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.

8 Things I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

On April 15, 2012, I set out on a mission.

I was feeling discouraged by the lack of feedback in the world of writing. We live in a fast-paced culture where editors are often too busy to include us in their editing process, and in which readers often consume without providing any response, whether they are tight on time or just don’t think of it. The Internet seems to have raised a new generation of “scanners” – readers who quickly gloss over a piece, check the length and read the headers and sub headers before deciding if they are even going to continue reading at all. Bloggers are actually encouraged to cater to this type of reader by compartmentalizing longer pieces into smaller chunks with catchy subheadings (I’m doing that in this very article). Throw in a few photos to make things interesting because, my goodness, a page full of text? We’re lucky if readers get to the bottom of our articles, of pieces we work so hard to produce.

I know this because, at times, I am that reader. So, how can I expect to hear from my readers if I don’t provide feedback to others?

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. Frank A. Clark

Why do I care so much about feedback?

I realize that not every writer cares about receiving feedback. Some are content to throw ideas out to the universe without any sense of where they end up. But that’s not my approach. My eagerness for feedback isn’t some superficial need for attention. It’s a genuine desire for information that will help me sharpen my sword and produce better stories. It’s a longing for discussion around the ideas I’m presenting. Like many writers, it’s the need to know that someone finds my words helpful, insightful or inspiring – that there is a purpose to what I’m doing. Call it affirmation, but I’m not talking about a pat on the back or a gold star. For me, it’s the force behind what I do, the reason I see the world in words, the result of a lot of hard thinking and hard work.

The Challenge

So, on April 15 of last year I set out on a mission to choose an article (mostly online) each week and provide feedback to the author. This could be a comment about the actual writing or the ideas presented. I kept my comments positive and shied away from offering constructive criticism since this was all occurring on a public forum. Some writers asked me to choose their pieces to provide feedback on, and so I provided more constructive criticism privately. If I couldn’t provide genuine feedback, I didn’t provide any at all. As tempting as it was sometimes, I never wanted to comment simply for the sake of commenting. I only gave my feedback when I had time to think it through, and provide an authentic, thoughtful response.

You might be wondering, if it was 52 Weeks of Feedback, why did it take me 80? The most basic answer: I had a baby. Things got busy and I missed a week here and there. But I stuck to it and still provided feedback for 52 weeks. You can check out my reading list here.

So, let’s get down to it. What did I learn after my 52 weeks of reading and commenting?

What I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

1. Providing comments on a regular basis paved the way for new relationships with other writers and bloggers. The majority of authors who received my feedback were thankful that I took the time to comment, and this sparked the beginning of a meaningful exchange. Sometimes it didn’t go beyond that first exchange; in other cases, I am still in regular contact with some of these writers.

2. The weekly challenge encouraged me to keep reading. I have heard many times that the best thing a writer can do to improve his or her craft is to read. As much as the project was about providing feedback, an unintended benefit was that I read more than I would have otherwise.

3. Keeping track of the articles I was reading helped me clarify which topics I am most passionate about. Looking back on the list, here are the dominant themes: parenting and the outdoors, motherhood, adventure, goal setting, thoughts on the writing process, creativity, and women in sports.

4. Knowing I had to provide feedback forced me to read more attentively. I fought the temptation to skim or skip ahead so that I could provide an informed response. As a result I also took more away from the article and invested myself more in the ideas that were presented. I allowed myself the time to think, even if it was on a topic I wasn’t particularly interested in.

The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write. ~ Ernest Gaines

5. Often my first comment was the beginning of a meaningful discussion, not just with the author but with other commenters.

6. This wasn’t a reason for my feedback, but looking at my web traffic, referring links increasingly came from articles I commented on. This proves to me that meaningful feedback will eventually loop back to its source.

7. I learned a heck of a lot about writing – from techniques that make for effective storytelling to the power of anecdotes as a way of making ideas stick. And after 52 Weeks of Feedback, here is the one piece of criticism I came up with the most (something I am also working on): cut the fluff. Be rigorous with your choice of words. While I’m a strong believer that long-form pieces belong on the web, longer is not necessarily better. One editor put it this way: learn to distinguish the pepper (relevant details) from the fly shit (details that don’t ultimately serve the piece). Help your reader get to the end of your articles.

8. Committing to a challenge helped me to create a new habit. I can’t promise I’ll continue the process weekly, but I will take the time more often to provide feedback for other writers.

There you have it! I encourage you to take on your own feedback challenge, whether it’s weekly, monthly or whenever you feel like it. As I have written above, I learned a lot from the process, and the practice has resulted in some long-term benefits: relationships with other writers, meaningful discussion and helpful tips that will improve my writing.

Is feedback important to you? Why or why not?

Olé! for Showing Up

Ever since I announced my challenge, 52 Weeks of Feedback, I have received a fair amount of…feedback! I didn’t expect to ignite discussion simply by raising the issue of the lack of feedback in the world of writing, but I did.

The challenge has incited a variety of responses. Some writers love the idea and realized that they love getting feedback but leave far too little for other people. One writer asked why I feel that there is a lack of feedback. Another said they liked the idea, but couldn’t commit to making it ‘a chore’ by formalizing the process of giving feedback.

The responses got me thinking about how we all operate as writers, and what drives us. I personally enjoy the sense of community that is created around my writing. It feels good to know that I have struck a chord in a reader or generated some kind of discussion. It also feels good to get positive feedback from an editor and to see progress. On the flip side, I appreciate the things I learn about improving my writing through the smallest of edits. I carry each of those lessons forward into the next article.

That being said, as a writer I need to be able to write to my highest standard and do my job without feedback. I can’t rely on a pat on my back to know I’m putting something good out there. I need to learn to know this for myself, have confidence in my skill and my creative flair – that touch that I, and only I, can put on a piece.

Writers are some of the most passionate people I know. When we become hooked by a particular idea, story or controversy, we dive into it, swimming in the depths of the material, research, interviews – anything we can get our hands on – before bringing the story to the surface. I know that I can’t comfortably bring anything forward until I’ve done the best job I can to get the story right and bring something new to the table. So, after all that work, I have to know for myself that I’ve done the best job that I can. No one else can do that for me. It’s icing on the cake if someone does.

I have a note on my bulletin board that says, Olé! for showing up. It comes from a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I’ve embedded below. Reflecting on the success of her book, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert muses on the expectations we have for writers and other creative people who create works of genius. I have never created one of these works (to my knowledge). But in every word there lies potential for genius. It is not something we can guarantee. All we can do is show up and let Genius do the rest.

highly recommend you take 20 minutes to watch this video. The last two minutes give me goosebumps every time.