Dealing with creative burn-out

It’s usually easier to start creative work than it is to finish it.

As creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes in his stellar book Finding Flow:

“The world is absolutely full of interesting things to do. Only lack of imagination, or lack of energy, stand in the way.”

So why do we occasionally end up stuck when we’ve already begun the work?

There are a number of possible reasons: as we approach the finish line we begin to question what we were doing in the first place, or we start to feel that our perception of the work isn’t aligning with what we’re actually producing. All of the various nicks and cracks of the work begin to make themselves visible.

But what’s more likely is that we’ve simply run out of steam, and understandably so.

Creative work takes a lot of energy and uses multiple mental resources.

The initial excitement of starting something new, of turning an idea into something real and tangible, eventually burns off. The flash of insight or an energizing spark of motivation fades.

Unlike computers, humans don’t have a system monitor where you can check what’s using up space or hogging resources. In-fact: more often than to we don’t have complete control over what our minds are burning energy on.

All we have is the sudden feeling of burning out, of wanting to do something—anything—else.

Energy and attention are limited resources, both which influence our willpower and creativity. If we’re smart and optimize our energy and resources, we can control the burn out. We can maintain our momentum. Dilbert creator and author Scott Adams puts this elegantly for us:

“Make choices that maximize you personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities.”

So what can we do to ensure we’re making better choices to help optimize how we use our energy?

Take a nap

I will often use a quick fifteen to twenty minute power nap to restart my mental processes.

At times when I can’t rest (like at the office), I do a quick 15 minute meditation session or just listen to classical music while focusing on my breathing. Each seems to provide just enough space from the actual work and worries of the day to help reset and refocus my energy.

Clear your work space

Another surprisingly effective way of refocusing energies is to take a few minutes to clean up my work space.

“A clean workspace clears our mind, just as a cluttered, disorganized workspace confuses us and slows us down,” Dale Carnegie once wrote.

Our brain seems to unconsciously pay attention to every object in our surroundings. Cleaning up and making sure that our mind is clear enables our ideas to flow more freely.

Free write

Often taking a few minutes to free write (about the work, how I’m feeling, or even capturing notes in my personal journal) helps bring clarity to my mind and rejuvenates my creative energy.

The benefits of free writing whenever feeling stuck are numerous: they break your typical work flow while also allowing you to capture and explore your thoughts in a more tangible flow.

While taking a nap or cleaning your work space are effect ways of re-energizing yourself, they can take away from the actual productive work. Whereas free writing doesn’t have to. If you free write about the work or why you may be feeling stuck, you’re still making progress.

Consider this…

If you consider each of the ways we revitalize our mental states and re-orient ourselves around a creative spark, what you’ll notice is each entails two primary things: time and perspective.

And really a breath of fresh air is what we need when we encounter a fear of the critical finish lineor when we begin to second-guess the work we’re doing.

If you feel yourself burning out, or losing motivation, or wondering if what you’re doing is right to begin with: take a step back, give yourself a few minutes to acknowledge what you’re doing, remember that done is better than perfect, and get back to work.