Avoiding Burnout

Recently, a couple of messages from a new LinkedIn mentoring feature found their way to me. Interestingly, two Creative Directors asked me my opinion on how to overcome burnout. Granted, two people is a small sample, but the timing made it look like a pattern.

It is difficult to respond to a short question from someone you don’t know in a window that is a text messaging UI. I can’t possibly get enough context from that, so naturally, their response to my 400-word answer was “Thanks.” While LinkedIn works to mature that feature, I thought I would expand on the concepts here.

It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, burnout happens to us all from time to time. Burnout is a profoundly personal matter. We often try to deal and treat it as if it were a feeling. 

Feeling burned-out is a product. The outcome of tangible things like not working on projects that fit our core values. Or more profound, not allowing our hearts to have a say in career decisions. 

As Simon Sinek says, “Know your “Why.” 

It works. