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Feel the Burn: What does it mean to experience creative burnout?

Addressing the intense nature of creative work

When was the last time someone asked you what you do for a living? And when you replied you're in the creative field - what was their response? We dare guess it was something along the lines of: “Oh how cool! That must be such a great job! Sounds so interesting and inspiring!”. 

Sometimes that kind of statement rings true, and you indeed feel very grateful to be in this industry. Other times, perhaps when things aren’t as stable or joyful as you might wish, it can land harshly. “Why does everyone assume my job is all fun and games?” you might mumble to yourself, “I work really hard and all I feel is exhausted”. 


The dark side of creativity

As creatives, it can be difficult to voice the hardships that are part of your daily life. After all, it’s not like you’re a brain surgeon or carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders in your job. However, there are several fundamentally draining factors to the creative practice, making it an emotionally draining experience, which can lead to mental and physical exhaustion. 


Deadlines; unrealistic expectations; demands from yourself and others; lack of feedback, recognition, and support; lack of variety, challenge, or growth opportunities; lack of balance, rest, or self-care in your life; comparison, competition, or criticism from others or yourself - the list goes on. These are all common causes of creative burnout, and there’s no one out there who hasn’t experienced at least a few.


Signs of burnout 

We’ve written in the past about being stuck in a creative rut and feeling uninspired. Though there might be similarities between the two, burnout is different and is usually rooted in something deeper. 

The definition of burnout is long-term, mismanaged work stress characterized by feelings of depletion or exhaustion, mental distance from work or negativity toward your job, and reduced professional efficacy.Here’s a bit more detailed list of symptoms you can notice and diagnose burnout for yourself: increased irritability; loss of interest and motivation; not knowing who to ask for help; not having any good days at work; not feeling inspired by anything; isolating yourself; lengthened procrastination; work doesn’t feel rewarding; and lastly - you just don’t care about your work. 

If you’ve ever felt any of these described symptoms at some point in your career, you know how frightening that can be. It can make you doubt yourself, your choices and your future. Make you feel inadequate and guilty. But now that you can call it for what it is—burnout—it’s easier to deal with and address. 


The boundaries of creativity 

In a practical sense, burnout happens when a fire runs out of fuel or an electrical component overheats. In the same way, we can run out of our creative juices - slowly, or all of the sudden - easily enough. Remember, creatives are more susceptible to burnout due to the nature of creative work.  


Creativity is like a small child that needs care and tending to, and when we forget to do that, it responds by acting out. If that metaphor doesn’t work for you, another way of thinking about it is through the lens of the law of conservation of energy: energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another. Creativity is energy, therefore isn’t a self-renewable source that is able to regenerate itself. It needs something to feed off of: rest, inspiration, learning, curiosity. 


Dealing with burnout 

Which leads us to the final bit of exploration around burnout: what can we do when it does hit us? The suggested solutions and reflections are far from groundbreaking, and quite simple to perform. That’s the thing about tackling burnout - it’s uncomplicated, yet requires energy and intention. You need to put in the work. 

Arranged below in thematic groups, you can see which one fits best to wherever you find yourself at any given burnout-moment:


Hands-on: Channeling your creativity differently 

The hands-on approach is all about staying creative and still using that power, that juice, yet in different ways. Try making ideas more tangible, perhaps by using pen and paper, and writing them down; switching mediums - like going for an afternoon of basket weaving workshop; going offline, like sketching with pastels instead of on your computer, adding a tactile dimension to whatever it is you’re doing; and collaborations - adding someone to a project or starting something new with someone new. 


Creative nourishment 

A huge part of creative burnout is that we get so caught up in our own work we forget to lift our gaze to what’s out there. This suggested antidote is about consuming rather than creating, and no - we definitely don’t mean doom scrolling your Insta feed. Go out - take yourself on a solo date to an actual exhibition, listen to an inspiring talk, watch a film in the cinema, try out a new recommended TV series. Nourish yourself with some else's creativity. 


Invite space in 

Sometimes the answer is very simple: you’re burnt out? You need a break! This can either mean a small one - a day off of wandering and stepping away from work, or perhaps it’s time for that annual leave of at least a week away, even if that’s just a staycation. If those are out of the question at the moment, make sure you’re getting your meaningful breaks during the day - a real hour long lunch, an actual coffee break that’s not taken at your desk, and an evening that is completely computer-free. Give yourself space.   


Soul-searching 

And sometimes, the answer lies in the big stuff… perhaps all those micro-adjustments aren’t cutting it, and what is really calling out for you is making big, systemic changes. Sit yourself for a heart-to-heart conversation (either alone or with a friend) and ask the big questions. Is it about setting new boundaries with a boss or a client? Is it about new timelines and budgets? Is it rethinking fundamentals in your team dynamics? Whatever it may be that needs your attention, don’t be afraid to head straight into a seismic shift in your work life, and make lasting changes that will really address your burnout. 


Lastly, it’s worth keeping in mind that prevention is better than cure, always. How can you make sure the next burnout isn’t around the corner? Take care of you creative self and nourish your creative soul and brain, so that the tap doesn’t run dry easily in the future: make sure you have your community that you’re supported by, take inspiration seriously and make time for real consumption of art and culture, and make sure you rest as you need.

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