Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 10, 2013

When it Feels Like You're Never Doing Enough

I very rarely go to bed feeling like I've done enough in a day. I feel guilty after a weekend where I didn't get enough done. It frustrates me how long it takes to write a novel. (Or, ahem, a guide to writing a novel. Almost done, swear!).

It never feels like there are enough hours in the day, or days in the weeks, or weeks in the months, or months in the year. Time slips away, and with it a chance to accomplish something or edge closer to your dream.

Social media only adds to the pressure. People are completing novels and making New York Times bestseller lists and curing cancer while juggling on a unicycle and it all looks so effortless and who needs sleep anyway??

And yet, I know that following this impulse to its extreme is a path to ruin. I have had stretches where I gave in to the temptation to try to do too much, and it messed me up. I got burned out, I neglected friendships, and experienced diminishing returns.

And that's because when you try to do too much, you risk your enjoyment what you're doing. Burn yourself out trying to write your novel and you may never finish.

Balance is elusive. There's always more you can be doing.

But you need time with friends. You need rest. You need to have fun.

I embrace this feeling when I need to get something done, but also try not to feel guilty when I sleep my way through a lazy weekend.

I just try not to have too many of those.

Do you experience this feeling? How do you deal with it?

Art: Flight and Pursuit by William Rimmer


Mary said...

Oh, I feel like this all the time. Problem is, I sit down at the computer or a notepad and can't always figure out exactly what I could be doing! I have found that balance and getting away for awhile can help refresh my mind and come back more productive. But it's hard to tear myself away because even if I'm just sitting in front of a blank screen, when I tear myself away I sometimes *feel* like I'm not being productive.

Sharyl said...

This really resonates, Nathan. Thank you. Writing is a lonely process, and it is a slippery slope. Especially with the modern idea that everyone else is making it happen, passing you by.

My mother-in-law recently suggested I write an e-book. This would be in addition to all of the other books I'm writing... I told her I'd have to stay up all night. She simply said, "Then stay up all night."

Johanna Garth said...

Balance is such an elusive thing. I try to enforce time limits on how much time slips away to social media. I give myself word goals for my novels and when it comes to friends and family I make the time and effort (and if I feel guilty I tell myself it's character research).

Emily R. King said...

Guilt. Is there any escape from it? Because life is always changing, balance is a constant struggle, like a tug-of-war with time. Go easier on yourself. Put your family first, and you'll never go wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone's different, and that's a good thing.

Figuring out who YOU are and what works for you is the important thing.

Maya Prasad said...

I feel the same way. I'm in a constant state of guilt about how much I'm getting done. It's good to push yourself, but it's also wise to realize there's only so much you can do. Sometimes there are too many other things in our lives, and as much as we want to pursue our dreams, our family and friends need us too. Know when to give yourself a break, and always strive for balance.

Landra said...

I feel it. I think we all feel it. How to overcome it... I don't have the magic answer.

When you write, you write. That's it. Just do it when you can do it. Things will come together, time to work will magically appear. I took time for this blog and I'm not going to feel guilty about it. I like Johanna's approach too, anytime not spent writing is research. You're experiencing things to write about, and they tell you to write what you know. :)

Richard Gibson said...

I have all those issues and feelings, except the guilt. I got over that.

Joanne Huspek said...

If I can't be creative as a writer, I find other ways to express my creativity. Then I don't feel QUITE so guilty.

Sharon Ricklin Jones said...

I would expound, but I have too much dang work to get done!

Sharon :)

Laura Rueckert said...

I make a big list of all the things I plan to do. Then I tell myself I am NOT going to get them all done. It helps.

I had a boss once (Shh, it was one I didn't like), and she gave this excellent advice: good is better than perfect. Perfect means you drove yourself crazy trying to get it that way. It was a hard lesson, and I know I still lean toward striving for perfection, for managing everything. But I'm better now than I used to be.

Jeigh said...

I'm at that burnout stage with my novel right now. It helps a lot to avoid it for a while and remember that it's something I want to do, and not necessarily something I need to do.

Rachel said...

I'm guilty of trying to do too many things because everything just looks so interesting! Jobs, internships, projects, blogs, classes...the list goes on and on and on. But you're right: when you're so overwhelmed, nothing is enjoyable. So I'm trying to pare it down and really focus on getting the most out of what I'm doing.

Maria Alexander said...

