The Author Burnout Coach
Episode 05: Busy Isn’t a Bragging Right
Hello writers and welcome to The Author Burnout Coach. Together, we will dismantle the burnout culture in book publishing and reclaim our love of stories. I am your host, Isabel Sterling, and this is episode 5.
I am so excited about today’s topic–Busy Isn’t a Bragging Right–because it’s something I’m currently unraveling for myself, too.
For many years, hell at least a decade, I’ve bought into the social narrative that ties being a hard worker and having a strong work ethic with being a good, moral, and valuable person. Over time, especially with the increased discussion about hustle culture and the gig economy, we so often equate busy-ness with being important and valuable.
Even with the concepts of self-care getting more airtime, so many of us consider self-care a luxury that we don’t have time to indulge in. How could we possibly slow down when we have deadlines to meet and a home to clean and family to care for and volunteer hours to get in so we can give back to our communities and on and on and on.
The idea of busy-ness has woven itself into so many parts of society, and publishing is no exception. The problem is often exaggerated in publishing–and other creative industries–because we deeply love what we’re creating.
Because we love books, we’re fed this idea that we should be willing–we should be HAPPY–to put in long hours. We’re supposed to fill ever free minute with work on our books, since it is a dream come true, afterall.
Editors often talk about how there’s no time during their regular work day to actually edit manuscripts or read submissions to consider for acquisition. That important part of their work is often regulated to evenings and weekends, as if it’s totally okay for work to bleed into every area of life. As if this is normal and expected. It creates this narrative that it’s selfish or lazy or shows a lack of commitment to want a life outside of publishing.
And for authors–which I imagine is most of you listening–it can be even worse.
At some point I’ll have to find the stats on this, but I think it’s fair to say that the majority of writers also have a full-time job that supports them financially. Especially for newer writers who are still mastering their craft and trying to get their first agent or book deal.
So we work our day jobs, 20, 30, 40+ hours a week, and then we have to fit writing in around that. In early mornings, late nights, weekends. On lunch breaks. We write when we’d rather be sleeping, we skip social events with friends, family, and loved ones to get a few more words in.
This can feel okay for awhile, especially early on when we’re so excited about writing that it IS the thing that refills our well. But for many writers, once we start putting pressure on ourselves to get an agent, to get a book deal, or meet the external deadlines on our contracts, it stops being fun.
It starts being another ‘have to.’ Another obligation. It starts to drain us instead of fill us up, and then all those hours, those lack of breaks, start to take a toll.
Those of us balancing day jobs and writing think that if only we could make enough money from writing that we could leave our day job, it would all be better.
Except, I don’t think I know any full-time writers who don’t ALSO get caught in the trap of prioritizing busy-ness over rest. They just use different thoughts (like since they write full time, they aren’t allowed to ever miss a deadline) to burn themselves out.
I feel like it’s important to pause for a second and make it very clear that these patterns of overwork are NOT a moral failure on your part. This is not an invitation to blame yourself for feeling exhausted. It’s also not an attempt to shame anyone who takes pride in having a full calendar. As I said at the top of this podcast, I’m equally guilty of this.
My brain LOVES to tell me I’m not doing enough. It is my go-to thought whenever something doesn’t go exactly to plan. I have to be really conscientious about how I talk my brain into taking and enjoying a real break. And that’s because I’ve absorbed the same societal messages that says work is more important that play.
The good news, though, is that there are things we can do to shift the narrative, first for ourselves and then for others.
My favorite technique to start to shift this narrative internally is called the Minimum Enoughness Measure (or MEM). You may have also heard this concept referred to as a minimum baseline or as setting small achievable goals, but I love framing it as the MEM-minimum enoughness measure–because being quote – good enough – is something my brain struggles with.
The MEM you choose for your writing should be truly tiny. Something that you can easily accomplish no matter what else is going on. This is not the space to require that you write 1,000 words a day. You might even want to set your MEM as a weekly measure instead of daily. It may also change depending on what stage of writing you’re in.
For example, right now I’m in the early stages of drafting a novel for my publisher. I’d like to have the first act to my agent within the next week or so (at the time of recording, it may already be to her by the time this episode comes out). Doing the “math” on that equates to writing about a scene a day.
However, I’m not going to set my MEM as a scene per day. The MEM’s job is to teach your brain that every little bit of progress is amazing. It helps us stop being so damn hard on ourselves.
So, with that in mind, my minimum enoughness measure for drafting is to simply touch my manuscript most days. That could mean just reading and tweaking a little bit from the day before, drafting some, or just plotting out the next scene.
By having such a low bar of enoughness, I’m training my brain to celebrate every little win. Through this process, I’m ALSO learning to trust myself. To trust when my brain and body needs rest and to trust it when I’m excited and WANT to write 2k in a day.
And because I’m not layering on so much pressure, I spend way LESS time avoiding my work than I did before I instituted the MEM.
Now it’s your turn.
To set your minimum enoughness measure, think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Let’s say you want to write the first draft of your book. What is the MINIMUM you could do each week to make progress toward that goal? What is the MINIMUM required to keep some forward momentum?
Take a second and write that down. Is it a certain word count? Is it an amount of time spent on it? Just actively thinking about your characters and world most days?
If there are any specific numbers attached to your MEM, I want you to cut that number in half. Yes, really. Whatever you’ve set, cut it in half. If your brain is screaming “that’s not enough” then you’re doing it exactly right.
We want to shift the “have to” energy around writing to “I’ve done enough. This part is just bonus.”
At first, your brain may rebel against the MEM. Mine still does sometimes, too. I have to actively remind it that any progress I make is amazing and enough.
That I am enough, as a person, whether I’m resting or working. One is not better than the other.
Overtime, this will help deprogram the “I must work nonstop to be worthy” messaging in your brain.
As more of us make this change, as we SHARE with others that we’re celebrating rest and play just as much as work, we give other people permission to do the same.
And overtime, that is how we shift the overall culture, too.
The work of unraveling our beliefs around work and rest can be hard to do on your own.
If you find yourself WANTING to believe that it’s okay to rest but your brain gives you a hundred reason why that can’t be true for YOU, I would love to help. I’m currently accepting new one-on-one coaching clients, and this is just a small portion of the work we can do together to build a sustainable loving relationship with your creativity.
That’s all for today, friends! I’d love for you to tag me on Instagram to tell me about your MEM. Until next week, happy writing! (And happy resting.) Bye!