You Can’t Work Your Way Out of Burnout
[CW: mental illness, disordered eating habits, and mention of suicide]
Read that again, y’all: you can’t work your way out of burnout. As inescapably logical as that statement is, I recently tried to do exactly that. I felt behind, and I decided that the way to deal with that was by working even harder… Even though the reason I hadn’t been blogging was burnout and mental illness. It was a very, very bad idea, but maybe this “what NOT to do” post will help someone else.
After all, I’m sure I’m not the only avid reader of The Smutlancers who might find that looking after themselves is harder than staying up until 1:00 am creating content.
I attempted to write fifty-one posts in fifty-one days
On November 11th, I worked out that there were fifty-one days until 2021 – which happened to be the exact number of posts I would need to write to “catch-up” on all of the blog content I hadn’t written in 2020. I felt guilty that I kept falling behind on my (self-imposed) “thou shalt publish three new blog posts a week” rule. So I kept a list of them blue-tacked to the wall above my desk.
The list started out as a helpful reminder of all my ideas and the things I wanted to write. It soon turned into a reminder of everything that I was failing at. A taunting reminder that I was behind, that I wasn’t good enough.
It made sense that the best way to prove that I wasn’t failing was to write all fifty-one blog posts in the fifty-one days before 2021. That way I could start the new year without the weight of all of those unwritten words hanging over me.
It also seemed possible. I can – when I’m not depressed, suicidal, exhausted, or burned out, when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic – write a blog post in a day. Ergo I must be able to write fifty-one blog posts in fifty-one days. That’s just one blog post a day, and I already knew what I “should” be writing. I could back-date them on my blog, I thought, and the sick feeling that I was an imposter would finally go away.
I managed to keep to this strict schedule for seven days
The first few days, when I was writing words I’d been planning for ages, it was easy to maintain my strict daily schedule of planning and publishing a new post. I even worked on an article I’d been commissioned to write for another site, and successfully beat down the brain-goblins that told me that I was useless. Moreso, I even felt powerful, like I really could create the fuck-ton of content that I planned.
I still felt behind, but I finally felt in control again.
The next few days were harder. I had to chip away at the words, but I was still writing more than I had for ages. The endorphins from every click to my blog, every like on Instagram, and every retweet on Twitter buoyed me up…and built pressure. I had to keep going because everything was twisted in my head. At that moment I believed that my self-worth was entirely dependent on me sticking to my self-imposed schedule.
I was too scared to tell anyone else what I was attempting to do. I knew that if I told my partner or anyone who cared about me – or if I shared my goal in the accountability buddies channel in The Smutlancers Slack group – someone would tell me that I was trying to do too much. This means that some part of my burned-out brain knew that it wasn’t healthy, but I still couldn’t find a way to forgive myself if I stopped.
And then my partner asked me why I was so stressed, and I had to face how fucked up so much of my thinking had been for the last seven days. Because (spoiler alert!) my self-worth is not defined by how much content I’m creating.
Pushing myself was easier than taking care of myself
People tell you that making money as a freelancer, as someone who creates content about sex, will be hard. People tell you that if you want to make a living as a creative, by doing something you love, you’re going to have to hustle all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I internalized these messages a little too much because I only feel like it’s “enough” if I feel exhausted and put everything I have into whatever I’m working on.
I’ve stayed up late to make sure a blog post went live on the day it was “supposed” to. I’ve written through depression to meet deadlines. And I’ve stayed sitting at my desk writing even when my body and mind told me I needed to stop. Why? Because I convinced myself until I finish this piece I haven’t “earned” the right to eat, or go to the bathroom, or go to bed when it’s 4:00 am. Making money as a smutlancer isn’t easy, but there’s a line between hard work and destroying your own mental health.
For me, hard work and hustle are way less hard than actually taking care of myself. For me, it’s much easier to push myself through pain than accept that I need to rest. That’s not healthy.
Seriously, you can’t work your way out of burnout
My depression lies to me and tells me that I’m not good enough. But the harder I work to prove that I am good enough, the worse my depression gets. When I started my ridiculous “fifty-one blog posts in fifty-one days” project, I had spent a few months skipping self-imposed blogging deadlines and not forcing myself to churn out three new pieces of content every week.
Because I’d been gentle to myself, I was slightly less burned out than I’d been a few months earlier. But because I wasn’t completely burned out, I thought I needed to push myself to that place again.
If you recognize the “I’m not doing enough because I’m so tired so I will try and do EVEN MORE because I can only rest when I’m not behind anymore!!”, please don’t work through your burnout. As hard as it feels to throw out all of the “should”s and take care of yourself, do it. You need self-forgiveness more than you need to push yourself beyond your limits.
You can’t work your way through burnout. And you’re not failing or taking “the easy way out” just because you’re getting enough sleep.