Creative fatigue can strike any artist at any point in their career. Overcome burnout using using these 8 simple tips for reigniting your creativity.
You’ve hit a wall—and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, burnout is increasingly common. If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right place to find helpful advice for overcoming creative burnout.
From acknowledging that burnout is not only natural but an opportunity for positive change, to taking small steps towards rebuilding your creative capacities and general wellbeing, discover eight tips that will revive the spirit and set you back on a creative course.
What are the Symptoms of Creative Burnout?
Creative burnout is the inability to think creatively or perform creative tasks to the degree we desire or are accustomed to.
Also known as creative fatigue or creative block, affected individuals might feel mentally and physically exhausted and unable to find inspiration or enjoyment in things they normally look turn to for creative fulfillment. More severe symptoms of creative burnout might include frustration and anger at the inability to work at usual capacity, and even chronic fatigue and depression.
Causes of creative burnout include environmental stresses, work-related pressure, mental fatigue, or other factors. While it’s important to recognize what might have contributed to the burnout in the first place, in some cases a feeling of block or burnout may emerge completely out of the blue.
The key thing to remember is that burnout is not only normal, affecting most creatives at least once in their lives, but also that it is also not your fault. Great artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Barbara Hepworth, and Pablo Picasso all suffered from creative burnout during their careers. Picasso eventually found solace in poetry after he felt unable to paint during the mid-1930s. Meanwhile, Hepworth retreated to Greece in the 1950s to recover from depression and creative block following the death of her son.
Although it feels devastating and frustrating, burnout is an opportunity to reassess and make some changes for the better.
Burnout is often a warning sign that something is amiss in your current situation. Perhaps you’ve been putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve perfection in your work. Or, maybe a life event has made you reconsider your priorities. It could be as simple as not giving yourself enough breaks during the working day, or not allowing yourself to switch off from your creative tasks on the weekend.
Once you’ve recognised the symptoms of burnout, it’s time to take action, albeit in a soothing and kind way that allows your mind and body to repair the damage. Read on to discover eight top tips for pulling yourself out of a creative rut.
Tip 1: Reset your standards (temporarily)
Creative folk are renowned for setting exceptionally high standards for their work. Perhaps because creatives are aesthetically-oriented, it can sometimes feel like the pursuit for absolute perfection is not only difficult, but futile, when everything needs to look…just so.
People are not machines, and a common cause of burnout is neglecting to recognize this. Achieving creative perfection is difficult enough on its own. But, coupled with looming deadlines, professional peer pressure, and other strains, it’s simply impossible to always produce perfect creative work.
A car running on empty won’t be able to hit top speed. So, a major step in burnout recovery is acknowledging you need to spend some time filling up the gas.
Accept that the standard of work you produce will have to be a little lower than usual, which is a better situation than not being able to produce anything at all. If clients remark on slipping standards (which is unlikely, given that it’s probably you and you alone who’s setting the bar so high for yourself), it pays to be honest. Admit that you’re struggling with burnout—the likelihood is that they will have experienced the same at some point!
Tip 2: Review your routine
We all seem to have more time now that many of us are working from home. Daily commutes, discussions with colleagues over the water cooler, and after-work drinks seem like unproductive activities. However, they play a vital role in ensuring we take breaks over the course of the day.
With more of us now working remotely, the routines that helped us to divide up our work and leisure time are increasingly fluid and blurred. Add to this the constant bombardment of scary news from the tech devices that ironically help us feel more connected to others while working remotely, and it’s really no wonder that professional burnout is at an all-time high.
If you’re feeling creatively fatigued, the first step is to review how you spend and divide up your time. It can be tempting to try to push your way through burnout and sacrifice breaks and leisure time in the process. However this will only add to the frustration of burnout and impede your creative processes further.
Write down the ideal routine for your working day. Include reasonable hours, adequate breaks, and a full lunch hour you can spend away from your working space.
Then divide up your working time into a sequence of achievable and different tasks. The latter is really important for allowing the brain to frequently switch gears and focus on different activities. What studies about creativity tell us is that the most creative people balance the mundanity of a routine with aspects of variety in their day. So if you’re stuck working on one project, don’t persist. Instead switch to another, or take a fifteen minute break.
Tip 3: Recognize the projects that helped your creativity flourish (and the ones that didn’t)
Look back on your previous projects and identify the ones that you feel represent your best creative work. What were the circumstances surrounding these projects? Were they self-led or directed by a client? Did you work towards a strict deadline or have the liberty of time?
Now review the projects you’re less proud of. Did these have any different circumstances that might have contributed to the creative outcome (or lack of it)?
This exercise should help you to identify the common factors that help your creativity flourish, as well as the factors that dampen it. Perhaps you are most creative in the context of a pressing deadline, or maybe these deadlines are more likely to lead you towards creative block.
We don’t all have the luxury of choosing exactly how we work, especially for client-led projects. Still, there will always be things you can identify as being creativity-inducing and vice-versa so you can attempt to at least lessen the latter. If a particular client’s working style is forcing you to feel burnt out, are they really worth keeping? If you need firm deadlines to force yourself to get into the creative headspace, even for self-led projects, assign a real (or virtual) PA or simply a helpful friend/colleague to help keep you on track.
Tip 4: Foster creativity through other activities
Experiencing creative burnout doesn’t mean that your creative abilities have completely deserted you, although it can certainly feel that way. If you feel unable to draw, take photos, or create design work, it just means your brain needs to take a break from these activities for a while.
