Here’s one for fellow creatives.
Something’s been weighing on my mind since yesterday morning, when the daily yarn with the coffee lady burped up this pearler: “How do you just keep creating new stuff every day? How do you not run out of juice?”
Of course, I laughed…and let her in on our dirty secret. We do run out of juice, as much as anyone in any other industry! The point of success, of course, is being able to recognise and defeat the root causes of an absense of inspiration as they come up.
This isn’t my normal response, of course. Much of the time I put on my biggest ‘inspired creative’ grin and exude enthusiasm, forced or otherwise; with a spare hand I’m fishing around in my mental bag of tricks, formulated over a decade or so of battling the industry in various guises.
Before I get too deep into these (rather droll, obvious) tricks, I want to talk burnout – and its slightly less serious cousins – with you.
It’s a slimy bastard, its tendrils grasping for even the most optimistic amongst us. And it’s an actual thing – a real phenomenon in psychology. It’s serious when it happens, with the possibility of wiping the sufferer out for months on end at worst, which of course is a paycheck nightmare amongst other things.
At the other end of the scale is what I think of as simply occupational exhaustion – not quite burnout, but that mundane sensation that you’re doing the same thing day-in, day-out. This is something that I’ve had extensive experience with over the years, and something I’ve realised is entirely within the power of the individual to change.
It’s that annoyance at being awake in the morning, just-give-me-ten-more-minutes, one-coffe-isn’t-enough, oh-god-how-many-emails-are-there, okay-I’ll-check-them-for-far-too-long-oh-whoops-it’s-nearly-midday sort of feeling. It’s watching the clock all day, waiting for Friday all week, treading water for months on end just waiting for a living. For us creatives, it’s staring at a blank page with an exhausted sense of fear, having nothing to draw on, and simply burping up the templates in your head into something that passes as well-designed because it works, but not magically so.
Know this: you’re half-way there. Keep this up and you will burn out.
I’ve spent my time here, and I’ve learned how to run. And while I’ve covered some ground on how to curate a work environment that can at worst stave this off and at best give you the juice you need, I’d like to expand on the toolkit I’ve developed for fighting the shadows further.
Change your environment – get up and leave.
Remember this one? Leg it and get some fresh air, maybe stay a while, maybe bring your equipment with you. I’m an advocate for ‘distractions’ in the form of walking for a coffee, or sitting somewhere with relevant inspiration (eg: a magazine shop, if you’re in the business of designing magazines). Employers, this isn’t wasted time! If you’ve ever had your best ideas standing in the shower, you may understand why having time away from the problem is actually great for productivity. In the case of walking, it’s also a great way to get oxygen and endorphins into your system; given the Human body likes to go into a bit of a stupor sitting on a chair, it’s not hard to see how the brain would follow suit.
How does this apply in a practical sense?
If you’re hitting the wall, especially if you’re at the point of snapping at colleagues or otherwise in a foul mood, if the coffee isn’t working any more, if you feel like your head’s about to meet the desk and the task in front of you is insurmountable, you have a very strong case for getting up and moving. Seriously, the task before you won’t get any easier if your brain has decided it’s dang near impossible; take charge and pull your nose a few feet back from the problem.
If you’re a Freelancer, grab your stuff and go sit somewhere else. A coffee shop is a great start.
Fake the juice ’til you got it.
Earlier I spoke about a lack of inspiration, specifically by way of “How do you just keep designing?”. I wasn’t always this absurdly positive Human lightning rod – I’ve wrestled with the black dog and subsequent burnout, but after a few significant life changes, I’ve learned something important.
Grin and fake it. Especially if you’re not feelin’ it.
You LOVE designing, remember? Even if you don’t right now. You certainly LOVED it when you attended that conference a few years ago! (And if you haven’t attended a conference or two yet, do yourself a favour and get along to one – and take a notebook, for Pete’s sake!).
What makes you rage? Bottle that!
Here’s my equivalent of a compressor-powered rattle gun. Maybe you’re less of a rager than I am, in which case, what makes you ramble excitedly, without taking breaths, until peoples’ eyes glaze over?
The point here is passion. You need something that gets you fired up to restart the fire in your belly when it’s waned to dull embers. Bad font selection? Slapping primary colours together without any concept of harmony? Oh god, is that yet another thoughtless use of Helvetica (guilty, mind you)? Does white space mean nothing to you people? Cropping game so weak you almost missed the photo entirely? Is that “quote marks” for “emphasis” instead of “quotes” I see?
Flip these around into a positive, and watch your inspiration bubble back – at worst, for a couple of hours.
Piss around on that blank page.
You heard it here first.
Heck, maybe this isn’t even time you can bill for, your lack of inspiration is so far gone. Doesn’t matter – if you’ve built up a fear of the blank page, the only thing to do is to lob stuff at it anyway. In the same way we often build up a picture of what the client hates before we can start on what they like, sometimes you’ve just got to throw stuff in that will never make it to the final product. Blank page anxiety is most certainly a thing, make the page less blank to begin conquering it.
