Hi, my name is Erin, and I’m bad at taking breaks. Notoriously bad at it. I am anything but a role model for self-care, no matter how many posts I write about it, trying to convince myself otherwise.
Exhibit 1: I am about to write a blog post about how I’m giving myself a break while not actually taking a break. Yep, let’s just put this up front. This one is for the inveterate over-workers and over-promisers, the passionately driven artists dancing on the edge of burnout, the writers with several WIPs calling their name, and the restless hyperfocusers.
Why are we like this?
Oh, hell, I don’t know. I’m sure it’s different for all of us. Gifted kid trauma, imposter syndrome, hustle culture, toxic American work ethic, call it what you will. After all, who has time to take a break in this economy?
For me, I’m pretty sure a lot of it has to do with my ADHD. I’m easily bored and my sense of motivation runs on urgency, novelty, or interest. While I’ve cultivated the ability to sit still physically, my mind prefers to run a mile a minute (or not at all). The under-stimulation of pausing, waiting, even slowing down, can feel excruciating.
If I stop swimming, I panic. Is this how sharks feel? Often exhausted, but breathless if they can’t move forward?
Over-workers: we get the job done.
I started out this year by declaring lofty goals to “show up consistently” on this blog and on social media. And in large part, I have followed through, especially here on the blog. I applied this “showing up” theory to my other routines as well, specifically my fiction writing, journaling, and yoga.
I didn’t commit to daily practice on either of those due to my health issues. I tried to do them every day I was functional, though. I went to the journal and the mat in the morning, and wrote in the evening.
Those commitments did bear fruit. I’m proud to acknowledge I haven’t missed a week yet on the blog. I finished drafting a whole book at a steady clip of 30k words per month, grew my platforms, and noticed my body slowly starting to get stronger.
It got stronger, that is, until around April or so, when I started to notice the deep ache that started in my hip and radiated down to my knee. At first, I ignored it and kept pushing through, figuring it would resolve itself. In my defense, sometimes this works!
Self-discipline has a dark side.
Between the ballet classes of my youth (talk about toxic discipline) and years of living with migraines, working through pain is basically a life skill for me. And as a chronic spoonie who’s getting older, if I stopped every time I had an ache or a pain I would never get anything done at all. The trick is knowing when to push through it, and that’s a skill I’m still working on.
This pain, however, did not resolve itself. It ached all the time now, even while not in use, and sometimes flared up sharply when I shifted positions. By some combination of yogic over-extension and hours seated cross-legged in my desk chair (yes, I’m incapable of sitting with both feet down like a normal person) I had managed to injure myself.
I selected a different, less intense 30-day yoga program for my daily practice. I got a footrest for my desk and modified my sitting habits (one foot down! It’s an improvement, I swear!) The ache, however, did not abate.
Finally, I went to the doctor. In my hypochondriac way, now that I’d admitted there was a problem, I worried that I was destined for a hip replacement or some other dire consequence.
She listened to my symptoms with pragmatic unconcern. “It sounds muscular,” she said, and prescribed…taking it easy.
Finding ease isn’t always easy.
I saw the doctor around the end of June, but the truth was, the problem hip wasn’t the only over-extension bothering me. With my drafting project nearly finished, I struggled to find the motivation to put the final few thousand words in and put the beast to bed. Thinking up blog topics was getting more difficult, and after months of pre-release stress and self-promo, I felt bone-weary of the social media treadmill.
Was I burning out? I started to recognize the signs creeping in around the edges. I slept poorly despite feeling exhausted, I often had to drag myself to the page to draft, my migraines flared up and had me down for the better part of two weeks.
Obviously, I needed to ease up on myself in almost every area. But easing up isn’t easy for me. I often feel like I have two speeds: overdrive or stalled out.
On top of that, I had obligations to fulfill, to myself and others. I had projects I was excited about on the back burner. I have a couple of community positions in process (mentorship and the Writer In Motion event) that I very much want to show up for.
At the same time, of course, Camp NaNo was imminent. I promised myself that once I finished drafting my urban fantasy sequel, I could start a different book, one that had been percolating for a while. I just…had to…get those last…few thousand words.
Now for something completely different.
Surprisingly, journaling was the first thing to go. It was taking way too much time out of my mornings and had become a block, not a block-clearer. For weeks, I’d been waking up at first light thanks to a combination of insomnia and cats, only to sit on the couch with coffee and social media for hours, procrastinating the start of my routine.
