Three Ways to Avoid Creative Burnout

Burnout has been on the rise in the workplace since the pandemic began in March of 2020. Depending on the polls used, burned out people make up between 49 and 77 percent of the work force.

That’s a depressing statistic.

It’s made worse since I’ve been in the throes of creative burnout for more than two years. I’ve had a few glimpses of light to assure me there is an end to this tunnel, but mostly I have been unable to put words on a page at the rate I did in 2018 and 2019.

When I was in denial about being burned out, I bought and read this book by Becca Syme. I highly recommend it for every creative person, whether you think you’re burned out or not.

Syme gives great information to help you avoid sliding into the pit of burnout. I agree with the author, it’s worse than depression. And yes, I know. What’s worst of all is having chronic depression and then sliding into creative burnout.

You can avoid creative burnout. But to avoid it, you have to understand what it is and what causes it.

Understand “Plate Size”

Syme uses terminology in her book that I’m going to repeat here. She says that every person has a plate that represents how much they can accomplish in a given day.

Picture the average stoneware dish set. There is part of the plate where you put food and then there’s a rim that protects from spills. Syme calls the rim “margin.” You can put stuff there but it might fall off.

The plate represents how many tasks and how much stress you can handle well. Someone with a size 2 (dessert) plate has a low tolerance for stress and can’t be responsible for many things without stressing out. An average-sized plate might mean the person can handle a few things with excellence.

Once upon a time, I had a huge plate size. I could volunteer in my sons’ classrooms after working my part-time job at the school. I became an officer in the PTO, organized fundraisers, cooked a healthful dinner every night, shopped for groceries and kept my house clean. There were more things, too.

And then I was diagnosed with depression and my plate size dropped to at least an 8 (the sizes Syme uses range from 1 to 10).

But I kept filling my plate as if it hadn’t been reduced in size. This seemed fine until I became a full-time author, part-time teacher and perfectionistic task masker to myself. I had multiple deadlines with my small publisher and then I decided to release a self-published series, too.

Needless to say, I slid into creative burnout and climbing out of the pit hasn’t been easy.

After being in creative burnout for so long, I realize that my plate size changes with the seasons. That’s right. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder and during the winter, my plate could be as small as a 3. As in, don’t try to do more than three small things every day.

Take time to think about how you feel when you have seven things on your to do list. Energized? Overwhelmed? It might matter what is on the list, too. Pay attention to the part of you that is exhausted. Stop comparing your work load to that of someone else (they might have a smaller or larger plate).

But plate size is only one factor in the equation whose negative balance means burnout.

Don’t Overspend Energy

Syme talks about energy as “pennies.” Every day, we have a certain amount of energy pennies to spend. Once they’re spent, we need to be done working.

Life happens. There are times when we’re facing a deadline and we know we have to keep working even after the energy is depleted. So we scoop more out of our well.

What’s the well? It’s the reservoir of energy that is built up when we chill out on Saturday watching movies, or walk around the block in the afternoon, or read a book for an hour before going to bed. Truthfully, how you manufacture energy is unique to you.

But just like we can overdraw our checking account as long as we have money in the related savings account and the bank will keep covering our charges, we can keep borrowing energy from our well.

What happens when the savings account reaches zero? That’s when the well runs dry because instead of refilling it on the weekend, we keep working and stressing and burning even more energy.

One of the things that has stuck with me from the book is that when we have to self-soothe because we’re stressed, it takes double the energy of completing any other task. If you have a medical condition, you will use more energy doing many tasks. If your condition is depression, you spend the energy soothing your feelings or motivating yourself to get moving.

Do the math. On the hard days, you need to do LESS because you’re already expending MORE energy than on the usual day.

I highly recommend a social media fast once per week along with a day of rest. Don’t think you can take an entire day (I didn’t at first either but I’m so much more rested now that I do)? Set aside a block of four hours per week when you do only things that refresh you.

Refill the Well

Those refreshing actions are how you refill the well. As I mentioned, what refills my well might drain yours.

If you’re serious about avoiding burnout, you must discover the things that refill your energy. Be aware that you change over time. Something that was rejuvenating last year might not replenish your energy stores now.

If you constantly feel over-tired, you need to fill your well. If it takes twice as much energy to get things done as it used to, it’s time to fill the well.

  • Here are some things that might fill the well:
    • Reading
    • Learning
    • Playing video games
    • Playing other games
    • Play
    • Getting organized (if clutter is a stressor to you)
    • Sleep (restful sleep)
    • Spending time with friends or family
    • Eating healthy food
    • Moving your body
    • Music
    • Hobbies

Now, what fills your well? Think of the last time you felt completely content and satisfied. What proceeded that feeling? Imagine the last time you were “raring to go.” What contributed to that energized state?

When I wake up from a good night of sleep, I’m ready to go. A brisk walk (of one to two miles) outside fires me up, too. Often reading a good novel will get my creative juices flowing and I’ll come up with several possible story ideas.

This is me. You’re different. Ask yourself the questions. Explore things from the list and check-in with yourself. Do you feel energized? Rested? Ready to conquer? Those are the things that refill your well.

One of these principles for avoiding burnout will likely be more difficult for you than the others. For me, I was in denial about my plate size, I felt certain I didn’t have a choice about overspending my energy and I thought I was refilling the well.

My slide into creative burnout proved me wrong. You want to avoid burnout, friend.

Where are you? Do you regularly overspend energy? How do you refill the well?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.