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It’s that time again Rebooters – yay! This episode we are talking burnout, specifically creative burnout. We’ve touched on this in quite a few episodes and it has come up in some of our guest interviews too, but we hadn’t yet dedicated a whole discussion to it – so here it is!

The last couple of years have been A Lot for the whole world, so while everyone seems to be having some form of burnout issues, we wanted to focus in on creative burnout and what happens when you just reach the bottom of your well.

Carla’s had it earlier this year (not the first time, it’s kind of cyclical) and describes it as being “up to here” already and then over that takes her into burnout, although her wording would be a little less ladylike! And she tends to reach burnout more often, or faster, because she has SO much going on in her life – “the life of five or six people” in Sarah’s words.

Sarah’s visual for what creative burnout feels & looks like is like an already played with Jenga tower sitting in top of our heads – which is gloriously easy to imagine!

What causes burnout in creative people?

I mean, if we had the definitive answer to that we’d probably be a lot more solvent than we are… but in our experience, thinking you can do far more than is possible, and then trying to do it regardless, is a definite quick route to it.

Not having someone who you speak to or see regularly enough that they can clock the burnout before you do isn’t a cause, but other people will often be able to point out the obvious while you’re stuck in the “if I JUST work a bit harder and finish everything then I can rest” mindset which IS a cause of burnout.

Not having time to do your own creative thing for a long time – and a long time can be a week or two, as well as much longer periods.

What are the signs of creative burnout?

Obviously your own set of signs that you’re on the way to burnout will be unique to you, and over time you’ll recognise what it feels like before it happens properly, but some that we’ve noticed are:

  • Trying to get going on a client project and staring at a blank screen, feeling like you have nothing to give
  • Friends, family and other loved ones (though probably not your cats) telling you that you’re trying to do too much and you’re not quite yourself lately
  • Irritability and grumpiness and a tendency to fly off the handle at relatively small things
  • Feeling physically off – like your brain is full of treacle and your limbs are full of lead
  • Feeling “done”, “full”, “over everything” or “I can’t take any more”, to borrow some phrases from others who have experienced this
  • Resentment creeping in when you’re doing the stuff that has to be done and not the things you crave working on, your personal projects or hobbies/joy/other creative pursuits, or even just rest
  • Not sleeping well, eating crap, getting out of routine
  • Feeling like absolutely everything you’re doing is shit – and like you’ll never be able to create anything good ever again
  • Saying things to yourself that you would never say to someone else, especially if they’re a friend

Adrenaline can hold off burnout for a little while, if for instance you’re about to fall into it but then the website you’re responsible for breaks, or your cat needs the vet, or whatever – you kind of get through with whatever’s needed and then fall into it.

How to conquer creative burnout

Or at least, how to fend off burnout, or better still, how to prevent it happening before you’re close to it or already in it!

A list or set of pictures to remind you of what helps you to rest, recover & feel yourself is a good tool – it means when your brain power is low and you just can’t make any more decisions, you don’t have to put in any effort to pick something which you know will help.

Creative burnout can be an insidious sneaky bastard and will creep up on you if you’re not paying attention and looking after your physical and mental health. Not to mention also paying attention to your emotional, spiritual and creative wellbeing, by which we mean making time to do the things which make your heart happiest.

Remembering that output is not the marker of a good creative session – you can also fill your well, take breaks from your creativity and consume rather than create – though ideally nourishing stuff rather than doomscrolling!

If you’re in that weird stage where you’re feeling creatively burnt out and a bit hermity, but you’re still going about your everyday and producing perfectly good work for your clients, day job or whatever, and looking after any family/animals/etc, then that can be a warning sign. Your body hasn’t (yet) rebelled, but your creativity has sodded off somewhere for a while.

And clocking this as a sign – that your creative burnout happens well before a full physical burnout – is a good thing, because you can pay attention and stop it in its tracks.

Experiencing burnout is normal, we promise

We wanted to make that very clear – it’s not a fun experience, and it’s not something you’d actively pursue, obviously – but it’s very normal, and part and parcel of fitting creative life into modern, fast paced life.

It’s also normal to experience multiple burnouts before you really start noticing what the signs are and what causes them and what you can do to prevent them.

Another point we’d really like to emphasise here, though, is that one of the reasons we didn’t even know burnout as a concept existed until far later than we should have done is because there is this perception that adulthood is boring and tiring.

Is thisfamiliar? In your early to mid twenties, you mention to pretty much anyone you know that you’re feeling a bit rubbish and blah, and you haven’t had much creative fulfilment or even time to just plod along with your creative bits & pieces recently.

Their response is almost unanimously a version of “but that’s just, you know, adult life – it’s busy and exhausting and everyone is tired, not just you, and you don’t have time for FUN or creative things because you’re an adult now and you have to accept that life is boring.”

Clearly no one actually said this in so many words (although we have some epic examples of what people have actually said to us – some in this episode, some for a future episode), but the general gist and underlying tone was this. So we went years and years not even realising that the burnt out feeling shouldn’t actually be a standard or permanent part of adult life.

Rest, recovery & filling the well

Lots of suggestions about recovering from burnout are about rediscovering what makes you happy and doing activities which fulfil you. What not enough of them cover is rest and recovery – actual resting, not sitting in bed with a laptop and calling it resting because you’re not at your desk. (ahem, she says, while typing this from her bed at 1.31am – but not in the throes of creative burnout, so going to say that’s totally fine as she’s a night owl!)

Important ways to recover from any kind of burnout involve time off – and if you don’t take time off, you’ll end up with an enforced break from exhaustion.

How long that is can depend on you and the circumstances – a couple of days, a few weeks, longer – it’s not a fixed timescale.

It can be a proper rest break, or it can be a break from routine and normality and pressure to create for clients or for yourself. It can be escaping normality after a big event like a bereavement, or it can be doing something in the midst of chaos that does feel normal when everything else isn’t.

It’s not navel gazing, it’s important

Recognising when you are on the edge of burnout, creative or otherwise, is MASSIVELY IMPORTANT.

It can so often be seen as introspective or unnecessarily navel-gazey to know yourself well, but honestly recognising the signs is half the battle. Once you know the signs and can spot them when they start happening, you’re in a much better position to head off full burnout before it happens.

If you don’t yet have the ability to remove yourself from a situation where you are stressed or overwhelmed – that’s ok, us either!

But when you do recognise that burnout is why you’re behaving like a twat about something really minor, it makes it much easier to explain that (with an apology if appropriate) to your friends/family/co-workers/cats/self.

Specific stuff we do to battle creative burnout and feel better

A short and very much not exhaustive list of some of the things we do to recover or head off creative burnout:

  • time with our cameras
  • journalling
  • grounding by sitting or lying on the floor – ideally made of natural materials, so grass or stone or wood, but any floor will do in a pinch
  • basic self care and self-parenting – nourishing food and plentiful sleep rather than bubble baths and books, although those have their place too
  • movement and fresh air, preferably at the same time
  • little creative activities like colouring, stickers, wordsearch or cross stitch
  • head for the shower and wash your hair
  • be in or near or around water

Essentially, sort of easing yourself back in and allowing yourself the time to recover and get back to creating properly.

And finally

Ultimately, it’s probably all about balance. If you have the answer to THAT conundrum we would like it please – balance seems to be the always-elusive answer to nearly everything!

As ever, we’d love your thoughts, opinions and experiences – let us know in the comments, via the contact form or by email!