Creative work is not synonymous with artistic work. Everyone needs creativity to solve problems and navigate the world, regardless of whether or not they can draw a stick figure.
Being creative is at the core of our being, yet some of us believe you're either born with creativity or not.
While creativity is not the privilege of the few, there is a distinguishable difference between those who work in the creative industries and those who don't.
A creative is someone who specializes in making pictures, bringing the imagination to life, and designing solutions. These artists, illustrators, designers, art directors, filmmakers, animators, photographers, dancers, content practitioners, crafters, etc., enrich our lives with new images and ideas.
As much as it's fun to be a professional creative, it's also a challenging career path. Creatives must constantly be at the top of their game and present fresh, innovative ideas to their teams and clients daily.
If you've started feeling apathetic, anxious, uninspired, or as if your creative batteries are drained, it's time to learn how to manage stress and use your negative emotions as creative fuel.
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What it means to be a healthy creative
What does it look like to be a well-rounded creative? Besides being a generally well-rounded individual with a good work ethic, high quality of work, and healthy personal care and relationships, creatives have very specific work routines.
Working in a creative role means you know how to establish a creative flow to find new angles to approach creative projects and new ways to solve problems. You do this by finding connections between seemingly disparate concepts to form new ideas.
Creative flow is a cognitive process of extreme focus on a particular task where you become less conscious of yourself, others, and your fears of failure. It's a completely controlled environment where the unexpected can happen.
This kind of fruitful focus has also been observed when people participate in sports, religious rituals, strategy games like chess, and perform surgery.
People have different names for this state of mind, such as "creative juices," "creative sparks," or a "creative headspace."
This way of working brings with it challenges that are not necessarily faced in other situations (even though we can be creative in many other ways besides art and design).
Some of the challenges faced by creatives include:
- A high level of cognitive work that can lead to mental fatigue
- Experiencing and overcoming creative resistance and negative feelings associated with imposter syndrome
- Nonlinear ways of working that can lead to emotional exhaustion
- Not being taken seriously in the boardroom
- Blurring the line between work and home life
Naturally, it can be stressful to deal with ambiguity all the time and find innovative solutions to complex problems. Many creatives also have personal projects that, even though they're enjoyable, can add to the stresses of their work life.
When you run out of margin to deal with the stresses of creative work, it can negatively impact your mental and physical health. If left unmanaged, it ultimately leads to complete burnout.
What's creative burnout?
We're sure you're familiar with the concept of workplace burnout, as it's especially been highlighted over the past couple of years.
In a practical sense, burnout happens when a fire runs out of fuel or an electrical component overheats. In the same way, we can run out of "creative juice" if we don't replenish our tanks, so to speak.
Stressed creatives are especially susceptible to mental fatigue because of the nature of creative work.
Late nights in a dark room in front of a screen is not how most of us picture a flourishing career as a professional digital illustrator or designer, but this is a reality for many creatives.
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Reaching tight-to-impossible deadlines, taking on ambitious projects, and generally having too few hands to do all the work can take a dangerous toll on your mental health and the quality of your creative output. Or you're working on-site in a creative team but feel like you're hardly bringing your B-game to the projects lately.
The WHO defines "burn-out" as a work-related phenomenon that shouldn't be translated to other areas of life.
Burnout is long-term, mismanaged work stress characterized by feelings of depletion or exhaustion, mental distance from work or negativity toward your job, and reduced professional efficacy (the confidence and ability to complete tasks).
So, does creative burnout happen as a result of too much of a good thing? Let's look at some symptoms of burnout in a creative work context.
9 warning signs of creative burnout and their causes
What common signs of burnout do you need to watch out for? Whereas employee burnout is a risk in any workplace, creatives are especially susceptible because creative work requires constantly pushing ideas to innovate, achieve marketing goals, and make clients happy.
1. Losing interest and motivation
It feels like your dream job has lost its luster, and you face a 9-to-5 abyss each time you open your laptop or iPad.
Why? Feeling stressed for a long time leads to physical exhaustion and negativity, making it hard to care about or feel up to doing your work.
2. Feeling completely uninspired
The moment you start a task or project, it's like you hit a brick wall and can't think of a single good idea.
Why? Running on empty and not refilling your "creative tank" with the things that usually refresh and inspire you leads to creative fatigue. And then, there are no reserves for you to draw on. This is why keeping a good work-life balance and using leisure time for the people and things you love are important.
3. Not knowing who to ask for help
You have a vague feeling that you need help, but you have no idea what's wrong or who to approach to get advice.
Why? Because your mental and emotional capacity is shot, you don't have the energy to think clearly about your problem and how to solve it.
4. Heightened susceptibility to illness
You experience health issues more often, such as frequent bouts of cold and flu, loss of appetite, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, bowel issues, or muscle pain.
Why? Stress is a known killer; it affects your nervous system, heart, and bowels. Besides, being physically tired and not getting enough sleep is a slippery slope to health issues because your body doesn't have enough strength to fight off infections as quickly as it used to.
5. You don’t have good days
Work sucks, I know. The lyrics of that Blink182 song feel more true than ever.
Why? Because you're tired and uninspired, you can get stuck in a cycle of negative feelings perpetuated by your disappointment or frustration.
6. You don't care
It's even more difficult to look for help because you find yourself not caring enough to look after yourself or your home.
Why? A kind of numbness starts to set in when you've been worried and stressed for an extended period, which means you can't be bothered about things that are not a top priority.
7. Isolating yourself
You're not reaching out to people as much, leaving you feeling detached and alone.
