My Creative Burnout

I’m ten days into the worst burnout of my life. I’ve discovered, in times like these, it’s a challenge to answer the seemingly simple question: “how are you?” The polite lie is what most people want, and that’s fine, but when you say enough polite lies you soon lie to yourself too. Out of my own frustration I’ve started surprising people with honest answers. Perhaps I’m just bored with the lie, or maybe I’m hoping honest conversations with people I don’t know that well can help free something stuck inside me. I know that burnout, like its older and more dangerous cousin depression, is a serious thing. And most people, most of the time, are terrified of talking about serious things. I want to talk about mine. I’m not afraid and I don’t want you to be afraid either.

Eleven years ago I wrote How To Survive Creative Burnout, back before my first book was published. I reread the post this week and there’s valuable advice there. If I think of my creative motivation as a horse, it must be rested in a fair ratio to how hard I work it, especially if I expect the horse to work well for many years. But somehow we imagine our minds as transcendent, free from the natural balance of work and rest. We know crops must be rotated and seeds take time to grow. But in our work centric culture to admit to anyone, much less ourselves, that we’re past our limit comes with shame. It’s part of the cult of busy we live in. And as with all emotions it’s the feelings we have about our feelings that do more harm that the initial feelings themselves.

My past burnouts have lasted just days. Two or three times a year I’ll fall out of rhythm with myself.  I’ve been there enough times that I even have a routine. I stop all work, and reschedule meetings, so I can have a day or two where I’m doing as little work as possible, possibly none at all. Free to do anything, or nothing, as I choose. My chosen career requires some significant sacrifices, but a major benefit is on most days I answer to no one. When I need time for myself it’s there for me to take it. Sometimes I’ll spend more time with friends and try to recharge from their energy. Often I go see a matinee film or two, or perhaps a long walk or a marathon of video games. My wife knows I’m in one of these phases when she comes home from work and finds me on the couch, a place I almost never visit during the day, in a position so deeply nested into the cushions it looks like I was absorbed into the furniture.

But as I write this I’m more than a few days in and my standard routine has only had limited effects. I’ve thought about it hard and there was no acute trigger. Nothing specifically bad has happened to me recently. And this is where talking about burnout, or depression, with people becomes  frustrating for everyone. We want a singular reason, a primary  cause. Most people want to help you find the thorn in your side and take it out, and when you express there is no singular thorn, the script they know is useless. Instead of a bad day or a major rejection I simply feel a slow grinding away of something important has taken place. Something big and heavy that I need has moved and there’s no quick way to move it back.

But I am successfully past the judgements of myself: I stopped feeling bad about feeling bad. It’s OK for a time to be very far from my imagined potential and to be far away on purpose. It’s OK to grant myself patience. It’s OK to vacate. I don’t have to like it completely, but I do need to do it. Reading through my journals I realize I’ve been on my own as a writer for a long time now, without the morale benefits of working on a team, or the security of a steady paycheck. Maybe I need a new circle of creative friends. Or I need to do collaborative projects where I have a partner or two to share everything with. Perhaps there’s a five year or ten year habit that I need, something like what Sagmiester calls a creative sabbatical. I don’t know yet. I doubt there’s one thing alone I need to do. Perhaps this new challenge will just work itself out or I’ll have to find some new habits, short and long term, to keep on working towards my life goal.

Over this week I’ve thought much about who I am and what I’m trying to do. It’s a pleasant surprise that when I shut things down and take more deliberate time to play, rest, wander and ponder, that I slowly make realizations I’d be unlikely to make any other way. I hate the phrase “things happen for a reason”, but I do believe when something happens I can put effort in to make meaning from it.

I know that for most of my my life I’ve found it natural to care about ideas enough to chase them. I’m often described as intense or passionate and I take those words as compliments. My motivation is not accidental. I believe certain things should be done before I die and that belief sustains me. This belief has been my preferred fuel for the hard work of writing a book, preparing for a lecture or doing anything interesting at all.

But that fuel hasn’t been consistent lately. It fades easily. I’m more prone to false starts. Apathy is friendlier now and familiar. It’s a frequent struggle to stay motivated. And unlike the burnouts I’ve experienced before I find myself asking the question: “so what?” Why is working so hard important? Many people who are continually productive are miserable, or worse, produce little of value. Maybe it’s better to live a life where you work only as much as you need to, so that there’s more time left for living? I love to work hard but that’s not all that I love. And given I have a fulfilling, fun and comfortable life, I must decide if what’s going on for me is a problem, a blessing, or some of both. I don’t know yet what it means or what I’m going to do about it, but wanted to share it with you anyway. Knowing how many of you read my work for the honesty I offer it seemed only fair that I share this with you while I’m in it.

Thanks for reading. Words of encouragement are welcome. Better would be to share a story of your own burnout experience. We all, legends included, have our times with too much fire and not enough. And maybe if we share those stories openly we can help each other along.

(Read the excellent comments, or jump to part two)

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77 Responses to “My Creative Burnout”

  1. Ramakrishnan Seshadri

    We all go through similar stuff in our own way. The purpose makes a critical part in defining what we do? how we do? when we do? … I think you may like to catch some reading at http://madhyasth-darshan.info/ and see if it relates. Best wishes. Life is living accordance with coexistence leading to mutual happiness, prosperity and continuous happiness.

