I have worked with writers for more than a decade, and during that time, I’ve learned that the leading career killer is burnout. While author careers begin in a million different ways, most of them end in just one way: burnout. 

If you are tired, weary, or stuck in your writing, this episode is for you. 

I am no stranger to burnout.

About 18 months ago, I woke up so overwhelmed that I couldn’t get out of bed. I had a mental breakdown and spent the whole day in bed, unable to decide what to do or what to work on. I was totally burnt out. I tallied my current responsibilities and realized I had 19 different roles. 

Something had to change.

I used a tool developed in my mastermind group called the Project Value Planner. I used this simple spreadsheet to rank each of my activities according to how easy they were to complete, how much joy I received from completing them, and how much money they made.

Each activity received a score of 1 to 10 based on Easiness, Joy, and Revenue. Formulas built into the spreadsheet multiplied the rankings into a Total Value score. Then I sorted my activities by Total Value score to see how valuable each project was and how they compared to each other.

The results were pretty clear. Most of my 19 roles had mediocre scores, but a few activities on the list scored high. I started cutting the lowest scoring activities out of my life. It was painful at the time but so needed. 

Up to that point, the Novel Marketing show was co-hosted by James L. Rubart. He was also swamped, and he went through a similar process. Interestingly, the same process for him produced very different results. For me, the Project Value Planner made it clear I needed to keep hosting Novel Marketing. For Jim, the same process revealed he needed to stop hosting the podcast.

The revelations of the Project Value Planner led to the famous Novel Marketing episode 204 Focus, Pruning and Why Novel Marketing is About to Change, where Jim stepped down from the hosting podcast. He still comes back from time to time but he is no longer on every episode.

I think that episode saved the show. If we hadn’t taken these drastic steps, I think we would have podfaded. 

Jim desperately needed more time for his other exciting projects. Stepping away from the podcast opened up a lot of time to work on those projects. When I stepped away from my non-podcast activities, I gained a lot of hours to put more work into the podcast.

Interestingly, around that time, many of the other book marketing podcasts podfaded.

  • The Book Marketing Show
  • Sci-Fi & Fantasy Marketing Podcast
  • The Smarty Pants Book Marketing Podcast
  • Book Launch Show

While Sell More Books Show didn’t podfade, it did have a host changeup. 

I will have a free template version of the Project Value Planner spreadsheet in the show notes if you want to try it out yourself.  

I don’t hold anything against the shows that came to an end. Podcasting every week is a lot of work. The return on the time investment must be worth it for the host. Patrons who supported Novel Marketing kept it on the air. Most of the writing podcasts that survived 2019 and 2020 have solid backing from their listeners on Patreon. 

I spent most of 2019 cutting responsibilities, many of which were generating income. Naturally, I saw a corresponding drop in revenue. It was a painful process and a tough year. But by the end of 2019, it was mostly done. On December 29, our son Tommy was born, and we entered 2020 with high hopes. 

When the lockdowns started in March, I had the extra capacity to do a series of free webinars. I put together a free virtual Writers Conference via webinar presentations. I wanted to offer online training for writers to make up for all the in-person conferences that had been suddenly canceled. This was back in the “We can get through this together” part of the pandemic where we thought it would only last for a few weeks. 

I enjoyed giving back to the community, and the webinars boosted my email list subscribers, so it was a win for writers and a win for me. But all those webinars, in addition to my two weekly podcasts, was a ton of work. When the webinars were over, I plunged into teaching the 2020 Book Launch Blueprint. As it turned out, it was the biggest and most intense Book Launch Blueprint to date. Many of our students were locked at home and worked on the course all day long.

The first week’s intensity induced a stress migraine, and I realized I had committed to more work than I could handle. My mistake was not in hosting the webinars and courses but in maintaining that frantic pace after the course was over. I learned the importance of taking breaks.

When the Book Launch Blueprint ended, I picked up some consulting clients and spent a lot of time working with them even though my spreadsheet told me it was not the best use of my time. The problem was, I really liked my clients, and one of them was the New York Times bestselling author of a household-name book.

When those consulting engagements wound down, I started to work on my newest course, Obscure No More, which brings us to today. Even with the previous year’s pruning, I have been going, going, going throughout 2020.  

This year has been a tough one for many. Depending on your situation, you may not have touched or been touched by another human for months. Some people haven’t seen another human face that wasn’t covered by a mask or on a screen. Some of us didn’t receive a paycheck for months, and others had to work harder to make the same money we made last year. 

For my family, 2020 has felt like one blow after another. Whether it was emergency ambulance trips to the ER, a death in the family, social isolation, or living in lockdown with an energetic toddler and a brand new baby, it’s been a tough year. 

It has also been a full year. Our growing family prompted us to begin the process of moving to a new house and selling our current house.   

The adrenaline of the pandemic has worn off, and we still have a long road ahead.

Many authors took their pandemic adrenaline and put it into their writing. I know this because the literary agents tell me they are receiving twice as many proposals as they normally get.

I suspect 2021 will be for the publishing world what 2019 was for the book marketing podcast world. A lot of authors are going to get burnt out and quit.  

As someone who has struggled with burnout, I want to share some lessons I learned the hard way over the last few years. Learn from my mistakes. By implementing a few things I learned the hard way, you can keep your writing career alive. 

Lesson #1 Rest is Important

Writing is like exhaling. But if you want to exhale great writing, you must also inhale periods of rest. 

Interestingly, one of the Ten Commandments is about rest. Most of the commandments make sense instinctively. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, and don’t murder. 

But why is there one that instructs us to rest? I won’t pretend to know, but I will say when I am exhausted, I am not my best self.

Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to assess their triggers using the acronym HALT, which stands for: 

  • Hungry 
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

Alcoholics are most likely to relapse when they experience those triggers. When you set aside one day to rest and share a meal with your community, you address all four triggers. Rest makes it easier to be a better person and a better writer. 

When I set an unsustainable pace for myself, my life begins to suffer. It is fine to devote every spare minute to writing your novel for a season. But if every month is National Novel Writing Month, you’ll burn out. 

The ancients believed in three kinds of rest.

Daily Rest

Take a daily five-minute break from writing to walk around the block and clear your head. Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation has been recognized as a public health epidemic, and it is taking a toll on us physically and emotionally. With everything locked down, you’d think we get more sleep, but the screens in our homes are the biggest enemies of rest. The CEO of Netflix once said that their biggest competitor is sleep. 

If you feel burnt out, try going to bed an hour earlier. You may be surprised how much better you feel after an additional hour of sleep. 

But that much-needed hour may require you to cut 60 minutes of activity from your day. 

What could you prune from your schedule to make more time for sleep each day?

Try taking a nap. I was stuck on the outline for this episode and felt it was headed in the wrong direction. So I took a nap. When I woke up, I had a fresh vision, and this episode is better than it might have been. Science supports the power of napping

Weekly Rest

Weekly rest is specifically mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Resting for one day out of seven is beneficial to your physical, mental, and spiritual health.

In college, I scored straight A’s during the semesters that I refused to study or do homework on Sundays. Resting my mind helped me learn better. My grades were worse in the semesters when I did study on Sundays. I realized that working longer is not the same as working better.

My challenge with weekly rest is that I’m tempted to spend the whole day zoned out on one screen or another. In my experience, it’s actually more restful to hike with my wife and kids. I suspect I would be happier if I took my children to the playground more often. It would give them space and time to burn their manic toddler energy and would likely make our house a bit quieter after we returned home.

Seasonal Rest

Nearly every civilization in the history of the world celebrated holidays of some kind. Humans have a deep need for special rest days from time to time. Holidays allow us to celebrate triumphs and mitigate sadness. 

Imagine living in the frozen north before electricity was invented. Winter was dark, cold, and long. You would want a holiday of light near the shortest and darkest day of the year because it would remind you that the light, warm spring was on its way. The darkest, coldest time of the year can be transformed into the “most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s helpful to take holidays collectively, as we do this time of year. Returning from a holiday is different than returning from vacation. After a vacation, I have a stack of work piled up by all the people who were not on vacation. It often takes me days just to catch up on email. 

But when I take a holiday along with everyone else, the pile of emails and undone tasks is smaller because no one else was working either!  

I want to lean into the Christmas holiday this year. To practice what I preach, I plan to take a break from recording new episodes for the rest of the year. This way, you can take a break too!

I have never made a gingerbread house before, and now my daughter is old enough to enjoy that kind of holiday activity. She’s already made one with her mother, so perhaps they can show me how to do it. 

