As we are now halfway through October, I’d like to think that summer is finally over.
To a kid, summer means three months of ultimate relaxation and fun. It means no more classes, no more school work. Tons of time to chill.
But after you enter adulthood, summer really loses its meaning. Yes, we continue to have — and be affected by — the seasons, but there’s no more vacation mode. No more time to rest and recharge. It’s just another season you have to power through.
This was my first real summer of just “powering through,” and boy did I learn a lot.
Primarily, I learned that burnout is not at all fun and something you should try to avoid at all costs.
If you don’t already know firsthand about burnout, count yourself among the fortunate. Many writers and entrepreneurs have experienced burnout plenty of times in their lives, and know the pain of unmet deadlines or the disappointment of submitting sub-par work.
There are plenty of articles out there about how to avoid burnout by taking more frequent breaks, changing up your workspace, or even simply setting down your phone to meditate. And while those tips may work for some, I found it incredibly difficult to find the time for a “break” or a new workspace to suffer in.
So we’re gonna get real here — really real — about burnout and the mental (and physical) stress that comes with overworking yourself. I’m going to share with you the only solution I believe in.
The Road to Burnout
I’ve been a freelance writer/editor since mid-2015. As I had put away a hefty amount of savings in college, working for pennies to build my portfolio didn’t bother me too much at first. Luckily, I got to a point where I had enough clients to be full time, while still enjoying the luxury of a work-when-you-want schedule. Sure, I didn’t really have a “weekend,” but I didn’t mind because all seven days were pretty lax.
Then came the move.
Moving is expensive. Moving to Los Angeles is doubly expensive.
My hefty savings started to dwindle as I continued the low-paying freelance work and I started to cut down paid work in favor of working on screenplays of my own.
Then, in early 2017, I was accepted into grad school.
I quickly realized my savings would turn into debt, and that I need to do some damage control as quickly as possible. So I got a
second third fourth job.
That fourth job, which was in customer service and I was told would be part-time, ended up being a full 40 hour a week commitment… non-negotiable.
So, I filled up my coffee mug and got to work.
From June onward, I worked my 40 hour a week job (Job 1), my 20 hour a week content producer job (Job 2), and the few small freelance jobs (3, 4, +) I had on the side.
My schedule was as follows:
- 6:30 – Wake up
- 8:00 – Be at Job 1
- 12:00 – Lunch at Job 1/Fit in some of Job 2, 3, or 4 +
- 12:45 – Back to Job 1
- 5:00 – Done with Job 1
- 5:30 – Home/Hop on the computer for Job 2, 3, 4 +
- 10:30 – Pass out
Lather, Rinse, Repeat. With meals somewhere in there.
On days I had off from the 40 hour a week assignment, I tried to catch up on the work from my other jobs that had been piling up.
My quality of work was diminishing. And people were beginning to notice.
Another One Bites the Dust
Partly because one of my bosses asked me to, and partly because I was curious, I tracked all of my weekly work hours during the mid-summer mayhem.
It was bad. 65+ hours a week bad.
Something had to go.
So, I dropped a couple of freelance clients and limited my load to three jobs.
Did that help?
Didn’t even put a dent in it.
As August came to a close, a friend of mine from England was flying in for a week to visit me and see Los Angeles. I knew that I couldn’t see her and work the hours I’d been working, so I put in for vacation time at all three of those time-consuming jobs.
It wasn’t easy. I had to fight for one, put my foot down for another, and luckily, for the third, Elisa was (is) an angel and basically forced me to take the full five days I asked for (I love CYC, seriously).
While I enjoyed five amazing days away from the computer and responsibility, I was reminded about the exciting things that were to happen in my life. And I was given a huge wakeup call.
Let’s just replay the conversation that started it all:
Rachel (my British friend): So when do you start your post-grad program?
Me: Next month.
Rachel: Wow! So close. Have you been working on scripts for your classes?
Me (stuttering and scrambling): Umm… well… I’ve mostly just been stockpiling ideas to prepare. Don’t want to burn myself out on writing too fast.
Except I was already burnt out. I was so burnt out from work that I hadn’t written a single script page in over six months. I couldn’t even remember when I had last opened Final Draft.
I was about enter an extremely prestigious writing program, and I was woefully underprepared. The career I had been dreaming of for years had fallen by the wayside because I was too busy missing deadlines and missing meals.
For what? A healthy bank account?
With school starting the first week of October, I had a month to get my act together and make some decisions.
Signs You’re Losing Fuel
It wasn’t just the fact that I hadn’t written in months that made me worry. It was the mental and physical changes I went through during summer that truly confirmed I was overworking myself.
