Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Burnout

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing


Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Burnout

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Some of you might think it strange to go from discussing success to discussing burnout, but the progression seems logical to me. Most people I know who have burned out have burned out during or after a great success.

First, let’s talk about burnout itself. “Burnout” spelled as one word is a recent colloquialism used to describe a physical and psychological distinction. It’s so new, in fact, that my favorite desk dictionary, The Macmillan Contemporary Dictionary, which I bought in 1979 while in college doesn’t list the one word version. Macmillan says that “burn out” is to stop burning by lack of fuel (the fire burned out) or (second definition) to wear out due to heat or friction (the car’s engine burned out).

And you know, both are right if you think metaphorically, which is probably how this whole turn of phrase got started. Because, by the new century, burnout had become one word and it described a human condition: “psychological exhaustion and diminished efficiency,” my Encarta World English Dictionary describes it, and says it results from overwork or prolonged exposure to stress. The synonyms include “to be used up.”

Sometimes dictionary definitions are silly (as we saw in the definitions of success), but sometimes they’re quite useful. I find these useful. Because to be burned out feels like you’ve been used up. It does result in diminished efficiency (such a bloodless phrase). If you think of it in terms of an engine, it does feel as if the engine has flamed out and there is nothing left.

I’ve been burned out a number of times in my life. I burned out at the radio station from sheer exhaustion. I got five hours of sleep per night. Normally I’m an eight-hour per night person. My husband and friends will tell you I’m unpleasant if I get six hours three days running. Imagine how unpleasant I was back then. I went on four to five hours of sleep for months. In those days, I didn’t believe in naps. So I went to work at 5 a.m. for the 6 a.m. newscast, finished by 10, went out with the gang for breakfast, and walked home. Then I wrote nonfiction for three hours, and walked back to the station by 3:30 at the latest to put together the 7 p.m. newscast. I left at 8:30, had dinner, watched a little TV and tried to sleep by 11.

You’ll note that there isn’t a lot of downtime in that schedule. Nor did I take any days off. I wrote fiction on the weekends. In addition, I kept myself fueled through my normal afternoon energy low (which is now my nap time) by alternating caffeine and fudge on the half-hours. My addition to both was so bad that when I retired (yep, another official retirement, this one at the age of 25), crew gave me a palate of fudge as a going-away present.

For years, I got tired just thinking of going back to radio. Whatever I had burned out hadn’t been replaced.

I’ve had other burnouts, some much worse, one caused by a complete crisis of confidence in my writing combined with some very bad business decisions on my part. I also had health problems which didn’t allow me to exercise which, I’ve learned, is a real key to my mental health. I remember working in that period, but it felt like I was working underwater—each movement slow and careful, my writing speed down to a tenth of normal.

I watched that working under water phenomenon happen to my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, as our business Pulphouse Publishing collapsed in 1992. Dean had been working on the ragged end of exhaustion for nearly four years at that point, trying to do everything. Somewhere around 1990, we tried to hire a manager to take some of the burden off of him, but we couldn’t find anyone competent whom we could afford. About 1991 or so, writer Christina F. York, a long time friend, started giving Dean pamphlets and intervention materials on stress—what happens when you get stressed out, how to know which stage of stress you’re in, the fact that stress leads to burnout—and Dean flung them aside. He knew that the burnout was coming; he just wanted to hold it off until he could afford to hire his own replacement.

That day never happened. Instead, a bad financial wave caused by the first Gulf War practically destroyed mail order in this country (and Pulphouse was primarily a mail order business). We compounded the problem by making bad financial decisions (how do you think I learned all the stuff in the financial parts of this Guide?) and we had to layoff the entire staff, everyone except Dean. I took the part time editing job at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to bring in a guaranteed monthly outside income.

Dean continued to work to save the business—or what he could of the business. His real goal was to prevent a bankruptcy because we didn’t want to deal with the copyright issues. To make matters worse, his father died. So in the midst of grief for his father and grief for the loss of the business, in the middle of great stress, he had to try to get something done each and every day.

He could barely get out of bed, yet he managed. But I have vivid memories of him in this period moving like an eighty-year-old man with bad arthritis, forgetting where he was half the time as he tried to complete a task.

