Working on creative projects takes a lot of effort. When things are running smoothly, it’s easy to ignore how many tasks need to be done, especially if you’re trying to accomplish this project alone (as I’ve written about before). But when does it become too much? When can a creative endeavor cross over from pleasure to work?
Part of the problem of accumulating creative projects is the desire to work on all of them at once. For some, it’s how they pay the bills. For me, my creative pursuits are meant to be enjoyable hobbies. I understand that some aspects of these hobbies (like editing) aren’t the most enjoyable, but they still need to happen if I want to produce a product I’m proud of. There are plenty of ideas I want to see come to life, but I don’t have the time to work on them all simultaneously.
Sometimes projects overlap.
I’ve recently recovered from a bout of creative burnout. I pushed myself too hard and ended up hating what I was creating and knew if I kept working on it, I would be making it worse. Many factors led to this burnout, and I hope that this post can help some of you identify when you’re reaching your limit.
1. Take a break!
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Fortunately for my family, my creative burnout did not result in violence like in The Shining. However, with my own self-imposed deadlines pushing me to continue working on my creative work, I neglected to refill my creative tank. Immediately after I finished getting the paperback and eBook versions of the 10th Anniversary of First Name Basis set up, I transitioned into another edit of Buried Colony. Except, I stared at the first few pages of feedback and immediately despised what I had written. This spiraled me into a significant bout of existential depression as I wondered if it was even worth it to continue this manuscript that I’ve been fighting with for years.
Anecdotally, many creative types have some form of manic depression. There’s the euphoric high of creating something you love, but there’s also the depression that pairs with working too hard. Since I didn’t allow any time to reward myself for finishing up part of a big project (there’s still more that needs to be done), my lack of energy fed into my eventual burnout. I’ve since given myself a nice break from all my creative projects, even those that don’t take much effort. By not working on anything creative for a week, I found my mood to be much improved. I’m still not quite ready to dive into Buried Colony edits again, but at least I don’t hate it anymore.
2. Scale back
Anyone who’s read my “To Do” list for this year knows I’ve signed myself up to do a lot. While I enjoy writing first drafts (for the most part), there are still plenty of projects I need to edit this year. Since these take so much more energy to complete, I needed to space them out more than I did. In retrospect, jumping from First Name Basis edits straight into Buried Colony edits probably wasn’t the best idea. Even though I had already transitioned from the first round of Buried Colony edits earlier this year to the First Name Basis edits, I couldn’t keep that pace up for long.
I’m also going to blame some of my burnout on trying something new. For years, people have asked me if my books are available in audiobook form. While I could pay thousands of dollars to have my books produced as audiobooks, I found I had enough experience and equipment to attempt the feat myself. While I learned a lot in my first pass at a First Name Basis audiobook, it still required a lot more energy than I was expecting at first. At this point, I’m debating scaling back this part of the 10th Anniversary project since I’ve already accomplished the goal of producing the paperback and eBook versions. These versions still took a bit more work than I had anticipated, which is likely what led to this burnout.
3. Reconsider deadlines
I set a goal for myself five years ago. That goal was to publish a new book under my own name every year (i.e., I can’t count short stories published in anthologies). Because I have plenty of manuscripts going through various stages of editing and polish, I’ll always have something I can publish. The problem is, I didn’t really consider yet another version of First Name Basis to qualify for meeting this goal. This was why I pushed myself to continue working on Buried Colony. After all, the last few years of books I’ve published (being Cinema Connections in 2019 and The Ascent of the Writer in 2020) were merely collections of previous material. I wanted to publish something new in 2021.
As a self-published author, I set my own deadlines. For First Name Basis, I wanted all three versions available on its 10th-anniversary date (May 27th). After struggling with the audiobook version, I decided to put it on the back burner to focus on the paperback and eBook versions. Will I still try and get an audiobook version out this year? Perhaps. Additionally, while I want to publish Buried Colony as soon as possible, I also hadn’t considered how many revisions it would need to meet my quality standards. I appreciate the feedback I’ve received on it, even if it requires major re-writes each time. I think I’m honing in on a final product, but it’s taken so much work that I’ve started to hate working on it. Fortunately, with as many projects in the hopper as I have, I can easily slide another one in and publish it this year as I give myself more time to get Buried Colony just right. This is what happened last year and was why I ended up accelerating The Ascent of the Writer. Who knows? Maybe I’ll publish This is Not a Drill this year instead.
Don’t force your creative projects.
The biggest thing I learned from this burnout episode is that I shouldn’t force myself to work on something just “because it has to get done.” Technically, I have no real deadlines as everything I’m doing is self-imposed. And while I thought both of my main projects this year were in different phases of being ready for publication, when I realized this wasn’t the case, I had already pushed myself too far. If I had kept going, I would have forced these projects to be far worse than if I had just delayed them.
I’ll grant that other factors likely led to this burnout as well. Seasonal depression played a factor as it was too cold and snowy these last few weeks to get outside and exercise consistently. I also found out that there’s a new TV show coming out with the same plot as a book that I have planned but haven’t even started writing yet. Plus, the extended nature of this pandemic had steadily chipped away at my energy so that I don’t have as much as I used to. At any rate, this episode of burnout has taught me a lot of valuable lessons. First and foremost: if I’m not having fun working on my creative projects, it’s time to take a break.
Have you ever experienced creative burnout?
What did you do to recover from burnout?
What can you do to help your friends who are experiencing burnout?