Coming back from burnout: How to recharge your creativity and get your ideas flowing again

Welcome to our new series on Coming Back from Burnout where we explore the realities of coming back to work after burning out. Want to share your own experience with burnout? 

Burnout is devastating for anyone. But it can be especially hard on those whose jobs depend on being creative and innovative every single day. Burnout snuffs out your creative spark. It makes simple tasks hard and creative ones nearly impossible.

As designer Frank Chimero writes:

“Fatigue happens to your body, but burnout exhausts your soul.”

So what do you do when you hit creative burnout? After you’ve given yourself the time you need to rest, restore, and recalibrate, it’s time to get the creative juices flowing once more.

Why (and how) burnout kills your creativity

Creative burnout - working

As Arianna Huffington wrote: “Nothing kills creativity faster than burnout.”

The symptoms of burnout are far-reaching, from chronic fatigue and emotional exhaustion to cynicism, detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness. Just looking at that list makes it easy to understand just how much burnout impacts creativity.

As psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli, one of the original researchers into occupational burnout notes:

“As a metaphor for the draining of energy, burnout refers to the smothering of a fire or the extinguishing of a candle. It implies that once a fire was burning, but the fire cannot continue burning brightly unless there are sufficient resources that keep being replenished.”

Creativity depends on an openness to new ideas, freedom to explore, and finding purpose in your work. But all those qualities disappear when you’re burnt out.

Instead of an overflowing well of ideas, your creative juices run dry. But just because you’re facing creative burnout doesn’t mean your work expectations change. As Schaufeli continues:

“Over time, employees experiencing burnout lose the capacity to provide the intense contributions that make an impact.

“If they continue working, the result is more like smouldering–uneventful and inconsequential–than burning. From their own perspective or that of others, they accomplish less.”

This is especially disastrous for people whose jobs are focused on creativity and who aren’t able to draw a line between work and “everything else.”

Common advice for handling workplace stress is to step back or spend more time on what makes you happy. But as Samantha Forge writes in Kill Your Darlings,

“In many ways, the idea of work-life balance can seem redundant when your job is intimately connected to your passion. How do you draw the line between work and leisure when the two are essentially halves of the same whole – when, in your most fortunate moments at least, your leisure activities are merely an extension of your paid employment?”

If your own creative fire is burning low (or gone out completely), what can you do to help bring it back to life?

5 ways to come back from creative burnout

The cycle of burnout is especially bad for people who need to be more creative at work. Your ideas were what made people pile more and more work on you in the first place. And it’s easy to fall back into those patterns the second you feel ready to return to work.

Coming back from burnout and rebuilding your creative muscle is as much about understanding and setting limitations as it is getting that spark back.

Here are a few proven methods used by artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, and workers of all types to bounce back from creative burnout.

1. Understand your limitations (and take advantage of them)

creative burnout - limitations

Burnout occurs when job demands consistently outweigh the resources available.

In other words, are you trying to squeeze too much out of the limited time/energy/motivation you have? If so, the first thing you need to do is to set proper limits.

While this might sound like a scary proposition for your post-burnout brain (that’s so used to taking on everything) limitations can be creatively empowering. In fact, research has found, when people face scarcity in resources “they give themselves the freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to.”

So what resources can you limit? While there are many options, the most powerful is your time.

Time management and focus are some of the most important creativity tools we wield. When you limit your time spent on specific tasks, you give yourself permission to make choices. Instead of fighting perfectionism, you learn to stop when things are good enough.

RescueTime can help you with this in a number of ways.

First, you can set a daily goal for total time worked and get an alert when you go over. For example, I have multiple goals set for total device time, time spent on distracting apps, and mobile time so I know when I’m getting off track.

Set goal for distracting time

Next, you can set daily goals for your time in specific tasks—like writing, designing, or coding—and get alerts when you’ve gone over.

Writing goal

For example, I have a daily goal of writing for 3 hours. While I don’t always hit this, it’s still a good barometer for where my time is going and whether or not I’m focusing on the right things.

2. Learn to say no to projects and clients that suck the creativity out of you

Time and energy aren’t the only things you need to limit when you’re feeling the effects of creative burnout.

