Escaping Burnout: A Primer for Creatives

A Corvette produces a plume of smoke from its rear tires.

Burnout Can Come from Within

One of the conditions most feared by creatives in any field, from art to entrepreneurship, is burnout. According to Smith, Segal, and Segal, burnout is "a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress." Stress, of course, comes in many forms, from overbearing bosses to financial worry to an unstable spousal relationship. For business and creative types, though, sometimes the greatest stress comes from within: the demand to always do better, do more, work faster and harder. This type of endogenous stress, applied over a long enough time period, will result in burnout even in the presence of ideal external circumstances. When endogenous stress does result in burnout, getting out of it can be tremendously difficult.

There are two phases to escaping burnout, particularly of the self-imposed variety, and the order in which they are applied determines their effectiveness.

Phase One: Stop Identifying with the Work

When you're engaged deeply in any creative pursuit, there is a tendency for you to begin identifying with the thing you're making. It's your product, your book, your business, and just like a literal child, it's easy to see it as a little part of yourself. More importantly, every time you make a decision that shapes your workpiece, you're reinforcing pathways in your brain, making what's in your head echo into the physical world. You could even say that that's all creatives do: they manifest their visions by gradually bending matter and information to match what appears in their head. One thousand tiny decisions reinforce the similarity between the creative loci in your mind and the product in front of you. So it's no wonder you wind up feeling close to it.

The trouble occurs when burnout sets in and you switch gears from creation to criticism. This means that you start seeing just the flaws of the thing you're building: the rough edges, the shortcuts, the missing pieces. And then, because you identify so closely with this thing, you project its flaws back onto yourself, perhaps to the point of feeling completely worthless. One way or another, once you start hating what you do, it's only a matter of time till you hate yourself for doing it.

What's the solution? Somehow, you have to separate yourself from what you're making, recognizing that you are more than it, and better than the worst parts of it. That means taking a break. Maybe it's as easy as strolling to the corner for a cup of coffee to regain focus on the bigger things, but genuine cases of burnout take way more than that. You can start by taking a long weekend to unplug, severing all contact with whatever is ultimately responsible for your stress and catching up on reading, baking, or other leisurely activities. Most people who are prone to burnout never really disconnect themselves, feeling that they're being irresponsible by taking time purely for themselves. In fact, the advice above will be anathema to entrepreneurs early in their careers, who reason that the only way to get ahead is to go full-bore 24/7. Those who have been around the block and grappled with burnout know the folly in this kind of thinking, but it's almost impossible to talk someone out of overworking themselves when they haven't witnessed the inevitable fallout.

If you take care to avoid external stressors, and you can silence the internal voices chastising you for being lazy, you will eventually come to a place where you no longer identify so closely with the product that you feel exhausted when contemplating it. Then, you're ready for the second phase.

Phase Two: Delight in the Goodness of What you Do

There's a good chance, if you've taken at least a few steps toward crossing the chasm between "having good taste" and "making good things", that taking a break will grant you a new, positive outlook on the thing you've grown to dread. Perhaps you'll notice a particularly well-architected module, or an elegant stroke or bit of chiaroscuro, or you'll delight in a passage of dialogue between your protagonist and deuteragonist. It's important to take these things for what they are: powerful affirmations that what you're doing is both good and worthwhile. After all, you have taste and you think it's pretty good, so who's to say you're wrong?

It's crucial as you move through this phase not to fall back into identifying with the work. This continues to apply whether you feel great or poorly about it. The reason the phases have to happen in this order (separate, then contemplate objectively) is that burnout is a feedback loop when you identify with the product: the product is never perfect, so there's something wrong with you, so you spend more time on self-judgment and self-pity than the product, so you grow cynical toward the product, so you notice even more ways in which it falls short, so you feel even more inadequate... The point is to get back on an even keel, so even when you feel positively toward your work--even when you do and should feel proud of it--you can't get so close to it that you anchor your self-worth to it, because nothing we make is perfect.

In conclusion, sometimes burnout can be caused by exterior conditions. Hopefully you find yourself in a position to avoid the most grievous types of external stressors, but none of us can ever get all the way outside our own heads. And that's where some of the harshest criticism and toxic demotivation lies sometimes. Burnout caused by being overly self-critical and overly attached to what we're making is a real risk, and in order to defeat it, we first have to separate ourselves from the product far enough to see that we should care about more than just the product. And realizing that, we free ourselves to take the good with the bad, and get back to the noble act of creation.