If you’re coming home after an eight-hour day and doing nothing, you’re doing it wrong.
I say this as someone who has done this professionally for years. Get home, complain about dull/stressful day, cook dinner, then proceed to sit on chuff. After spending over eight hours furthering someone else’s goals, if you’re not then furthering your own, then you’re not going to get ahead – and you’re certainly not going to maintain the fires of inspiration, unless your place of work is truly epic and you’ve probably sunk an extra four hours just because you enjoy it. In which case I salute you, you awesome person.
Even if it’s a hobby, you need to do something that rows your boat after work. Even better, work on something that ups your skills…just don’t burn the candle at both ends too much.
The crux of the issue here is this: if you’re working to live and nothing else, of course you’re going to feel prisoner within your own life. Of course you’re going to burn out. Exhaustion and boredom are inevitable.
Every creative should at some stage develop their own personal brand and further their own goals. If that’s not on the cards yet, consider upskilling in your own time; if you’re a Graphic Designer, get to CodeAcademy and learn how to create or modify websites without a GUI. If you’re a Developer, consider learning the basics of good Graphic Design or Web Design for the fun of it. If you’re a writer…again, CodeAcademy.
Heck, you could even start a blog.
Even if you do nothing other than nerdy knitting or baking video game-inspired cakes, please do something with your precious time other than Netflix or video games. I say this as a reformed sit-on-butt-and-play-video-games-all-night salaryman.
Identify the stress that’s slowly killing you.
In short, there are two kinds of stress.
The bad kind of stress slowly envelops you and drags you down. It offers only two sensations about its progression – either never-ending limbo, or that things just keep getting worse. The tasks just keep coming, or the one in front of you is impossible. This is the sort of stress you need to identify and mercilessly crush, because it’s a travellator to burnout innocently disguised as ‘the daily grind’.
The good kind of stress has you chewing your hands as a deadline that’s just about in your control approaches, the sort that has you hustling your heart out to meet or beat budget. Good stress is worrying if you’re going to impress the socks off that next client and as such aiming for the sky with your efforts. This sort of stress is what drives motivation. It’s fear mixed with excitement, and it turns you into a Human lightning rod.
A bit of introspection from time to time is a necessary barometer of your balance between these two flavours of stress, and from my experience the main factors at play here are comfort and fear. If you avoid the fear of the unknown and nestle into your comfort zone, as sad and unexciting as that may be, you actively avoid the positive kind of stress. The theme of this blog post applies: enact change. Change is the enemy of burnout.
Cool, so…how did you apply all of this?
I hate articles that ask seemingly unrealistic things of people; sickeningly positive, lovey-dovey, and suggesting things that seem to only apply to wealthy people without full-time employment.
I don’t want to be that guy, so here’s a rather self-conscious run-down of how a painfully normal designer has approached the above.
- Changing environment. Several previous bosses, as I’ve discussed before, have regularly sent employees on oxygen/inspration/caffeine missions to pull them away from screens, and I’ve been the beneficiary of this management style multiple times. Nowadays I take my iPad, A3 drawing pad and a few pens to locations like Bespoke Kitchen, Earnslaw Park or The Boatshed to manually sketch ideas instead of stuffing around in InDesign with a screed of fonts.
- Faking it. Erryday. This is a skill we introverted creative types need to latch onto. If someone asks me if I love what I do, I reflexively answer yes and pull up a yarn about something I’ve done recently. Truth is, having done this for a while, I do genuinely love what I do these days.
- Bottle the rage. Or, ramble ad-nauseum. Some poor fellow recently complimented me on my font choice. Eyes glazed as I banged on about why I chose Omnes as the only typeface on my website, its history, and why its letterforms are oh so sweet. It happens on a regular basis when someone asks me to fill that blank space to the left on that page. Find something to give a toss about in your industry, and give ALL OF THE TOSSES when prompted.
- Fill blank pages with crap. Daily occurrance. It’s my secret weapon. Even just filling a page with font options.
- Do stuff and things after work. For many years I didn’t – bad move! Until 2015, that simply became ‘pissing around’ with shale.net.nz. This is the fourth iteration of the site, and I finally feel like I nailed it. Now I write blog posts, evidently! As far as extracurricular creativity goes, I’ve reneged on my own advice and have started to build a castle in Minecraft. In the Nether. In Survival. Don’t ask. I really ought to be writing fiction!
- Identify stress. This is precisely why I freelance now- the daily grind was my kryptonite, and it took many years of marinating in it for me to gain the introspection needed to level up. I recommend it; build your brand, save up around six months’ worth of bill payments, and jump in the deep end. You’ll find that fear brings an awful lot of adrenaline with it!
You are the master of your own destiny, and your career is yours and yours alone. If you’re not one for making changes as massive as mine, don’t worry. There are many fantastic opportunities within agencies, and frankly they offer a lot more awesome toys and perks than you can supply yourself with for the first few years; don’t be afraid to recharge and put yourself out there within your current organisation, or level up and jump to one that inspires you. Just remember: the ship is yours to steer, don’t let the grind wrestle that control from your grasp.