I feel this constantly, especially since I haven't yet published my first book. (I have published a couple dozen short stories/novellas and two poetry collections, but somehow that doesn't count.) It's like having a biological clock, but instead of having a baby, I need to give birth to a book.

I'm a martial artist in samurai swordsmanship. The samurai practiced something called Bun Bu Ryo Do -- the way of the pen and the sword. They believed that you were not a complete warrior unless you also mastered art and philosophy. So, I try to remember this when I feel like I am falling behind in either realm.

And while I sometimes lament that some folk are "ahead" of me, I remember that they are being supported by spouses, they started 10 years before me, etc. No two paths are alike. That's really the truth of it. But no one says that the truth is easy to accept.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't really have this problem. One tiny benefit of having a really messed up past is that it helps provide the perspective that I'm lucky to be here, doing what I'm doing, at all.

Dani said...

I think this is one area in which goals and a daily to-do list help. If your goal is to publish one book per year, figuring out how many words per day will suddenly make it manageable. That job would be the first thing on your daily to-do list. Try not to have more than five major to-dos related to your paying work each day. And if you can check off three of them per day, give yourself a pat on the back. Also, tracking your minutes during work hours is also very revealing. Treat your work day as billable time and try to account for every single minute. Where is your time really going? Finally, take one day off per week when you do nothing related to writing/work. Go to the zoo. Have a picnic. Baseball. Whatever. But use that time to renew. Now I think I'll go write a blog post about that! :D

The New Englander said...

I'm better at this in theory than in reality, but my strategy is to be pretty systematic about what I'm trying to get done in a given day. I've got a notebook with a single page of *stuff* dedicated to each day -- all with handy little checkboxes waiting to be filled in.

In theory, I would do *just* those things, and then stop (i.e. first 500 words of this draft for this article, (x) amount of time calling clients, (y) e-mails cleared out of my inbox, etc, (z) level of progress towards my Udacity courses, etc.

In reality, I have this same problem, though.

The New Englander said...

Dani, great minds think alike! I think we just "simo-posted."

judy b. said...

Well said. When my mind starts to spin out, I try to bring it back to the moment and see what I really need. Sometimes I need to chill without apology. Sometimes I need to write something - anything. Sometimes that's a scene or a crappy poem, or a list of projects/tasks to work on tomorrow.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess said...

I finally decided that weekends are supposed to be for people and weeks are supposed to be for work. I came up with a file system I use to decide what to do each day (sometimes it changes) so I can keep multiple projects going, and so I can avoid the feeling of sitting down to work, but not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing. It seems ridiculous to assign socializing to the weekend, but when I do that, I don't feel guilty when I have a lazy weekend.

Bryan Russell said...

Your dreams will always be there in the morning.

And you can't always control quantity. You can't control how much. But you can control quality. You can control how good. So I keep my goals and ambitions tuned to things I can control. I can't always control how much I can write in a week, but I can try to control how well I write it. I can focus on each thing as I come to it. I can try to be as there as possible for everything I do.

Which, of course, provides its own challenges. But until they invent a new day of the week (maybe one just for me), then that's all I can do.

Christine Ashworth said...

This is so me right now. I think I went too fast. Dialing back, though, has made me feel guilty. But I like what Bryan Russell said - you can control quality. Thanks!

Michael Pickett said...

My goal growing up was to be published before I turned twenty. Twenty came and went, so I revised my goal to be published before I graduated from college. And my idea of being published meant that I would be on bestsellers lists and everything (I was young, give me a break).

Graduation came and went and I wasn't on any bestsellers lists, but I had published a short story in a magazine that actually paid me for it. I realized that I had accomplished something and I should be proud of that.

Then I looked at the rest of my life and realized that there was way more time ahead of me than behind me. I had a lot of time to accomplish my goals. After that epiphany, I've started to give myself a break. I'm taking time to enjoy life, but I'm also taking time to really think about what I'm writing. I don't feel the rush to get it out before its ready, so it's a lot better as a result.

Ben Campbell said...

You know what? I feel good about everything I do, which makes me quantifiably productive. Writing opens up the world. Reading enlightens. Socializing with family and friends generates benefits and triggers my imagination, and sleep, well, that regenerates energy and spirit. Go write and read and eat and socialize and cruise the Internet. Be happy that you’re healthy and write the best damn literate, exquisite and entertaining novel ever.

Danette Haworth said...

What a great post, Nathan, and what a great NB quote:

"Balance is elusive. There's always more you can be doing."

