Recovering from Burnout

Burnout can be a hell of a drug: I do and feel the strangest things under its influence.  I’ll be lethargic, grumpy, and uninspired.  I’ll avoid making art—the thing I love most in the world—because I feel overwhelmed.

I’m afraid of failure when I’m burned out.  I feel like I have fewer mental resources at my disposal, so if I make a mistake I won’t be able to recover.  I end up taking fewer risks, which means my work isn’t as strong.  Seeing this, my stress level goes up—and ultimately contributes even more to my burnout.  

I was burned out for the last few months of 2015, which was otherwise a truly amazing year.  From August through November, I took on too many changes too quickly.  I tried to improve my relationships, my job, my art, and myself all at the same time, and ended up running out of mental resources instead.  

2015 wasn’t my first case of burnout—not by a long shot.  I think I’ve reached some level of creative overwhelm more years than not. I still haven’t figured out how to avoid burnout in the first place, but I’ve come up with some tricks for getting out of the burnout rut.  Here are a few of them.   

Create Space

The first thing I do when I start feeling burned out is so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning: I create space.  I stop working on projects that aren’t absolutely necessary.  I delete any possible event from my calendar and create entries that say “more time” and “white space” instead.  Because I’m an introvert, I even reduce my socializing (if you’re an extrovert, I don’t recommend this one).  Basically, I get rid of anything I possibly can that stands between me sitting in my pajamas, eating ice cream all day.  Then I take all of that extra time, and treat it as an extended day off so that I can recharge.  

Commiserate

Since I find social obligations particularly draining when I’m burned out, I have to be careful not to isolate myself.  I’ve found that having people to commiserate with is essential to getting over burnout and overwhelm.  I have a hard time admitting when I’m burned out to other people.  It feels like I’m weak, or that I’m a failure.  But I think almost everyone has gone through the same thing at one point or another, and having that ability to connect with other people—particularly when they’re going through similar circumstances and I can help them—has done more for me than any amount of recharging on its own.  

Procrastinate (Usefully)

“Productive procrastination,” or working on something different than what you really ought to be doing, has become one of my super powers for getting over burnout.  It seems counter-intuitive to work more when I’m already overwhelmed from working too much, but I get caught in this horrible catch-22 of being too burned out to work on what I ought to, and feeling guilty about not doing anything at all.  So I’ve learned to have a side project.  I make sure it’s one that feels like I’m doing something artistic and productive, but that doesn’t have any outside deadlines or people depending on me.  Often it’s my latest fuck you project or playing the piano.  That way I can still feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and interesting, without adding to my already existing mental load.  

Burnout is hard to beat; it has a tendency to linger.

Once I have all these steps completed, I’ve often managed to regather some energy.  But burnout is hard to beat; it has a tendency to linger.  The general feeling of unease and fatigue can stick around for months after I should have recovered.  

This was certainly true for my burnout in 2015.  I had all the pieces in place for a couple of months: I had finished all the projects that had caused me to be overburdened in the first place.  I had created space and recharged as much as I could.  I’d played piano until my hands hurt, and heartily commiserated with a friend who was in similar straits.  But I couldn't quite shake the burnout blues.  It was the end of November, and I just wanted 2015 to be officially over.  So I decided to try something new: if the end of 2015 meant the end of burnout, then I was going to call it finished.  

Manufacture an Ending

In the beginning of December, a few friends and I officially celebrated the New Year a month early.  We all got together with party hats and poppers and stayed up until midnight. There was a countdown, and champagne.  We decided that 2016 would have an extra month—and two Christmases, making it pretty much the coolest year possible.  It sounds really silly, but all of us had experienced a rough end to 2015, and we were willing to try just about anything to be done with it.

Surprisingly, it worked better than any of us had expected.  Creating that demarcation after I had put in all the hard work to recover from burnout helped me start over fresh.  It drew a line in the sand, so to speak: on one side I was burned out, and on the other side I just. . .wasn’t.  It worked perfectly as a mental reset.  

If you’re suffering from burnout, maybe now is a good time for you to manufacture your own ending.  Celebrate the start of 2016 a week late—or maybe even start over for February first and have an eleven month year.  Let’s keep burnout from lingering, so we can build the best things we can.