How to avoid creative burnout

Once as a freelance marketing writer, I agreed to a ridiculously insane deadline. (As opposed to a regularly insane deadline.) At 4:36PM on a Thursday, I was asked to solve a huge creative conundrum by 8:30am the next day. I was provided with three previously failed concepts and asked to “make them all work.” Somehow, someway. And if I had time, (ha!) maybe I could also come up with “a few” concepts of my own.

This to me was akin to working with both arms tied behind my back and a coyote chewing on my foot. With a paycheck at the end if I could get my hands untied and kick the coyote to kingdom come.

I worked all night. By 8:27am, I met the parameters and the deadline. I had successfully compressed the creative process, but the results could have been so much better if I had just had more time. And sleep. This is an excellent recipe for creative burnout.

While there will always be crunch times and projects, it’s never good if your entire working life is one ridiculously insane deadline after another. If you don’t take control of your creative life and deadlines, burnout is inevitable. So to help save your sanity, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way…the hard way:

1. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. You might not be burnt out; maybe you’re simply tired of beating a dead horse. Sometimes you can find a way to make an idea work–some hidden angle or connection that comes with a fresh eye. But if it takes longer than say, 15 minutes, move on. You can always come back to it later–as in, for another project with a longer deadline and a completely different strategy.

2. Don’t taint the creative process. The worst thing you can do at the beginning of a new project is to focus on previous failed attempts. It’s like saying, “Ok, so here’s what didn’t work, what failed, what sucked. Now let’s find a way to make it work!”  Uh huh.

Start with the facts–the strategy, the objective, the primary goal or message. If the old ideas still have a shot, run with it. For 15 minutes. Then move on. Later you can ask what was tried before and what sucked, especially if you’re burnt out and need a giggle.

3. Ask for more time. It never hurts to ask what’s driving the deadline or if it’s a hard deadline. More often than not, you can get extra time–but not if you don’t ask up front. Sure, some of us “need” deadlines to get things done. And you shouldn’t be a diva, constantly pushing back on deadline requests. But if you don’t give yourself enough time to think and simmer, the process will take longer, you’ll be miserable and…hello, burnout!

4. Say no. I still remember my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, chiding me as a child for not eating my bread crusts, saying, “You never know when you might wish you had them.” This attitude permeates my work life, where I hate to say no to projects. But there are only so many things you can do at once before you lose your mind and your motivation.

It helps to “qualify your leads” ahead of time. Determine what your ideal sweet spot is for clients or projects–what’s most profitable for you? What’s your niche? Who is your ideal client? Define it all. Once you have these rules in place, it’s much easier to say no up front, before you overcommit or regret committing altogether.

5. Keep your creative warehouse full. All work and no play is the fastest way to drain your creativity. Read a little bit of everything you can get your hands on–blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, articles, white papers. Watch a little bit of everything you have time for–videos, vlogs, TV, movies. And most of all, be sure to get out from behind your desk and experience life. Live a little. It’s one of the best way to banish the creative burnout blues.

6. Identify your role in the insanity. I’ve already told you mine–I hate to turn down work, so I take on too much or too much of the wrong kinds of projects. It might be your fear of asking more questions or pushing back on direction that’s not clear. Analyze your last few crazy projects–what could you have done differently to make things less crazy?

7. Laugh. If you don’t, you’ll be crabby and crazy from your deadline. Boo hoo. So turn that frown upside down, call a funny friend, make fun of your worst concepts, crack a joke at your own expense. Creative relief, or at the very least, a little fun, is sure to follow.

How do you handle creative burnout when it happens? How do you prevent it? Enquiring minds want to know!

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5 thoughts on “How to avoid creative burnout

  1. 4:46pm, eh? Gotta love it when they drop a project in your lap at the end of the work day and expect something by the start of the next.

    You are far more daring than I could ever hope to be. 😀

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