Dealing with creative burnout

Published by Nela Dunato on at 10:46 in Tips for creatives

Last week I’ve talked about staying sane while you’re in the middle of launching, and this naturally brings us to the topic of burnout.

Burnout follows launching like a shadow. Every time you pull off an extended period of working like a crazy person, you’re bound to be left in a state of complete devastation. Or at the very least, a state of “I’m not sure if this is even worth it, will it always have to be like this?” which is just as scary because it makes you question your career choices.

The biggest issue with burnout is that it comes with an added layer of guilt, because we think that if we’re doing the work we love, we’re not supposed to feel this way, ever.

Sometimes we mistake burnout for falling out of love with our work, and if your case was particularly bad, this can last for well over a year.

In addition, if you experience burnout on a regular basis, you feel guilty because you should be over this by now. You should know how to avoid burnout and not experience it at all. Right?

If this is you, let’s get one thing out of the way.

Burnout will always be there – one way or another

We’re passionate and ambitious people here, and this can sometimes get the best of us.

If you’re going to accept the manic parts of locking yourself up in your studio and doing six months worth of work in a single month, then you also need to accept what comes after it.

This doesn’t mean it should be a normal part of your work routine. But if you know that once or twice a year you tend to do this, then acknowledge that burnout is an integral part of this as well. We chose this way of working for all the benefits that it provides, and unfortunately, there are some downsides to it, too (there’s no such a thing as free lunch and all that).

You can minimize the damage and make it shorter – but guilt tripping yourself because you swore to yourself you’ll never do it again is of no use.

In the previous post I gave you some tips on how to stay sane and prevent burnout, but let’s be honest, neither of us is going to follow that to the letter.

What to do when you’re already suffering from burnout?

Dealing with creative burnout

The best way to deal with burnout is to rest and give yourself time

“Wow, thank you Captain Obvious, what a concept. Next thing you’re going to tell me to think positive and drink plenty of water”, I hear you say.

(Or is that my own voice? Never mind.)

Get more rest than you think you need. And then get even more rest. That’s really the simplest solution. The problem? We hate doing that. We fear our world is going to crumble if we stop holding on to a thousand things that only we can do to prevent that.

Willing yourself out of burnout won’t work. It’s not just about your mental and emotional state, it’s your body that need to sleep and do nothing for a while.

Sometimes in the past I've mistaken burnout for depression, and tried to pull myself out of it by doing enjoyable activities, when in fact it was the last thing I needed.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not completely sure whether you’re depressed or just burnt out, here are some clues:

Burnout Depression
Causes

Physical and mental exhaustion

Not having free time for leisure and fun activities

Relationship issues

Grieving

Health issues

Financial issues

Job dissatisfaction

Sometimes causes cannot be traced to life events

Symptoms

Fatigue

Bad mood

Confusion and overwhelm

Mind fog and/or spacing out

Losing interest in creative work

May lose interest in other areas of life

Fatigue

Bad mood

Confusion and overwhelm

Mind fog and/or spacing out

Losing interest in life in general – socializing, physical activities, work etc.

Suicidal thoughts

Challenges

Attempting any physically, mentally or emotionally challenging task

Supporting oneself financially by producing creative work

Seeing oneself as an artist if one doesn't create art

Self-worth attached primarily to doing creative work ("If I don't create, I'm worthless")

Maintaining hope that one will get creatively inspired again

Attempting any physically, mentally or emotionally challenging task

Supporting oneself financially

Maintaining hope that life can get better

Maintaining positive interactions with other people

Finding reasons to do what it takes to get better

Remedies

Rest

Doing only what is absolutely necessary to keep living normally

Accepting this phase as something that will be over soon

Doing activities that are enjoyable

Reduce media consumption (especially types that would trigger envy or guilt for not being able to achieve what others have)

If possible, solve the objective problem that caused depression

Healthy diet

Exercise

Consuming uplifting media (comedies, cute animal videos...)

