How I deal with creative burnout

Here's the most important lesson I've learned so far in 2021:

When someone wants a unit of my creativity, it's now in the form of a well-defined transaction. The rest stays with me.

Earlier this year, I started a new job at a tiny startup. I stayed there for just a few weeks. After a sequence of three transformation weeks for the business, the CEO and I agreed that the company didn't need my skills or creative talents at the time.

I was pretty devastated by this unexpected turn, and not just because it felt like a confirmation of a lifetime of impostor syndrome. Not just because I'd spent dozens of hours working my little heart out, stressed out the whole time, on the project before the job even officially started.

I was devastated because I'd let a job push me into creative burnout.

I hadn't looked at my in-progress novel for nearly two months, hadn't read a book in much longer, and grew to despise my guitar, which I'd asked for as a birthday gift specifically to let me take meaningful, healthy breaks during the workday. I could barely convince myself to watch something on Netflix or play a video game because those each required some creative processing.

A complete tell-all will have to wait, but here's a hint.

After leaving this job, I took time off. I was lucky enough to have my parents and sister visiting the following week, so I kept my daughters home from daycare so my whole family could spend more time together and took a forced sabbatical. I talked with my dad, who shared some of his own bad experiences with past employers from 30 years ago, pains and regrets that still dog him to this day.

I burned out because I couldn't set a barrier between the creativity I gave my job versus the creativity I gave myself. A full-time job usually takes more than it promises. Maybe it promises a 40-hour week and takes 45. Maybe it promises remote-first work-life balance but ends up stressing you out at 5am because your coworkers, who live ten time zones ahead, inundate you with Slack messages while you're asleep.

Let's pretend I have 10 units of creativity to offer in a single day. Typically, when I've worked a full-time, creative job, it takes about 80% of my creative energy, or 8 units. The problem wasn't that the salary was too low for those 8 units.

The problem was that I wasn't being compensated fairly for what little creativity I had left for myself.

Full-time freelance has been my answer, because I can use a pretty simple equation to keep myself on a more sustainable path.

When I work with a client, they get the full force of my creativity in the form of a service or project, priced according to the value it'll bring their business. It's never more complicated than that. I'm not an employee, I'm not their part-time CMO. It's a creative version of timeboxing. I can make micro-adjustments to make sure that there's always a balance between the creativity I give away and what I keep for myself.

These days, I'm a lot closer to 4 units to work and 6 units to myself. It's more sustainable, I'm happier, and my novel is finally getting the attention it deserves.

If I start moving toward burnout again, I either ratchet down the freelance work, or make darn sure I'm getting compensated fairly for the little creativity I get to keep.

Applying this formula to yourself is more complicated than putting a price tag on each unit of your creativity. You also need to price in the opportunity cost of the work taking some of creativity away from your personal projects.

If that cost is too high no matter how you move the units around, go work in a field that doesn't require your creative talents. If you don't have personal creative projects, then by all means, throw yourself fully into producing creative work for others.

If you're one of the lucky ones who gets paid a living wage to produce the art you love, then all I can say is 👏

Just make sure that when you hand your creativity to someone else, you know exactly what you're getting—and losing—out of it.