On Firing All Cylinders and Burning Out

About the photo: Hiking in Connemara National Park, Ireland, with my family back in November 2019. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

I’m a writer by trade and, like everyone, my life is more than my profession. But what’s unique about my arrangement is that I can weave my passions, interests and daily existence into my writing. If you follow my social media feeds, you’ll notice some emerging themes that don’t always have a clear connection apart from them coming from me: the mountain life, travel and adventure, writing, entrepreneurship, publishing, the work/life balance and parenting.

My usual approach is to compartmentalize parts of my private life and keep them offline. There’s a lot that transpires that doesn’t need to reach the virtual space. I’ll hint at things at times, but not fully divulge. But this month, I’ve been through a period of burnout that I recognize has the potential to affect other creative people and fellow parent-entrepreneurs who are firing all cylinders all the time. Heck, anyone can fall into the trap because we’re all juggling a lot, right?

So, I wanted to write about it with hopes that I can start a conversation with other creatives, business owners and go-getters so that perhaps I can help others avoid a similar scenario.

The Backstory

“Lucky” for me, I have an auto-immune disease I’ve never spoken about publicly, and not because I am ashamed of it but because I’ve never acknowledged for myself the real role it plays in my life. I say “lucky” because what this provides me is a barometer for my stress and my neglect of self-care. That disease is eczema, and it’s a difficult one to talk about because it manifests itself differently in every person it affects. It varies widely in severity and also in what causes it to flare. I’ve been dealing with it since high school, but it has gotten worse in my thirties, and went from “a patch here or there” to a full-body screaming machine. By definition, mine is of moderate severity, but the consequences of a bad flare-up are enough to make me want to crawl in my bed in a dark room and never come out.

This week I had a bad flare-up. Hindsight is 20/20 and I really should have seen it coming. All the signs were there: lack of sleep while we were travelling (immune system is shot); 45 hours of transit home from Malta (sitting in airplane air that sucked all the moisture out of me); jetlag (now we’re really not sleeping); a toddler with chickenpox (that was like having a newborn all over again); me getting hit with a flu and fever (sweating is not great for eczema-prone skin); and external circumstances that pushed my stress-load right off the charts.

On top of this – and my life as a writer, mom, wife, business owner – is the daily regimen I keep up to avoid a flare. I keep a gluten- and dairy-free diet and take a supplement of fish oil, omega 3, 6, and 9s, and other oils to help manage the disease from the inside-out. I moisturize like my life depends on it, many times a day. I avoid triggers, especially when my skin is very dry. The list goes on. Last week, I let things slide.

No wonder it flared.

I feel the same way, kid.
[Playing at Keem Bay, Achill Island, Ireland.
Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.]

Where to go from here?

As devastating as this flare-up has been, it also lit a bit of a fire under me. I’ve come to a few realizations, some related to managing the disease, but I think all of these are transferrable as tools to avoiding burnout:

1. I need to take this condition seriously. A flare-up takes weeks or months to heal. My friend Robyn calls her MS her “sidekick,” and I think I need to reframe the way I view eczema. It’s a nuisance, yes, but it’s also a unique tool I can use to keep myself in check. The trade-off if I pay more attention to it, and prioritize myself more, is that I won’t only have fewer flare-ups, but I may also heal my system.

2. I need to make some adjustments to my external circumstances or the stress-load will never come down. This is something my husband and I are working through together.

3. I complain all the time that I lose my creative time to admin work and life logistics, so I need to create more space for the things that make my heart truly sing. No one else can do that for me.

4. I need to get my “team” back together and get back on my supplement train. My team includes my naturopathic doctor, massage therapist, and yoga instructors. As a creative entrepreneur, I absolutely cannot do my job or pursue my passions when I’m running on empty.

5. I need to listen to my body and the people who are holding me accountable. How often do we resist words of caution or “symptoms” when they arise? Often I just need to listen to what I’m saying to others: “It’s a little too much right now” (usually with a nervous laugh) or “Yeah, things are pretty crazy around here.” These are words of caution to heed as much as any others.

6. I need to simplify my life, even if it means making hard choices. I think many entrepreneurs will relate to the idea that you need enough on your plate to feel motivated and productive. Finding the right balance is tough, but I plan on taking some time to identify the pinch points in our lives, what I can say “no” to moving forward, and putting together some goals for the next year.

So, whatever your “sidekick” is or the mode your body and spirit go into when you’re running full tilt into a brick wall, I hope you’ll take the steps you need to get back on track.

This is my work for the year ahead. 😊

Feel free to share with me in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this very important topic and how burnout affects other creative entrepreneurs.

6 thoughts on “On Firing All Cylinders and Burning Out

  1. Ian Greant says:

    Thanks for sharing Meghan. Speaking as another person with a businesses to run, a family to care for and a sidekick to manage – it can feel impossible to take the time for oneself (and the sidekick) but proper care is better than the downtime for not. The silver lining is my sidekick keeps me from letting my health slide too far and I hope that will be the bulkhead against more serious middle aged issues like heart attack, stroke or diabetes. Another advantage perhaps in not having unlimited physical energy is it forces me to look at smarter solution as opposed to brute forcing everything, which is what I’d probably do if I didn’t have a sidekick to force me to consider a better path. Be well and Merry Christmas.