For me, the irony is the tool itself. Discipline was much easier before the digital explosion. And any schedule interruption--doctor appts. for kids, kid activities, etc.--knocks me off track and it's easy to wander off for days before making any headway.

Discipline is a boring thought. Tell someone that to be successful, they must be disciplined, and they'll turn away. There's an easier way, they think. But we know there are no shortcuts. You must put in your time; you must forgo other activities; you must give your writing the same respect you'd give any other artistry you wanted to master.

And then you must sleep in on Saturday.

Ellen Shriner said...

What?!? Have you been reading my diary? I frequently feel like that. Thanks for the perspective.

Julie Musil said...

I feel like this today! But family first...always.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

I've never felt like balance is the right word to describe what we're trying to achieve.

But I think we have to accept that we can't really mean yes if we never say no. It's just not sustainable.

Bruce Bonafede said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Bonafede said...

As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at prioritizing. As a result, I spend most of my time on my work and my writing, since work pays the bills and writing makes me happier than anything else. I've also gotten better at setting boundaries, and don't let other people (except my clients) put demands on my time. After all, writing isn't exactly an unselfish activity, is it?

Mira said...

Well, I don't feel guilty anymore, although I used to. I had a 'wake-up' call a number of years ago, when an Australian colleague told me she was moving back, because she felt that Americans were pressured to work way too hard. The idea that anyone could see things differently surprised me - I assumed that hard work was obviously a matter of character and sort of a requirement of life.

Over time, I began to realize that "work = character" was a culturally bound belief that stems from our Puritan past. It comes from Luther, Calvinism and Weber: The idea that hard work was a sign of the saved. It has become so intrinsic to American culture that I think most, like me, don't challenge it.

But, although I respect those traditions, I do not follow them myself. And that means that I don't need to automatically accept the idea that hard work is the way to salvation, a measurement of character and the only right way. Other things may also make life valuable and give meaning to my journey.

Then, I read Brenda Ueland's book about writing, where she talked about how the mind needs rest, and time to germinate to truly liberate creativity. It rang so true for me, it crystalized it.

So, my goal now (which I rarely pull off perfectly) is to try to spend my time consciously. To think about what's important to me, what supports me and what I want from life. This includes my dreams and goals, but it also includes self-care, self-love, the building of character (in addition to work), my psychological journey, my connections to others, and appreciating the experience of life. And, of course, the joy of a good video game. :)

Great topic, Nathan - thanks for sparking my thoughts about this.

Kourtnie McKenzie said...

"People are completing novels and making New York Times bestseller lists and curing cancer while juggling on a unicycle and it all looks so effortless and who needs sleep anyway??"

That's pretty much EXACTLY how I feel.

I laughed when I read this—and not in a "sucks to be you" kind of way, but the kind of "oh man, human experience in action" laugh you get at times... like when people trip on the sidewalk, then look around to see if someone noticed.

When I run into this issue, I try a change of scenery. Am I doing circles on the computer at home? Drag the laptop to the nearby park. This makes me more aware of what I'm doing and able to enjoy it a different way. Then I can go play and be merry later in the day and/or tomorrow.

Kristin Jacques said...

It is hard to deal with, you hit that lull in your writing, up rears the temptation to browse the web or do anything other than just sit there. I set weekly goals for myself, that way I don't feel the day to day heat.
It is just a relief to know lots of people struggle with this feeling too.

kdrausin said...

I feel like this often. Sometimes I will make a daily list and as long as everything on the list gets done I feel a bit better.

I try to remember to be grateful for all that I have accomplished. I remind myself that being a writer is a journey not a race to the top.

Today I watched a YouTube video of Pat Monahan from Train talk about creating his songs. It goes with this topic and I thought his messages were good... Love yourself and have faith in the road that you're on.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I lost more than one friend because I spent so much time trying to get everything done. Even though I will always be a workaholic, I wish I had given myself more time to spend with friends and to just relax.

Carol Holland March said...

Thanks for your post, Nathan. For me, writing my fiction is not a chore and I generally feel pretty productive. But the social media! Not a marketer by nature, I'm having to spend time learning and doing tasks that often feel unproductive, maybe because the time frame for getting results is so long. I'd rather be writing! One thing I try to do is set clear goals, write them down every, and if I don't complete, forgive myself. So much of the "guilt" and attendant discomfort is internal, it can only be changed by an internal process. My two cents.

Sandy Sinnett said...

