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A tonic for frazzled brains: how to tackle creative burnout

by | Dec 9, 2021

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling creatively fried. If you’re suffering from creative burnout, too, then read on.

Burnout has recently been classified as a medical condition by the World Health Organisation. So how can you make sure that you don’t succumb to it? In this blog post, we’ll look at how long our ‘supply’ of creative can last and more…

Is creativity finite?

It can definitely feel like it sometimes – that point when the brain ceases to fire on all cylinders and your imagination is numbed. It’s as if every idea is a feeble reworking of an old one that sees you gawping blankly at a page or blinking cursor.

But as Maya Angelou famously said: “You can’t use creativity up. The more you use, the more you have.”


So, what’s going on?

When you feel like you’re coming up with the same old stuff, Groundhog Day style, it’s worth taking a breath to consider the best way forward. The word ‘inspire’ means to breathe life into to. But there’s no pause button on 24-hour news and social media, let alone brutal pitch-turnaround times.

If you’re feeling creatively burnt out, you may relate to one or more of these. Maybe you’ve been:

  • Working long hours
  • Juggling multiple, complex projects
  • Feeling under the weather (hungover, sleep-deprived or that nagging cold)
  • Crap at taking your holiday allocation
  • Neglecting your mental health
  • Or things outside work are affecting your ability to do your job

*Note: burnout and depression can look similar but need different approaches – click on the link for a comprehensive article about that looks into burnout and depression. Please seek professional help if you think you need it.

I could tick all of the above around the time I became a Creative Director over a decade ago. I was knackered, disillusioned, depressed, pitched out and getting divorced. My battery was flat.

That’s not ideal when you have ‘creative’ in your job title. I took a 3-month sabbatical to try and figure things out and rediscover some of that Tiggerish enthusiasm that for me is a prerequisite for creativity.

I went on a mountain retreat, visited exhibitions, practiced meditation and went looking for the Northern Lights in Iceland (and other clichés). The outdoor bit was the charm.

Green stuff = brainfood for the grey stuff

Getting outside into nature, or just plain old-fashioned walking, always helped me with mental fatigue and ideas. Spending time in nature is multi-sensory and can provide us with the inspiration and relaxation we need. In fact, studies have shown that walking can help creative thought by as much as 60%.

Back in the agency we started simple walk and talk creative sessions where we paired up and got out for 20 minutes to discuss the challenge and then came back to pool our ideas. We’d go on a photography safari and find our target audience ‘in the wild.’ This helped us with fresh ideas.

Even if you’re feeling content, there are many other factors that influence, and can deplete, our creative resources.

In Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes that the phrase to ‘pay attention’ is a literal one, as we have a limited budget of attention to allocate. For example, it’s hard to calculate 15 x 27 when driving a car at 70mph – we must choose to focus on one activity or the other. It’s helpful to know that rational, logical, evidence-based thinking is effortful and can’t be sustained infinitely.

So, what can we do about creative burnout?

In his new book, author Dan Pink suggests that we all have personal optimal times to be creative depending on your ‘chronotype’ – whether you’re an early bird or an owl or somewhere in-between. He suggests doing analytic work during your peak; admin work during your trough; and insight work during your recovery. Trying keeping a diary and notice your creative peaks or fails.

I grouped my to-do list into relevant daily tasks like:

  • Generating ideas
  • Reflection
  • Office admin
  • Proposal writing
  • Business planning
  • Client calls

I noticed there are clear ‘peak’ task times for me. Don’t ask me to generate ideas or run a brainstorm training session unless I’ve been up at least an hour, but if you want me to do invoicing then I can cope with that.

Pink also gives advice that seems obvious: take a break. But don’t feel guilty about it. He argues that “breaks are not a deviation from performance but are actually a part of it.”

This is incubation: that period where the unconscious mind works on the problem for you when you’re not thinking about it. Out running, walking the dog, in the shower. Incubation is not optional to the creative process – it is fundamental. But in traditional brainstorms we are generally terrible at allowing space for things to grow and take shape.

Studies show that people who have high creative output have more alpha waves – this is the relaxed mental state when we unwind and allow our tentative ideas and growing hunches to bubble up to the surface. Not likely to happen in a hastily convened meeting where you’re ordered to ‘be creative now.’

As Seth Godin says: “Big ideas are little ideas that no-one killed too soon. “

Ultimately, creative endeavours require grit and sticking with things when it might seem to be going a bit Pete Tong. Because the creative process is messy. There’s a brilliant missive on this called Persist! by Pixar animator Austin Madison.

Now go and have a lie down 😉

I was interviewed on a podcast about this which you can listen to here: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/spring-back-series-dont-put-pressure-on-yourself-to/id1531480573?i=1000515565681&l=fr

Blog image by Lukas Bieri from Pixabay

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