Burnout—when it happens—is real, and it takes you down hard. It happens to the strongest of us. (I call Dean my own personal Superman—he can keep up with 20-somethings in physical labor, even now, when he’s almost three times their age.) In fact, it seems to happen to the strongest of us because we’re the ones who don’t rest when we need to, sometimes because we don’t dare—we feel we’ll lose what’s important to us.

So those of us who burnout are surprised by it, even when the people around us aren’t. Dean’s impending burnout at Pulphouse was obvious to everyone around him, but we couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Years later, when I burned out, Dean tried to warn me it was coming. He saw the signs very clearly, but I didn’t. I remember being surprised when the burnout finally happened.

So what are the signs of burnout?

1. Great physical exhaustion—not just a little tiredness, but the kind that prevents you from getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes people who are this tired need to be hospitalized for exhaustion.

2. Emotional exhaustion. People who are burned out feel like they can’t deal with life the way they used to. Things that they might have ignored now make them angry. Extreme irritability, anger, negativity are all part of burnout. Also an inability to feel joy. The things that you used to enjoy are now burdens.

3. Pessimism. Those of us who freelance are by nature optimists. We have to have hope or we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We might be cynics, we might seem a little rough around the edges, but at heart, we believe that things will always get better because if we didn’t, we couldn’t freelance. But in burnout, the optimism goes away. The world seems black. There is no hope. A once-hopeful person becomes an angry pessimist.

4. Inefficiency. Someone who could get fifteen things done in an hour now can’t finish any tasks. Work goes unfinished or simply forgotten. Fewer and fewer things matter—including work or once beloved tasks.

5. Decreased social contact/ruined relationships. Usually the relationships don’t end because of a big dramatic scene, but because the burned-out person withdraws. Even in the closest relationships, like marriage, the burned-out person no longer has any interest in participating. Like everything else when you’re burned out, relationships seem like too much work with very little point.

6. Increased illness. You’d think that’s just part of #4—a way of getting out of work. But study after study shows that the body under stress has a decreased immune response, so if a cold enters your town and you’re burned out, you’ll be one of the first people sick. My personal opinion is that’s the body’s way of slowing you down; if it can’t slow you down with exhaustion, it’ll force you down. I don’t know of studies to back that up, but I’ve seen it time and time again with my stressed-out, burned-out friends—and of course, it’s happened to me.

If any or all of these things are going on in your life right now, you’re burned out, and you’ll have to make changes. Some of the changes are simple—but you’ll have to force yourself to care enough to make them (which is hard).

To fight burnout, you need to:

1. Sleep eight hours a night. Not ten, not eleven, because too much sleep over a long period of time can be as harmful as too little.

2. Eat well. Nutritious food, not fudge on the half hour, but something small and healthy every few hours.

3. Exercise. One thirty-minute walk per day will reduce your stress level, even if you don’t have time to take the walk. Walk as you work on the problems in your life instead of sitting at your desk stewing about them.

Some experts on burnout recommend that you get rid of the thing that’s stressing you the most—banish it from your life. Other experts say you shouldn’t make important decisions when you’re in crisis.

The problem for the self-employed is that our jobs burn us out. The Mayo Clinic has a great article on job-related burnout. The article takes you through the symptoms, some of the causes, and suggests some solutions.

In this economy, however, those of us who have real world jobs (jobs in which other people pay us) don’t want to lose them. And those of us who work for ourselves might be struggling to keep our heads above water. Getting rid of our small business or changing jobs isn’t an option.

So what do you do?

Figure out if the burnout is job related. It might be. If you own the business, you’re in a position to make some positive changes. Money or the lack of it is often a huge stressor. See the sections on money management for some help with that.

You might have some dysfunctional employees. Either change their behavior or get rid of the employees. Again, in this economy, it shouldn’t be hard to find replacement workers.

Look at the other suggestions in the Mayo article: it might help you combat the work-related stress.

But let me get to the reason I lump burnout with success. While some of my burnout (and Dean’s) has come from failure, most of it has come from success.