I read your blog of course! What better way to refocus and refresh than to put off what I know I should be doing, for something I don't really have to do...but still puts a smile on my face. :).

Cyndi Tefft said...

I completely agree. I am amazed at folks who can churn out a novel every other month when it takes me about 12 months to complete one. I mainly write on Saturday mornings because of my day job during the week, and family responsibilities. But I've come to realize that it's okay, that I'm not going to be the person cranking out one novel after another, and that God has other things for me RIGHT NOW that I should't miss out on.

Nora Lester Murad said...

It's all the harder with kids. Of course they are (usually) wonderful, but when I give them the focus they deserve, I can't get in to writing, and when I'm in the writing groove, I'm not giving them the attention they deserve. It's a classic bind for any parent, I think, but writing is more intensive than other kinds of work, more distracting, harder to turn off.

mortiana said...

I write as much as I can every day, whether it is 2 pages or 2o. I try to reward myself for getting done whatever I managed to get done that day. It is very frustrating when I hear that someone knocked out a novel in 4 months. I've been working steadily for over three years, and the progress has been better than I ever dreamed. Still, the pressure that one must be doing more, and more...

Julie Sondra Decker said...

Bam, definitely me--I never feel like I'm doing enough. I spent the entire weekend staring at my screen trying to edit so I could turn something in for a publisher on Monday, and then I felt guilty that I didn't get anything ELSE done. It's self-imposed expectations, but I think those are the most important, actually. I must say that what I do to stop myself from feeling like I'm not doing enough is to actually do more. It's probably not that healthy, but as long as I give myself permission to rest sometimes, it usually works pretty well for me to have atrociously high standards for spending my time. (And yes, reading blogs counts as something I consider constructive. :D )

Mark Rowden said...

Everything is so multi-tasking and DIY nowadays. Before computers the pressure was more linear. Now I spin plates daily. One of them is THE novel. But I get up early, having programmed my wireless hub to switch off overnight and not switch on until 9 am. The period before 9 am is akin to sitting in a church. Or a Bank Holiday. Nothing incoming! Just me.

LG O'Connor said...

Great post. I think we all feel that same way at times. Since I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with my writing life, my time is always limited. Funny, I found when I had ample to time to write during my vacation last week, what normally is a free-flowing process became a slog. I realized that I needed the time to 'marinate' my ideas before I could continue. After one full day back at work, the creativity spiggot turned back on and I was able to outline a new plot line. The same one that eluded me during my entire vacation. Time doesn't always equal productivity, and when forced can lead to a kind of insanity. Most important, quality work will be embraced regardless of when it gets to the market.

Liz Blocker / @lizblocker said...

What a timely post. I was just sitting here feeling overwhelmed and undermotivated... a feeling I associate with Needing. A. Break. Like, yesterday. But taking that break means having to manage guilt about taking it... so sometimes, I manage the guilt, and sometimes, I keep pushing til I realize I'm not accomplishing a damn thing. Sigh. It's hard to give yourself permission to rest, isn't it?

wordwan said...

I like to do a lot of things. But I try to take time for me. I'm not always a priority and that's my problem, at times.

But what I also find is there are a lot of people around, who can't see their boundaries and they impinge on others--sometimes not even realizing that they are doing it.

Especially if you're compassionate about dealing with people. I like to help people and I think it's gotten me in trouble more than I realize. I need to work on this.

The internet adds an unseen 'impossible timeframe' to that issue too. You sense everyone around you is 'getting more done than you.'

I don't think that's true.

And ya know what? I remember, specifically, coming to the internet and meeting a lot of people who ADMITTED to mental health or other issues. This surprised me, actually. It had never happened to me so much before.

I talked to artists who dealt with being bipolar, having depression, anxiety, type-A personalities, other things like that. You get into a normal conversation with someone like that and it makes you think you need to do more. Especially when you already LIKE being a busy person.

Thing is--and I remember this from deviantart--THEY'RE not getting as much done as you think they are. (Keep in mind, it's easy to edit in words what or how you are doing on any particular day!) And they 'project' unto you, and that causes you undeserved guilt or anxiety.

The trick is to realize this.

If you haven't spent five minutes with yourself today; FOR yourself; that's usually what's happening. Someone is selling you a bill of goods.

And it's not true.

Find your speed. And stay there. And never mind what you THINK others are doing.

I was surprised to hear a very famous writer had divorced. He probably wasn't spending enough time with his spouse. Or even himself.