According to Psychology Today, these are the signs of burnout (I’ve bolded the ones I exhibited):
- Heart Palpitations
- Gastrointestinal Issues
- Weakened Immune System
- Loss of Appetite
- Cynicism and Detachment
Notice the only one I didn’t bold was insomnia? Yeah, that’s because I would pass out almost every night with my laptop open on my stomach. Fatigue does that to a person.
I was tired all the time, I lost 10+ pounds, I was meaner, I made stupid mistakes. I was forgetful, missing important deadlines because the due date got lost in the slush of my brain. My quality of work took a nose dive as well. I was having to revise more and fix the errors I was making daily.
I simply wasn’t myself. I used to be a great worker and now I was just average.
If you can bold more than three of the points on the list, you should really evaluate how hard you’re working and whether or not you’ve had time to de-stress. Especially when you’re a writer, stress can make you less creative and more prone to writer’s block. And how can a writer work if they aren’t writing?
Psychology Today also advises:
Burnout isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life.
It’s time to make those changes.
The Solution You Don’t Want to Hear
If you’ve spread yourself too thin, buying a new desk isn’t going to solve your problems. Meditating isn’t going to cut down on all the work you have to do.
You have to get your priorities straight, and you have to be a quitter.
I shudder at that word: quitter. It’s a word I associate with failure, and I still have to convince myself every day that quitting has its place and its purpose. It can be a good thing.
My self worth was tied to how hard I could work, how many jobs I could hold down, and how long I could go without failing. But the realization that I had abandoned something I loved, something I planned on doing for the rest of my life… that was true failure.
That 40 hour customer service gig was just that… a gig.
Writing is my career.
So I said goodbye to that 40-hour commitment. I made the choice to value my time, my education, and my sanity more than a few hundred dollars a week (minus California’s insane tax rates).
And that’s what you have to do, too.
You have to stop working yourself too hard.
Choosing What Stays and What Goes
My choice was surprisingly very easy.
School was a definite. The loans were being processed and I had picked all my classes.
As for my job, I went with the one that I loved, that treated me well, and that happily allowed me time off and a flexible schedule. CYC of course!
For you, the choice might be different. Not everyone has a job that treats them well and pays them a decent wage. Or the opportunity to take out loans that will cover your living expenses while going to school (though I will have to pay them back with interest in just a couple years).
You may have to say goodbye to that extra paycheck and maybe that Frappacino you get every Friday. But you’d be gaining hours of your week back. Hours of sanity and happiness. Hours that you can use to focus on long-term goals.
Consider everything you do in a day. Track your time like I did using Toggl or a bullet journal. Are the activities that take up the most of your time helping you to achieve your goals? If not, put them on death row.
No, you can’t give up all your paying work, but you can choose a job that fulfills both the goal of paying rent and building up your chosen career. Don’t spend your life working for a time-suck just for a few extra dollars. Yeah, you may have to cancel your Netflix subscription and mooch off your friends, but you’ll get it back one day!
While you don’t have to cut down all at once, you do need to make a change quickly, or you will hit a wall.
Once you hit that wall, once you’ve reached burnout, you basically shut down and enter crisis mode. It stops being just about work and starts bleeding into everything in your life. Frequent meltdowns at really inconvenient times? Check. Alienating your friends? Check. Perma-Flu? Check.
Don’t let it get to that point. It sucks.
The Road to Recovery
I know I talk a big game about how I’ve reformed my way of life since this summer, but I’m definitely still having to actively curb the work I commit to doing within a week. The voice telling me that quitting isn’t okay hasn’t gone away. It’s a constant battle.
As I write this conclusion, it’s 12:50 a.m., past the article’s deadline, and day nine since my last full day off. I’ll be waking up bright and early to drive to campus, turn in a couple of assignments before their deadlines, and watch a 2+ hour film before we discuss it in class at 1 p.m.
My next full day off should be in three days, but who can say really? Something else always comes up.
But hey, at least I’m not working an extra 40 hours a week. And hey, at least I love what I do.
I know it will get easier once my schedule becomes more definite, and I’ve already found time to meet up with my new classmates and write down an idea or two.
When you’re a writer/entrepreneur, burnout is a very real concern. It comes with the territory. However, even though you’re likely going to face burnout at some point in your career, it’s not something you must simply submit yourself to. Your health and wellbeing is important, and it’s up to you to protect it.
And while capitalism may be evil and price inflation a work of the devil, taking on more work than your body can handle will only hurt you.
So cut that shit out! And know that you have a legion of recovering workaholics to support you.