You can train your inspiration to return by undertaking activities that encourage creative thinking in a different (and enjoyable!) way. Hobbies and activities such as cooking, exercising, and traveling are all proven to foster creativity and unlock new methods of creative thinking and practice. Cooking in particular has been compared to performing music or heart surgery, with the near-meditative nature of these activities reported to encourage creative thinking.
There’s a long history of artists who managed to overcome creative blocks using this method of creative diversion. Picasso famously channelled his creative frustrations into poetry writing, while Georgia O’Keeffe found that photographing the surroundings of her home, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, provided the spark of inspiration for pursuing her painting afresh.
Tip 5: Recognize your most creative times and environments
Most creatives have a designated space for work activities, whether it’s a home office, studio, or co-working space. While this is good practice for establishing a professional routine, it’s also possible that this space is contributing to feelings of burnout.
If you’re suffering from burnout symptoms, try to track how you feel, as well as how productive and creative you are throughout the day. Map these to the environments you’re in and the times when these fluctuations occur.
For example, you might note that you generate your most creative ideas at the start of the day when you’re showering or having your first coffee (this is the case for me!). That’s because this time and environment removes many of the pressures and distractions you feel throughout the rest of the day when working in a conventional office space. Or, perhaps your best ideas and higher productivity levels are generated during a busier part of the day, when you are around other people or in the flow of work while listening to your favorite podcast.
Once you’ve identified the factors in your day that might be contributing to spikes in creativity, such as being in the presence of others or being alone with your thoughts, as well when you find you are at your most productive, you can begin to shape a plan of action for increasing the likelihood or incidence of these throughout your day.
While it seems pretty obvious, a change of scene can be transformative for exhausted creatives. This can be as small as moving your home-working space to a different room, taking the opportunity to sketch outside, or a more dramatic switch such as joining a co-working office or renting a studio space.
Tip 6: A problem shared…
One of the main challenges that burnt out creatives face is the stigma surrounding creative fatigue. For those who’ve not experienced it (yet), the perception can be that the person suffering with block or burnout is simply being lazy and not working hard enough to overcome the problem. As we’ve already touched on, this is the worst frame of mind for overcoming burnout, as bulldozing through the problem is only going to exasperate symptoms of exhaustion and frustration.
However, many individuals will be sympathetic of the problem and recognize it from their own experience. Professional or creative burnout is astonishingly common, with the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledging burnout as an occupational phenomenon that has a detrimental effect on individuals’ mental health worldwide.
Simply sharing how you are feeling with a friend, family member, or trained professional is a big part of overcoming the overwhelming experience of burnout. Understanding that you do not have to tackle severe burnout on your own, and that you have a support network who empathize with your problem and can offer emotional comfort, can help you feel a little bit lighter.
Trusted individuals can also offer different perspectives on the situation. Because many burnout sufferers struggle with feelings of fatigue and negativity, they are often unable to identify some of the obvious factors contributing to these feelings.
Tip 7: Start small
Imagine that you’ve just run a marathon. Now imagine somebody asks you to run that same distance again, straightaway. Impossible, right? At the end of the run you’re exhausted and need to recover before you attempt another race.
One of the things that can make exhausted creatives feel worse and in fact deepen the problem of burnout is to attempt to tackle a big project. Even if you manage to complete a large task it’s very unlikely that it will be of high quality when you’re struggling with burnout.
You need to build up slowly to large tasks again by attempting small, achievable tasks instead. Begin with a job that has a creative element but doesn’t feel overwhelming. Sketching is the perfect occupation to begin with, giving you the freedom to enjoy a simple creative activity.
When you feel ready, begin with tackling tasks that feel productive in a short time period. Update your online portfolio with a recent project, organize your business’ Pinterest boards, or chase up an overdue invoice. Any small task that allows you to feel like you’ve achieved something in the space of half an hour will help to build your confidence and dispel looming overwhelming feelings.
Tip 8: Avoid slipping back into burnout-inducing patterns of behavior
Thankfully, burnout is temporary. Although you might feel creatively fatigued for days, weeks, or even months at a time, it does come to an end. While the experience of burnout is never fun, try to stay hopeful, prioritize your mental and physical health, and spend time with friends and family. At the end of the tunnel you’ll feel revitalized and open to new sources of inspiration.
Once you’ve rediscovered your creative spark and started working at full capacity once again, it can be easy to slip into old habits. However, if some of those habits were contributing to creative fatigue, it’s likely that burnout will strike again. Try your best to preserve the new methods of creative thinking and practice that you’ve established, as well as the positive changes you’ve made in your downtime and to your mental health.
Conclusion: Strategies for Overcoming Burnout in the Future
Even if you experience periods of burnout again (which is certainly possible), you’ll at least have strategies for coping with and overcoming the situation. Prioritizing your mental wellbeing is the quickest way to feel better about the situation. Meanwhile slowly experimenting with new ways of working and thinking can help you to forge a routine that fosters creativity and minimizes the risk of burnout.
Above all, be kind to yourself!
Burnout is often the result of your own self-imposed pressures and standards. But, it’s important to recognize that nobody can work to full capacity all of the time. Burnout is normal and natural, especially for creative folk. While burnout and creative block are often out of your control, you can have influence on how you cope with burnout when it happens.
Cover image and images throughout by contributor Nickvector.
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