Take a Break!

Every writer knows the directive: “Write every day.”

After all, how better to improve your craft, your storytelling, and your productivity?

And sometimes we wordsmithy types spend so much time wringing our hands about marketing, promotion, finding an agent, or any one of the eighty gazillion obstacles to publication that we forget that sometimes you have to put your business brain on pause and just sit your butt down and write the damn thing. Just write.

In her fantastic blog post Here’s How I Work (and you should bookmark it, because it is a glorious kick in your writing pants), Nora Roberts lays bare the truth to becoming a prolific author: she works at it, roughly six to eight hours a day. It is a full-time occupation, and she treats it as such. “I’m able to produce a lot of books because I work every day. Because I don’t go out to lunch or dinner, or to events, go shopping, have hobbies, or socialize all that much. I don’t want to.”

And the Nora Robertses and Stephen Kings of the world are absolutely correct: you should write every day.

But. 

There may come a point when your fingers start dragging across the keyboard. You will stare at the computer screen, your mind refusing to jump into that creative abyss. Your characters might look at you mutinously, then turn their backs. You will reread the sentences you’ve been agonizing over and decide they’re pretty much on par with the poetry of a drunken raccoon. Only less inspired.

You’ll realize you’re just plain burned out. And it won't go away without decisive action—or rather, inaction.

Recognizing the Signs

Classic burnout can include the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Listlessness
  • Anxiety/depression
  • Inability to enjoy your work
  • Not being productive
  • Lack of inspiration/motivation
  • Isolation

Gosh, don’t those sound like fun?

Now I realize it’s very easy for me to sit back in my comfy chair and tell you to take time out regularly to avoid burnout. But the truth is, we don’t always notice when it’s happening. We tell ourselves, “I’m just tired” or “I’m having one helluva bad writing day.” After all, we’re writers. Look how hard we work at our craft! Look how many sacrifices we have made to enjoy this strange book-nerdly life that offers scant financial reward! We do it because we love our work. We love our careers.

But when those bad, slogging days start creeping into your weeks and even months … well, as Whoopi said, “You in danger, girl.”

Because even a job you love can cease to be enjoyable when you are tired and depleted. Whether you write on the side, part-time, or full-time, exhaustion can catch up with you, especially if you’ve been driving yourself hard. Most writers I know aren’t just taking a few hours a day to peck away at their keyboards; many are balancing other careers, families, caretaking, freelancing, and just trying to manage staying upright long enough to get through the day. Is it any wonder many of us are wiped out?

Yet we have a hard time giving ourselves permission to take a break, turn off the computer, and just unwind. Even if we do take time off from our day jobs, we don’t let ourselves unplug because vacation promises that most desirable and elusive opportunity: dedicated time for writing our own personal projects. Sometimes we put off taking vacation because we fear losing the rhythm and structure to our days that allows us to hammer out a few pages whenever we can. At other moments, there is that dark, sinister voice in our heads that suggests writers don’t deserve vacations the way people who work at other more physically demanding jobs do. We tell ourselves that having a wonderful job should be enough.

But it’s not. And our brains may, in fact, demand a break.

Your Brain on Vacation

In “Why Your Mind Needs a Break,” Dr. Sandra Chapman suggests that your brain actually needs a vacation from time to time, as relaxation is key to optimal brain function. “By denying our brains a vacation, we diminish our ability to think creatively and strategically tackle complex problems,” Dr. Chapman writes. “Our brain thinks more clearly when we get off the hamster wheel, stop rushing from one obligation to the next, and make time to relax.” Part of that relaxation, she says, comes from reducing the chronic, everyday stress we experience in balancing our lives in a chaotic, demanding world. “Proven ways to do this include exercising, getting more and better sleep, spending quality time with others, and experiencing new adventures—all more likely to happen while on vacation.”

And it starts with giving ourselves permission to not work. And to not feel guilty about that.

Last year, I took a whole five days of vacation. And for the first time in almost a decade, I left my computer at home. The end result? An anxious moment when I left for the cottage my friends had rented, followed by the realization that I absolutely needed to unplug and not worry about writing, getting work from clients, hustling, or anguishing about the manuscript that I should have been working on. And once I was settled in with fresh air, a gorgeous lake, and a stack of good books (no TV and reading for pleasure!), I realized it was exactly what I needed. My brain, it seemed, was starved for some much-needed time to absorb the world around me, to crawl out of my head, and to take stock of my life from a distance.

Here are a few tips for how to take your writer brain on vacation:

1. Get a change of scenery. “A change is as good as a rest,” or so the expression goes. The truth is that sometimes a staycation isn’t ideal for rejuvenating your creativity. Try to take a few days off in a location that brings you joy. Whether that’s a jaunt to a bright, big city teeming with adventure, a trip somewhere overseas, or even camping in a beautiful state park, get out of your home and your town, and go somewhere that makes you happy, even if it’s only for a few days.

2. Leave the technology at home. Granted, it can be difficult to unplug from our phones, and for some of us, it’s less anxiety provoking to have that phone near-ish in case of emergency or if your family needs to get in touch. But try turning off your data and leaving your phone in the bedroom while you are out and about, and make sure that you have set up an out-of-office autoreply on both your business and personal email accounts. Leave your laptop behind if you can. If you fear the Muse showing up and crashing your vacation, pack a notepad for spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

3. Budget accordingly. If you’re on a tight budget, see if you can borrow someone’s cottage or find an affordable rental to share with friends or family. If you’re outdoorsy, camping can be an economic and fun adventure (weather permitting). You can also look into house-sitting services, which will allow you a free place to stay in the town/country of your choice. If you still can’t afford to go anywhere overnight and don’t have family or friends you can stay with, try taking the week off and scheduling day trips to local sights. Check out the beach, a beautiful park, or a hiking trail, or rent a car for a day trip in another city. Schedule a new adventure for every day, and play tourist in your own town.

4. Bring some new books. If you’re anything like me, finding time to read for pleasure can be a challenge. But not being able to enjoy other authors’ books keeps us from remembering how transportive and inspiring reading can be. Sitting out on a dock or a screened porch with a good book and no pressing responsibilities feels like a little slice of delicious papery heaven. Especially if there are snacks and drinks within reach.

5. Be inspired by the world around you. Let yourself do nothing but absorb your environment—the beauty or the chaos or the excitement of it—without documenting it through written word, pictures, or social media posts. Let your senses commit that moment to memory.

6. Give yourself full permission. You are allowed to do nothing. You are allowed to relax. You are not allowed to panic about the work you are not doing. (Keep repeating those sentences over and over to yourself if you need to until they become truth.)

7. Look for ways to bring “vacation” home with you. Take note of which activities bring you the most pleasure and relaxation. Are they something you can enjoy while at home? Vacation offers us insight into how demanding our professional and personal world may have become. Sometimes this is a great way to make room for more balance, whether that’s taking more time in nature, pleasure reading, seeing the sights, or simply giving ourselves some quiet time to breath.

8. Make a plan for your next vacation. Have a firm talk with yourself. If you’re suffering from burnout now, then you probably need to make a plan for getting some more time off in the future before you end up in the same state. Whether that’s taking a long weekend, committing to a week off every four or six months, or even planning a longer vacation or trip next year, make the promise to yourself. Even better, start booking it now. Nothing forces you to take a vacation like having already spent money on it. Because you will need this time again soon.

And your writing will thank you for it. As Dr. Chapman writes, “You will return to work or school reinvigorated and calm. And your brain will be tuned-up—ready to creatively tackle the most challenging problems with fresh perspective and energy.”

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