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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Art of Avoiding Burn Out

Courtesy of gc85
Writing can be exhausting.

Not the kind of exhausting that comes from running a marathon, but the kind that comes from squeezing your brain inside out as you search for the right words, the right descriptions, or the right threads of the story.

Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

Do this long enough without taking care of yourself, and you risk burning out. Pulling your creative muscle until it cowers in the corner, whimpering. 

Not that, ahem, I'm doing I have ever done this, but there is a real danger in being over productive. In working too hard without giving your creative side enough time and space to recover. Setting and working toward your goals is a good thing--so long as you pace yourself realistically.

So what can you do to avoid burnout? Especially if you have deadlines looming out at you?

Take a break.

Really. I know this may sound counterintuitive, but it works. Think of your creative side as a muscle. Let's say you want to get in shape well enough to run a writer's equivalent of the 3k. You wouldn't pound your body so hard in the name of getting there that you couldn't walk the next day, would you? And you wouldn't do that over and over and over again, would you?

The human body is a marvelous thing that can take a lot of abuse, but eventually it gets tired and worn out if it's not allowed to recharge. Creativity is a lot like this. So taking a break isn't necessarily procrastinating, and it doesn't have to be unproductive.

In fact, taking a break can be one of the most productive things you do for yourself and your creativity.

The key is in figuring out what kinds of activities allow your creative muscles a chance to relax, to heal, and to rejuvenate. 

Some things you can do every day that can help prevent burn out include:
  • Exercise: That's right. Taking care of your body is an excellent burn out preventative. Doing meditative exercises like yoga or tai chi can help even more.
  • Eat right: You are what you eat. If you eat nutritious foods and appropriate serving sizes, your body will feel better and so will you.
  • Get enough sleep: If your body is anything like mine, it's going from the time you wake up until you go to bed. It doesn't function well if you don't get adequate rest, which will in turn affect your ability to think, cope with stress, and be creative.
  • Manage your stress levels: The first step is being conscious of where your stress levels are at. It's a good idea to figure out what people/things/situations raise your stress levels so you can come up with coping strategies that allow you to lower your stress levels and relax.
  • Managing your world perceptions: A lot of times, how we see the world directly impacts how we react to it. Learning how to see the world (and people) in a more positive light can help you feel better and not get burned out so quickly.
  • Managing your self perception: How you see yourself will have a direct impact on your mental health and creativity.
Other things that can help help replenish your creative wells:
  • Get inspired through music, art, and anything else that feeds your creativity.
  • Go for a walk: Sometimes it helps to change your environment for a little while. Added perks: fresh air, change of scenery, exercise.
  • Go out and do something: As an introvert, I have to be careful how I schedule my social activities so they don't end up *leading* to burn out. But I've noticed that if I plan them well enough, getting out and being with people fills me up mentally and emotionally. (They still wear me out, but not in a bad way.)
  • Read a good book: When I'm running under tight deadlines, I've noticed that the first thing I stop doing is reading. I've noticed that when I take the time anyway, the time I spend in someone else's world actually recharges my brain, my creativity, and my energy.
  • Learn how to say no: This is a hard one, but very necessary. 
  • Know when to say no: Not all things, people, or events are equal. Do the most important things, because they're the ones that matter in the long run.
  • Try something you've never tried before: New experiences can be fuel for your creativity.
  • Take a nap: Sometimes rest is all you need.
  • Try meditation: Sometimes all our bodies need is for us to slow down for some peace and quiet.
  • Be flexible. Extending a deadline isn't the end of the world. (Unless, of course, you have a contractual deadline you have no control over.) It's okay to take time off without feeling guilty. The important thing is getting there in one piece.
What about you? What do you do to avoid burning yourself out?

Danyelle Leafty (@danyelleleafty) writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here. The first 12 chapters of THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA are available here.


Sheri Fredricks said...

Hi Danyelle~ It's silly, really. That as writers we need to be reminded of how to take care of our minds and bodies. You have an excellent list of suggestions.

Cheryl Reif said...

So true! Thanks for a great list. The ability to recharge is one of the 10 "essential skills" I listed in my last post. I think it's super easy to get caught up in doing more-more-more, but if we don't rest and regroup occasionally, you can't continue to be productive. I'm bookmarking this one!

robertsloan2art said...

One of the things I do to avoid burning out on writing is paint and draw. Other writers I know quilt, knit, carve wood, cross stitch or do ceramics. All these creative hobbies have one thing in common.

They give immediate tangible results. You can see your progress on a long project. It takes a long time for a novelist to get from starting a project to holding a printed book in their hands. It takes having it finished, edited to a professional level and sold.

Some success in other creative areas keeps your mind moving in creative ways. It also gets compliments for creativity from nonwriters. They can appreciate a handmade trivet or quilt even if they're not readers.

So my tip is - find a creative hobby that has nothing directly to do with your writing. Keep it a hobby. I'm going to need to choose something else like wood carving since I've started selling my art again and taking commissions.

If it's a hobby, I don't have to worry about producing it at professional quality or at professional speed. I can relax and take my time with it, keep it if I like it, give it to a friend, not worry about whether it's perfect. I'll still take some pride in it but I've accomplished something that has no stress involved.

My sketchbook is like that even though I sell my art. I don't have to make it presentable. I don't need to worry about whether the subjects will sell or not and I can play with it like a kid or do projects from demos and art books that aren't even original.

So maybe if I don't get around to starting wood carving, I've still got one in filling my sketchbooks and art journals. It's good for expressing myself in a way that has no pressure to please other people. I can just do it my way and have fun.

steve said...

this is really sweet. I think a lot of people in the book blogging community (including myself!) really look up to you. I'm always checking out your blog help posts and such to answer some questions I may have. Thanks for everything :)
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Danyelle L. said...

Thanks, Sheri! :) It is a funny thing, and definitely something I needed to remind myself of. Can't write well if you're burning out. :S

Thanks Cheryl! :) Definitely! It is so easy getting caught up in the more-more-more. I really enjoyed your list, by the way. Especially the part about needing to learn and grow. :D

I think you're absolutely right, Robert--on everything you posted. Sometimes we do need to see that we are doing something, progressing somehow, and it is kind of hard to see that with writing. I also like your idea of taking the pressure off yourself if you're doing something as a hobby. Sometimes it's enough just to enjoy the process. :D