How To Survive Creative Burnout

Outside the Hundertwasser-haus, Vienna[This is a chapter from The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity]

The longer you work at creating things, whether it’s websites, essays or paintings, the greater the odds you’ll have days where you don’t feel like doing it anymore. Until that first day you may have heard others describe burnout, but you just shrugged it off as superstition, or perhaps you believed yourself to be immune. But the day it hits you, the world seems suddenly grey. What was once fun and challenging feel empty and pointless. Or perhaps the things that used to motivate or move you don’t resonate at all. If this sounds familiar, or you fear that this day is in your future, this essay is for you.

How to know when you’re burned out

The first thing to realize is that everyone’s creative energies come from different places. The reasons you might feel stuck or empty will be different from your friends and co-workers. So don’t be surprised that while you’re feeling low, others around you aren’t. Creative work is personal and is fueled by the unique combination of qualities that makes you, you. Just because you’re not running through the halls yelling about how you love your job, while the rest of the people on your floor are dancing in the halls, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. But to be yourself you have to honor the  feelings that only you are feeling.

Burnout means you’ve pushed your creative energy beyond the point of recovery. Like a well of water, creative energy replenishes itself slowly over time. A person who has pushed their creative well too hard for too long will, like its watery counterpart, one day find it empty. Usually by the time you notice something is seriously wrong, there’s little energy left to work with. Common signs you might be burnt out include:

  • You dread waking up (unless this is not unusual for you)
  • You don’t care about something you were passionate about
  • You saw the title of this essay and felt a ray of hope
  • Inspired, motivated creative people annoy you
  • Everything seems gray and pointless
  • You’re drinking or eating more, or showing whatever your signs of depression are
  • You find it hard to relax
  • It’s a struggle to do even basic work

But be warned: before you chalk it up to creative burnout, be aware that there are some other problems that can easily be confused with it. How is the morale in your workplace? Are people generally happy or is the vibe downbeat (or toxic)? There may be other issues in your workplace that are having a negative emotional impact on you. Most likely, there are several issues you’re dealing with at the same time, including issues at home or with family, that are contributing to how you’re feeling. Sorting it out can take time, and it’s rarely helpful to blame everything going on in your life on one or two specific events, people, or environments.

Surviving burnout

The Hundertwasser-haus, ViennaUsing the well example again, what would you do if you ran out of water? Would you become one with your couch, pizza in hand, watching movies all day long, leaving it to the fates to decide if you’ll ever drink water again? I think not. You’d go out to the store, or perhaps to a neighbor’s house and ask to borrow some of theirs. Burnout is entirely survivable. Creative people get burnt all the time, to varying degrees, and many of them develop the habits that allow them to come back, sometimes stronger or more motivated that they were before. The well will fill again all on it’s own, unless you do something stupid (start taking drugs, staying up all night and trying to plow through even though that never works for you, giving up completely and joining the army, etc.)

The best place to start with survival tactics is with your teammates and co-workers. Pick the one person who you relate to best, and tell them how you feel. “Hey friend, I’m so burned out right now.” 9 times out of 10 you’ll get more support and encouragement than you expected. If the person you confide in is cool and empathetic, they’ll hear you out, ask you what they can do tell help, and establish a base camp of support. Even if the conversation lasts 25 seconds, you’ll feel more human, and the burden of crappy feelings won’t be on your shoulders alone. If you have specific things they can do to cheer you up, name them. Be specific.

Do you want them to try and make you laugh? Do you want encouragement? Do you want them to listen to you vent and complain now and then? Dance outside your office when they walk by? They can’t know how to help you if you don’t tell them. If your manager understands anything about creative work, it’s in his or her interest to help you deal with burnout. Even with the most calculating and evil manager, if you report to them you’re an asset to them. When you’re toasty, you’re at risk of crashing completely and become entirely useless.

So even if they see you as a yuppified form of urban cattle, they want you producing and creating over the long haul. If they can convert weeks of malaise and poor work into a handful of days, it’s entirely in their interest to do so. It’s simple economics. A more likely situation is that, if your manager is paying any attention at all, they already know there’s something wrong. They can sense the difference in your behavior in meetings, and see the quality or precision of the work you’re producing. A good manager would ask and investigate to find out what’s wrong (it’s their job), but some don’t know what to say. In that case, it’s up to you.

Here’s an easy way to go (if you don’t trust your manager enough to share this, go here):

“Hey boss. I’m concerned about something. I haven’t been as motivated as I’d like on this project for the last 2 weeks. I’m trying to figure out why, and it’s possible I’m burnt out on some aspect of this work. If you have suggestions for me, I’m open to them, but I just wanted to make sure you were aware of what’s going on. I’ll keep you posted as I figure out what we can do about it.”

By starting a conversation like this, you take responsibility for you burnout. You score points with you manager (and with yourself) for be aware of what’s going on, and taking a mature and open course of action about it. Generally, things go better for person A, if person A takes action about what person A is feeling. For myself, I can’t say I’ve always been person A, but I realize that when I take the weaker, easier, person B path of ignoring and denying the entire situation (any my feelings about it), it rarely works to my advantage. Person B’s life expectancy, and quality of life, is probably never as good person A.

