On Blogging, Burnout, and Life
Posted on July 29 2015
I nearly pulled the plug on this blog last Fall. The fact that I didn’t is largely attributable to the support of my wife and my family. I feel compelled to mention them at the beginning of this post since they are far wiser about issues of life than I am, and they deserve credit for the fact that this site still exists, and that I am writing this post.
I left my job as a college professor to become a full-time blogger in May of 2013. For the first year and a half or so, blogging life was pure joy. I loved the freedom of being my own boss – I had complete control over my schedule, what I wrote about, and so on. I had turned my hobby into my job, and things were going very well. I had replaced my professor salary (and then some), site traffic was growing nicely, and I was running as much as I ever had. Sounds like a perfect life, right?
Things started to change early last summer. One of my personality traits is that I am a perfectionist. I feel a need to excel at anything I do, whether it be school, work, running, etc., and I push myself to the limit to achieve success in each of these endeavors. This internal drive started taking over my approach to blogging, and things started to spiral out of control. This blog started taking over my life.
There’s something to be said for hard work, but when work takes over your life it can become toxic. I felt compelled to write 4-5 blog posts per week, and I was spending much of my Sunday morning putting together weekly roundup posts. I spent ridiculous amounts of time managing advertising, attending to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and responding to comments. And don’t even get me started on email. Add in side projects like my work in the gait clinic, coaching, and some web design projects, and the end result was pretty much inevitable.
By last summer, it had gotten to the point where there was really no dividing line between my work life and my non-work life. My wife would have to pull me from the computer to come to dinner, and I’d spend both my mornings and evenings on the iPad sifting through my various social media feeds. I worked while on vacation, listened to podcasts about work while I ran, and when I wasn’t able to work I stressed about it. It was all-consuming, and it was extremely unhealthy.
On top of working, I was also running myself into the ground. I had decided to try to run the Vermont 50K in the Fall, and this necessitated running a lot of miles in the heat of summer, and I don’t handle summer running particularly well. There were a few times when I think I nearly ran myself into heat exhaustion. I’ve alluded to this a few times in previous posts, but I’m pretty sure I had crossed the line into overtraining.
The combination of overwork and overtraining heaped an enormous amount of stress onto both my mind and my body, and cracks started to form last July. The cracks widened over the next few months until I pretty much shattered. I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I was anxious, depressed, unhappy, and something needed to change or things were going to get really ugly.
Around this time, my sister sent me a link to an article about blogger burnout. Turns out this is not an uncommon phenomenon, and I could relate to a lot of the issues discussed in the piece, particularly the following passage:
“A passion turns into a hobby, which becomes a full-time career. And in some predictable period of time it consumes your life and sucks the joy out of it.”
I started running as a way to get healthy. It turned into a passion, and I started this blog as a hobby to write about that passion. I never expected this site to grow the way it did, and it was never my intention at the outset for it to ultimately become a job. But it did become my job, and it turns out that feeling like I had to run because I needed to do so for work sucked a lot of the joy out of it. It’s like the book you had to read for high school English class vs. the book you picked up yourself because it looked interesting. Both might be great pieces of literature, but I always preferred the book I chose myself.
As the joy of running began to dissipate, so did the joy in writing about running. And by Fall I really didn’t want to do either any more. I had come to resent both running and writing. I neglected my email and social media, skipped the Fall race, and pretty much shut myself down to the bare minimum needed to keep things going. Turns out I’m a pretty awful boss when I’m the only employee.
As mentioned, I largely credit my wife with keeping me from pulling the plug entirely and checking out. She’s the spiritual one in this relationship, and she kept telling me that things happen for a reason. That we face challenges in life so that we can grow as a result. And she’s right.
Taking on this blog full-time allowed me to escape another job that I had started to resent. I loved being a teacher, but there were a lot of aspects to working in the field of higher education that had started to wear on me. I wasn’t crazy about research, the lack of credit given to quality teaching always bothered me, and higher ed was (and is) becoming more and more of a business where the bottom line is all that matters. And don’t get me started about the adjunctification (is that a word?) of the college/university workforce.
Becoming a full-time blogger led me on a new path, but somewhere inside I knew this wasn’t going to be my job for the rest of my life. Aside from just the work/life balance issues, I realized that I don’t like working from home (it’s incredibly hard during the summer when kids are out of school!), that I miss social interaction with colleagues, and that as a 40 year old there’s no certainty that I’ll be able to continue running for another 25 years (I’ve avoided the injury bug so far, but the risk is always there and is a constant worry). With my wife’s support, I decided that this blog needed to go back to being a hobby, and I needed to return to the non-blogging workforce.
Once I came to terms with this new direction, sometime around last Christmas, the cracks in my life started to heal. I’d learned a lot about myself in the process, and I think I emerged as a much better person. I realized how my perfectionism was controlling my life, and I took to heart advice to just be “good enough.” I refocused my energies on spending time with my wife and kids. I started running more, and doing so without any particular plan other than to enjoy putting one foot in front of the other (I had gotten pretty out of shape, and am still clawing my fitness back). I started to enjoy writing again, but no longer felt compelled to publish every day – that pace was simply unsustainable. And I re-connected with my social media accounts (mostly Facebook these days) and email since interactions with friends I have made through this site are the most valuable thing that has come out of it.
This post has been a long time in the making, and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to write it. But I think it’s worthwhile since it seems that the burnout I experienced is not uncommon among those who decide to give blogging full-time a try. I’m happy to say I made it through and am in a better place as a result, but I’ve also realized that I want this site to go back to being a hobby and my running to go back to being a passion.
For that reason, I’ve decided to head back to the classroom, and in three weeks I’ll be starting a program to get certified to teach high school biology. I have no strong desire to return to higher ed, and I want to focus on the aspect of being a college professor that I liked best: working with students in a classroom. I have every intention of continuing to run and write, in fact this site is what is allowing me to go through a certification program rather than trying to jump right in with an alternative certification. I want to learn more about the art of teaching, and you get very little of that in prep for teaching at the college level. But both my running and writing will be at a pace that is more manageable, and I hope to write more about my coming transition.
If I had one piece of advice for anyone thinking about taking on blogging full-time, it would be to set very firm boundaries between your work and your life. Don’t let your work become your life. It sounds easy, but it’s the biggest challenge I have faced since embarking on this journey. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough.
Thanks so much for reading this somewhat long and rambling post. Readers are what keep me going – I truly appreciate your support!