No matter how much you might love doing something, the chances are good that you’re going to have some days when you just don’t feel like doing it. This is true for our professional and personal lives: those days when you come this close to leaving your job, or throw down your paintbrush in frustration because that watercolor hobby just isn’t working out. The occasional day like this is frustrating, but manageable. However, if you experience this frequently or for an extended period of time, you could very likely be suffering from creative burnout. Here’s how to know if you’re suffering from creative burnout (and what to do about it).
Creativity is for everyone
“I’m not creative.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase. As a CEO (helping companies create meaningful experiences for their clients), a friend to fellow entrepreneurs, community leader and a father, I have had many, many people tell me that they don’t consider themselves to be creative.
The problem with that: creativity is for everyone. Everyone has at least a little creativity inside them, and everyone can become more creative if they want.
Unfortunately, the concept of creativity is one that is widely misunderstood, in at least two big ways.
First of all, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be an artist, musician, designer, or kindergarten teacher to be “creative.” Even people who are generally considered to be “left-brained,” such as scientists or mathematicians, have to be creative at times. Parents find creative solutions for getting their kids to eat their vegetables or fall asleep. Romantic partners find creative ways to express love to their significant others. Every time you try something different, or put something new out into the world (even a social media post!), you’re creating.
Secondly, creativity is not something that you’re either born with or not born with; it is a skill, and as such, relies just as much on nurture as it does on nature. Creativity can be developed and strengthened, just as you might increase your skill in the kitchen or with a musical instrument. In fact, there are proven ways to increase your creativity.
Creativity is for everyone, which is great news. The bad news? The potential for creativity also leads to the potential for creative burnout.
Recently, I wrote about flow: the nearly magical (but actually quite scientific) psychological state where creativity is overflowing, ideas abound, and you’re really working “in the zone,” so much so that you lose track of time.
Creative burnout, as you can imagine, presents quite a different scenario. It’s the moments of frustration when you feel like you’ve tried everything, nothing is working, and you literally can’t get your brain to think of anything else. Personally, creative burnout leaves me feeling “broken,” like something is inherently wrong with me because I can’t seem to get my ideas out there in the right way.
Of course, burnout isn’t unique to me—not by a long shot. In fact, burnout in general has become a hot topic in the professional world over the past few years. As the pace of the world only seems to speed up, more people are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to the point of burnout, which is described as a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. In fact, one study revealed that nearly two-thirds of the workforce likely feels some level of burnout at some point in their career.
Creative burnout is the burnout we all experience that is specifically related to our creative capacities—the ability each of has to create something meaningful for ourselves and the world.
How to know if you’re suffering from creative burnout
It can be hard to know if you’re suffering from creative burnout. You might not want to admit that you’re struggling, because of shame or embarrassment. You might be in denial—unwilling to admit it to even yourself. And you might be so deep in it that you can’t even get your head above water long enough to realize you’re drowning.
Wherever you’re at, there are some major signs of creative burnout you should never ignore.
Putting off your work…and then putting it off some more…is a big sign of burnout. People going through creative burnout will likely even have trouble finishing their most important projects in a timely way. If you find yourself procrastinating regularly—especially if procrastinating hasn’t been a problem for you in the past—you’re likely experiencing burnout.
If the thought of work leaves you with a pit in your stomach, burnout is a possible culprit. While it’s normal to dread work on Monday mornings or after a great vacation, regular feelings of significant dread around your job can definitely indicate burnout. The same is true for non-professional endeavors as well. (Ever felt like you couldn’t possibly make one more school lunch? I know I have.)
Creativity has a way of opening the doors of possibility to us. So, it would make sense that when creativity is absent, we’re more likely to feel stuck—like we’re miserable, and that will never change. Thoughts in this state might include things like:
“I’ll never be good at this.”
“Is my entire life going to be this miserable?”
“How did I get to this point? Will I ever get out?”
Physical exhaustion is one of the most common signs of burnout. Creative burnout can leave you feeling physically tired, so if you’re feeling fatigued more often than not, and you have no other reason for it, burnout could be to blame.
Extra snappy at your kids lately? Always frustrated with your coworkers? Feeling creative burnout can lead you to be irritable more often.
