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A Creative's Guide to Overcoming Burnout

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And breathe! Time to show yourself some TLC.

Words by 

Aidan McGrath

Published on 

January 1, 2022

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Have you ever felt that you’re all out of ideas? Drained, tired, feeling like the inspiration just isn’t there? This can be a natural part of being a creative, and we’ve all experienced it from time to time. If it continues for long enough, though, it can become a problem—then, it transforms from a creative lull to something much more sinister: creative burnout.

Whilst burnout can affect all workers, it’s particularly prevalent for creatives. Luckily, there are measures we can take to prevent our creative thoughts from turning sour or running dry: self-care. We spoke to five incredible creatives: from designers to poets to CEOs, with a focus on their self-care routines and rituals. We’re here to share the tips, tricks, and strategies that keep their creativity on track.

The 3 signs of creative burnout

We all know the feeling of being in the ‘zone’ when our creative ideas are flooding out, seemingly endless—it’s even a proven scientific phenomenon. Some days, though, the creative ideas just don’t come, the inspiration isn’t there, and we take a rest. Creative burnout is when, for whatever reason, the flow of ideas grinds to a halt, and doesn’t return—despite our wishes. Suddenly, our torrent of creativity shuts off. It can cause a feeling of tiredness, exhaustion, or even frustration at ourselves—it’s as if we can’t “think straight”.

But how do we tell if this is a normal ‘rest phase’, or something bigger? Much like we all have our unique creative processes, the same is true for burnout—the signs, symptoms and experiences of each person are unique. Still, some signs are ubiquitous—and they’re more common than you may think:

  • Self-doubt. As creatives, we all experience self-doubt—sometimes, even, the infamous imposter syndrome—but if this lingers, it can be a sure-fire sign that we're feeling fatigued. We could be questioning whether we’re really good enough, or comparing ourselves to our co-workers.
  • Creative block. This one makes the self-doubt that worse—what could be more validating to our innermost doubts than feeling that we’re all out of ideas, too? Creative block is characterised as a period of drought in our creativity—the ideas just aren’t flowing, or at least, not as liberally as we’d like them to.
  • Procrastination. We all procrastinate sometimes—but when we find ourselves doing it habitually, especially for tasks that we used to enjoy, that becomes a problem. And a tell-tale sign. How can we get our creative juices flowing again if we don’t feel motivated?

The 'what' and 'why' of self-care for creatives

What is self-care?

Self-care is the processes, routines and rituals we have in place to ensure that we maintain our personal health—or, as mental health advocate, CEO and ampersander Poppy Jaman OBE puts it, our ‘wellbeing toolkit'. It’s the weekly trips to the museum, the night-time mellow tunes, the early morning jog—anything that relaxes us, allows us to rewind, and take care of ourselves.

Why is self-care important?

Self-care has a multitude of benefits—including improved productivity and focus, reduced stress, and even improved physical health. Crucially, for creatives, these are all ways of freeing our minds and fostering creativity. It can prevent us from overworking ourselves, piling on too much stress in our daily lives, and stretching ourselves too thin—leaving no time for us.

Self-care tips from creatives, for creatives

The how of caring for ourselves can be easier than we think, and it doesn’t have to eat huge swaths out of our days. Learn how five fellow creatives recharge their creativity.

Recognise your stress signals

For Poppy Jaman OBE, the best self-care is proactive. She practises recognising her early warning signs—her ‘stress signals’—that indicate when it’s time to pull out the wellbeing toolkit. Your stress signatures are unique to you and they will typically be behavioural, emotional, and physical things. Those stress signals differ for everyone: it could be a lack of motivation or a feeling of irritability. It takes time to recognise these signals, but when that realisation comes, it pays dividends, providing us with an early-warning system for preventing burnout.

For Poppy, it's a physical symptom: jaw ache. When Poppy recognises those signs, she takes quick action to look after herself—her ‘care list’ includes yoga and cold-water swimming, the latter of which provides her with an energy boost that can last for days.

Aaina Sharma is another ampersander who uses stress signals to take note of her mental health. If Aaina is lacking inspiration—not feeling like taking pictures during her daily walk, or procrastinating during work—for multiple days in a row, she knows that something is wrong, and it's time for a break. Aaina explains, "Most days, I’ll make my to-do list and drop my son off at nursery in the morning. That walk is my indicator of whether or not I feel energised."

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness—characterised as being fully present and aware of what’s happening around us—is a recurring theme when it comes to combatting burnout. Mindfulness can help us to keep in touch with our feelings, mental health and needs. Zaffrin O'Sullivan practises mindfulness through beekeeping—a practice that has taught her to remain in the moment, and learn to be still. "[The bees] taught me to stop and look at the flowers. They’ve taught me how to be still, how to hold this moment and be in a moment.

Block out time for yourself

It can be easy to get overwhelmed sometimes, and that’s a sure-fire way to start feeling burnt out. Ariel Norling prescribes setting designated times and days for tasks—not only for work but for self-love, too.

Having these set times not only makes Ariel more productive, but alleviates feelings of guilt on her off-days, and gives her permission to spend the day on herself. "Without any guardrails on that, I'd just feel that I should be writing and researching all the time. That guilt would really start to bring me down."

Spend time alone (or don’t!)

For Mona Arshi, having time to be alone is an important part of her wellness routine—giving her time to be comfortable in her own body and mind.

The opposite is true for Terumi Murao—for Terumi, the power of community is healing. "It’s very nurturing to spend time with people that make you feel good, that share values and that validate who you are."

Get physical

Exercise and eating well are huge parts of a self-care routine. For Sara Shah, dance is more than just a way of maintaining health and exercising—it helps her to feel rejuvenated and energised. At the end of a long day, she comes home to dance with her daughter, helping her to unwind and relax.

In Sara's words, "I think dance has healing powers. If I'm having a stressful day, I just put on my favourite song and dance in my living room with my daughter."

Try, test and explore

Ultimately, we don’t know what works for us until we’ve tried it. There are multitudes of different techniques to try—the ones that we’ve suggested are just a start. Whatever our methods are, though, taking time for ourselves is imperative to the creative process. It prevents creative burnout, helps to foster our best ideas and, most importantly, helps us to be our best selves. No matter how busy we are, we can all try to fit a bit of self-care into our schedules—and the results will pay dividends.

Visualist is a software empowering creative professionals to work, earn and scale their businesses. Learn more here.

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