19 Ways to Battle Creative Burnout and Get Back on Track

November 4, 2017


Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Josh Ritchie, CEO of ColumnFive.

If you’ve been working in a creative field for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced creative burnout at some level, regardless of your title, experience, or background.

It comes in many forms, but the feeling is the same: exhaustion, listlessness, and a general lack of interest in your work.

In some ways, it’s a natural part of creative life. But when it becomes totally overwhelming, it can be destructive. The problem with burnout is that it often sneaks up on us. That’s why learning to spot and manage the symptoms is the best way to prevent it. And if you do fall into a rut, having a few coping tools makes it easier to bounce back.

If you’re struggling with creative burnout, here’s what to keep an eye out for, what to do if you’re in it, plus some of my favorite tactics to keep it at bay.  

Why Creative Burnout Happens

Everyone’s burnout story is individual, and sometimes there are circumstances outside your control, but creative burnout usually creeps in or is caused by one or all of these problems:

  • You’re not regularly recharging your batteries. If you are constantly engaged in creative work, running all full speed, and not taking breaks for inspiration or regeneration, a burnout is pretty inevitable.
  • You don’t have healthy boundaries between your creative work and the rest of your life. When you never “leave the office” (physically or mentally), even on vacation, weekends, holidays, or after hours, you’ll soon find yourself out of balance.
  • You’re not engaging in healthy activities. Eating well, exercising, and taking time away from technology are important habits to adopt for mental health and creative consistency.

What Creative Burnout Looks Like

Beyond the usual commercial-sounding side effects—exhaustion, irritability, trouble focusing, etc.—the biggest telltale sign of creative burnout is when you lose interest in your work or care less about the quality of what you’re producing.

In my experience, creative burnout symptoms first appear after about a year of working any job—maybe sooner, maybe later, depending on your work-life balance. After that, it can come in waves. Either way, if you don’t do anything about it, you can end up in big trouble.

The Risks of Creative Burnout

When things are going well, you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you do your best work. The more you do your best work, the more your confidence increases. This is a healthy, self-perpetuating cycle.

But when creative burnout takes hold, your passion wanes, your work suffers, and you can end up in a vicious cycle of negativity. You end up either resenting the work and or making unhealthy decisions to try to cope with burnout. Eventually, you completely disengage.

You feel like you don’t even want to go to work. You’d pay anything to avoid one more day at the office. This is where the biggest danger lies. When a creative person suffers from burnout, they stop producing. They stop writing, stop filmmaking, stop painting. Things that were once the core of a creative’s identity and purpose fall away. That negatively affects every part of life, from your self esteem, to your personal relationships, to the way you interact with your community.

What To Do if You’re Burned Out

While you may think that just plowing through difficult periods is strong or courageous (and to some degree, doing this is part of being an adult and a professional creative), true burnout will leave you useless to your clients, coworkers, and colleagues. Worst of all, it can send you into a tailspin, making you feel backed into a corner, struggling between two choices:

  • Pack up and move to India indefinitely.
  • Quit and go back to law school immediately.

(Spoiler: If you start thinking in extremes, you’re burned out.)

To bring it down a notch, talk to someone, like a mentor, a peer, a family member, a business partner, your boss, etc. Addressing a problem is the first step toward improving and eventually solving that problem. You may be able to identify the core of your burnout, work out a reduced work schedule, rearrange responsibilities, or collaborate on other solutions.

A caveat: Be wary of anyone who is dismissive of your feelings, and try to surround yourself with people who encourage you to take care of yourself.

In a perfect world, we’d all take a few mental health or vacation days at the earliest sign of burnout. But our society often idolizes those who hustle and grind, so it can sometimes feel weird—or, worse, that you’re doing something wrong—if you take time away from work to take care of yourself. Unfortunately, this thinking is exactly why we wait until it’s unmanageable to address it.

A second caveat: If you think a career change is the solution, still talk to someone. Doing it alone—and overnight—is extremely difficult. It’s better to regain stability and work with a career/job coach who can help you fine-tune the possible directions you want to explore.

Most importantly, as you move out of your rut, actively work to monitor yourself and your triggers.

19 Ways to Avoid Creative Burnout

Too often someone makes it through a major burnout only to find themselves stuck in the same behavior patterns and habits that got them there in the first place.

Learning to identify and manage burnout symptoms is the key to a longer, fulfilling career in creative work. (I tend to get burned out once or twice per year, but monitoring has helped me bounce back quicker and minimize the impact of burnout, even when I unknowingly slip into it.)

