To succeed we’re often told we need to be driven. Sometimes that feels like we have to do everything right now. But a sustainable career in the arts is a marathon, not a sprint. A willingness to take the long-view means remembering you’re human and have real limits. It’s crucial to take care of yourself by setting boundaries around your creative time and what your body needs. Your boundaries take care of you.
We’ve all seen what can happen when an artist burns out. Bright stars like Avicii and Amy Winehouse flame out, their careers cut tragically short. Yet not all forms of burnout are so dramatic. You might be feeling its subtler effects if your work feels lacklustre or boring, if you’re stuck on a project and missing deadlines, or if you’re irritable with your collaborators. Sometimes it shows up in our bodies as muscle or joint pain, digestive difficulties, headaches, restless sleep, and in our brains as anxiety, stress and bad or sad moods.
The more driven you are, the more counterintuitive it can feel to recognize you need a break. But the biggest creative secret is that sometimes our best, most inspired ideas arrive as if by magic when we’re at rest—in the shower, walking the dog, riding a bike, attending a friend’s concert or sitting in a park. When we free our brains from pressure to perform, they often gift us by problem-solving in the background.
Get curious the next time something isn’t working or feels off. Are you feeling stalled or impatient because you need a break? Taking ten minutes to go for a walk may be exactly what you need. Here are some effective burnout prevention techniques you can incorporate into your artistic practice to keep you going for years:
Picture the creative work life as a wave.
Working towards a big deadline or show can be full-on. If you’re productive and in the zone, this can be healthy while you’re riding the wave. But once you’ve done it, give yourself a chance to recharge before you hop onto the next.
Don’t leave it to the last minute.
Create a work-back schedule of everything you need to do to make your deadline or be ready for an event. Write down when you’re going to do each step and ask yourself, is this realistic? Is there anything you can delegate or get help with? For me, having achievable daily writing quotas means I know when I can stop in the evening and feel good about my efforts.
Take play breaks.
Re-energize in the studio by dancing to a favourite song, rolling on the floor to stretch your back, cooking a meal, going outside or even staring out the window. When you return to what you were working on you might see something new.
Don’t chase after things that aren’t meaningful or drain you.
When you check in with yourself you’ll know what feels worthwhile and what doesn’t. Honour that! To protect your creative time and energy learn to say no. Choose your promotion opportunities wisely. If you know you’re going to be stretched that week say no. If an event doesn’t fit what you do say no. If you just met a deadline and need a break, say no.
Be content with your own timeline.
Sometimes a little competition can be a good motivator. Other times it can lead to unhealthy self-judgement. Don’t beat yourself up! All you need to worry about is your own efforts. Let everyone else walk their own paths in their own time.
Talking it out always helps. We all need validation, direction and encouragement. Checking in with a mentor is a good way to find perspective on when to push and when to slow down. In that balance is the space where you can thrive.
Suzanne Alyssa Andrew is a Mentorly mentor, and an author, writer, editor, journalist and entrepreneur.