Overcoming Creative Burnout
By Ekaterina Popova
Header image by Lauren Zaknoun
Creative burnout is real. Have you been struggling to start that new painting, or even show up to the studio? Does the thought of making new work drain you and fill you with dread? I recently went through a very intense burnout, which manifested itself as physical illness, emotional breakdown and just a general inability to work. I was out of commission for nearly two weeks.
You see, I have been running on empty for over two years without fully realizing it. From leaving my day job at a call center in 2016 to juggling my painting career and the magazine, I unknowingly replaced breaks, fun and time off with generating new ideas, networking and more to do's. I forgot what it means to be truly inspired, actually have fun and enjoy simple and free pleasures in life whether or not they contribute to my art practice or career.
It's easy for creatives to feel guilty about taking breaks because we either feel extremely lucky to be able to do it as our job or are dying to make art after working a demanding day job 40+ hours a week. Art can be an escape, but in some cases, it becomes a burden and we need to give ourselves time to heal and replenish our energy and creativity.
When art, the love of your life, becomes an impossible task, it's time for a little intervention with yourself. Of course, we want to design our lives in a way that would prevent these breakdowns by following a healthy schedule and practicing saying no, but when a burnout happens, here are some steps to help you get back on your feet and back to the flow of life and creativity.
Slow down to speed up
When I first started experiencing my setback, I shared the situation with my mentor, Bridgette Mayer, who suggested scheduling time off, even for fun activities. Make your time off just as important as your assignments and projects. Try to incorporate a day a week where you indulge in guilt-free activities such as reading, spending time with loved ones or making art just for you (if you are up for it of course).
Check your engine
Sometimes we forget that we are living, breathing humans and not machines pumping out ideas, art and inspiration. Even if you exercise and eat well, stress and fatigue may have devastating effects on your overall health. When I was going through my burnout, I felt like I had the flu and could not stop sleeping, even though my medical report was flawless. Make sure you are conscious of your breathing, are sleeping enough and taking the time to laugh and enjoy your day.
On a recent episode of our podcast Art & Cocktails, I interviewed one of my favorite painters Andrew Salgado, an incredible and prolific figurative artist. Andrew shared that he takes a complete break after each exhibition and travels. Coming from such a successful figure, this made me realize how my nonstop schedule is probably hindering my growth in some ways.
We simply cannot expect to make good art if we continue to abuse our body and mind. I am guilty of this and am learning to listen when enough is enough, no matter what is expected of me that day.
Release the pressure
The good news is, if we take care of ourselves and temporarily stop making art, no-one is going to be severely affected. I remember, back when I worked at Macy's, my manager used to tell me on a particularly bad sales day "we are not saving lives, it's just lipstick.", and that little saying stuck with me. No matter what's going on, your health and mental well being are way more important than artwork. Plus your gallery and collector need you just as much as you need them and would totally understand if you needed an extra day, week or month (only you know how much time you need). If you are generally a responsible, reliable and pleasant person to work with, people will understand and will give you grace. Release the fear and take the time that you need to be the best artist and person you can be.
Of course, sometimes we have projects and deadlines that determine the course of our career or if we will be able to pay for our bills that month. Highlight the immediate tasks at hand and complete them as well as you can and practice saying no to anything that comes after. If you have things due in the future but are not pressing at the moment, use this time to recover fully. Don't look at, think about or talk about upcoming deadlines that aren't an emergency and focus on your health as much as possible. If you need help saying no, here is a great resource by Marie Forleo to help you get started, another great book I read on this subject is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.
Say it out loud
Sometimes, we get stuck in our own head and need to someone to give us permission to take the break we desperately need. Calling a friend or someone you trust and expressing your condition can help you view yourself from a third party perspective and give you compassion. If you don't have someone to call, here is your permission slip. You are worthy of feeling your best, no matter how much time you need.
When you are ready to start creating again, start slow and shorten your workday from what you are used to, in order to not fall back into the trap of overwhelming. Work on multiple projects at a time in bite-size pieces. Set a timer and take a five-minute break for every 30 you work. Make sure to step outside once in a while and breathe.
Our art is about expressing our true selves, and if we are completely worn out it is difficult to share our passion with others. After my recent experience, I want to still be painting and feeling great when I am in my 80's, therefore I will treat my life and career as a marathon and not a sprint.
Give yourself permission to rest. I promise you and your work will be better for it. I can't wait to see what you create when you come out on the other side!
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