I can hear the chorus of what? from all of you. It’s simple, really. When you’re successful and you run your own business, you get busier. Because you’ve had lean times, you take as much work as you possibly can because you know lean times will come again. You’ll work your tail off and then some trying to keep ahead of demand.

I burned out doing F&SF to the point where I—an inveterate reader—didn’t want to read a word. I only read for my job, and I was beginning to hate it. Fortunately, I could leave editing and did so with relief, although it took me years to be able to read for enjoyment again.

Dean burned out the year he got too many novel assignments and finished all of them—including five novels due in the month of May. It hadn’t started out like that—he had taken a reasonable amount of work. But other people missed their deadlines and Dean was a fixer—someone who wrote novels when other people couldn’t do the job—and he took on too many projects. Then one book got pushed back, two got pushed forward, and he had already had one due that month. Suddenly, he was writing all the time, not sleeping, and trying to keep up with everything else.

He wondered why he didn’t feel like writing at the end of that year. I was amazed he could still move.

We were in a financial position with both of those cases of burnout—my F&SF burnout and Dean’s big novel year burnout—so that we could take time off and assess what we wanted to do. I quit editing—it really and truly is not for me—and Dean eventually went back to writing, but on a saner and much more controlled schedule.

Not everyone is in the position to take time away and assess. Sometimes you have to make changes while in the middle of the burnout, and that’s hard.

It’s better to avoid burnout altogether. How do you do that?


1. Sleep eight hours a night.

2. Eat well.

3. Exercise.

Seriously. You take care of yourself. But you also have to take care of your emotional health.

Go back to my earliest posts: Priorities. If you do everything in that post, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding burnout. You’ll know how to pace yourself throughout the day. In fact, a lot of the early posts, from Priorities to Staying Positive to Discipline will help you prevent burnout.

Some of those things will help you even if you are burned out. One of the many websites on burnout recommends that you read inspirational texts. It doesn’t mean that you read religious works (although that might help some of the believers among us), but books and articles by people who are upbeat or have succeeded in your chosen field. A study I saw recently said that people who listen to their favorite music for a half an hour per day are more upbeat than people who don’t listen to music. I combine my music with my exercise, and it keeps me motivated. In fact, I don’t worry about missing my exercise—I worry about missing my alone time with my iPod.

The best way to avoid burnout is to keep a balance in your life between work and play, between family and providing for that family. Find a way to maintain your joy in life, and have some downtime.

If you’re already burned out, then you need to work on your recovery. Sometimes that takes professional help. A therapist got me through one of my worst periods of burnout. Sometimes all it takes is some judicious scheduling (including those personal hours) and an ability to say no to the wrong projects.

Burnout is a big problem. If any of the symptoms above sound familiar to you, you need to take care of yourself—before you end up in the hospital for exhaustion, before your good friends start giving you articles on the perils of stress, before you collapse completely.

People who run their own businesses are very vulnerable to burnout. If you’re aware of that, you’ve take the first step toward preventing burnout.

You are a finely tuned machine, and the word burnout originated with machines, machines that eventually broke down because someone ran them too hard. You’ll probably be vigilant against burnout when times are tough, but remember you’re more vulnerable to burnout when you’re successful.

Plan accordingly—and take care of yourself. Your business will thrive if you do.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Burnout” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

3 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Burnout

  1. My spouse likes to refer to a truism that people are more likely to commit suicide if they’re dirty, hungry, and tired, all three. So a quick pick-up on your state of well being if you’re feeling stressed or depressed is to make sure you’re clean, fed, and rested.

  2. Good post, as usual. I went through a financial slump this fall, which, unfortunately coincided with some unexpected expenses and an e-publishing venture that didn’t work out (undercapitalized, so I couldn’t afford to continue marketing it). But when I saw the handwriting on the wall I trebled my marketing for new work, because I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with it all year. Well, a good thing happened. I’m now swamped. But… I’m all too aware of the risk here, that yes, I’m going to work my butt off between now and December 15th to complete the big project and all the other ones bearing down on me, but that week between Xmas & New Years had better be time off or as close to it as I can get. And that day after Turkey Day, well, I’ll do the best I can. I HAVE to, because I can’t keep this pace up forever, and 2010’s going to be a good, busy year.

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