The real trick is to develop discipline, regular self care, and a lifestyle that takes these habits into account on a daily and weekly basis. When you’re feeling the symptoms creep up, here are some of the best tactics I’ve learned to help reset and recharge.

1. Read a book.

Reading a book is a great way to get inspiration from a place that few others look to, at least these days. There’s something nice about holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. I believe it’s a more interesting and gratifying experience than any other form of content consumption.

2. Go to a concert.

Watching a solid live performance of a band that you love will give you new ideas and inspiration.

3. Go to a movie.

Take a load off from having to come up with ideas for a change. Just sit there and let someone else entertain you.

4. Listen to an album you haven’t listened to in years or you’ve never listened to.

Find albums that you once had an emotional connection to or that have a secret spot in your heart, and give them a play. Or check out a band that you never really listened to but have always heard great things about.

5. Hang out with a kid (or some kids).

Luckily, I had a kid a year ago, and so this is easier for me than it used to be. Kids are awesome for reminding yourself that there are more important things than a task at work.

6. Go outside.

Look at things besides a computer screen. Look at the clouds, pick some flowers for a friend or a significant other, or just chill and feel the breeze and be present in the moment.

7. Work out.

I try to do one form of exercise every day before work. There’s nothing better for me than to start my day this way.

8. Go on a walk.

Like working out, this gets the blood flowing, and it also helps me realize how small the things I’m working on are relative to the outside world. (A 2014 Stanford study also found this to be effective—even if you’re walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall.) You can even have a walking meeting a la Steve Jobs. 

9. Get good sleep.

In my twenties, I went to bed at about 2 a.m. on average. At the ripe age of 36, however, I try to get to bed by 8 or 8:30 p.m.—the earlier the better, as I’ve found the way that I end each day sets the tone for the next day. Going to bed early makes waking up early doable.

10. Take breaks from tech and social media.

Create boundaries for yourself. I recently deleted Instagram and Facebook from my phone, and I only re-download them on the weekends if I’m bored. I still have my accounts, but not having the social apps readily accessible creates a bit of a buffer for me and these sources of distraction. As a result, I’m looking at my phone less frequently. My time away from my computer represents spells away from technology.

11. Get in water.

Like working out, I’ve found that there are few things a good swim can’t help. My personal preference is the beach, and I’m fortunate to live in Southern California, just a few minutes away from some nice beaches. But if you live away from a coast, a pool works just as well.

12. Take courses.

Try creative writing, philosophy, or any other course that interests you. There are thousands of free courses from some of the best schools in the world available online to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. I find learning to be a great source of inspiration.

13. Learn to do something that is the opposite of what you do at work.

One of my business partners is really into gardening. The other partner is into woodworking. I can tell from listening to them that these are fulfilling activities, and they can be more rewarding than creating work on a computer.

14. Learn to cook or try to cook.

I’m not a very good cook, but there are some things about cooking that I find particularly rewarding. Serving as sous chef to my wife or cutting the vegetables needed for a meal is particularly enjoyable. I also enjoy baking bread and cooking up a good barbecue. There are few activities that take my mind off work and give me a chance to recharge better than making food.

15. Play a sport.

Team sports are particularly good for giving your brain a break from work. I’ve played sports my whole life and still play soccer twice a week. I don’t think about anything other than the game when I’m playing. Sometimes burnout is best dealt with by putting aside work-related problems and focusing on sports-related problems.

16. Take a vacation.

This is exactly why vacations exist. Ignore people who say you must always be “hustling” or “grinding” or who brag about never taking vacations. If you are exhausted and burned out, you’re worthless at work.

17. Work somewhere other than your home or office.

Have some time and some disposable income? Do something totally different from your normal routine. For instance, go to Spain. If you can’t afford a trip, go check out a new coffee shop in your neighborhood. What’s important is that you mix up your environment.

18. Meditate.

Easier said than done, I know. Most people have the highest level of success when they start slow and build their way up. I enjoy guided meditation sessions personally, but if you don’t want to get into all of that, you can always download the Headspace app. It’s amazing for learning how to meditate, and it helps you stay disciplined in your practice.

19. Change your diet.

Try intermittent fasting or Whole 30, ditching drinking, or giving up sugar or something else that’s not particularly healthy. Learning how to live a new way, even if it’s only about changing your food, can be interesting not only from an educational point of view but also from a problem-solving perspective.

Above All, Stay Vigilant

Keeping the symptoms of burnout at bay requires discipline, but it is vital if you want to develop work-life balance and, most importantly, maintain the highest level of creativity.

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