Creative people tend to work in cycles of obsession. Artists, in particular, often operate from an uncompromising, personal point of view—a position that, because it involves identity—requires more mental stamina and resilience than typical client work. In a contemporary culture filled with diluted messaging and borrowed intelligence, the artist’s voice is consequently rewarded for having originality and subject matter depth.
But the price to pay for producing originality is often about putting more effort into mining deeper to bring more intelligence and articulation to their work. It's not unusual for artists to routinely ignore the signs of overwork and the mental compromises that come with these (usually self-imposed) mandates. It is not unheard of that artists will lock themselves away for weeks or months on end to produce for a project/show. They'll only come up for basic needs such as food, water and the occasional shower. Typically, at the end of a cycle of making work—and sometimes before the end—the artist will experience burnout.
Burnout has very straightforward indicators. Physical and mental exhaustion, and a constant feeling of being unproductive (movement is slow as molasses when you're try your best) will often lead to feelings of self-doubt...which compounds the stress that drove you to burnout in the first place. There are dangerous consequences to this: left unchecked, burnout can lead to antisocial behavior, perennial depression, and a perspective that can compromise the relationships in your life that would normally be there to manage the situation.
Very often artists are simply not aware that there is any alternative: they operate from the notion that they have a system, it works, and they’re going to trust that system. And if the system means making the sacrifice of depriving themselves of self-care, then so be it—it's a far secondary consideration to making the work, making things happen.
What goes misunderstood is the “opportunity cost” of this kind of thinking: beyond the quality of work that can come from good self-help practices is the quantity of time and energy lost “medicating” after the fact. It’s a very real cost to the artist, and to any close friend or relationship within the reach of that artist. An artist will inevitably lose time working through symptoms of depression, self-doubt, anxiety and even darker, more “final” ideas. Stress is often the primary causal factor of burnout, and it compromises creativity and clarity, something that is hard to track when you’re in the middle of the storm. For an artist who has grown habituated to it—who believes that this is normal—the listlessness can be surprising to outsiders.
Anecdotally, there are “typical” signs of an impending storm. The physical signs are easy enough to spot, they typically may include lowered immunity (vulnerable to being sick), a change in appetite, insomnia or change in sleep habits and overall lethargy. Emotional and mental signs of burnout may include constant feelings of failure and self-doubt, detachment from otherwise close relationships, lack of motivation and a more than usual cynicism, with hints of victimization.
Prolonged stress can also lead to using food and drugs that sedative coping mechanisms, or taking out frustrations on those close to you. Not a fun place to be. So the question is, if you are an artist or any kind of creative worker with a “system” that leads to predictable, inevitable burnout, is it possible to do better and still produce good work?
THE CASE FOR SELF-CARE
Burnout is optional, not inevitable, but often learning how to manage it is a matter of “installing” better daily practices that suit your personality and work. It is a matter of choices and decisions made at some point in the past, for which you’re paying in the present or in the near future.
As an artist, often the key is to understand that repeated suffering has no relationship to the quality of your art. In fact, a healthier way of doing things might actually produce better work: a regimen of daily self-care practices will more likely produce longer periods without stress, which means more mental stamina. It also positions you to better access your creativity, and have more clarity in your life.
MANAGING DAILY PRACTICES
Managing stress that leads to burn out is a matter of small changes that lead to big pivots over time.
Human beings are social creatures. More importantly, we are tribal creatures. We do best when we are around people who understand us. It’s important to find a community to which you feel understood for the values and ideas that you hold dear. This idea spends everything from religious groups to sports fans.
On a more individual basis, investing in close relationships is perhaps the simplest and easiest way to start. Feeling understood is among the most basic human needs. This is why quality engagement with friends, family members or a significant other—people who have known you deeply and have a history with you—are ideal to spend time with.
On the other hand, removing relationships that bring repeated stress is also a good idea. With problematic people, one rule of thumb might be to establish clearly—verbally with ground rules—how you’d like to be treated, what’s OK and what’s not acceptable to discuss, and in what way. If you’re forced to deal with people who ignore boundaries, limit your exposure to them.
The abstract, non-physical, digital world can be a confusing mess of micro-stressors. We live in a time when it is incredibly easy to be misunderstood, ignored, shunned, or blindsided by perspectives that we'd really rather not have in our lives. Very simply, limit your time to social media, and curate as much as possible. Seek out alternative options to occupy your time, from reading, writing in a journal, or playing with a pet.
Small daily things
Sleep is first on the list of things to manage because it governs your waking hours in so many ways. The right amount of sleep—not under-sleeping but also not over-sleeping—is key to lifting the fog and being able to focus with enough energy in the tank in the course of the day.
Exercise is another powerful antidote to stress and burnout. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic event like joining a gym tomorrow. A 30-minute run, and a regimen of aerobics or bodyweight exercises like push-ups, crunches and jumping jacks is adequate. A 10 to 15 minute walk has the ability to boost your mood for the next three hours.
Diet is an invisible factor in determining mood and your inclination toward stress. Drink lots of water, minimize sugars and refined carbs, all things that lead to rollercoaster insulin spikes and drops and subsequent mood changes.
Gratitude—expressing it—is enormously helpful. Doing something for others such as volunteering at a charity or similar program produces a “human” experience and boosts self-confidence. Similarly, writing and sending a note, or penning a greeting card to say thank you, convey a quick hello, or just to let someone know you have been thinking of them has been proven to have mental health benefits for the sender and the people on receiving end.
All things considered, the right mindset is among the best long-term solutions for avoiding burnout. An "Attitude of Gratitude"—a contemplation of all the things you are grateful for having—helps develop the habit of refocusing toward a positive, proactive way of thinking.
Keeping a Gratitude Journal—a place to note daily instances for which you are grateful—may sound trite at first. Psychologists in the Positive Psychology field have documented the benefits that come from being able to refer and recall gratitude. The “external memory” of Journaling simply makes this easier. Psychologists noted improvement in sleep patterns, better heart health, cognitive strength, reduction in impulse control and subsequent self-esteem movement.
So much of preventing burnout is revolves around stopping and auditing what we habitually do in reaction to our environments and circumstances. This first, simple and almost invisible step is easy to put off—there never seems a right time for it in the context of being “productive.” But it does begin by paying attention to signs, and trusting your instincts about where the path leads—and what pace is comfortable.
It's very easy to forget your spiritual, mental and physical health in the mix of everything going on, or put it off until you realize you've run out of time. That's precisely why it's important to take those first unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable, small steps and proactively develop better self care regimen. Even if you're not on the verge of falling off a cliff and into depression (and especially when you are not), you'll quickly notice the advantages of self-care in your life—the quiet, steady hum of a frictionless mind, buoyed by a clarity and vividness unlike anything else.