9 Ways to Crush Creative Burnout
What the funk?!
Sometimes we get tired of trying.
We get tired of constantly falling behind, knowing that we’ll never catch up.
We don’t know if we’re heading in the right direction, and we’re not even sure if we have the energy to get up and deal with any of it for one more day.
Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a creative funk and no matter what we do, we just can’t escape that nagging feeling that no one out there is going to notice or care if we paint another picture, write another chapter in our endless novel, or publish yet another crappy blog post.
Chances are most of us have experienced this type of creative burnout somewhere along the way.
Let’s face it, this type of emotional despair is fairly common for us sensitive creative types. We all have those
weeks days when, for whatever reason, we seem to lose interest in creating our art.
Falling into a creative funk is not the same thing as having writer’s block, which is when you may find yourself temporarily stuck.
Creative “burnout” is really more of an attitude thing. It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of the creative spirit (i.e. mood swings). It’s not so much “Can I do this?” as it is “What’s the point if I do this or not?” kind of thing.
So what do you do when you find yourself drowning in the quicksand of creative confusion and self-pity?
#1 Leave the room
Sometimes a change of scenery can help you escape a creative rut.
While it’s true that developing a consistent routine is important to being productive, sometimes you can get yourself into a rut by following the same routine day after day.
Many writers and artists have discovered that simply by changing things up a bit, they are able to refresh their creative imagination. The director Woody Allen has noticed this himself, and whenever he found himself stalling out creatively, he would find a way to immediately change his location.
I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy. So if I’m in this room and then I go into the other room, it helps me. If I go outside to the street, it’s a huge help… It breaks up everything and relaxes me.” ~Woody Allen
I’ve often done this myself.
Some days if the weather is decent, I’ll pack up my stuff and head to the local park with my laptop. And even though, it may not end up being my most productive writing session ever, simply having that change of scenery almost always brings me a new perspective or a renewed sense of energy for my project.
Find a way to physically change your location and see if it helps restore your creative energy.
#2 Relive your glory days
We all have those times when none of it seems very important and the thought of spending any more time creating something seems like a big waste of time. Chances are, however, there was probably also a time when things were going well and you felt differently.
When you’re neck deep in a creative funk, it’s probably a good opportunity to go back and reread all of those flattering emails you’ve received over the years from people who have enjoyed your work (you do save those, right?).
You might also want to go though and reread some of the positive comments people have left for you on your blog or website. Unless you’re a complete asshole to everyone you meet, chances are somebody, somewhere, has said something nice about you and your work in the past.
Some writers and artists I know have have even gone so far as to print out these emails and comments and put them into a folder or box with other memorabilia (gallery shows tickets, customer testimonials, photographs, encouraging letters from editors, etc..). Eventually they created a sort of an inspirational first-aid kit that they could sort through when they were feeling frustrated and burned out.
#3 Create some space for yourself
It’s easy to forget that trying to cram as much as we can into 24 hours is not the ultimate goal in life.
These days we have a never-ending supply of information, entertainment, and distraction at our fingertips. The problem is that our caveman brains simply can’t process this much non-stop information without occasionally becoming overwhelmed. This is why it’s important to detach ourselves from our computer, tablet, and smartphone for at least an hour or two each day.
Most people underestimate the importance of creating some downtime for themselves every day. This type of unstructured free time gives us the opportunity to take a deep breath, let our imagination wander, and explore the world around us.
You can use this as an opportunity to go outside and take the dog for a walk, go for a bike ride, or reconnect with a friend over coffee. Or maybe curl up with a good book in your favorite chair or find a park bench and watch everyone else scurry about their day.
Having this kind of unstructured time may seem to be a waste of your limited amount of free time, but it can also help keep you from becoming overwhelmed and burned out along the way.
#4 This too shall pass
Sometimes the best way to escape a creative funk is simply to not fight it.
Part of the problem is that we’ve been led to believe that being in a creative rut is unacceptable.
We’ve been taught that successful people always think positive thoughts and if you don’t, you’re basically screwing up your life — but that’s ridiculous. No matter what you do and how often you tell yourself that you are only going to think happy thoughts, you’re still going to have good days and not-so good days.
That’s just the way life works. The trick is to understand this and not get caught up in all of the drama.
Keep in mind that I’m talking about letting your temporary creative lull run its course. Obviously if there are deeper physical or psychological issues at work here, you will need to consult the professional experts.
Having said that, the next time you feel yourself feeling burnout and unmotivated, you may want to take a step back and observe your emotions from an outsider’s perspective.
If you are feeling crappy and unproductive, look for the reason you might be feeling this way. Has something recently happened to you or changed in your life? Is something else stressing you out or could you getting physically sick? I know that when I have the flu, everything seems pretty hopeless. I’m always amazed how quickly you can forget what “normal” feels like when you’re lying in bed with a fever.
