Beating Burnout

By Phyllis Hanlon

Your phone has been ringing regularly; your mailbox is stuffed with assignments for magazine and newsletter articles; every time you sign onto the Internet, the familiar “You’ve got mail!” announcement greets your ears along with several positive responses to your e-queries. The freelance life is looking good. The paychecks have started to roll in on a regular basis and you’ve stopped questioning your decision to leave the “9 to 5” world of suits, commutes, and office politics. So why are you feeling like you’ve gotten on a merry-go-round and can’t get off? After the initial euphoria at your growing success, could you be experiencing freelance burnout?

Much like a hamster that expends countless hours and an inordinate amount of energy “spinning his wheels,” freelance writers can sometimes feel as if they, too, have embarked on a frenetic, go-nowhere journey. Sometimes the more intensely you work, the less you seem to accomplish. As you feverishly make and answer phone calls, conduct interviews, send out queries, spend hours at the computer or with pen poised over paper, you may find your desk still piled high with last week’s assignments. Burnout can be distressing emotionally and might lead to financial backsliding if not addressed. By acknowledging that you need to recharge and then taking steps to accomplish that goal, you can begin the journey toward restoring balance and reclaiming that initial feeling of joy.

John McCollister, author of Writing for Dollars: 75 Tips For The Freelance Writer, notes that juggling several projects at once helps to keep ideas fresh and flowing. “If you’re writing a book, start a magazine article. Or write some verses for greeting cards,” he writes. “By changing gears, you lessen your chances of burnout.” According to McCollister, tackling a new niche area can potentially take you in a different direction and possibly result in additional assignments. He cites Charles L. Dodgson as a prime example. An Oxford mathematician, Dodgson switched from writing academic papers on calculus and trigonometry to creating a children’s book still widely read today. Using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Dodgson penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Although not the same as writer’s block, burnout might be resolved with remedies designed to replenish ideas and promote creative flow. In her book The Right To Write: An Invitation And Initiation Into The Writing Life, Julia Cameron speaks of the “writer’s well,” an “inner pond” that holds an unlimited source of ideas and energy. But much like a river or lake after a long, arid spell, that pool of resources can run dry. Cameron’s suggestions for refilling the well through an “artist date” may refresh the overworked freelance writer and reinstate balance.

The last thing you might want to do when your desk is piled high with assignments approaching deadline is to take time off. However, this counter-intuitive idea might be the answer to your problem. Cameron advises outings to museums, aquariums, craft, map or plant stores, and gardens among other thoughts—any activity that removes you from your present stressful and overwhelming situation. Her reasoning suggests that investing in one area of life, i.e., “self-enrichment,” will pay off in another. She writes, “If we lead a life that is too narrow, too focused, too oriented toward our goals, we will find our writing lacks flavor, is thin on the nutrients that make it both savory and sustaining.” Try expanding your world and your outlook. You might find the experience beneficial in a number of areas of life.

Another quick and inexpensive way to recharge is a mini-vacation. Unlike a vacation in the true sense of the word—after all, you wouldn’t hop a plane for an exotic island after each assignment—a shorter version has the power to jumpstart your energy, drive, and enthusiasm. This “vacation” might consist merely of a walk outdoors, an hour with a good book unrelated to business, 15 minutes of meditation or a vigorous weeding session in the garden. All of these activities serve to remove your focus from the job at hand and direct it toward a different, non-writing related event.

Vigorous exercise serves to work your physical muscles as well as your mental ones. Experts have proved that burnout resulting from stress can lead to a number of medical ailments ranging from hypertension, obesity, and depression to immune system disorders and even cancer. Keeping that in mind, a regular program of exercise will ensure your physical health, which directly impacts your emotional well-being. The natural chemical changes that occur in your body after exercise may even stir up the creative juices and bring a fresh perspective when you return to your desk.

John Clausen, author of Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal, takes the reader back to childhood with his suggestion for rejuvenating body and spirit. Take a nap! Seriously, he admits that he naps daily to refresh himself. “One of the best things I do for myself is a thirty-minute, post-lunch siesta on the couch in my office,” he writes. “I wake up refreshed and ready to work. I have no doubt that a little down time increases the quality of my writing. Plus, it makes me feel like a free man.” Clausen warns not to exceed the half-hour limit. He maintains that a longer nap will leave you groggy. “If you need more than half an hour to replenish your energy level, then you probably ought to be getting more sleep at night.”

If you notice the signs of burnout creeping into your day, don’t give up and call your former boss or study the “Help Wanted” pages. By varying the assignments that you tackle, taking regular “mini-vacations,” engaging in some kind of physical activity, and post-lunch napping, you can recharge those draining batteries. Like all precious resources, a writer’s mind needs to be protected and nurtured. By taking care of the body, your mental faculties will remain sharp and your outlook, positive. Now, excuse me, while I prepare for my afternoon nap.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible.

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