Lesson #2 Pacing is Important

Once upon a time, a turtle and a rabbit had a foot race. The rabbit raced out of the gate but soon got tired and distracted. Meanwhile, the turtle kept going, and slowly and steadily he won the race. 

The slow, steady pace isn’t just for fables. It proves effective for people in real life (just as it proves effective for turtles in real life, as shown in this YouTube video!). 

Rest

Now you might think that pacing and rest are at odds with each other, but they’re not. Rest is part of pacing. Just as you need to inhale in order to exhale, you must be rested to keep a steady pace. 

You could say pacing is resting while you work. Choosing a sustainable speed means keeping energy in reserve to be used a little at a time for the whole race. 

Beware of taking advice from the runner who sprints past you at the start of the marathon. You may find yourself passing them and their bad advice after a few miles of maintainable pace. 

Prune

We are each allotted 24 hours per day. When you choose to work on one thing for an hour, you choose not to work on anything else during that hour. If you choose to multi-task for an hour, you choose to get nothing done except switching between tasks. We only get one shot at each day, and there are no checkpoints, save games, or do-overs. 

If you want to succeed at something, you must be willing to invest time and effort into that thing. Maybe that ought to be common sense, but I see so many authors who are stingy with their time and treasure and then become frustrated when they don’t see results. If you want to reap, you must first sow.  

Good activities can rob time and resources from the best activities. If you want a healthy tree, you must be willing to prune it. You cut some of the healthy branches so the remaining branches will receive more nutrients and eventually bear more fruit. 

The Project Value Spreadsheet is a pruning tool. It allows you to identify the healthiest branches in your life. Since it tracks joy and effort in addition to income, you’ll see the true value of each activity. Download it below to give it a try.

Cooperate 

A sustainable pace requires a supportive community. Marathon runners have the support of people handing out water and Gatorade at hydration stations all along their route. 

Almost every book has an acknowledgments section where the author thanks all the people involved in the project. Authors without a supportive community don’t typically make it. If your spouse is jealous of your book, you have a rough road ahead. 

If the pace of your life harms important relationships, it’s too intense. Slow down. Leave time to nurture relationships, and you will go farther.” Click to Tweet

Supportive relationships help you go the distance. Choose a pace your family can keep up with. The more supportive your family and friends are, the more successful you will be. 

Lesson #3 Organization is Important

I burn out faster when I’m disorganized because everything takes more work. It is like trying to cut down a tree with a dull ax. To sharpen your ax and make the job go faster, get organized!

Use an Organization System

The scientific law of entropy tells us that things naturally progress from a state of order to disorder. Humans are special because we can learn to fight against entropy. We can bring order to a chaotic world. 

If you say phrases like, “I’m not an organized person.” Stop! It’s toxic, poisonous, and self-defeating. No one is born organized. Now that I am a father, I know this with certainty. The first thing my children were able to make was a mess. Even their adorable attempts to clean make the area messier after they “help.” 

Organization is a learned skill. Instead of saying, “I’m not an organized person,” say, “I am the kind of person who can learn how to use an organizational system.” 

Some people can create organizational systems themselves, just like some people can start their own religions. But it’s rare. Most of us need to use someone else’s system. When it comes to choosing an organizational system, the best tool is the one that you will use. 

Some systems I like are:

There are hundreds of systems out there, so pick one that works for you. 

If you are not sure which system to pick, the Productivity Lab Podcast reviews a new productivity system every couple of weeks. Then they record an episode about what they liked and disliked. 

Keep Your Workspace Clean

When I was in Boy Scouts, I took the Auto Mechanics Merit Badge. One of the dads in our troop was a mechanic at one of the best auto shops in town, and he brought us to his shop to take the merit badge. 

He earned a six-figure income, and he was very proud that he made more money than most of the other dads in the troop even though he had what many would consider a “low-status” job.

In his auto shop, mechanics were paid by the job. The faster the mechanic finished the job, the more money he could make in a day. Slow, sloppy work meant the mechanic had to re-do the job without extra pay. Mechanics who did quick, quality work made a lot more money.

He showed us his toolbox filled with hundreds of tools. He said each tool had a specific spot, and he always returned the tool to its exact spot after he was done using it. “I never have to look for tools. This saves me a lot of time. I always know exactly where each tool is because it is always exactly where it goes. In fact, I can grab some of these tools without even looking.” 