Things start to feel the same
When you’re burned out, every project you take on starts to feel the same. You almost feel stuck in a Groundhog Day type situation, where every day presents the same challenge, and you handle the challenge in the same way—rinse and repeat. If you feel like your life has become a merry-go-round that you can’t get off, you might be burned out.
Perfectionism stifles creativity. Why? Because if you’re afraid to fail, you’re less likely to try something new. If lately, you’ve been more obsessed than usual with things being just right, and with making no mistakes, you could be going through creative burnout. This could also manifest itself as self-doubt; you don’t believe that you’ll ever be good enough. Thoughts like that are extremely common for people struggling with creative burnout.
Consuming more than producing
When I’m going through a time of creative burnout, I tend to consume more than I produce. Scrolling through Instagram, consuming everyone else’s posts, but not posting something of my own or not connecting with close friends through direct messages; buying a new gadget online (probably something I don’t need); binge watching TV; eating. In all these ways, I’m consuming—without producing (creating). When I catch myself doing this, I’m almost certainly burned out.
What to do about it
Now that you know how to tell if you’re suffering from creative burnout, it’s important to know what to do about it. And yes—there is something you can do about it. The fact is, you are not a victim to circumstance. You are in control of your creativity. It is a skill that you can develop, if you want to. Creativity is within your power.
All that to say, you don’t have to suffer through creative burnout. Recognize it, identify it, and then try one of these strategies for dealing with it.
Rediscover your purpose/motivation
Reminding yourself why you do what you do can be a powerful tool in overcoming creative burnout. If you’re struggling, do some deep thoughtwork about why you’ve chosen this path, how it feels to create something meaningful, and how much you want to do it again. Restate your motivation. Write it down. Fall in love with your purpose all over again. When you do, you’re opening the door to creativity, allowing it to come help you make your mission a reality.
Go back to basics
Sometimes, if I’m really struggling with a project, I go back to the basics. What do I know about this topic? What are the fundamentals that really make things work? For example, a musician struggling to write their next song might try playing some scales, or playing basic tunes that highlight the fundamentals of songwriting and music in general. Going back to these basics can often clear the air of all the confusion surrounding a problem, allowing you to get a new start and a fresh approach.
Examine your schedule and environment
Practical elements can play a big role in your creativity. If you’re experiencing creative burnout, it might be worth taking a look at the environment you’re trying to be creative in. Is it often full of distractions? Is it uncomfortable in some way? Do you find yourself fidgeting, trying to block out background noise, or being constantly interrupted? If so, make changes. Deliberately design an environment that fosters your creativity.
You should also pay attention to your schedule. Are you trying to be creative at a time when you’re your most tired? That is not going to work as well as trying to be creative when you have the most energy.
What inspired you to be creative in the first place? Was it a specific person? A book you read, a movie you saw, a perfectly executed product? Whatever it was, it might help reignite the spark of creativity if you find that your flame is burning a little dim. Go back to things that have inspired you before, and allow them to inspire you again.
Increase your challenge or your skill level
In my recent post about flow, I discussed the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is credited with naming the idea of flow. He claims that you can get into a state of flow—which is essentially a state of heightened creativity and productivity—when you have the right balance of skill level and challenge.
If a problem is too easy for your skill level, it will be boring. It’s not going to inspire your creativity, because you don’t need to get creative to solve it. If, on the other hand, the challenge feels insurmountable because your skill level is still low, it’s going to make you anxious. You’ll put pressure on yourself and fear of failure might start to creep in. That’s not a good recipe for creativity, either.
If you feel like you’re going through creative burnout, think about how things might change if you either increased the challenge or increased your skill level. It might be the jumpstart your creativity needs to get back in flow.
Coaching and the Egg
At Design.org, we’re all about helping people design and live their best lives. Our Egg model can help you move from simply hoping for a better future, to actually making that future a reality and discovering your true meaning.
Our free coaching services help you progress through the stages of the Egg, while also helping you focus on improving a specific area of your life (like creativity). By taking our quick assessment, you can get started on your own journey toward uncovering a life full of meaning, happiness, and creativity.
It’s hard to know if you’re suffering from creative burnout, and it’s even harder to know what to do about it. But if you only take one thing from this post, let it be this: you have within you a powerful capacity for creation. If you’ve lost it because of creative burnout, you can find it again. And as long as you’re willing to put in a little effort, you will find it again. Promise.
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