Creative burnout – it’s every creative person’s nightmare, and it seems almost inevitable. To hear about it, it sounds like an ever-present boogeyman, looming over the shoulder of every artist, writer, or creative professional, waiting to strike.
And when your income hinges on your ability to be creative – whether you write, blog, draw, craft, or anything else – the threat of burnout can be a scary prospect.
While it’s true that burnout will happen to almost every creator at least once, the good news is there are ways to avoid it altogether. How to prevent burnout? Well, there’s no magic pill. But there are things you can do to avoid the dreaded creative funk and prevent burnout altogether.
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Fill The Well
I like to think of creative energy as a give-and-take. When we’re creating, we’re giving. We pour our heart and soul into our art, our writing, or our craftsmanship. While creative energy is an infinite resource, like all things there has to be a balance. A give-and-take balance requires you to also be on the receiving end of creative energies.
I used to think that, as a creator, I had an obligation to spend more time creating content than consuming it. This meant spending more time writing than reading, be it blog posts like this one or fiction. Or that time spent watching TV or playing a video game was time spent not being productive – and that, as a content creator, I was letting other creatives or my audience down.
Then I had a conversation with a friend that turned that idea on it’s head. “If writers don’t buy and read as many books as they want,” she said, “then how can we expect readers to?”
The truth is, creative inspiration and the motivation to continue can come from anywhere, but that energy is more likely to find you if you are seeking it out.
Consume art liberally. Read books that fire you up, seek out media that delights your senses. Not only are you supporting other creatives by doing so, you keep yourself in a flow of creative energy.
Respect Your Time
I fully believe in the concept of making a living doing what you love – but there are some pitfalls to that that don’t typically come up for everyone else.
Work-life balance can be hard enough for busy parents, or specialists who need to always be “on call”. But creatives tend to let their work become their identity, or adopt a laissez-faire approach to scheduling work time. Both can be harmful – we know overworking yourself can lead to burnout, but falling behind on projects and needing to hustle to catch back up can be just as bad.
This can get even more complicated when you’re someone who much prefers drafting in bed over sitting at a desk, but without a clear delineation of work time and life time, you’re bound to let those lines blur.
Try marking clear boundaries around the time you spend working, and the time you spend not working. Don’t let not-working time get eaten up by work-related activities to the point where it bleeds into your all day, every day life. And likewise, when you’re working, commit to your process – I know some people really love having the TV on for background noise, so even though I personally hate the distraction I won’t preach about it! But set boundaries regarding what can happen during your working hours – and let friends and family know that even if you’re home, that doesn’t mean they can stop by whenever for a visit. Treat your work time with respect, and treat your off-work time with respect as well.
Give Yourself Space
This is my favourite analogy for creative energy I’ve ever heard: Think of creative energy like a muscle.
It’s a part of you, and as you use it it strengthens and gets more efficient, right?
But while muscles grow because you use them, they don’t grow as you use them.
Muscles actually grow while you sleep. That’s when your body does all of its routine maintenance, sending resources where they need to be in order to heal, grow, or otherwise make use of.
I have often found when I’m really, really stuck on a problem, I almost never come up with the best solution AS I’m working on figuring it out. Rather, I typically come up with the best solution AFTER I’ve spent a chunk of time and energy trying to figure it out, usually right in the middle of a shower, a conversation with my husband, a walk, doing the dishes… essentially, when I let my mind empty of the problem for a while and wander off.
When my mind wanders off, often times it comes back on its own with a much better idea, like a dog running out of the woods with a giant stick.
A piece of advice for a creative trying to push past a block: Buy an adult coloring book and some markers. Seriously. Something about the act of creating passively, watching a page fill up with color but not having to actually think about the process, can be very cathartic. I have personally loved Ivy and the Inky Butterfly but any one will do.
Reach Out To Other Creatives
Let’s ditch the idea that artists suffer in silence, shall we? There is so much to be said about the simple joy of connecting with people who understand what you’re going through. Fellow creatives can be a repository of advice, not just on how to prevent burnout, but to bounce ideas off of, have ideas bounced off of you, and even commiserate about the drudgey sides of the business from time to time.
I have a close friend who is also a writer and every so often we make a point to get together (over text or the phone, as we’re a long-distance friendship now) and just talk about our creatives projects and what’s currently bugging us about them. I have always walked away from these conversations with a renewed sense of motivation and some really cool ideas on moving forward.
If you don’t have friends who can relate, try taking a look around for local artist’s or writer’s groups near you, or even online. Reach out to someone you look up to and tell them how much you admire their work – or put yourself out there on social media yourself to potentially bring new contacts to you.
Change Your Backdrop
Just like with strength training (we’re continuing the creativity-as-a-muscle metaphor here), there comes a time when you hit a plateau. Doing the same things over and over don’t yield the same results anymore, because your body has built up a tolerance for those activities.
When you hit a plateau, you have to change up your workouts. Try something different, isolate new muscle groups.
When you hit a creative plateau, it’s the same thing.
Now, creative entrepreneurs don’t always have the luxury of changing up what they’re working on. Some of us can switch projects – but maybe only for so long. At some point, things gotta get done and out the door, right?
Try changing up your process, even if it’s just the scenery. Writing a coffee shop is a tried-and-true solution beloved of many writers, and an artist sketching in the park is a stereotype for a reason.
For me, I find when I’m trying to plan out large-scale ideas, I get a huge burst of motivation by grabbing my laptop and taking over the dining room table for a bit. More space to spread out papers in case I need to do mind-mapping or brainstorm my way through some big goals. And a different location can help me think through things that I was stuck on previously.
Try making a point to change things up once in a while – a rolling stone gathers no moss!
Self Care is Crucial
You’ve heard of the starving artist trope – the great creative genius who eschews material goods in pursuit of the highest art. Or how many times have you come across the image of the writer, fueled entirely by coffee and cigarettes, furiously scribbling well into the night?
It can be tempting to fall for the romanticized images of creatives and forget that we’re just human. We need nourishing food, exercise, and a healthy amount of sleep to function. (We need other things too, but those are the Big 3).
Sure, you can survive for a pretty long time while neglecting your physical needs – but can you thrive? Your brain is a part of your physical body, and it’s affected by your physical state. If you’re not getting your blood circulating, if you’re not getting the nutrients you need, or if you’re not letting yourself shut down at night for the amount of time you need to be fully rested, you’re stealing from yourself.
You might be rolling your eyes at me, and look, I get it. This is the internet, and everywhere you look is someone trying to sell you your health back. But as a creative, your brain is your work horse, and you’ve got to treat it right. You deserve it and you need it.
How to Prevent Burnout?
I’m not going to promise you that following this guide means you’ll definitely never come up on burnout in your career. It happens to almost everyone at least once. But being mindful of your habits and how you work best can help – not just by avoiding the burnout but helping you stay at your best when you need to.