When you have nothing left

In my Called to Write community we periodically talk about creative burnout.

In our Western culture we work hard, driven by puritanical work ethics, cultural programming, keeping up with the Joneses, guilt, etc. It’s no wonder we’re exhausted.

We push and push ourselves, expecting our wells of creativity, resourcefulness, and inspiration never to run dry.

And then one day, we turn to the well and find it empty. No ideas. Maybe even a sense of dread and apathy.

The only way out is through

In a recent blog post, Mark Sanderson talks about his experience with this kind of creative depletion and how he recovered from it. Interestingly, his solution had to do with carrying on and doing the work no matter what.

He said:

“Some call it ‘writer’s block.’ I call it sheer terror. When this happens you need to relax and continue to work at your process. I know this too well from experience, but it still proves true every time – the only way to solve specific problems is to sit down and focus on the work.”

It seems the only way out is through.

It takes courage

Writing — for that matter doing anything that calls us to step out of our comfort zone — requires a great deal of courage. A willingness to be uncomfortable often. To sit in it, do the work, and get to the other side.

No wonder we tend to procrastinate rather than facing that terror and doing it anyway.

Procrastination and burnout are close cousins

I’ve observed that procrastination plays a key role in creative burnout — part of a vicious, intertwined cycle:


The reason we work past the point of endurance and exhaust ourselves is that we have procrastinated for so long that we are forced to push ourselves. And the reason we procrastinate that we are afraid.

I love what Steven Pressfield says about fear in his book Turning Pro:

“The professional, by the way, is just as terrified as the amateur. In fact the professional may be more terrified because she is more acutely conscious of herself and her interior universe. The difference lies in the way the professional acts in the face of fear.”

Coming up in future posts: Recovering from creative burnout and creating a cycle of creative renewal.

Tell me what you think

I love to read your comments on the blog.







  1. Wonderful post, Jenna, and I love the diagram! This week I am experiencing that relationship between procrastination and burnout (with something non-writing-related, thankfully!). Even though I’m not happy with myself for procrastinating, it’s good to notice the vicious cycle I created and your article helped me see it more clearly. Thanks!

    • Jill, isn’t it fascinating to clearly see our patterns? Then we can really do something different. Good for you! And thanks for posting.

  2. “A willingness to be uncomfortable often”…wow, so true. I tell myself that I only have to overcome the initial resistance and then the work will somehow carry me along. But I’ve found that the big goals require me to feel the discomfort every day I do the work, WHILE putting forth the effort. The energy that’s required is enormous. Not surprising that I procrastinate, make excuses and “forget” to do the work. Thanks for this post.

    • Jen, that is SO true. I love how Steven Pressfield describes the necessity to overcome the resistance EVERY DAY.

      Check out my post from the other day about procrastination: https://calledtowrite.com/why-we-procrastinate-especially-about-the-stuff-that-really-matters

      There’s a perhaps too subtle point there about how creating habits around writing and other work that require overcoming resistance make new neural pathways in the brain that ultimately make it easier to battle the procrastination and resistance tendencies. All described in Robert Maurer’s book, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life”.

  3. Hi Jenna,

    In my post from last week, I have a quote about the way we act like slave drivers for ourselves and our kids. When I listen to angry folks on talk radio, it’s always, “They need to work Hard!” “Those people are lazy!” “Work hard and you’ll get ahead!” (You usually end up in an early grave.)

    Kids today have schedules to rival a CEO! All to get ahead. ahead of what? Life is now, in the glory of the moment, not some ahead-place.

    Ugh. if you look at music, movies, books – they juggle back and forth between “action” and “rest.” No one could sit through a movie that had no resting spots.

    We need more rest and relaxation. If you love yourself, you give yourself a break.

    I juggle different creative pursuits along with rest and find that I don’t really get burned out. Write for a month, then do nothing, then paint, then sing, then rest, etc Creative variety is the spice of my life and rest is part of creativity.

