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Adding More and Shockingly, Burning Out
I burnt out.
After my sister's surgery (she’s doing great) and traveling to Philadelphia for a wedding (absolutely amazing time) I found myself struggling to write.
Now, depending what platforms you follow me on, I’ve either been very prolific or noticeably absent.
Incrementally, I’ve been adding more and more to my plate, but I didn’t realize I was doing this. By burning out, I was forced to stop and take stock.
I started writing a newsletter to accompany my podcast -. I’ve been writing three Twitter threads a week as part of my role as mentor for my writing course. I’ve expanded my role in other online communities as well, which adds up to mentoring three times a week.
I did not acknowledge any of this to myself and didn’t change anything in my schedule over the past few months to accommodate the things I was adding on. However, my response was some bad lifestyle changes.
Procrastination disguised as night owl tendencies meant I was creating and publishing content closer and closer to 2:00am. The way my schedule was set up, after those late nights, I’d wake up early the next morning for meetings with writing friends across the world. Usually with little to contribute because I was still tired. Inevitably, after a string of Zoom meetings, I’d collapse on my couch for a nap. Hit repeat.
I said yes to every opportunity and every conversation that came my way because I was excited and didn’t want to sacrifice anything. My schedule was a vacuum, filled up by every freelance opportunity, requested phone call and random text message.
What I didn’t realize was that my creative energy was being drained at the same time.
The first time I realized I was burnt out, it was when I pushed off writing my weekly essay for this Substack. I had cleared my schedule for the day, I wasn’t busy with all the things I listed above. Yet, I putz around my home, unable to open my laptop and write. Digging deep inside my mind, I searched for a topic, but for the first time, nothing came up. I checked Twitter, did my laundry, washed my hair and found time for everything but writing.
Then the guilt kicked in. How could I miss writing an essay? I managed to do so when I was traveling for weddings, during my sister’s surgery and when I was balancing paid gigs.
Looking back, I realized I wanted to rest but didn’t want to give myself permission to do so.
I had a few conversations with my writer friends and saw that even though this was the first time I missed my self-imposed writing deadline, I’ve been complaining about burn out almost every month.
I fill up my calendar, overwhelm myself, get tired, and finally recognize I’m burnt out. I’d take a break for a week and then slowly start the same cycle again.
If I looked back on my calendar, I could practically schedule my burn outs. Each month, I’d feel a sense of overwhelm and exhaustion but refused to give anything up.
This helped me see that I had a broken system in place. Which makes sense, because my system was built on an open schedule and good feelings.
When I put together my writing schedule I had no jobs, no online friends, and my only other piece of content was my podcast.
So I took my own advice and started to think about my next few months and what I wanted to prioritize. I enjoy mentoring, but if I’m writing three Twitter threads a week, I need those mini Twitter pieces to help my essay writing, not drain my creative energy.
I like talking to people, but having calls all morning leaves me drained for the rest of the day. I’m not great at switching from long conversations to staring at a blank page, willing a perfect piece to come out. I’m a bit of an ambivert, I enjoy talking to people, but it does take up a lot of my energy.
When I dream about ten years in the future, I always come back to my writing. I love writing essays every week. I hope to one day be a great writer. To me that means publishing pieces that I feel are high caliber. I like a lot of the essays I publish, but I am also hungry to keep improving. When I was sliding late into the night to hit my deadlines, tired and unmotivated, I didn’t feel like my writing is improving.
The tweeting, zoom calls, even mentorships, were all the fun additional opportunities that come from my writing, icing on the cake. But icing alone makes me sick1. And no matter how much you slather on, it definitely can’t hide a poorly baked cake.
So, eventually, after lots of guilt, anxiety and even a few seemingly unrelated fights with my sister, I decided to have some self compassion for myself and admit I was burnt out.
I put a pause on online meetings and have let myself sleep instead of pushing to hit my writing deadlines. I stopped checking my Twitter in the mornings, and replaced that time with sipping coffee and listening to podcasts.
I breathed and finally listed out everything I have to do each week. Looking at my old system, I realized that it was mostly based on feelings and that wasn’t going to cut it if I wanted to keep writing, podcasting and tweeting every week. In Canva, I fashioned a cute little content calendar and printed it out. I am saying “no” more often, building my calendar intentionally, not passively. My goal is to rotate in more planned breaks, so that I give myself permission to pause instead of waiting until my candle wick has reached its end.
Have I solved my problem? It’s hard to tell. Maybe in another month, I’ll be complaining about burn out again. But at least this time, I’m trying something different, and I’m happy to be writing here again.
Michelle Varghoose writes personal essays almost every week. To receive new essays and support my work, consider becoming a subscriber.
I’ve eaten many tubs of cream cheese icing, so I know this to be true.