Why? Being stuck in a cycle of negativity about your ability to perform tasks at work can break down your self-esteem and make you less sociable. Also, you probably just don't have enough energy to hang out with your friends or even talk to them over the phone.
But if you had to take a look at your brain, you'd see that chronic stress causes disconnections between neuron synapses, causing you to become more forgetful and less sociable.
8. Procrastination lengthening
Your tasks pile on top of each other because you take longer to complete them.
Why? Decreasing motivation and confidence leads to further delays in work performance.
9. Work isn’t rewarding
You have a lowered sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when you do finally complete tasks and projects. You don't feel proud of your work anymore.
Why? Chronic stress lowers your dopamine levels, which are regulated by the reward center in your brain. These feel-good hormones give you a sense of reward and motivation to keep going and help you cope with stress. But too much stress can blunt your reward sensitivity, a symptom related to depression.
While the experience of burnout is a result of physical and mental exhaustion, decision fatigue, and stress over long periods of time, it's completely preventable.
Let's look at some tried-and-tested strategies for overcoming creative exhaustion so that you never reach burnout in your creative career.
How to stay inspired and motivated
In their book, Creative Confidence, the brothers Kelley write that your creative muscle can be strengthened through effort and experience. In the same way, you can avoid creative burnout by continually refueling your creative reserves.
In her Skillshare course on creative fearlessness, art director Sarah McKinnon says that a certain amount of stress and negative emotions are an important part of the creative process.
It's about reaching deep and finding the 'why' for your creativity, creating your emotional color palette, and using these colors to express and comment on things you care about. Not only does this lead to personal growth, but it also helps you constructively manage your stress.
In lauded graphic designer Paula Scher's TED talk, she draws a distinction between solemn and serious play. Serious play involves experimentation, imperfection, and invention - creativity at its best. It's that precious, focused time of creative flow.
The secret to serious play is letting go of what's expected and allowing your creativity to take the lead and "break the rules" (or break out of your comfort zone). Keep that in mind as we look at some of the strategies for maintaining healthy creativity.
Tap into your source
What invigorates and inspires you? God, nature, people, art, sport, music, stillness?
Make time to actively seek out and enjoy the things that speak to your soul and produce a positive outlook on life. It doesn't look the same for everyone, but a spiritual connection or time in nature often reinvigorates your creativity in ways that a TV series or podcast can't.
Perfect your craft
Improving the skills you use for work can be highly motivating because you're learning new ways to do things that you do daily.
Constantly aim to do better than yesterday; learn more about your design software, apply different techniques and styles, or practice difficult shapes and effects. The more you learn, the more motivated you are to grow in your knowledge and practice.
Always look out for interesting learning resources, be it books, videos, online short courses, or webinars. It will broaden your knowledge and prevent stagnation. And hey! What's stopping you from hosting your own course?
Get better at time management
The bane of every creative's existence: planning and using your available time well. A lot of stress can be relieved by simply managing our time better. One of the best ways to manage stress is to have more control over what you can change.
This is really the secret sauce to being a healthy creative. Not only will time management skills help you plan your work projects, but they will also enable you to plan your leisure time and ensure you stay balanced.
Take (actual) breaks
When I was working at a graphic design studio, my colleague and I sometimes did five hours of work before one of us got up from the desk. We’d always make jokes about this, but it’s actually no laughing matter!
The moment you feel uncomfortable in your chair, you should get up and walk away from your desk and do some stretches or small physical tasks for five to ten minutes. Discomfort is the body’s way of telling you it needs a break. So, listen to your body!
If you're spending most of your time creating in a digital format, it's good to go back to the ol' pencil and paper or pick up a real paintbrush and mix paint. Working with art materials can bring surprising results that you can translate back to your digital work with a fresh perspective.
If you're finding it hard to pick a medium, time, and place to do some arts and crafts, why not look for a short course or group of creatives to join (not online)? This will take the load off you to make decisions about the details, and all you have to do is show up on time for classes or meetings.
Read, watch, and listen to other artists’ stories
There's so much you can learn from others in your industry, and you'll often walk away feeling inspired to try something new. It's also empowering to know that other creatives are going through the same struggles as you and learn from their mistakes and wins.
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Do something else entirely
It sounds counterintuitive, but focusing on a different interest area often enriches your creativity. For instance, you could enroll for dog training, learn how to create a nutrition plan, or host a macramé workshop.
When you're feeling least inspired, doing something off the wall and fun can build your confidence and leave you reinvigorated with new ideas and a positive mindset.
Find other incredible illustrators or designers to work together on a project. Not only will you enjoy the interactions, but working with other creatives will give you a fresh take on your own practice and how you can challenge yourself.
Moreover, building accountable and mentoring relationships will help you grow as a creative because, often, other people notice your (negative and positive) patterns faster than you do.
I can't recount how many times my friend from art school has encouraged me to write and pursue studies in art education! And it really helped me achieve my goals.
Your next steps
We've looked at some of the symptoms of creative burnout and solid strategies for keeping your tank full and ready for creative flow. There are many more strategies you can employ to keep thriving as an artist and never reach creative burnout.
One of the most important things to remember is that negative emotions are not all bad. Frustration, anger, and sadness are all part of the human condition and can be used as creative fuel to bring remarkable works to life. So, first and foremost, you'll benefit from learning how to use negative emotions to produce creative work.
It's all about keeping a delicate balance between 'good' and 'bad' stress and protecting your personal time to stay in touch with what inspires, refreshes, and motivates you to come up with awesome ideas.
Remember that creative work should be serious play!
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Take your designs to the next level.
Sharné is a contributing writer to the Linearity Blog. She has 8+ years' experience in graphic design and marketing and holds a Master's in Art Education.