“I have completely lost my mind, which is simply refusing to create,” wrote Russian playwright Anton Chekhov on January 12, 1887, in a letter to the editor of a satirical weekly publication, which frequently published his work. “I have been convulsing and racking my brain the entire holiday, huffing and puffing, sitting down a hundred times to write only to have my nimble pen produce lengthy scrolls, acerbic brevities and other nauseating drivel.”
Everyone whose work involves even a hint of creativity would have come across this at some point in their life. Be it writing a script, managing social media or devising an advertising campaign for a new product. Acknowledging your lack of inspiration can be tough. Especially if your career and self-realisation is directly linked to your ability to create and maintain a flow of new ideas.
It is only made worse by bodily tension and a sense of embarrassment from your lack of motivation, not to mention the merciless replay of the biggest hit of negative self-talk - “What is wrong with me?”. Things can quickly spiral out of control leading to a complete creative and mental burnout. The good news is, however, that all of this is temporary and only points to the existing lack of balance in your life. It does not define you as lazy, talentless or irresponsible. On the contrary, this is your alarm bells ringing to tell you that you might have simply worked too hard and it is time to pause.
Signs of creative burnout
Creative burnout is much more serious than just a lack of ideas during a brainstorming session. The latter suggests that we have a desire to create but cannot right now. The former is when the very thought of work causes our entire body to tense up. If left unaddressed for too long, this can have a huge impact on our creative path as well as other spheres of our life. It is important to be able to detect key symptoms of burnout.
There is nothing wrong with pushing your workload to another day, if you are feeling knackered, sleep deprived or have an engagement in your social calendar to attend. Who has not left their work to the last minute, especially if the task at hand is an uninspiring one? However, if this is now your modus operandi, then there is a problem. Procrastination is not just another bad habit. Active avoidance of tasks can mask a whole range of issues, from fear of failure to, indeed, burnout itself.
• Chronic fatigue
A cup of coffee on-the-go in place of a proper breakfast, constant sleep deprivation, an overwhelmingly fast carbs diet, lack of sunshine, free time and exercise. All of these factors can bring about chronic stress. A healthy body will be able to tackle all of these individual issues and regenerate.
But what happens if this becomes your life for months at a time, leaving no space for creativity? Another trait that can lead to this psychophysical state of exhaustion is a desire to stay on top of everything at all times. If looking at your daily to-do list on a regular basis, you see more things accumulating than being crossed off, it is time for a change. What room for imagination are we even talking about when all you fill your days with is house chores, work meetings and endless chains of emails?
• Comparing yourself to others
Comparing ourselves to others is somewhat inevitable, but somehow the mind always makes us out to be the looser in this game. Without fail other people come out more successful, more proactive, more ambitious. While there is a healthy dose of looking to others to broaden our horizons, exchange experiences and develop empathy, other people’s business should not stop you in your tracks. If you are unable to get started on a task purely because you know that your creation will never match that of Picasso or Marie Curie, burnout is inevitable.
That feeling when your children seem out of control and your clients too demanding should really raise some red flags, make you revise your current commitments and take a break. There is a difference between a bad day and a chronic feeling of anger and irritability, which makes you snap at your loved ones over nothing.
• Unlimited content consumption
Keeping an eye on the latest trends and soaking up the experience of others in your field is of paramount importance for anyone working in a creative industry. However when we are approaching burnout, it becomes incredibly difficult to filter the incoming noise of information. In search of inspiration, we turn to the work of others and by so doing deprive ourselves of the very ability to tap into our unique talents.
Everyone has doubts. This is normal. But if your inner critic is no longer helping you accomplish your tasks to a high standard and is leaving you sick and tired instead, it is time to do some inner work. Otherwise, it can lead to a complete loss of self-worth, both professionally and personally.
If you suffer with more than one of the above symptoms and they seem to define long periods of your life, this can indicate some more deeply seated issues, including depression and anxiety, in which case professional medical help might be required.
Finding way back to creativity
Let us begin by asking ourselves: what do I feel right now? What bothers me? What do I want right now? An acceptance and vocalisation of our feelings is the first important step to recovery.
1/ Asking for support
Share how you feel with someone. When it comes to creative burnout, a conversation with a more experienced colleague, mentor or team leader can be hugely beneficial. According to the founder of social psychology Kurt Lewin, it is other people that have the biggest influence on our identity. By turning to someone for support you are also more likely to get valuable advice from someone who has overcome a similar obstacle in the past. It is important to not endure this alone. Irrespective of your industry, there is bound to be a colleague who can relate.
2/ Taking a break
In his TED talk graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister talks about a quirky year-long annual leave which he takes once every seven years. This helps Stefan revive his enthusiasm for his career whenever it fades. A rested mind has the ability to generate a myriad of ideas for new projects, which then get implemented by his team over the next seven years.
So how does this work? Stefan explains that by concentrating entirely on one object or activity we put everything else out of focus. It is difficult to notice the star constellations at night if all you do is fixate on the moon. But only a handful of people have the luxury of such prolonged breaks. That is not to say that there is anything stopping you from having a quality weekend break, establishing firm boundaries with your work routine and checking your inbox.
During this time, it is important to slow down and focus on your mental health. Whether it is meeting up with your loved ones, enjoying some time in nature (which by the way is a known creativity booster) or taking a digital and informational detox. If you have no free time at all, simply trying something new is enough, be it a new recipe or a quirky hobby.
3/ Giving your inner critic time off
Be careful to not let your inner critic be in charge. This can escalate quickly to a criticism of everything that you do, making you unable to complete a task, overcheck your work and try to be overly perfect, when things are good enough as they are.
Creative director and copywriter Danny Gregory’s book “Shut Your Monkey” suggests that we should seriously question what our inner critic has to say. What is it afraid of? What is behind these fears? While we can listen to our inner critic to help us grow and learn from our mistakes, there comes a time when we should thank him and send him off on a well-deserved vacation.
4/ Baby steps
You would have seen this principle in action if you had ever watched “What About Bob?”. In the film, Bill Murray takes his psychotherapist’s advice too literally and starts to move around in tiny steps towards his fears. And it helps! Baby steps is a metaphor for a behavioural activation method. Break down a big task into micro actions and start with the ones you find easiest to accomplish. Ticking off each one will give you the satisfaction of moving closer to your goal, stimulate a release of dopamine and create a valuable resource for the next steps.
5/ Using stress to your advantage
When Russian psychiatrist Mikhail Litvak struggled to make a start on his dissertation, he chose to open it with exactly that acknowledgment. This lifehack has been known for some time to writers and creatives. Writer Nikolai Gogol once said that if you are not able to produce anything, stick with it and write about the way you are unable to create, do not leave your desk. So why not try and use stress as a pillar for creativity and treat it like a mental exercise to pour out all the feels. This is exactly what J. K. Rowling did in her Harry Potter books by materialising her experience with clinical depression in her depiction of dementors.
Remember that creativity is like a child that needs tender love and care. The life of an artist is not just about producing canvases, just as that of a copywriter is not all about articles. We are all multi-faceted beings. By giving attention to each part and looking after ourselves, you help support and channel your creative potential.