If nothing else, you might want to consider the possibility that maybe you don’t really need to “snap out of it”. Instead, maybe you can find a way to simply accept it, be willing to ride it out, and have faith that eventually you’ll come out okay on the other side.
#5 You’re not alone
Sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own.
Even today in a world that is more socially connected than ever, we can feel isolated and alone especially when we are feeling creatively uninspired. If we’re not careful, we can become consumed with jealousy when it seems that everyone else online is having fun and we’re feeling useless and ordinary.
You have been there, I’ve been there, and I would have to think that pretty much every creative artist throughout history has gone through something similar at some point in their life. In fact, you can probably pick up any writer’s or artist’s biography and read about how they endured these periods of self-doubt throughout their career.
Many creative artists are surprised to learn that these feelings of inadequacy never really go away no matter how long we’ve been at it or how successful we may become.
#6 Change things up
We’ve already talked about how moving to a different location can change your perspective and inspire you, but there are also other things you can do to mix things up and jumpstart your creativity.
As creatures of habit, we often fall into the comfort of a familiar routine.
We tend to do the same things day after day when it comes to our creative process. We use the same tools, the same techniques, or follow the same format again, and again, and again. And although this type of routine may be good for our productivity, it can also cause us to lose our creative edge along the way.
In order to escape our creative doldrums, we may need to shock ourselves out of our routine a bit.
We can start by simply changing our creative process. Just by trying an unfamiliar tool or experimenting with a new technique — we can shake things up and begin to see things from a new perspective.
#7 Don’t become one-dimensional
We live in an age of specialization.
This is true of the business world, but it is becoming increasingly the case in the creative world as well.
If you are a painter, you are expected not to stray too far from on your established niche. If you are musician, any new music you create should sound a lot like what you’ve done before. If you are a writer, you are expected to stick to the formula your readers have come to expect.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that the greatest artists and writers were widely-read and trained in many different disciplines. In fact the definition of a “renaissance man” is someone who has many talents or areas of knowledge. Up until recently, this type of broad-based liberal arts education was the foundation of any respected creative artist.
The reason is that beneath its shiny veneer, creativity has always been about taking seemingly unrelated ideas, finding the hidden connection between them, and then creating something new with them. This type of cross-pollination of ideas can’t happen, however, if we refuse to venture too far from our established box of competence.
This is why we need to find a way to continually grow and expand our creative horizons.
Whether we do this by reading the works of others, attending performances, or connecting with other creative artists online — we need to find the time to escape our comfort zone and restock our creative well.
#8 Get physical
As creative artists we spend most of our time locked up inside our own head.
Even when we’re not working, we can get so wrapped up in our thoughts sometimes, that we forget how much our physical body can affect our creativity.
Free your mind and your ass will follow.
Don’t worry, this isn’t another lecture about how we should be eating healthier and exercising more (although that’s not a bad idea). There is, however, a strong connection between physical activity and our ability to create. The mind is not as independent of the body as some of us would like to believe, and the condition of one can directly affect the other.
Now when I’m talking about physical activity here, we’re not really concerned with building our muscles or how we can burn the maximum number of calories possible. The goal here is to do something that moves the body and frees the mind at the same time — or as Mr. Funkadelic himself might say it, if we move our ass our mind will be freed.
This also means that we don’t want to do an activity that demands a great deal of mental involvement. Ideally what we want is an activity like walking, running, swimming, or bike riding that is physically demanding but still gives your mind the opportunity to wander, digest new ideas, and make connections.
#9 Track your progress (you’ve come farther than you think)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much progress we’ve made since we began our creative journey.
Most people have heard the stories about how Ernest Hemingway loved to stay out late drinking with his friends. What most people don’t realize was that even when he went out, he was still at his writing desk every morning by 6:00. He also had the habit of closely tracking his daily word count on a chart after he finished his writing each day. Over the years he had learned the benefits of tracking his daily progress.
This is why I would encourage you to keep a journal, mark a calendar, or find some way to keep track of your creative progress — not so you can congratulate yourself or beat yourself up when you fall short, but simply so you can remind yourself of how far you’ve come.
It’s easy to get discouraged when we focus on where we’re currently at (versus where we think we should be) and how far we have left to go.
Simply by keeping some sort of written or visual record of your daily progress, will give you something that you can look over and realize how far you’ve come. Doing this can not only encourage you by showing you the progress you’ve already made, but it can also help motivate you to keep going.
What do you think?
- What do you do when you find yourself stuck in a creative funk?
- Do you usually try to fight it off or do you simply let it run its course?
- What’s the best advice that you’ve received about how to avoid creative burnout?
Please take a minute to share your thoughts and stories with us in the comment section below :)
About the Author
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.