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Conquering Creative Burnout

By Dan Newcomer on July 24, 2014

I should preface this piece by saying I am the last to give advice on avoiding burnout. But maybe that makes me the most qualified because I can show you how I conquered it.

When our occupations coincide with our passions, burnout is inevitable. We all have felt this in some form, and there is never a correct approach to avoiding it—there are only strategies to conquer it and come back stronger.

I recently read a great AMA (ask me anything) with all-star designer Frank Chimero in which he shared some of his own experiences with some excellent insight as well:

Jared Klein: Ever get burnt out? Like, so burnt out you can’t even open that illustration you know you’re supposed to finish? Any way of dealing with that or just maintaining a healthy work/life balance?

Frank: Oh man, Jared. I get burnt out every 30 months or so. At least, that’s been the trend of my career. Everything blows up (here are a few examples from my career: big job ends in a lawsuit, startup shuts down, editorial illustration work evaporates) and I contemplate going back to school for dentistry or accounting or anthropology or becoming a barista. I always said I’d rather be a happy barista than a sad designer.

Knowing we are not alone in this experience is incredibly encouraging. This inspired me to provide you with a checklist that is road-tested by yours truly, and always evolving:

 

count even the smallest victories

Sometimes it’s good to step back and compare where something began to where it is now. Even the smallest steps toward improvement are steps in the right direction. It could be nailing the right color palette or figuring out the best workflow; these are small ingredients perfected and thrown into one large pot. Developers have broken this process down to solving User Stories one step at a time, all the while working towards a great end result. In a macro sense, I call this counting the small victories.

learn to walk away

You sometimes reach a point in the day where there’s simply no more productivity left in you. That’s OK. You are not Liam Neeson! That’s your cue to walk away and let it marinate. No one wants half-baked ideas or exhausted and grumpy designers. Trust me, I’ve been both of them at once. Walking away or pushing yourself to another of life’s important activities will refresh and rejuvenate your vision. Personally, I’ve had some of my best ideas while washing the dishes.

exercise your body = exercise your mind

Doing something physical and active opens a corner of your mind that can’t be opened while sitting and staring at a screen. Maybe this goes hand in hand with walking away, but think of it as sweating out your anxiety and your frustration. A creative cleanse. Carve out the time for yourself—your health is much more important than any project will ever be, and the energy you gain from it will be noticeable.

support your colleagues

It is important to show encouragement and that you’re listening and observing the efforts of your team-members. That support system pushes the entire team to new levels, and I guarantee that positivity will come back your way. It’s called Karma.

throw as many ideas out there as possible—one is bound to stick

A great writing teacher of mine used to call this “throwing up on the page”—an approach I hold sacred in my design process. Get all of your ideas and artifacts on the canvas as soon as you can, no matter how rough they are. Designing is seeing. Improving is reacting. We need to see it all together to narrow it down to what works. Don’t be scared to make a mistake; in fact, make mistakes.

find your hobby, find your passion

Side projects, hobbies, and the things that keep you up late at night or fill your weekend are inspiration and thought process in disguise. They inform the work decisions you will later make.

I have a few myself—very nerdy ones… let’s just say they involve small brushes and paint—but to me they are a safe haven and quiet churn for later design projects. They go hand in hand, so embrace your passion projects and don’t be scared to share them.

things in motion stay in motion…

There was a point in my life where I was out of ideas and out of confidence, and my dad told me this: things in motion stay in motion, while things at rest stay at rest. Some consider it Newton’s law of motion. I call it progress.

 

If you ever reach the point of exhaustion and burnout—that cross-roads where it might feel better to throw in the towel—just know you are not alone. Try some of the techniques above to rediscover what originally spoke to you and led you here, and re-engage. Things in motion stay in motion.