So be careful out there.


Mr. D said...

Two things I highly recommend you don't ignore at the expense of your writing. Your family, particularly your wife and kids if you have any, and SLEEP. If you go without sleep, your mind starts doing funny things to you. And those funny things really aren't so funny.

Your kids will always be your kids. but if you don't have kids yet, and you want to have kids, don't ignore your wife. Not even at the expense of your writing.

That's my two cents worth. Btw, I still have my wife. She doesn't hesitate to remind me that I spend too much time writing. And that's a good thing, even though at the time it doesn't seem like it. lol

I keep hearing about women writers out there who are supported by a loving husband who loves and encourages their writing. You women are lucky. My wife hates my writing. It's because it takes away from our time together. Hey, what can I say? She loves me. Who can blame her?

Tanya T. Warrington said...

There's always more to do than I have time to do. My most recent strategy is to keep a short list of to do's each day, so I can succeed in completing the list. I keep a running much longer list of important things that need to be completed in the future. I'm also getting better at prioritizing (practice, practice, practice).

Nicole said...

Yes, this! Absolutely. I feel this way right now. Finding a balance is so crucial, but it's definitely not easy.

Anne R. Allen said...

Amen, Mr. Bransford! You've just described my life. Thing is, if we don't slow ourselves down, our bodies will do it for us and get sick. That's what mine did. Now I just have to say "no" to a lot more people a lot more of the time.

Jerry said...

"the gift we've been given is the curse that comes with it"

A great new song writer taps into this topic directly in the first verse of his new single; enjoy

"I wake up in the morning, its the same old thing
Another day alone just rhyme writing (oh)
It's getting a little old
Feeling kind of cold
When do you say you took your dream too far
And finally come to grips with the person you are
I think for some of us the dream's too vivid
And the gift we've been given is the curse that comes with it
If you strive for perfection and progress
You beat your own ass in the process
Man I'm satisfied never
My shit always could be better
Shit the verse I'm saying now could be way more clever
I remember when there wasn't no pressure
I just do this
Before the music was part of a to do list
I love writing but why I'm clueless
It's peaceful yet deceitful
Like a Buddhist Judas
And it's fucking up my brain
But somehow it's the only thing that keeps me sane
I guess I'm like a little goth art student
Take away his pen, next day at school he starts shooting
But arts stupid
If you consider the bitter cost of this
All the relationships I've lost to this
All the times that I hit ignore when my family and friends they would call for this
A constant state of exhaustiveness
I give my all to this
A stressful endeavor like tiger woods probably thinks that golfing is
I should get a office gig
But I can't cause I'm over here dreaming
And as I write another song I just feel like screaming

Stop fucking with me
Stop judging me
I just want to live comfortably
And I ain't talking about wealth
I'm talking about my brain
I'm talking about mental health

Stop fucking with me
Stop judging me
I look around and suddenly
I realize that there's nobody else
The only one judging me is myself"

AD Starrling said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way! From the comments, most of us do. I'm still trying to find that elusive balance. I think it's crucial to have one. Life came first, writing second.

Laurie Evans said...

I feel like this *all* the time. Trying to revive some friendships I've neglected.

Larissa said...

Thank you for posting this piece! I feel less alone knowing other people are out there feeling the same way about striking a balance between work and fun. I feel like, especially during the work week, I don't get to catch a break yet if I pass out by 10pm I feel guilty for not deciding to catch up on some last-minute emails instead... When I feel like there's too much the best cure is watching a few hours of Larry David & Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jerry said...

Did I do something wrong or was my post quoting a song about this topic removed? If it was removed, reason? Did not think there was anything wrong with the post. Thanks

jerry said...


Michelle said...

I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award :) I love reading your posts!

Cornelia Becker Seigneur said...

GREAT blog! This is a feeling I have a, never doing enough and then you see what others are doing and you feel even more that way- thanks for reminding us of the balance!

Vinshire Sisters said...

Every. Day. Especially now that it's summer. I hate the feeling that I'm not getting enough, especially when it's true. ESPECIALLY when you want to be doing something like editing and you just end up sitting there staring at the screen. I feel like my biggest problem is that there are so many things I would like to commit myself to fully, nothing held back. And when I have four or five different things I'm trying to commit fully to, it doesn't end up working out very well. Normally I just try to remind myself that that is impossible and I let my friends rope me into "Don't want to do it, want to have done it" things.

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