proofreaders/mom/wife/best friend missed the first 10 times through, re-publish, promote, iterate, recurse, and on and on and on.
And then … there is the next book and the next story and the next blog post.
Before you know it, you can’t see the top of the work pile that your success and ambition have stacked up on top of you. And when that happens, your perception of what success really is starts to change and your enthusiasm wanes.
Not for everyone. Not all the time.
But for most of us, most of the time.
This is how burnout happens, even when you’re doing what you love.
And when your zest is charred, you won’t get anything done.
If you want to be successful in writing or any endeavor over the long term, you need to avoid burnout like a proctologist. And, just as with Dr. Glove, you may not be able to sidestep burnout forever, but you can take steps to keep it at bay as long as possible.
Here are some tips on keeping your passion from overwhelming you:
Don’t Take on Too Many Projects
At any one time, the typical writer might have 15 or 20 — or more — ideas swirling in his head. He wants to write a novel, a collection of short stories, and a historical essay for his favorite truther magazine, and he also wants to start his long-anticipated blog for Pet Rock collectors. He’ll most likely try to do them all at once, too, and that will be his undoing. We’re capable of a tremendous amount of work, but by spreading our efforts so thin, all we’ll get are half-assed results and a frazzled brain. Pick a couple or projects and work the heck out of them before moving on to something else.
Don’t Spend Every Spare Minute Writing
While we (here and elsewhere) spend a lot of effort identifying hidden pockets of time when you can write, you need to do other stuff, too. Make sure to get regular exercise, nurture your relationships, and just find ways to relax. Speaking of which …
Chill Out Sometimes
No matter how in love modern society is with staying busy, you don’t always have to be doing something. Sometimes, you just need to plop down on the couch and stare at the TV, or at the wall. Don’t beat yourself up over your nightly tube hour if it truly helps you relax. If nothing else, you might stumble into a laugh or two, and that’s always good for you … just ask WebMD.
Read Something Else
One trap that a lot of writers — including me — fall into is to spend our time away from writing reading about our subject matter. It makes sense to bone up on your area of expertise, and it can be helpful in crafting your next novel or blog post. But if you’re already circling the drain of motivation, pouring more of the same fuel on top of the brush fire of your nervous system won’t help at all. Instead, do at least some reading purely for pleasure.
If you write horror, try reading a western or the sports pages. If you’re a baseball blogger, read a bodice ripper every now and then.
Write Something Else
If you feel the drudgery of your writing descending on you but you just can’t stand the thought of not writing, then why not shift your focus for awhile? Stop working on your novel and knock out a few short stories. Or maybe start that blog you’ve always dreamed about. The change will do you good and is a particularly useful tactic after very intense stretches devoted to a single project, such as NaNoWriMo.
If you’ve already flamed out in your writing, then your best course of action is probably to just lay your pen to the side and walk away from your writing desk for a bit. While you’re gone, you can try out a new hobby or just embrace your inner couch potato. Eventually, your writing muscles will start to itch and twitch again, and you’ll know it’s time to get back at it.
Writing is as addictive a “hobby” as there is, and it’s easy to let your enthusiasm drag you under a mountain of projects that seems unconquerable. By taking preventive steps early on, you can hold off burnout for a long, long time and maybe avoid it completely.
Sometimes, you just have to back off for the sake of your own health and your long-term progress.