    • Meghan J. Ward says:

      Thanks for sharing, Ian. That’s a great point too about “brute force.” My husband and I call it “animal mode.” I just don’t think it’s in me anymore to go into that gear! Have a very Merry Christmas, too.

  2. EmmaClaire says:

    This is pretty huge, my friend. Both to go through, and then to be able to articulate enough to share. Though I do not have young children of my own, and cannot pretend to imagine the extra influence that adds to a freelancer’s life, I do work in the arts and have been fortunate in the last few years to have my work take me international. While “living the dream” last year, I began to burn out. I didn’t acknowledge it for what it was. I thought perhaps I had a bug, or had developed anaemia or a gluten intolerance. At my most imaginative I was convinced it was early onset menopause that was making me constantly tired, my body not respond to me, food not sit well, my sleep patterns to dissolve, my desire to be around people lessen, my ability to focus evaporate, my memory crumble…
    The small amounts of anxiety that existed in my system (an adrenal system that, as part of my job, was used to firing quite high) began to build. Seeking work in the form of writing grants or connecting with other professionals or applying for anything, became impossible. Going to meet people was a massive struggle. Even getting to the gym, which has been my regulator for most of my adult life, was an effort I couldn’t even drag myself into. And I was exhausted. EXHAUSTED. I have never used the word exhausted so much in my life.
    If there is one thing that I can be thankful to the Universe for in sending me this clear sign of my limits, it is that with all the little bits of work falling away (the regular ones that sustain an artist and pay the rent, though often aren’t very artistic) some of the biggest artistic opportunities came my way. It was a shame to view them through those anxiety goggles, almost wishing I could just stay home. It meant I stopped all the other things around me so I could manage the energy to get to them. And I knocked them out of the park. But I was not myself, and I was not well.

    It has been a year of trying to mend those tears created from that burn out and subsequent depression. It changes the joy of being an international artist when even the thought of having to take a flight starts to make your heart race and your head ache. Compounded by the fact that at that point my family, my partner and my dearest friends, my tribe of supporters, all lived at the end of a plane journey. But just as you speak of the choices you can make, that was the hard discussion I had with myself. And just as yours above, I offer my list of realizations and tools:

    1. I need to have a home that feels safe and mine. Wherever that place is that I spend my “downtime” must inherently feel comfortable for me, not just the building but everything around it. I moved back to the UK to find this and the change has been huge.

    2. I need to regulate when I can be available to people. Just because an email comes into my inbox, or I get a missed call, it does not mean I must answer at that very moment. I work to give myself reasonable “office hours”. They may vary in time on the clock, but when I am “in office” I focus on getting them all done, so the pressure of being on all the time is lessened.

    3. The freelancer mindset that I worked with for years was that every minute could be a working minute. I was very high functioning and described by many as super energetic. That became a pattern as opposed to a natural behaviour, and it was very hard to break. But I now build in days off to my life. Or recognize when I have had enough working days in a row. I remember a few years ago when I did a stint of 63 straight days of working in some capacity (as a freelancer this can mean many things) which I wore as a badge of honour. Never again. Unless the money is amazing and the support system around me is ideal.

    4. I need to honour my body. My work is physical and emotional. If I get emotionally tired, I get physically tired very quickly. The fuel I put into my body, the way I use my muscles and structure, the manner in which I ease and stretch and release are massively important.

    5. Talk about it. Holy smokes have I found out that SO MANY people have reactions or feelings or symptoms like mine, or coming from similar circumstances. And so many people offer understanding as opposed to the shaming I had feared. It generates support and makes me able to support others. It takes away the scary stigma and can feel very empowering to say “I know we made that plan, however I need a day/I’m feeling very drained/let’s plan for next week”.

    I’m not sure if this was the kind of response you were looking for, but it feels like the right thing to share. I miss you, my friend and am sending you support for your wellness, sleep in your children, and as much humidity as a winter in the mountains can must. Much love and deep joy xx

    • Meghan J. Ward says:

      EmmaClaire – Always an appreciated voice. :) Thanks so much for sharing. I have thought of you often and the amount of energy you must be expending over the course of your life and work. I can relate to so much of what you said. When we start to pull away from the things we normally love because we just can’t muster the mental and emotional energy, well, what’s the point?

      Thanks so much for sharing your realizations. I could have added 100 to my list but tried to keep it concise and manageable. To your point about having “office hours,” this is a hard one for me because of the kids in the mix. But we are exploring solutions to that. One thing I need to be better at is allocating “admin” slots, so that I don’t let the admin work take away from the creative. I listened to an excellent podcast about “blocking” our time that I highly recommend to other freelancers. It’s on the Good Life Project in an episode called “How to Finish What Matters | Charlie Gilkey” https://www.goodlifeproject.com/podcast/how-to-finish-what-matters-charlie-gilkey/. Give it a listen, if you can!

      I also wish we weren’t an ocean away, but I know you’re always there. I agree that talking about this has been a positive step. People don’t shame, they usually relate. We could all do with talking about it more.

      All the best. xx

  3. proactiveoutside1 says:

    Recalling 2011, I was working a full-time job, leading in some missions efforts at my church, teaching a class twice a week, and trying to do the things to stay in shape and spark a little joy. Then I got laid off, and a whole bunch of other, unrelated crises hit.

    I learned something through that: I was doing way too much. Since then, I’ve simplified life, and that has helped me in a number of ways. Good on ya for realizing that, and best wishes going forward while managing your “sidekick.”

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