I write a lot — almost every day, and normally for a couple hours at a time. For me, the hardest thing about writing so much isn’t coming up with ideas, or even finding the time. The trickiest part of writing consistently is avoiding burnout.
I used to think that burnout was inevitable. I’d alternate between writing for hours day after day, and then going weeks without writing a single word. Fortunately, I’ve finally discovered it doesn’t have to be that way.
Last year I focused on managing my energy levels while writing, and not pushing myself to write more than I could handle. I’ve found a few different strategies that helped me break out of the burnout cycle.
Set Goals With Wiggle Room
I like to set goals when I write. Having a clear goal in mind helps provide me with motivation and keep me on track. One of the things that I’ve learned though, is that when goals become too strict, they can end up being counterproductive.
My old style of goal-setting was to give myself a daily word or page count to reach. I could keep up with these strict, daily guidelines for a month or so at a time, but inevitably I’d end up feeling completely burnt out. I was forcing myself to write even when the words weren’t coming, which would end up just making me miserable.
Now, I no longer ever give myself a set number of words or pages to write, and I also don’t try to force myself to write every day. Instead, my goals contain built-in wiggle room, to allow me to take breaks from writing guilt free.
My current goal is to write at least 20 posts this month. It’s still an audacious goal, but it gives me 10 days without writing to use as I need them. I’m also not putting any length requirements on myself, so if I’m ever not feeling up to writing much, I can just write something short.
Don’t Play Catch-Up
Another change that I’ve made is that I stopped playing “catch-up” when I miss my goals. I used to always feel like I was falling behind when I didn’t hit my writing goals. I’d end up adding the missed day’s writing to the next day.
Playing catch-up ended up hurting me in two different ways: first, it would create days on which I had to do way too much writing. Second, it meant that even when I was taking a break from writing, I’d still feel stress from it, knowing that I was creating more work for myself later.
These days, if I miss a goal, I just let it go. If I don’t end up hitting 20 posts this month, that’s fine, and I’ll try again or adjust downward next month. What I won’t do is add the missed posts to next month’s count. That’s just asking for disaster.
Avoiding burnout isn’t just about managing how much I write, but also about paying attention to what I write.
I’ve noticed that if I spend too much time writing about one topic, I’m much more likely to experience burnout than if I write about multiple interests. I try to actively pay attention to how much I’m writing about a given topic, and if I feel like I’m devoting too much time to it, I’ll seek out other things to write about instead.
On Medium, I’ve noticed that my posts about sobriety out-perform my posts about other topics by nearly every metric you can think of. They get more views, more claps, and they’re curated more often. It might seem like an obvious strategy for me to go all-in on “sobriety” posts, writing about nothing else.
That might be a good short-term strategy, but I know that it would lead to burnout which would hurt me long-term. In order to keep writing interesting and fun for me, I need to write about my other interests as well.
I’ve read articles by some writers who are worried that switching between topics will confuse their readers. I don’t think this should be a big concern. As long as the titles of each article or post clearly describe what the post is about, readers should easily be able to tell which posts interest them and which don’t. I trust my readers to stick with me even if they aren’t interested in every single post I make.
Build a Buffer
Another strategy that I use to avoid burnout is to build a small buffer of unpublished writing. This way, if I do need to take a break, I still have a few things to publish during my days off.
I don’t think that it’s necessary to publish something every day, but it can hurt to go entire weeks without writing anything new. By having a small buffer of unpublished posts, I don’t need to stress about taking some time off.
The final, and most important, thing that I do to avoid burnout is simply to be forgiving of myself. Everyone needs to take breaks from writing every once in a while. Everyone will occasionally fall short of their goals. There’s no reason to beat myself up over it when these things happen to me.
Holding yourself to too high a standard ends up creating unnecessary stress. When I remind myself that I’m only human, I can have more fun writing and spend less time feeling burnt out.