Seek connection with people who understand depression

Accepting this phase as something that will be over soon

Doing activities that are enjoyable

Therapy

(This is not an official list of depression symptoms and remedies, just one I pulled out of my ass and personal experience. It’s not a tool for diagnosing or curing depression.)

The symptoms appear similar, though in severe depression they take an extreme edge and the person may become suicidal.

While the person experiencing burnout may feel disillusioned with life and have no hope of a bright future for a while, they will not have suicidal thoughts. They may, on the other hand, experience a profound identity crisis if they’ve been overly attached to their creative output and the act of resting triggers thoughts of worthlessness.

A note on suicidal thoughts. Most people think that this means people have thoughts like "I want to kill myself", and plan how to do it – that's not always the case. Sometimes those thoughts are more like "It would be better if I didn't even exist", "My family/friends would be better off without me" and similar. If you're experiencing those thoughts, please ask for help.

Burnout or depression - what's the difference?

Prolonged, untreated burnout may turn into depression

If you keep yourself working hard and not caring for the needs of your body and mind for months, it will get harder and harder to get back to your normal state. It also may lead into a downward spiral where other areas of your life become affected, which will inevitably lead to depression.

The main difference between burnout and depression is the treatment.

The treatment for burnout is very easy and straightforward: just have plenty of rest and do things that are enjoyable.

Try keeping your obligations to a minimum. Do only what is necessary to keep your life running (food, personal hygiene, minimal work) and try to delegate whatever is possible to other people in your household and/or business. Postpone any plans you had of activities that would further exhaust you. If possible, take a vacation and stay at home. Put your own needs first.

With depression it's not quite so easy. If your depression wasn't caused by exhaustion, then no amount of rest will help you get better. Some research indicates that physical exercise helps with depression because it enhances the production of feel-good hormones.

Avoiding commitments with other people, while comfortable, may only make depression worse as you lose connection with the world around you.

It's always important address the root cause of your state, instead of using stimulants to make the symptoms go away. Symptoms are our bodies’ way of telling us what is wrong. You do not want to numb them out with drugs or ungodly amount of caffeine, no matter how much work you think you need to do.

(You’re almost always wrong about the amount of work you absolutely need to do, and you quickly learn that when you come down with a bad flu or a family emergency happens. Suddenly work is no longer the #1 thing to worry about.)

Listen to the symptoms, and do your best to take good care of yourself. You are not weak if you do so. Don't let the rest of the world pressure you into doing what is expected of you, instead of doing what you know is best for you.

How long will it take to get over burnout?

As long as it takes.

I know. This annoys me as well. Just last week I was feeling bad about not being able to do all the work I planned because I’d be sitting there, staring at a screen with a cloud of confusion on my mind. I’d get sleepy in the middle of the afternoon even though I’ve slept for full 8 hours that night.

I had a week-long supposed sabbatical before that. Well, that’s the point: it wasn’t a real sabbatical. I had a few emergency things to take care of, and I still spent hours upon hours in front of the computer, instead of just relaxing (like you would in a real sabbatical). Since I didn’t allow myself a proper vacation, it turns out I need more time to recover than I planned.

That’s how it works.

If you allow yourself all the rest you need, whenever you need it, it might take less time to recover.

If you allow yourself only some rest, but not all the rest you need, it will take longer.

There’s no cheating your way out of burnout.

You wouldn’t expect a car to run on an empty gas tank, yet we all expect our bodies to do it.

We don’t even realize what we’re doing to ourselves until it’s too late. And then we get sick, or we start questioning our entire life and career, or we just want to spend a week not even getting out of bed.

Maybe not getting out of bed for a week is not possible for you. Hell, it’s not possible even for me, and I allow myself a lot of things that many would consider decadent. But maybe you can give yourself a bit of that – sleeping in for an hour longer than usual, going to bed earlier, taking a nap after lunch.

Minimizing the number of “shoulds” on your to do list.

Less staring at the screen, more staring through the window.

There are ways to weave rest and relaxation around the things that absolutely, positively must happen, lest the Universe will collapse unto itself and everyone will hate you, and you will never have any friends or clients ever again.

