Make all the things! On avoiding creative burn out
I work in education and get a lot of my 'creative fix' out of problem solving and playing with media with my students but I also have great expectations for my own creative output. Consequently I sometimes struggle with the reality that there is not actually enough time in the day to fit it all in. I want to be a teacher but I also want to be an artist. It is difficult to balance the reality of wanting to make all the things with another reality of needing to be a lot of other things too. (I am also a mother, a partner, a daughter, a sister....). To top it all off I've recently even rediscovered my love of writing poetry and it's an extremely bitter pill to swallow when I realised that I simply can't make all the things as well as be all the things. How can we have all the things without burning out? Well, I'm still figuring that out.
I learn a lot from my students and often it is through watching them figure out processes and how to manage their work that I become more reflective about my own practice. One of my students recently reminded me of the need to be patient with the 'maker mojo' and that I need to not take it for granted. She wanted to drop Art as a subject and claimed that she just, 'didn’t enjoy drawing anymore' (she was also daunted by the work load and filling folio boards by the end of the year looked too hard). Rather than lecture her on the importance of hard work, I told her how I know the feeling. I know exactly what that feels like. I actually know that feeling really, really well. One minute I love something and can draw and draw and draw (or write and write and write) and then in the next moment, I feel burnt out. The last thing I want to do is draw, paint or write again in that moment. But it's important in that moment to also realise that creativity is tidal. There will always be times when we feel like being prolific 'make! make! make!' but there are also equally important times when we need to allow ourselves time for down time, for reflection, critique and potential redirection. So, for the student, I encouraged her to stay and to stick it out. Because I really do know the feeling. We'll just hang out for a bit with the trust that the creative tide will come back in when it is ready.
Trusting the tide can be so hard. When the tide goes out, the creative flow seems so far away. I once put down my guitar for two whole years. There was a scary possibility that I would never play music again. In that example the tide took two whole years to return, but it did return. And lately I've felt the same way about my paint brushes, my poetry book and my sewing machine. I have to work hard to keep a positive mindset and not to be fatalistic. Could it be possible that I 'never' do something again? But who is to say that you have to do all the things all the time anyway? We just need to trust that it - the creator mojo or whatever ‘it’ is - will return when it is ready to. We need to put energy into something else in the meantime. Maybe it's even because of pending burn out that our creativity is shutting down for a moment? For that reason, I also need to take my own advice and 'trust in the tides of making'.
What can you do to avoid creative burnout? For my students who can't currently draw, I encourage them to plan a photoshoot in a diary instead. Perhaps another outlet might do the trick for the meantime. For those who cannot paint, some sketches or word clouds might be used to usefully jot down some ideas. If there is a novella on their mind, they could keep notes or draw a cartoon strip for now. The little jottings, the tiny words and minute scribbles might still one day turn into something amazing when the tide comes back in. When the tide returns they can invest time in their ideas propertly. We need to trust that downtime and 'just musing' might be right for now. Now might just not be the right time for a particular creative pursuit.
Redirecting creative energy could be a useful solution for all artists who find themselves in a 'low tide' situation. Recently I read that we get results in the parts of our lives that we put energy into. I know from experience with planning and achieving several 100 day goals that there is an awful lot of truth to this. (My problem is that I have too many things to direct my energy to). So perhaps the best strategy is to figure out the priority and target the energy there. Perhaps an 'energy rotation' from one thing to another could also be a useful strategy. We can take control over our successes and foster growth in parts of our lives that matter. With a bit of careful re-direction of creative energy we can allow other parts to rest while the tide is out. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but being ALL the things and making ALL the things should be left to those with superhuman abilities (or no other work and family commitments!).
Prioritising tasks that we want to see growth in is a great first step. (For me recently it's been administrative tasks which I usually leave til last...) l teach my students the 321 rule for managing time and tasks efficiently. I teach them to plan a ‘To do’ list with little tasks, medium sized tasks and larger tasks and then try to complete three littles, two mediums and one big from a prioritised list. That way energy can be usefully targeted on little things. Getting a sense of completion and satisfaction from moving forards is essential in providing a dopamine fix to encourage us to carry on. Crossing something off the list and feeling a sense of accomplishment can be a great way to mark time while the tide is out to avoid burn out. Hopefully by strategising task lists in this way we are also making headway on larger (probably more daunting) tasks too. Similarly, by focussing energy on planning and organising, (or tidying the studio for example) the making part is allowed some much-needed time off. Maybe that's just what the maker mojo needs.
With all this in mind I am enjoying a bit of 'tide out' down time at the moment. Working full time, being a mother full time, being an artist as well as a learning designer too is a lot of things to be. I have far too many things to be directing energy into full time so some things need to have some down time. I'm ok with the realisation that I can't make all the things and be all the things. I'm going easy on myself, taking some time to reflect on which things I want to do the most, and watching for the tide.
Because the tide will come back in when it is ready.