Mechanics reach for tools hundreds of times each day. Minutes wasted looking for tools add up to wasted hours. Because of his simple organization system, he could work faster and produce higher quality work.

His discipline to stay organized and focus on the work at hand made his work very profitable. He also kept his bay shockingly clean.

Keep your writing space tidy and free from distractions. If you try to write while surrounded by visual reminders of uncompleted tasks (a.k.a. clutter), you’re likely to struggle with burnout. 

This also applies to your digital workspace. Keep your research organized. Turn off alerts and notifications on your computer. Some authors try to write with Outlook notifications turned on. Every five minutes, Outlook dings and pulls them away from their writing. Don’t be that author! Don’t let Outlook be the boss of you. 

In Judaism, the Feast of Unleavened Bread holiday includes a ritual where adherents deep-clean their house to ensure all the leven is removed. The Passover Meal at the end of the holiday is like a reward for doing the spring cleaning. 

What would happen to our productivity if we took a holiday to deep-clean our workspaces and houses? 

Use the Right Tool

Sometimes work is hard because you are using the wrong tool for the job. If you are still writing books in Microsoft Word and relying on Word’s spell check feature, you are making life unnecessarily hard on yourself.

I won’t belabor this point since I already wrote an entire blog post this year called the 2020 Software Guide for Authors. In that episode, I recommend tools that will make writing faster and easier. 

Refusing to use Scrivener because it takes time to learn is like refusing to drive a car because it takes time to get a license. Sure, you can ride your bike to work, but the time it takes to learn to drive will pay for itself many times over. 

Most people drive a car to work because it’s faster and leaves more time and energy for their job. For the same reason, most successful authors use Scrivener (or another Word alternative) to write their books.  

Lesson #4 Challenge is Important

Stress is not the only cause of burnout. Some authors burn out because they get bored with their writing. I see this often with successful genre authors. 

Readers want a certain kind of book from the author, but over the years, the author may tire of writing the same kind of book. These authors often try to branch out into an entirely different genre only to find it doesn’t resonate with their current readers. So back to the grindstone they go. 

So, what should you do about it?

Challenge Yourself

Even if the genre or tropes begin to bore you, you can challenge yourself to improve your craft within the genre. Chose an area that you feel you can improve and create a challenge for yourself around that area. 

Jerry Jenkins, who had already written over 100 books and sold millions of copies, wrote The Last Operative (Affiliate Link) without any dialogue attribution tags. Most readers didn’t notice, but Jenkins’s creative challenge helped him hone his craft and made writing the book more creatively interesting.

Ernest Vincent Wright wrote Gadsby, a 50,000 word novel without the letter E. That’s a silly example, but it illustrates the extremes measures authors will take to keep their writing challenging.

Read Good Books

Reading a masterpiece tends to inspire you to write better. As your writing improves, your appreciation for good literature will grow. If you reread your favorite classic book, as an established writer, you will see it with new eyes. Instead of just seeing what the book was about, you will see how the author used storytelling elements. Analyzing old favorites is inspiring because you can apply the same methods to your new book.

Perhaps you notice how Mark Twain uses character voice as an element of foreshadowing that makes you want to keep reading. You may not be writing about a trip down a river, but you could implement that technique in your writing.

Branch Out With a Pen Name

Authors who are bored with their genre can also write a different kind of fiction under a pen name. J.K. Rowling used the pen name “Robert Galbraith” when she authored her Cormoran Strike series of crime thrillers.

Writing under a pen name sets you free from the expectations of your existing readers. But it also means you will leave your readers behind. The pen name strategy works best for authors who have enough money to take the risk of starting over.

Rest, pacing, organization, and challenge are crucial elements for maintaining a long and healthy writing career. Making a few important changes now will yield astonishing results in the long run and will keep you from burning out. 

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Michael Jack Webb, author of Infernal Gates

Time is running out for Ethan Freeman, an ex-Special Forces Ranger, to stop the conspiracy to free The Destroyer and his horde of Fallen Angels.

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Personal Update

When I first talked about my pruning process on Novel Marketing, I mentioned that my goal was to get down to one business card by the time I turned 35. When I celebrated my 35th birthday last month, several of you asked if I had achieved my goal. 

Thank you for asking. I’m pleased to report I am the proud owner of a single business card. 

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