I’ve written about harmful productivity myths in the past.
I’ve also talked about the benefits of scheduling your (writing) time. This works on the principle that, if something is important to you, then you need to block time in your schedule to dedicate to it. Protect that time and treat it in the same way as you would a medical appointment, i.e. turn up on time, turn off your phone, and focus on the reason you’re there.
However, I’ve since discovered that my (rigid) approach to scheduling (the approach I’ve taken for many years) might not be working for me as well as I thought.
I’m sure I’m not the only creative out there riding dangerously close to burn-out. These issues are pertinent for me right now, so I wanted to share my experience in the hope that it might be helpful for others.
Schedules are designed to be strict and to help keep us focused and on track with our goals. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be flexible, and it doesn’t mean they can’t be changed if they aren’t working for us!
MY START TO 2023
I begin every New Year with new energy, optimism, and carefully-thought-out goals and plans. I always tell myself that this year will be ‘my year’. I always have lofty ambitions and unrealistic expectations about how much I can achieve. I always forget that I get tired, or that life happens, or that my children are walking petri dishes.
This year was no different.
Logically I know I’m prone to this, but although I can see the trap, I always seem to fall into it.
Unfortunately, this year I fell into it hard.
I’ve been reasonably productive: I’m nearly halfway through developmental edits for my novel and I’ve entered a number of writing competitions. I’ve kept up with my editing, business and marketing schedules. My children are happy and healthy. My home, while far from immaculate, has at least seen a vacuum cleaner in recent history.
However, burn-out is deceptive.
If I’m being honest with myself, it’s been bedding in for months. However, it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve felt able to admit it to myself.
I have so many goals and ambitions that I pile loads of stuff onto my plate, forgetting I have two young children who already take up most of my time and energy. I spend all my days working, writing, or looking after my children. I spend most of my evenings working until late. And, let’s face it, parenting is 24/7 anyway: especially when your kid gets ill or won’t sleep or falls out of bed. Looking at you, Big Bro.
My children are (of course) my number one priority and they come before everything else.
I love writing and editing, and I love the business I’m trying to build. But it’s important to remember that passion and dedication can only get us so far.
It doesn’t matter how much I love what I do: if I keep pushing my body and mind at this intensity then, sooner or later, I’m going to crash and burn.
The signs of burn-out, and the speed at which it sets in, varies for everyone. For me it is a gradual thing. I spend weeks or months thinking I’m doing okay and handling everything, and to be honest I can keep up an intense pace for long periods of time.
However, at some point on the downward trajectory, it hits me that I have no energy, little motivation, and I’m struggling to focus on anything. My body aches. I’m grumpy. I realise it’s been ages since I took my boys for a countryside walk, or read a book, or spent quality time with my husband.
This time it took a three-week bout of multiple illnesses passing back and forth between my children (and, thus, completely disrupting my work time) to make me realise I was exhausted and sliding into burn-out.
In the future I want to do more research and put together a separate post on burn-out and possible ways to deal with it. For now I’m only able to tell you about my experience and the strategies which are helping me right now. They may or may not help you, but the main message I hope you get from this post is that your schedule and goals can (and should!) be flexible, especially if you’re a parent and / or have many demands on your time.
CHANGE THE GOAL POSTS
The first thing I did, especially after my kids kept getting ill, was change my goals. I postponed developmental edits on my novel until March. I looked through my remaining tasks, cancelling some and delaying others.
The decision about which tasks are most important or urgent is personal to each of us and depends on what is happening at that time, but I knew which tasks I could be more flexible with (at least in the short-term).
This helped me deal with the massively-reduced work time and helped me stay focused on priority tasks.
I also had to re-learn the lesson that sometimes life will throw something unexpected at you (daily if you have kids), and if this happens then it’s outside your control and you just have to deal with it as best you can. Logically I know this, and yet I still get deeply frustrated every time I get the ‘dreaded phonecall’ from school, or the call from my Mum telling me Little Bro just re-created the vomit scene from The Exorcist.
For me, that frustration and perceived loss of control contributes to my burn-out, especially if I don’t adjust my expectations and show kindness to myself.
CHANGE THE SCHEDULE
Although I altered my tasks and goals, I could sense that the stress of dealing with all those illnesses was exacerbating a deeper problem for me.
In a nutshell, I have a nasty habit of overloading myself, and then feeling surprised when I can’t keep that pace up indefinitely. I know some of this is internalised capitalism telling us we have no worth if we’re not working every hour of the day and being productive 100% of the time, but, even though it’s relevant, I’ll save that rant for another day.
For now, I’m carrying out some major housekeeping on my daily and weekly schedules.
I’m fortunate that Big Bro is in school and I have some childcare during the week for Little Bro. I’m naturally more productive earlier in the day (which also contributes to the evening-work problem!) so I’m going to assign most of my writing, editing and marketing work to the weekday hours when I have childcare. Instead of spending most of my evenings working, I’m assigning most of them to self-care, life admin, and spending time with my husband.
It will probably mean I can’t get as much done, or as quickly. Then again, it might not: if I’m getting more rest and sleep in the evenings then I should have more energy and motivation during my daytime work hours, which might mean I get more done in those hours than I would’ve done if I was exhausted from the night before.
Regardless, I need to start taking better care of my physical and mental health. I want to read more books. I want to take care of myself and my relationships. I want to enjoy life instead of always being in ‘work mode’. I enjoy writing and it is relaxing to an extent, but it’s still a form of work and is still mentally tiring.
If I have a deadline then I might temporarily step back into working evenings to meet it, but I don’t want evening work to continue being the norm for me.
The lesson (for me, and possibly for others): if your schedule isn’t working for you, then change it. Experiment with it. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re genuinely exhausted and skip a writing session. The schedule is there as a tool to help us do the things we want to do, not as a stick to beat ourselves over the head for being humans and not machines.
I realise I’m in the privileged position of working for myself and therefore having more control over my schedule than many who are in formal employment. Society is an absolute mess right now and I don’t have the time, space, or mental bandwidth to delve deeply into the topic here. Capitalism, burn-out, climate change, prejudice, inequality… all of it is linked.
All I’ll say here is: if you have any control over your situation at all, please try your best to protect your boundaries and protect your health. I know from experience that that’s easier said than done, but maybe if more of us, in our own small ways, resist toxic working patterns as much as we can, then that could be one way to nudge society towards the changes it so desperately needs.
It is difficult to put into words what I’ve been feeling in recent weeks! However, if there’s one thing I hope you’ll take from this, it’s that having some flexibility in your schedule and your goals is vital for productivity, physical and mental health, and life in general.
BEFORE YOU GO…
Do you have any thoughts on this difficult topic? Have you experienced burn-out? Is there anything which helps you deal with it? Please join in the discussion (contact details below).
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Disclaimer: generative AI
I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All of my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.