I decided that I needed to change my routines up. If something felt like a drag, I would cut it out for a while. I would take a month off of the daily yoga plan. I would ditch the journal until such time that I needed it.
It was time to go with the flow. Since I was running short on energy for the schedule I’d laid out at the beginning of the year, I would let desire and enthusiasm lead for a bit, while I still had some. And what my enthusiasm really pointed toward was this project bubbling at the back of my brain.
I started making space for creative joy.
With the old book not yet finished, I started planning the New Thing. I set a July goal for myself, but one that felt doable. Despite the unfinished goal hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles, I made space for the thing that excited me. (Appropriately, it’s a space book!)
On July 1, I woke up at oh dawn thirty and as usual couldn’t get back to sleep. If I had to be awake, I thought, I might as well use this time. I took my coffee to my desk and fired up my new project in Scrivener.
And something magical happened. When I went with the flow, the words started flowing like water. Without the obligation of getting the yoga, journaling, and social media done first, I had energy to spare during the period my body has apparently chosen as its Awake Time.
I have never considered myself a morning person, but it turns out I might be a morning writer. This month, I’ve totally turned my routine on its head. In the early hours when the house is quiet and the caffeine is starting to hit, I’ve found a new sense of ease with this upended schedule.
Switching gears reduced the grind.
Something else cool happened, too. Once I got the first thousand or so words out of my system on the New Thing, my block on the Old Thing suddenly cleared up. Working in the mornings instead of evenings as has been my practice for over a year, and eager to get in more words on New Thing, I blazed through the final pages of the previous project in a few days so I was able to put it happily to bed and off to beta readers.
No one is more surprised than me that this works. It makes sense that I’d be more energetic in the mornings before the day slowly stole my spoons away, but somehow I’d never thought to bring that energy to my writing. I guess I was still trying to “fit in” the writing after everything else was out of the way, instead of putting it first.
An additional benefit of flipping my schedule is that I now have evenings free of guilt. When I’ve already done my writing for the day, I can actually relax at night. It feels…really weird, and I suspect I will have to be careful not to instinctively fill it up with More Things.
Reprioritizing gave me breathing room – and healing time.
It’s been two weeks since I eased off the daily yoga practice. I’ve been doing short, gentle practices every other day or so instead. I do it after I’ve done my writing for the day, if I have time before work, and trying to be chill if I skip it.
Lo and behold, my hip and leg feel a lot better. Again, no one is more surprised (or annoyed) that rest, of all things, actually worked. I’m definitely still antsy about losing the strength and stamina I was building, but I’m giving this a month before I reassess.
I’m also giving myself a break from obligatory social media. The morning writing time has automatically provided a moderate social media detox, because it has reduced my over-coffee scrolling while I put off everything else. And since my evenings are no longer a battle between procrastination and productivity, I’ve been less Extremely Online.
In fact, the effect is pretty dramatic. My phone tells me that my screen time is down 80% this week. That’s wild, and not even something I was going for, but it definitely says something.
I’m still keeping up with the blog, but I’ve been trying to spend less time on it. Doing more interviews has helped a lot with this. Making space here for some of the amazing folks I know gives me breathing room during interview weeks, plus reading their answers is a source of creative inspiration and learning for me.
Your mileage may vary, but it’s okay to just slow down.
I intentionally didn’t write this as an advice post. After all, I’m no paragon of taking breaks, but exactly the opposite. I’m not sure I would advise someone else feeling the shadow of burnout to start a brand new project without finishing the last one!
However, I would tentatively say that perhaps I could extrapolate a lesson from this, if only for myself. I’ve learned that taking a break doesn’t have to mean a hard stop on all creative work. It can mean giving myself permission to do what I want to do for a while, even if what I want is to start something new.
It might mean assessing the habits that maybe worked for a while but aren’t working now. It means recognizing the pain points – literal or figurative – for what they really are: sign posts, speed limits, or flashing warning lights. Doing the same thing over and over is unlikely to yield different results, so it’s all right to change the routine if the results are mixed.
Maybe it’s not necessary to slam the brakes to slow down. Maybe it would help to just shift gears and lighten up on the gas a bit. Maybe momentum can carry the work for a while.
How do you know when it’s time to ease up? Do you have ways of slowing down when you’re not ready for a full stop? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you!