The Writing Sparrow Episode 2 | My Experience with Burnout and How to Avoid It

In April 2020, I burned out bad. It took me over two months before I was back to myself again, and I want to help you avoid the same pain. In today’s episode, I talk you through some of the symptoms, how burning out for two months affected me, and what you can do to stay far away from it.

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Hello, and welcome to The Writing Sparrow podcast. I’m Sarina Langer, and this podcast is all about writing, publishing and marketing your book. You can find transcripts on my website at Let’s get started!

Hi friends and sparrows, and welcome to Episode Two. Today is the 21st of September 2020, and today, I’d like to start by talking about burnout – what it is, how to avoid it, and how to recover should you push yourself too hard after all.

So, the reason I’d like to start with burnout instead of, say, how to write your book is because your mental health matters maybe the most in this endeavour, and because we need to be more open about mental health in general. So I wanted to start with the one thing that you maybe need to look after the most if you want to write and publish your book and not completely defeat yourself in the process.

Before we start I just want to say that I’m not a therapist, I’m not a licenced mental health professional or any health professional in any way. But I can share my own experience with you and hope that it helps you stay as far away from burning out as possible. If you’ve ever burned out before, you know just how unpleasant this is, and if you haven’t, I can tell you what I’ve gone through.

So, I have burned out three times… say, two and a half. The first time, I just I sat down one morning at my desk to write, I had the book open, and I just stared at it for maybe 15, 20 minutes. And I just, it was almost like I’d forgotten how words worked, if that makes sense. I just I felt so tired at the same time. But I’d also been struggling to sleep, and I thought that’s why I was tired. So, I thought I just sit on the bed for just a minute, maybe I nap, and I’ll feel better after and I’ll be able to get the words out. And instead, I couldn’t get back up again. It was really bad. I even took time off. I called my boss and said sorry, I can’t come in, I physically can’t move anymore, it’s weird. She knew what was going on, so that was really helpful. But it took me… it took me a couple of days to recover and get back to myself again.

But then this year around April, I burned out really, really, really badly. And the really annoying thing about that is that 1) it had been coming for a while, for roughly a year in the making, but also I knew that I was burning out. And for some reason some part of my brain just went, ‘it’s fine, you can totally push past this, it’ll be okay’. And it was not okay at all. I took about… god, you know what, I think I took about two months to recover again. And even after that, I couldn’t just get back into my normal routine like I had been before the burnout. So even though I was mostly feeling like myself again, if I overdid it one day – and that didn’t take much, by the way, I’m not talking about working for like 20 hours one day, I mean just sitting down to write for two hours straight. I could just feel myself draining again. So I still had to take it easy for a little while.

The things that started this one… As I said, it’d been coming for a little while, for about a year. Last year, I was working from home full time, I’d quit my day job to be a full time author and editor because I actually really like editing. Some people find that weird, I really enjoy it. But it’s also a really, really difficult thing to make work when you’re relying on it for income. And I’ve done the stupid thing of basically just completely overdoing it. I took on too many things at once. And then there were a few other things besides that as well like worrying about money, for example. So ultimately, around April this year, everything just… it just completely overflowed. And I just I physically couldn’t do any more. Like, I had the book that I was supposed to be working on open on my laptop, I sat in front of it, and just thinking about just cutting one more word from it… I could feel my energy just go. So I sat down on my sofa in my little home office and I called my mom because I thought, you know, just talking to someone I love is going to help a little bit at least. And I think I just started crying on the phone to her. So I think that’s when I knew that I had to stop. My body and my mind had literally forced me into a position where I had to take a break. And I really don’t want that to happen to you, because it was not pleasant at all. As I said, it took me about two months to recover again, and even then it wasn’t ideal.

What do you look for? How can you recognise if you are coming close to that? Well, the symptoms are always a little bit different from person to person, but I think the most common things -for example, maybe you can’t sleep properly, or maybe you do but you’re still feeling just tired all the time, you might get irritated really quickly, you might not have any motivation, even for things you normally love doing. Those are normally my telling signs. But also what made it worse for me was that I just I couldn’t do anything anymore. As I said, there were things that I can normally do, like reading a book, for example, and it’ll help, but it just… I couldn’t even do that anymore. By now I can tell when I’m getting there, but it has taken me burning out in the first place to know what it feels like. By now, I think I can roughly tell when it’s about to happen, and I can now make sure that I take this break. But obviously, ideally, you wouldn’t be in that position in the first place.

Normally to recover, as I said, I might… I might read a book, or I might play computer games. And this year, none of that worked. And I think what I’d done was that I had generally burned out on all kinds of stories, because I had just, I hadn’t really done anything but for more than a year. I haven’t even taken time off properly. Obviously, I took weekends, but I hadn’t really had a proper week off. I just completely overwhelmed myself. And I think because both parts of this – the editing and the writing – you know, they’re both related to stories, I couldn’t even read anymore. I couldn’t play video games anymore. Nothing. There wasn’t any way story-related was fun anymore. So I decided I had to pick up a new hobby, something that had nothing at all to do with plots, basically, and I took up knitting. It has helped a lot, but for this burnout, I needed to do more than just one thing, which you may well need to do as well. But it depends entirely on how severe your burnout is.

Hopefully, you won’t be in a position where it takes you several months to get better again, but this is actually your action step for today! I would like you to make two lists. Make one list of things that you enjoy, things that calm you down, things that help you feel more like yourself again when you feel tired. This can be something like going for a walk or knitting or reading if it helps, or maybe you’d like to binge-watch something on TV, or maybe you like to go swimming, or maybe you do yoga, whatever it is that you do, write everything that helps you relax onto this list. And on the other one, make a list with your symptoms. I have listed a few in this podcast if you’ve never burned out before and you’re not quite sure what to look out for. I’m also listing a few in the show notes, so you can just copy that.

Also tell someone you’re close to what to look out for, because quite often when you burn out, you might know that you’re tired and that you should take a break, but you will probably try to talk yourself out of doing it. You’ll probably feel like you can’t take a break, to be honest, because that’s normally how I feel. I know that I’m too tired, I know I need to take a break right now, but there’s always this part in your mind that will go, ‘You can’t have a break, you have a deadline.’ Even if you don’t actually have a deadline, you might still feel like just taking this one day off, or even just an hour is going to put you so far behind this deadline that may not even really exist that you can’t possibly ever hope to catch up again, which is rubbish. But it’s also a very clear sign that you have possibly pushed yourself too far.

There is nothing on your to-do list anywhere that can’t wait for you to get better first. You might have clients or maybe work with someone else and maybe they have deadlines, which is fair, but you know, always talk to them about this. If you don’t think that you can work for a little bit, if you feel like you’re just that mentally and physically exhausted, talk it through with the people you’re working with, whether that’s a boss or maybe someone you’re editing for, or maybe someone you’re writing copy for, because it’s not in their best interest either for you to keep going when you have nothing left to give. You will not be able to do your best work at that point, and it doesn’t help your own books either. So it’s just better to take a break. And hopefully that way you won’t take yourself out of the action for two months and a little bit after that to really get back to feeling like yourself.

Thank you very much for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, maybe learn something along the way, hit the subscribe button. You can also connect with me on twitter @sarina_langer, on Instagram and Facebook @sarinalangerwriter, and of course on my website Until next time! Bye!

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Transcribed by Otter

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Sarina Langer