When you’re a creative professional, burnout is a major concern. It can leave you feeling unable to complete your work to the quality level you want at best, and at worst it can cost you clients or jobs.
Learning how to manage creative burnout is key to any successful design career. While finding exactly what works for you can take some trial and error, there are a few tried-and-true techniques that are a good place to start.
In this article, we’ll break down the most important habits to incorporate into your daily workflow so you can learn how to better manage and avoid burnout this year:
- 1. Understand (and embrace) your internal clock
- 2. Make time for your hobbies
- 3. Don’t stay chained to your desk
- 4. Say no when you need to
- 5. Take (real) breaks
- Bonus Tip: Acknowledge your limitations
But before jumping into these tips, let’s take a quick look at what burnout is and why we might experience it more than a few times throughout our careers.
What is burnout?
Burnout expert Erayna Sargent defines burnout as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion usually caused by a series of smaller symptoms and signs over the course of weeks, months, and even years.
According to 2020 data from FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA), we know that at least 75% of workers have experienced burnout at some point in their careers.
While the concept of burnout is nothing new, research also shows that the rise of COVID and new remote work environments have resulted in an uptick of stress levels and individuals reporting symptoms of burnout.
So the question is, how can we better manage and stop burnout in its tracks before it spirals out of control?
1. Understand (and embrace) your internal clock
Have you ever spent 12+ hours straight working on a project only to feel like you didn’t get nearly enough done? And then another day you work for only three or four hours and make huge progress?
Your internal clock may be behind that difference in productivity.
Understanding when you’re most creative (and when you’re not) can be key to avoiding burnout from working too many hours. If you know that you’re super creative between 9 am and noon, then treat that time as sacred for your work. Some people hit their creative stride early in the day, while others may hit it later in the day. There is no universal “right” time. It all depends on your internal schedule.
You may find that you have multiple creative times during the day. Or that you can work for a couple of hours at a time at peak creativity or productivity, and then you have to take a break to do something else before returning to work.
Working in bursts can be key to getting a lot done without feeling exhausted or overwhelmed.
2. Make time for your hobbies
Having something to do outside of work is important, but even more so for creatives. Finding a creative outlet that isn’t related to your work can be an excellent way to keep your creative juices flowing.
You might take up a hobby like knitting or crochet, photography, music, or filmmaking. A hobby that gets you moving can also be a great way to stay creative. Exercise releases neurotransmitters—including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin—which can help your creativity.
Dopamine and serotonin in particular can put you in a state that’s both relaxed and energized, a perfect mix for being more creative. Walking in particular has been shown to improve convergent thinking, a key component of creativity.
“Depending on what I need and why I feel burnt out, I either take a rest, do sports, pursue a hobby that has nothing to do with my work, or follow a tutorial to develop my skills and learn something new. Nowadays, I’m very strict about doing something small everyday that fuels me and prevents burnout.” — Anna Wassmer, Graphic Designer & Illustrator
3. Don’t stay chained to your desk
When you’re under a deadline, it can be easy to get lost in your work and spend eight or more hours a day at your desk. But that’s counterproductive when it comes to creative thinking.
As already mentioned, taking a break for a walk can improve your convergent thinking abilities, leading to greater creativity.
Making sure that you also eat regular meals, stay hydrated, and stretch can help keep you physically well and at peak performance.
4. Say no when you need to
When was the last time you said no to a request from a teammate, boss, or client? Or to a friend or family member?
If you want to maintain your creativity, it’s important to draw boundaries around your own needs. If you have trouble saying no, you can try saying no but suggesting an alternative.
For example, if a friend is asking to meet for coffee during your peak creative time, tell them you’re unavailable at that time but could meet them for lunch instead.
If your boss is asking you to take on additional work that will prevent you from completing a project you’re already working on, ask them which project is more important and let them know you can’t complete both at the same time.
If you’re getting requests for more work from a new or existing client, consider whether you have the time and creative reserves to take on that work.
As a freelancer, it can be hard to turn down work, but if you’re overwhelmed with the work you’re taking on, the quality will suffer. It’s better to tell a client you’re currently booked solid than to deliver subpar work.
5. Take (real) breaks
Taking a five-minute break here or there can feel like enough, but it’s really not. I’m no stranger to eating lunch at my desk to keep working. But making it a regular habit can zap your creativity.
Make sure you’re taking real, meaningful breaks. That includes taking days or weekends off. Working seven days a week (even if you’re only working for “a few hours” on your “day off”) is a quick path to creative burnout.
You need time away from your work to refill your creative reserves. Without that time off for your brain to focus on other things, you can’t keep going indefinitely. Schedule real breaks into your days, weeks, and months.
Bonus Tip: Acknowledge your limitations
Recognizing when you’re reaching burnout is important for avoiding it. We all have limitations, whether that’s the kind of work we can do, the number of hours we can put in, or the number of days we can work before needing a day off.
Knowing the kind of work that leaves you feeling fulfilled and energized versus the kind of work that drains you can be an important limitation to recognize. You can take on more of the first kind of work than the second without burning out. Finding the right balance between the two can be key.
If you know that you’re most productive with a four-day creative workweek, then don’t take on more work than that.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not working at least 40 hours per week, we’re lazy. But creative work can’t be done in the same way. We have the ability to do roughly four hours of creative work per day. Trying to force yourself to do eight or more hours, day in and day out, will lead to burnout.
Keep refilling your creative reserves
It’s key that throughout the year, you continuously fill your creative reserves.
That means taking care of your physical and mental health, seeking out new creative opportunities, taking time to rest and reset, and learning how and when to say no.
Creating a routine that boosts your creativity can be a matter of trial and error, but when you find the things that refill your reserves, it makes a huge difference in how easily creative ideas come to you. ■
About the Author — Cameron Chapman: Editor. Blogger. Author. Designer. Copywriter. Marketer. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Consultant. Coach. I wear a lot of hats. What most of them have in common, though, is storytelling.