'Burnout happens to the best of us!' HPP X

This week saw the culmination of several negative feelings into one mini meltdown, which led to me not feeling great about anything in particular, and accepting that, in actual fact, I may be burnt out...

'Well that's a bit freakin' obvious Zack, since you aim to release two episodes every week, and aim to write five scripts a week.'

Very true, and fair. However, this week, true to form in our History Podcasting Platform series, I'll be using my experiences as a window into history podcasting and how it can, on occasion, warp our enjoyment of the subject as a whole if we let it. What I learned this week, above all, was that sometimes, we cannot always control our productivity levels as much as we'd like, and sometimes, we have to compromise and accept that even while we make plans, life can always get in the way.

Oh dear, are you OK?

Maybe I should clarify before we go any further - I am doing very well, thank you, and the podcast is not going anywhere. However, my difficulties in the early part of the week stemmed from some rampant frustrations I had with researching and writing the Thirty Years War series. I was pissed that it wasn't coming as easy as I had hoped, and that it wasn't flowing like it normally does. This was doubly annoying, not just because I can't say that I nailed it afterwards, but also because any lapses in productivity eat into my schedule, which is planned into next year, and which revolves around creating enough content while I'm in Cambridge for everyone to enjoy.

So, because I couldn't write like before, I started to get angry, and when I got angry, I got stressed, and when I got stressed, I got migraines, and then, I got miserable, and then, nothing was produced at all. It began last week, when I just couldn't relax, because I knew that I was behind schedule. This was a horrible feeling, especially after the Korean War had been so surprisingly painless research and writing wise. If anything, I had expected the Thirty Years War to be the easy ride, since I had done it before and knew what to expect. 

Yet, if you ever revisit a topic after several years, or, heaven forbid, you decide you'd like to write a book on the subject, then you should be warned. Everything becomes harder. Not only are you trying to outdo your old self, you're also trying to prove, in this book that you can write just as well as those experts out there, whose books you tend to rely on.

The more I spent on the pre-war phase of the Thirty Years War though the more I grew to hate it, because I could find so few sources on the issues being raised, and I found myself constantly comparing myself to what the likes of Peter H. Wilson had already created. To put it in perspective, Peter H. Wilson's book Europe's Tragedy is nearly 1,000 pages long, and goes into detail on all manner of issues that the conflict threw up. How could I, as someone who didn't read any language other than English possible top that? 

Damaged, but still good!

After many stressful days re-writing and second guessing myself, I realised at last that I didn't have to be Wilson, an Oxford graduate, lecturer and author of great renown. What I had to do was build my narrative of the conflict, just as I had done during the previous series. This sounds blindingly obvious now, but at the time, when you're stuck in a rut and can't stop comparing yourself to others, I just couldn't see it.

Even then though I was stuck. I knew there was less pressure to craft an academic's tome, but I also knew I didn't want this book or series to suck. Remember that piece I wrote about writing blocks a little while ago? Well that was still me, and wouldn't ya know it, I couldn't follow my own advice. I wanted to move on with the narrative, but I just could not construct what I wanted. The last week has been great in another way though, because I started a diet and exercise regime which involved putting those running shoes on again, so off I went on a run in a last ditch effort to clear my head. And oh boy, did my head get cleared.

Perhaps this was exactly what my body had needed - some intensive exercise to take me away from my desk and anxieties, and put things in perspective. After the run I did what I often do - I talked out loud about what I was anxious about, and what was weighing me down. What I found was that my biggest fears revolved around the time sensitive deadlines I had set for myself, and not being able to meet them, thereby falling behind, and having to make still more embarrassing confessions to you guys.

But then I really thought about it, and I realised that I could in fact drop the fourth piece of research that I had planned, if I spaced things out in the feed a bit more. I'm keeping it vague because I don't want to spoil any surprises, but long story short, I devised a way to make the load easier on myself, without disrupting anything in the meantime.


Now I have a straight path - first, I finish work on the Thirty Years War series and book; second, we do Versailles, and finally, the Age of Bismarck. The idea that I have from now until August 2019 to research and write these topics meant that a weight was instantly lifted. Next, I looked at the current troubles I was having with the TYW. Instead of sitting down and trying to make the episode from the stuff I had in front of me, I did something which so many history podcasters do, but which I have 9/10 been able to get away with not doing - I planned the episode, and not only that, but I planned it in the finest of details.

I read each one of those articles properly and fully, and took notes on each. I summarised the sections of the books that were going to be useful, and I collated them together to the point that the episode had a proper structure and logical progression to it. Surprise surprise, it all worked out really well. The whole process of crafting a script took four days rather than one, but I accepted this because I accepted that I had to get real about my production schedule. For so long I had planned as though 4-5 scripts a week was consistently doable. That's because, for a long time, it was.