Survival tactics

In then end, I’ve found that talking with other people won’t dramatically change the way you feel. It’s important to talk and express things, since expressing feelings is the only way to work through them, but in the end, change only comes from within. Change is slow, tricky and unpredictable, but everyone has certain triggers or experiences that help them shake things up more than others. Since everyone’s different, the approaches for how to work through it often have to be discovered by you. Here’s some of the things that I know have worked for me, and other designers and engineers I’ve worked with, but I recommend serious experimentation on your own:

  • Plan an escape. Take a day off and do the most dramatically easy but fun thing you can think of. Go see a matinee downtown, have a fantastic lunch, shop, browse, and walk. Be as indulgent as you can stand, and drag as many of your friends along with you. (Offer to return the favor with them when they’re burnt out.). Use a vacation day, or a sick day (Isn’t burnout a form of poor mental health?)
  • Laugh. Whatever it is you find funny, bring more of it into your life. Whether it’s certain people, films, tv shows, plays, books. Choose to laugh.
  • Scream. I’m a believer in primal screams. I always feel better after I’ve yelled at the top of my lungs for no particular reason, doubly so if I’m pissed off about something. Practice different screams, such as yelling ordinary words (“Papaya!!!”) vs. generic scream sounds (“Aaaaaaaagggh!”). Get friends and co-workers to participate if you can. Even if alone, and you have to do it into a pillow or underwater to not upset the neighbors, do it anyway. You’ll feel better, I promise.
  • Fun time. How much time per day do you do stuff purely for fun? Just because you like it and for no other reason? Why isn’t this number larger? What is more important than fun and happiness over the course of a lifetime?
  • Sleep & Exercise. Unfortunately, our minds are connected to our bodies, and if we treat our bodies poorly, well, our minds kind of get pissed off. I’ve found that if I’m not getting enough exercise, I’m about half as useful to the world than otherwise. Start taking a walk every day. Go swimming. Have more/better sex. Free up your body, and your mind will follow.
  • Travel. Get in the car, pick a direction, and drive. Grab friends, or not. Bring food, or not. Play music really loud, or just roll down the windows, and stick your head out (pssst.. this is a good time to scream). Use some vacation time, or ask for time without pay so you can stretch out your time (and your time may be more valuable than your money).

Beginning again

After you’ve made some effort to escape, and let the well fill up again, it’s time to get back to work. Sometimes the toasty feeling remains, even though you’ve filled up your credit cards, have seen every new film, and are exercising and laughing daily. Even with the most understanding boss or teammates, most people can’t afford to escape for very long. The work and the deadlines may have slipped back, but the work is still there. Here’s some advice for how to start again, and reconnect with the work at hand.

  • Break things into smaller pieces. What are the smallest meaningful pieces to work with? Work on a page. Can’t do a page? Work on a paragraph. Get down the smallest bit you feel you can manage, but do it. Like Guthrie said, take it easy, but take it. After you do one piece, find the strength to do the next one. If you can’t, go for a walk, call a friend, but then come back and try again. And on and on. One small piece at a time. If you’re lucky, once you’ve got a few pieces done, you’ll hit your stride and it won’t seem so bad. If not, just slug it out. At least you’ll be able to say tomorrow you did something today.
  • Look at the worst pieces of work you know of. The worst writing. The worst painting. The worst web design. Worst whatever. Do you feel anything when you look at the crap? Does it annoy you? Make you angry? Is there still a response there at all? Some energy somewhere in your gut? Can you redirect it?
  • Repeat above, only with the best piece of work you know. Go to a museum, or your favorite building. Watch your favorite film, read your favorite book. Do you get any energy there? Anything you can bring with you into your own project?

Avoiding burnout

After you’ve gone through it once, you might fall victim to the arrogance of invulnerability. The false idea that since you’ve been burnt to a crisp once and survived, you can do it again. Don’t be stupid. It’s pure denial you’re feeling, not confidence. As long as you take on tough assignments and push yourself creatively you run the risk of going to far, and to live up to your potential as a creative person, you have to find ways to push yourself without pushing too far.

  • Change your work environment: What do you do at work when you feel stuck (not burnt out, but just stuck on a problem)? Are there things you can do to your cube or office to help you deal with those times? Posters of work that inspires you? Things that make you laugh? Music that helps you think through a problem? You spend 8 hours a day in that space: it’s worth taking a couple of hours to improve it by even 5 or 10%. If you suck at this and don’t know where to start (e.g. you’re male), ask a friend to help you out.
  • Project assignments: How do you decide what project assignments to take? How can you find more variety in your work, so that there’s a chance you’ll develop new interests, or new skills? Real growth is the best burnout prevention technique. It’s easier to stay interested if the work and the people stay interesting.
  • Work on more than one project at a time. My wife, an artist, never works on one painting at a time. When she feels stuck on one, she’ll move over to another and it always seems fresh and interesting, compared to the work she just left. I find the same thing with writing and designing. Find ways to give yourself alternatives, so that you can still be productive, while having the choice to temporarily skip a problem you are annoyed by or frustrated with.
  • Managers and work relationships. Do you like the people you work with? I don’t know how long I could be creative if I fundamentally didn’t like or get along with my boss, or most of my co-workers. The real problem might not be creative at all. It might be the unhealthy nature of your work relationships. Time spent improving relationship skills creates the potential for change, while banging your head against the wall every day and complaining to friends probably doesn’t.
  • Career & Lifestyle: How long have you been doing what you’re doing? Do you expect to do it forever? Perhaps you need bigger changes in your life that you’re getting. A new friend, a new lover, a new city, a new company, a new hobby, might be the only way to move your life forward.

Know Thyself

However you choose to deal with your situation, pay attention to yourself. What works and doesn’t work for you? When did you feel most inspired in your life? Least? What things in your life seem to influence your morale and motivation? No one can answer these questions but you. It’s often harder to figure out and listen to what your own needs are than to take advice from others. The sooner you sit down and allow your own truth to come out, the better off you’ll be.

See: Creative Burnout Revisited, my sequel to this essay ten years later

[Photos from Hundertwasser’s Hundertwasserhaus]

[Published June 2004]

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