Creative Burnout and What Causes It

If you’ve ever tried to pursue a creative field as a career, or even just as a routine hobby, you may have experienced what a lot of people call “burnout”. It’s when the craft that you used to love starts to feel so tedious and aggravating that you begin to wonder whether or not it’s worth your time anymore. I know this from experience—as I write this, I’m currently on a semester-long leave from studying musical composition at the University of Southern Maine. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll continue with this major, but there were a number of things that pushed me to the point where I felt I needed a break. Some may have been beyond my control, but in this post, I’m going to be focusing on the ones that certainly were, and how they can bring the creative train to a screeching halt if you’re not careful.

1. Overburdening Yourself

This was the most glaring issue that I had during my Fall 2015 semester. When you’re first starting out, chances are that you’re balancing a day job (like me), going to college (like me), and whatever you do for R&R that keeps you going completely mental (not like me), and the worst thing you can do is pile so much creative work onto your plate that before you know it, you’re dropping the ball in every aspect of your life. I remember when I decided to try and continue writing my Composers’ Ensemble piece while I was working on music and sounds for the game development group I was once a part of (more on that here). I had fooled myself into believing that I could handle the workload along with the piece I had to write as an assignment in my Counterpoint class, plus a vague thought of working on an entire Requiem Mass alongside everything else. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for me to become overwhelmed, and I ended up axing the Composers’ Ensemble piece and resigning from the game dev team.

Another way you can end up overburdening yourself is just with your daily creative time. Like what happened to me, if you end up pushing yourself to trudge through hours of work on one single project, it can become monotonous very quickly. I don’t want to make it sound like stretching your creative muscles every day is a bad thing—it’s not. In fact, it’s a very good idea, but the problem can come from any number of sources. You’re spending too much time each day, to the point where you don’t give yourself time to relax and unwind. You’re spending day after day on one singular project. Your creative time isn’t focused, and you end up jumping from project to project in search of something to do, while in fact you’re just wasting time. Perhaps a few of these reasons only apply to me and my ADHD, but again, everything I’m relaying to you is just from personal experience. If you decide that you want to work daily on your creative practice, have a set goal in mind, and give yourself a break every once in awhile. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you go back to work at some point.

2. Sweating the Small Stuff

Is it wrong for you to want to produce the absolute best work you can do? No, of course not. However, problems arise when you let that perfectionist mentality dominate your workflow and keep you from ever releasing something for the world to enjoy. I’m the pot calling the kettle black in this case—I’m an immense perfectionist, and this sort of attention to detail is essential. It keeps creative minds from becoming lazy and sloppy once they have a steady following/income behind their work. However, it can also cause you to focus on the most pointless of details that only you will notice once the final product is out there. You want to constantly have these sorts of questions in the back of your mind when tweaking or putting the final touches on your work:

  • Will anyone notice this?
  • Is this worth spending an hour or more getting just right?
  • Will this detail affect the overall quality of the project?

This will keep you on your toes when it comes to being as efficient as possible when working. Otherwise, your creative process can quickly become a drag and eat more time out of your day than it probably should. If you’re already producing creative work full-time, consider hiring an editor (whether it be for writing, artistry, or music production) to look over those tiny details and keep the bulk of the project running more smoothly.

3. Inferiority Complex

As creative people, we’ve all felt it before—whether you’re taking a break and stumble across a piece of work in the same field as yours, or are just frustrated that your project won’t adhere to your vision no matter how hard you work at it, we’ve all felt like we’re not as good as we’d like to be. That’s just a fundamental fact of creativity. It doesn’t mean you suck at what you do, it just means you haven’t achieved the level of proficiency that your idols have (mine are Howard Shore, Koji Kondo, and Jeremy Soule), and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even your idols were, at one point, newbies. Whatever your craft may be, the learning process never stops, even when you’ve “made it” as a full time producer of creative work. The only way to reach the level of authenticity you have in your head is to keep working, and keep finishing your projects; I put the emphasis on the word ‘finish’ because it’s all too easy to become distracted by a new idea and push aside something you may have become bored of working on already. I used to do this all the time, and it’s the kiss of death for your craft. You may feel like your current project is nothing special, but your whole career doesn’t revolve around that one piece; you may shoot for the moon every time, but you’re not always going to hit it. Don’t beat yourself up if your current project isn’t shaping up to be the next Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s 5th, because unless you’re a prodigy child, this is often going to be the case, and it’s no reason to throw in the towel.

One last thing—creative burnout isn’t the end, nor should it be. I felt like it was, too, but I’m beginning to regain the spark I had for writing music. All creative burnout means is that you just need to reevaluate your approach to your craft. If it’s something you truly love doing, then it’s worth reworking your routine to continue doing it.

Header photo source: Peter Hess on Flickr | CC 2.0 | Cropped

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