Since the jump-start we got from Five Weeks To Run Wild in May 2017, WDF has never been the same for me - I look at it differently, and I absolutely work with it differently. My workrate shot up with the podcast from that point, and at the time it was absolutely incredible to ride that wave of productivity, but it got to a point where I expected those incredible highs, and then became unreasonably disappointed when they didn't always come.

These frustrations and stresses were sourced from the unrealistic ambitions I had set myself, and getting these in check definitely helped, but it also helped that I forced myself to sit down, to stop trying to write something that didn't exist in my mind, and to create a plan for that episode. Now, I enjoy the planning aspect, and I am in the process of planning each episode in detail so that I don't run into this problem again. I need to accept that sometimes, it doesn't always flow as well as I'd like, but that this is no cause for despair.

Once I reached the end point of this lesson, I realised something which hadn't really occurred to me before. This stress I had been feeling made me loath what I had once loved. It made me take for granted and forget the best parts of this hobby I am so blessed to call my job. Above all, these feelings and frustrations made me depressed, for the first time in a very long time. For that reason, naturally, I took to Twitter to share my thoughts, and the response was so positive I thought I'd share that post here. Since Twitter only lets you put out 280 characters per Tweet, I had to release my message in several blocks, so I'll just copy and paste this below...

"If you guys don't mind, I'd like to share something... Depression can reach and damage people in different ways and at different times. It doesn't always make sense and it never discriminates. No matter how 'successful' or 'happy' someone might seem, that person is not immune. It also needs to be said that depression doesn't always mean clinically depressed, and can sometimes defy a straightforward diagnosis or explanation. One could feel crushingly sad and empty, yet still be able to function, while another can be unable to get out of bed, and won't get by without medication. Even then, medication doesn't always work. However, one version of depression is not less/more important than the other. Depression is also immensely personal, and even though thankfully much of the stigma is vanishing, for the person under siege with these symptoms, it can still feel like there is much to be feared by sharing their experiences and feelings. What is there to fear? Sometimes it's the fear of letting people down, since you're meant to be the happy friend, the contented brother, the easy going husband. The thought process of 'if even YOU need help, then how can you help those that need more help than you?' I am blessed to not suffer from clinical depression, but I know and love people that do. While I try to stay quiet about these things normally and keep it all 'historical', recently I've learned that staying quiet isn't always a good idea.As someone with so, SO much to be thankful for, I still struggle with fears about not measuring up, about letting people down, or about never feeling satisfied even once I get to where I want to go. Sometimes these feelings feel so loud my creative juices just stop flowing. In the past month, for example, I've been really troubled by my lack of productivity, my fear that nobody cares, my anxiety about my book failing, stress about falling behind in my schedule, and even concerns that history podcasting full time isn't the dream I had imagined. That's why I NEED people to bring me back to earth. Be they friends, family and of course, my lovely listeners. In the last month I haven't really been myself, and I felt just completely unable to reply to your emails and messages as I normally would. You all need to know how much I appreciate you, and hopefully soon, I'll be back to my old self. It is, I'm sure, mostly my own fault that I'm in this situation. Exhaustion, burn-out, frustration and those sad feelings are things I normally hold in check. For several reasons over the last month, I haven't been able to do this, and I'm honestly sorry. Things don't always work out how we want, but thankfully I've been blessed with amazing people (an amazing wife!) which helps keep everything in perspective. To finish then, I believe it's so important to say that even yours truly, the Chancellor of history friends the world over, is not immune to these sad feelings. Yet, I'm also proud to say that I am not invincible, and I'm proud to say I came clean about how I really felt. Why? It's only when we ask for help that we realise how loved and appreciated we truly are. That is something to be proud of, to hold onto. If this compels anyone to be honest like I was, and depend on your loved ones, then it was worth sharing. Thankssssssss for reading."

And that was that. I had to share my feelings on Twitter, and to you guys, to remind you all that it's OK to not be OK, to not always be as productive as you'd sometimes like, and to wish that you'd done things differently. As we'll look at next time though, I am, and we are, so blessed to be able to do something as brilliantly dynamic and rewarding as history podcasting. It's so easy to get caught up with crap sometimes and forget this fact, but it is so important to reiterate time and again how great WDF is for my career, my enjoyment, and my mood. Sometimes it does get me up in the morning, and sometimes when I find that I feel stress or anxiety towards it, that is my fault, not the fault of history podcasting, and certainly not you guys - the most patient, kind and generous history friends I could ask for. 


I hope this anecdotal story has been useful to you guys this week. As I said there, we'll return to podcast-related topics next time, but since this is very much about my life and my podcast, whether you need such details or not - you're getting this inside scoop! So Thankss for reading here, and do let me know if you enjoyed this installment of the HPP - perhaps share your enjoyment online, and tell others that signing up for WDF's newsletter is the right thing to do!