Our Reading Lives

It’s Okay to Burn Out on the Things You Love—Reading Included

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

Creative types are haunted by a specific misconception: that because we are spending time doing what we love, we aren’t allowed to be burnt out by it, exhausted from it, or tired of it. We place the expectation on creative souls of constant engagement. You’re the lucky one who writes novels full-time, or who has a bustling blog as a part-time gig, or who reviews books for a living. When so many people hate their jobs, who are you to feel like it’s too much, or to complain with the same sharpness as someone with that awful unfulfilling job down the block? We don’t talk enough about creative burnout.

Recently, a friend of mine, managing editor at DJBooth and author of the Year of Mac series Donna-Claire Chesman, burnt out hard. But she struggled with the prospect of taking a break, even when urged to take one.

“I knew I was creatively burnt out when the standard tasks of my job—editing, interviewing, pitching—were bringing me a deep sense of dread. I felt like everything was suddenly insurmountable, and the process of writing itself was no longer making me happy,” said Donna. She continued: “I was certain this could never happen to me because I like to view myself as a ‘machine’ that can work endlessly…But I’m only a person. And every person needs rest.”

It’s something that sounds obvious when we say it about someone else: every person needs rest. Sure, you say in your head, everyone does—but I have so much to do, so in my case, I need to stay later and work harder. I so often urge my friends to take the time they need for themselves; but as a book reviewer and a voracious reader, a few months ago I took two days off because I had a nasty cold, and I then proceeded to guilt trip myself for not reading the entire time. Who was I to waste that valuable time healing? I have a job, and I love to do it—but there’s the persistent feeling that I can’t fall behind.

It’s a familiar feeling for Donna. “It’s difficult for me to come to terms with that need for rest, because I worry that means I failed in some capacity,” she said, later adding: “I feel like there’s no way I can burn out because I’m in such a privileged position to be a full-time music writer. And I love it! How could I burn out on something I have a genuine passion for? Well, the answer is I certainly can, and I certainly did.”

It’s true for all of us. The truth is simple: you can love something, and need a break from it. And you are allowed to slow down. You are allowed to take a mental health day. And if it’s a full-time job and that’s not possible, and the voice in your head demands more? You can still take a step back. My friend Donna took a week off from the demands of interviewing and pitching to instead refocus her creative energy on brainstorming for new projects—but with the pressure off.

Me with a book looking over the view from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan

I see this a lot in the reading community at large. Between reading challenges and book logs, those of us who love reading can begin to feel overwhelmed by the need to read at voracious levels. You bring three books with you on vacation but only read a quarter of one—and you’re struck by a sense of failure. You come home from work or wrap up a day of studying at the library, and all you want to do is put on pajamas and watch Netflix, but that current read is staring at you from your nightstand.

But here’s the truth: it’s okay not to read. It’s okay not to feel like reading, or to fall into a multi-week reading slump. It’s okay to choose something else. You will still be a reader and a bookworm even if you take a month to finish one book, or give up your weekend to marathoning Parks and Rec for the fourth time instead of reading. I’ve been trying to put this into practice myself: joining that weekly dance class despite the loss of reading time, going out for lunch with friends and coworkers rather than declining because I use that time for reading, not getting anxious when I choose to spend a Sunday lazily watching football with my boyfriend instead of reading all day like I “should be” doing. Forcing yourself through burnout will only make the books go by slower, and forcing yourself to read when your mind is pulling away will only make reading less of a pleasure.

Donna says it best: “It’s difficult for me to come to terms with that need for rest, because I worry that means I failed in some capacity. But I’ll only be failing myself if I continue swimming upstream instead of listening to my body.”

Slow down, take your time, and allow yourself recovery. The books will still be there when you’re done.