    Procrastination to me isn’t rest. It can zap more energy than actually doing something. It’s some anti-rest state brought on by the get-ahead of others mantra. So, visually, we’re all stepping on each other, tossing others to the back of the line, so we are in front? But what’s in front?

    Thanks! G.

    • Steven Pressfield described the life of a writer who would get up early, write for about 4 hours each morning, then spend the afternoon corresponding by writing and answering letters, and then the evenings entertaining friends in his Italian villa. I’ve forgotten the name of the author, but the story has stuck with me.

      It fascinates me how many writers seem to think they ought to be able to match the equivalent hours of a “full time” job with their writing (we can talk about the insanity of FT another day) and creative output.

      Downtime is SO key.

      I’m an advocate of doing the writing every day — at least 6 days a week — but also scheduling regular down time. For me, the fear gets strong enough that unless I have the structure, I can spin out into the procrastination zone too easily. As I’ve worked creatively more and more, I find that I can be more flexible again, which I love.

      GREAT point about procrastination not being rest. It ISN’T at all restful, is it? I feel so much more rested when I rest AFTER I do the work.

      The reason is that we are actually in fight/flight response when we are procrastinating: https://calledtowrite.com/why-we-procrastinate-especially-about-the-stuff-that-really-matters — isn’t that trip? So there’s no way we’re resting while that’s going on. It’s actually a low level anxiety state…

      Great comments as always, G.

  4. This is THE TIME to clear out the old outmoded ways of thinking and being in life. Without attempting to wax too woo-woo, I am compelled to post this macro-cosmic take on where we are in our collective as well as personal evolution:

    We are experiencing issues with the global economy and geopolitics. Both are intertwined, and will continue to push against each other in terms of belief systems about how economies should work. The nature of the 3rd dimensional human being is to “pass the buck, and let somebody else deal with it” We have now run out of passing room.

    According to the Mayans we are entering a new age. We think it may have something to do with the shift towards a more Eastern, or spiritualist, way of life. The Western way of life, and the worship of material goods, progress, and capitalism, has accelerated its way headfirst into battles and wars for hundreds of years.

    The Shift is happening. We are right in the middle of it. And though it may not be definable, the reality is that people all over the world are waking up and saying enough! The Shift in consciousness that is occurring across the globe is building up to point of decision-making that will change how we are going to live our lives in the coming days. If we can begin to allow ourselves to make different decisions than the ones we have made in the past, we will have the opportunity to choose. All the financial, political, agricultural and climate issues currently facing us will be viewed by the collective 3rd dimensional consciousness as something that we will deal with… later. You, being more enlightened, are seeing what is coming, and consequently can make decisions that allow you to choose more effectively.

    This entire Shift is about YOU. As these events unfold, you will begin to see many of those who are part of that collective consciousness behaving more erratically. As we move towards the conclusion of 2012, there is an underlying fear in many people’s reality that is being propagated by the media, and by the prophecies, which say the end is coming. There is no ending coming in that context. 2013, 2014, and 2015 will occur. What the Shift is bringing is an entirely new beginning, which must unfold. The old systems of consumption, of not knowing your neighbor, and the “me-first” attitude are all falling away. There is a level of choice and a level of opportunity that we have, but some are not seeing this. Many are still holding on to unrealistic expectations that the world’s financial systems will change to the extent whereby everyone will get “their fair share of all the money” by the end of the year. If you happen to share the belief that somebody’s going to drop a million dollars on your head, and all of the spiritual healers, teachers, and workers will finally be free to simply go out and do spiritual things without requiring payment, please reconsider that concept. It may happen. It is a possibility, but… there are many people that are not doing the work they came here to do, by which I mean, the work on them. They are not clearing the patterns of fear or doubt, and consequently remain in a state of denial. The reality is 2013 will come, and to an extent it will appear to many as though business simply continues as normal. But… it will be anything but normal.

    It’s always good to get a leetle perspective…

  5. This was a great article.. and sure holds true for me re writing. Sometimes we just have to jump in at the deep end and hope we can swim..is what I do at those times, even if it may not be my best work, at least it is another start towards what could be really good.. Thanks Jenna..Ingrid

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.