    Reply
  2. Hristo Ushev

    My two cents: I think there are a LOT of people who love your work, even if you didn’t tweet or blog post so much. (Or at all.) Count me in that camp; I love your work. So, if it helps you to cut back on blogging or tweeting, then confidently do so. You’re awesome because of your PRIMARY work — your books, your lectures, your friendship. I sincerely wish you the best of luck.

    Reply
  3. Bonnie Biafore

    Hi Scott,
    It took me a while to read your post, even though I was curious to see what it was about. I have been weaning myself off of 5 years of over the top workload. Like you, I have gone through many “adrenaline hangovers” after finishing an extended period of hard word and deadlines. During those hangovers, I feel like I’m swimming through molasses. I walk the dogs, watch movies, cook. The hangovers typically last about 3 days.

    Funny though, as the years pass and I get older, I finally realized a couple of important things.

    1. I simply can’t push myself the way I used to. My mind and body aren’t as resilient as they used to be. I can’t mutlitask the way I used to. I tell people I’m becoming a diva (tongue in cheek). The reality is that I need to plan my work schedule more carefully. I can’t work as hard so I need to be smarter about what work I do and when I do it. I push back on the requests from my publishers and other clients and tell them when I can do the work they want me to do. It actually works. I have most of my work schedule laid out through April 2016.

    2. Everyone I do work for loves me, but my friends were forgetting about me, because I was always so busy. I decided that I need to have more fun, spend more time with friends, let them know that I actually exist. I didn’t want to die and have people remember me only by the work I’ve done. I’m making progress on that and it’s totally worth it.

    One last point. Someone suggested that I read Buddha’s Brain which is a fascinating book that covers neuroscience and meditation (primarily mindfulness). It explains so much. And I can see that it is going to help me with my path forward.

    I know you will find your way out of your burnout and figure things out. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this from you.

    Reply
    1. Schalk Neethling

      Hey Bonnie,

      I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for this beautiful line in your comment:

      “I have gone through many “adrenaline hangovers” after finishing an extended period of hard word and deadlines. During those hangovers, I feel like I’m swimming through molasses.”

      I really resonated with the way I feel. Also, thanks for the book recommendation, it is on my to read list ;)

      Reply
      1. Bonnie Biafore

        I’m glad that resonated with you. i am also happy to report that I haven’t over-committed to work in more than a year.

        Reply
  4. Anna

    I struggled with this too. My google-fu was running short of options, but today I miraculously got on this here post (it’s awesome by the way!)
    I realised that some causes of these burnouts could be because of perfectionism, or because I am forcing myself to love the only thing I was good at in order to become better at it (graphic design, yep.) Sometimes it helps to imagine a mini argument in your head between the good, positive, hard-working you and the evil, negative, persuasive you. I’m a student at the moment so I haven’t lived far enough to come up with good answers but this is all I got.

    Reply
  5. Simon Lindgaard

    I too am suffering from creative burnout. My thoughts are scattered and fractured, I’m tired and bored with everything. I’m wondering if this is only a natural state when living a creative life? Did Jung or Nietzche experience this emptyness suddenly and unexpected, where you’re sick of looking at your workspace and the thought of being creative completely dismays you?

    Or is it conditioned by limiting beliefs and and memories of failures and things left undone?

    It actually helps to write this.

    Reply
  6. Axel

    I worked for 12 years doing graphics for a company where I was underpaid and underappreciated. The only saving grace was that I worked alongside two of my best friends and that the informal atmosphere allowed for a lot of fun times. But the stress I pushed away finally piled up until one day I had a panic attack and (literally) ran out of the office screaming. I never went back. That was a little over a year ago.

    I totally stopped doing anything artistic for months. I got a retail job and cut off all freelance.

    It’s been a year and the creativity still isn’t back. I find myself asking “why it all matters.” I tried a few freelance projects, some super easy, and my brain just won’t focus enough to get them done. Even my artists friends (who have been super supportive) don’t really understand.

    I read your original article and this one and there are some great tips. My “well” is not empty; I have managed some personal artwork. But I think I will try out a few of your suggestions to see if I’m ready to create for someone else again.

    Reply
    1. Mark S

      Good luck with it – I wish you well. One person I know was a creative and talented lawyer, one of the best in her field. As the work and politics and pressure piled on, her performance suffered. She left the organisation around five years ago, made adjustments, and is now back to her creative and talented best. While she is happy now, it was not always an easy or pleasant journey and, in hindsight, a person’s feelings are not always the best guide as to whether they are progressing. Sometimes it feels like progress and sometimes it doesn’t, but keep going regardless.

      Reply
  7. Lukasz Bartnik

    It’s almost like the idea that fuels you needs to stay fresh to keep you going. But if you dedicate your life to a certain goal and that goal becomes less of value or less possible over time – e.g. because it wasn’t real enough and you see it now, or it wasn’t really what you wanted – then the motivation dies out. But if you don’t understand it, don’t see inside yourself deep enough, you’ll start shifting from following a passion to forcing yourself. And then you burn out.

    Reply

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