When your mental resources are limited, you need to make sure they’re going to the right tasks. Burnout decimates your motivation, making working on projects you’re uninterested in an agonizing process.

As Dr. Christina Maslach, one of the pioneers of occupational burnout research writes,

“People experiencing burnout are not simply exhausted or overwhelmed by their workload. They also have lost a psychological connection with their work, which has implications for their motivation and identity.”

To rebuild your creative confidence post-burnout, you need to rebuild that identity in your work. That means reigniting your spark with creative tasks.

As Emily Haines, lead singer of the band Metric writes,

“The only time that I feel things start to spin out is when I buy into the whole ‘work really hard and then just don’t work at all’ idea… The whole point of being an artist is that it can provide a fluid life.”

Learning how to say no isn’t easy (in work and in life). But it’s a key step if you want to move past creative burnout.

3. Find a completely unrelated creative outlet

Burnout woman

Sometimes you need to tackle a problem head-on. but with creative burnout, it’s often better to take a side-on approach.

While your first impulse will most likely be to dive back into what you’re used to, that can quickly backfire. As we mentioned before, it’s easy to overstretch your limits when you go back into old daily routines. Instead, look for a creative task with lower stakes to help ease you back into things.

Here’s an example. When Brooks Headley, chef and owner of Superiority Burger in New York City felt himself burning out in a fine dining situation, he looked to a past creative outlet for help: music.

As he explains in The Creative Independent,

“The only time I was really on my way to burning out was when I was working at fancy restaurants doing only desserts. That’s when I started playing music again after a few years of not doing that.

“Playing music helped me keep myself in check. I was able to do this other thing that balanced things out–something totally and completely different from my job.

What are the things in your own life that you enjoy but aren’t necessarily “productive”? Those can be the in-roads you need back to re-igniting your creativity and motivation.  

4. Give yourself permission to fill your creative well

Unrelated creative tasks can help inspire you, but there are also other ways to fill your “creative well.” As architect and designer Emily Fischer writes,

“You have to feed yourself creatively. You have to give yourself that creative fuel. I hate using the term ‘self-care’ but I think that’s a part of it.”

How you give yourself self-care is up to you. It could mean going to bed an hour earlier. Making time for a walk in nature. Going to an art show. Or even just doing something fun.

A new study by Malinda McPherson, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, explored how our emotional state affects our ability to be creative. McPherson discovered that, while we are drawn to sad movies, feeling positive emotions actually draws us into a deeper state of creative flow.

When you’re feeling burnt out you can use your emotions to your advantage. Take an afternoon off and head to the movies. If that’s not your thing, take your dog for a walk or call an old friend.

As Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler says:

“We’ve all learned to answer email on Sundays, but none of us has learned to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.”

5. Give yourself strict, yet realistic deadlines

Timer

One of the hardest parts of bouncing back from creative burnout is dealing with the nagging voice inside your head.

This isn’t good enough! 

No one’s going to like this!

You’re terrible!

Why are you even doing this? 

The self-critic is something we all face. But at times it can get so loud that it drowns out our ability to push through. However, there’s a simple tool you can use to silence your inner critic: deadlines.

More specifically, we’re talking about short, yet strict deadlines. For example, let’s say you need to write a chapter of a book. Instead of sitting down and banging your head against your screen for hours on end, break it up into tiny increments and set tight deadlines (such as 250 words every 20 minutes).

Not only will you not have time to become self-critical, but once you start working it’s much easier to keep going. If that system doesn’t work for you, then simply block out hours in a day where you know you’ll be working.

As musician Alicia Bognanno explains,

“I schedule out hours to work. I know that if I’m working during those hours, then I can have that night to myself to exercise or watch a TV show or read a book or whatever.”

Balance is key to overcoming burnout. But you can only create balance if you have deadlines and limits.

Creative burnout can be cured. But it’s always better to not let things get that bad in the first place.

If you’re facing creative burnout or bouncing back from it now, I hope these tips work for you. But of course, it’s always better to avoid burnout in the first place.

If you need help, check out our Guide to Dealing with Burnout Syndrome and then sign up for RescueTime for free.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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