Burnout is your friend

Burnout prevents you from suffering the real hell that will happen if you keep going at the current speed. [Tweet this!]

Pushing burnout away ”just a bit more, until I’m done with this, and this, and oh that thing too”, will lead to worse things. Things like anxiety, panic attacks, depression, stomach ulcers, thyroid disorders, adrenal fatigue and other not so fun stuff you’d rather avoid.

Your burnout has a loving message for you. Take it seriously.

Treat your body well, you only get to have one in this lifetime.

Nela
Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

I run a boutique design consultancy that helps creative businesses evolve into premium brands and connect with their dream clients, by crafting extraordinary visual experiences.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...



Your comments

  • Beth

    Beth
    2015-11-05 at 15:08

    I haven't experienced burnout (yet), but I get easily stressed so I can see how it could happen ... great tips for what to do when it strikes. Glad you are taking care of yourself!

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-11-05 at 17:30

    Wow Beth, that's fascinating! :)
    Oh yes, stress is a big contributor, and what I find is that it tends to burn you out if it goes on for too long. At least, that's how it's been for me.
    Thanks! :)

  • Trista

    Trista
    2015-11-05 at 19:49

    Nela, this was so insightful and necessary. I love that you give creatives permission to burnout, as long as they take care of themselves afterward. And you're right, it always takes longer than you think! LOL. I've had to submit to my body many times when it's telling me I just need to stop.

    Thank you for being a sane voice and leading us in the right direction :)

  • Kathryn

    Kathryn
    2015-11-09 at 01:08

    Thank you for sharing this, Nela! Knowing our own symptoms can sometimes be difficult. Thank you for the reminder to take it seriously when it happens!

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-11-11 at 12:01

    @Trista, thank you so much for your kind words! :)
    Ah yes, that stubbornness that sounds like "Just one more minute, until I'm done with this. (3 hours later) *Yawn* Ah, what the heck, I'll just drink another cup of coffee. *Sniff* Nope, I'm not sick, I'm fine." :D

    @Kathryn, that's so true - we can just bulldoze over the symptoms because in our society the need for rest is viewed as a weakness, so we don't even admit to ourselves that we what we really, really need is take a damn break already.
    Caring for our body is actually a pretty subversive practice :)

  • Lynne Marie

    Lynne Marie
    2015-11-20 at 16:33

    yes. I am there right now. And I am online instead of sleeping. Thank you for giving me the green light. (That green light I haven't been able to give myself)
    For me the problem is I am a designer in a full-time paid position. I am so terrified I will get fired since my productivity is going down the tubes. So I stare and stare at my open photoshop and nothing happens. It's awful. I used to have so many ideas. Now nothing inspires me. We launched so many new projects this year, I feel completely spent. My deadlines are making me feel ill and I am at a loss. I just want my creative mojo back :(
    I am going to try your advice (since I haven't been able to find anything that didn't sound like "and drink plenty of water" bullcrap) so I am eternally in your debt.
    Wish me luck!
    (and thanks)

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-11-21 at 17:08

    Dear Lynne Marie, I'm so, so sorry to hear you're experiencing this and that it's making you fear for your job!

    I remember being there as well when I was at my former job, and looking back, perhaps I should have spoken to my boss about it and explain what was happening, because I'm sure he noticed - he just didn't say it out loud.

    It seems like your workplace has some pretty unreasonable expectations. That's a really tough position to be in. Especially since we tend to think others people wouldn't have this problem, but trust me - they would. What you're experiencing is normal, because no one can complete a huge amount of projects and feel great afterwards, ready to just rock on.

    If you're at all able to take a short vacation to recover, it would probably do you a lot of good.

    If your boss or manager is a person you feel you can confide in, maybe you could take this opportunity to explain that this intense rhythm of projects is not sustainable, and that you need more time to complete each one, so you can do your best job on them.
    Yes, we're professionals, and we're used to working in all sorts of conditions, but it doesn't mean stress and pressure should be the norm.

    Good luck and take good care of yourself!
    I'd love to hear from you again about how it all went for you.

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