How I beat creative burnout

4 min read
Dennis Field
  •  Jan 3, 2018
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Burnout doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care about your level of experience, what role you play in the design ecosystem, or what design title you hold. Burnout is simply another part of the challenge we face as designers.

If not dealt with correctly, burnout can have a drastic effect on your creativity and growth as a designer. I hope that after you’ve read this post, you’ll have a better understanding of burnout and how you can overcome it.

“Burnout doesn’t care about your level of experience.”

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Diversify what you’re working on

One of the easiest ways to become burned out as a designer is constantly producing results for the same project or client. You only have so many designs in the tank.

To ensure you can stay fresh, you need to change things from time to time. If you work for a company, ask to see if you can work on another project or join another team. If you’re a freelancer, consider outsourcing a few projects for a while to allow yourself to focus on something new.

Diversifying what you’re working on doesn’t just keep you motivated, it also allows you to challenge yourself and try on a few different hats in the process.

Change your environment from time to time

Looking at the same 4 walls or seeing the office from the same point of view is simply uninspiring. Whenever I find myself feeling uninspired or bored, I change my scenery. I may work from a coffee shop one day (ironically, as I write this chapter, I’m hanging out at Sister’s Coffee in Portland), a co-working space the next, or simply move my desk to a different part of the office. You’d be surprised—it doesn’t take a ton of effort to give yourself a jump-start.

Change up your environment. Image from: How traveling for a year changed a remote worker’s life.

Take more time off

I’m not good at this. In fact, most designers I talk to aren’t. To avoid burnout, try to be aware of how long it’s been since you’ve taken some time off. Too much work will simply burn you out. As designers we work an average of 54 hours a week. No wonder we get burnout, right?

My brother likes to use the phrase “resetting my bearings.” I used to laugh at it, but whenever I choose to step away and reset my mind, I immediately become more excited to take on new challenges and knock out my to-do list.

Do more of what inspires you

Depending on how severe your burnout is, you may have to re-focus your attention away from design and focus on what inspires you. Once you find out what inspires you, do more of it.Twitter Logo By doing that, you’ll jump-start your creativity and quickly find out how much you miss design. My outlet is playing guitar and songwriting, so I built a community around that.

“The best way to handle burnout is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place.”

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Get more sleep

Along with not taking enough time off, most designers don’t get enough sleep. How you perform the next day is truly determined by the amount of sleep you get the night before. When you don’t get enough sleep, it’s hard to rationalize things, and you’ll find your day is far less productive. You just won’t have the energy to design.

Getting some proper sleep can be a challenge for me. I really prefer to work at night. However, I’ve found it doesn’t really pay off the next day—and I don’t want to get caught sleeping at my desk again.

Hit the gym

Just like sleeping, I never used to make time to work out.
But working out is now just part of my weekly routine. I’m not big on going to the gym, but I do really like to run. Running allows me to clear my mind. Whenever I feel like I need some inspiration, I run outdoors. Running slows me down, allows me to see the world around me, and gives me a great way to burn off excess stress and gain clarity on my ideas. In fact, I envisioned this whole handbook during a small three-mile jog one evening after work.

Invest time in a passion project

I feel like you can attribute a part of burnout to the inability to focus on your own ideas and to see them through until the end. As you’ve learned, though, feedback is the name of the game in the design industry. Having a side project allows you to stay in control. You play the role of designer and client. A side project is a great way to learn and make some extra cash—and if you’re having a horrible day at work, you can always count on your side project to help you stay grounded.

Step away from your desk

We designers spend a ton of time at our computers. It’s just one of those unfortunate aspects of the industry, but you can limit that time.

I used to be a smoker. I can’t say I really loved smoking, but if there ever was a benefit to it, it was that it forced me to move away from my desk every couple of hours. The best thing about that little break was that it would allow me to work through a design challenge. Something cool happens when you step away from the desk—ideas just click. Though I’ve quit smoking, I still try to take little breaks every now and then.

Step away from your desk. Image from: 5 career insights from learning to snowboard.

Don’t sweat the small things

With client expectations, budgets, and the desire to do your best work, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is resting on your shoulders. Stress can cause you to shut down. If you find yourself stressed out, take a second to stop and put things into perspective.

Yes, design is important, but it really is just a small piece of the big picture. We’re not saving babies as designers—we’re just solving problems. Try writing down your thoughts and successes, and you’ll soon realize how little that one small client change really matters to the bigger snapshot of your career.

“Keep track of your wins by writing them down.”

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Attend a conference or networking event

Whenever I attend a networking event or conference, I always leave feeling motivated. I think the biggest benefit of a conference is what happens afterwards. I try to attend 2 conferences a year and multiple networking events. That allows me to swap stories and meet other great, talented people.

Conferences and networking events are full of positivity, and all that positivity can help you with burnout. Yes, I learn a ton from the speakers, but it’s the conversations with others that help me realize I’m not alone with any of my struggles.

If you’re going to attend conferences, plan for them. Make sure you clean up your client work a couple of days in advance, and dedicate a few more extra days to unwinding and executing afterwards. That will ensure you have a positive experience before, during, and after the event.

A final note

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to beating burnout. What works for some may not work for others. Burnout can last just a few days or even a few months. I’ve found the best way to handle burnout is to ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place. Try to build a routine that incorporates many of the things above.

“Feel like you’re in a rut? Stop and slow down.”

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Rather than going on one vacation a year, take advantage of long weekends. Break up your surroundings and work away from your office. Always surround yourself with positive peopleTwitter Logo, and continue to educate yourself to stay inspired. Never lose sight of the end goal. Your frustrations today are temporary, and they will pass.

Inspiration is all around us, so if you find yourself in a rut and feeling burned out, stop and slow down. Diagnose what may be causing your burnout—and then go back to your desk and knock out the biggest item on your to-do list. You’ll feel recharged, and the rest of the list will be much easier to take care of.

Keep reading

Want more? This is an excerpt from The Designer’s Handbook, a career guide for designers who want to learn how to navigate the industry. Get the whole book here.

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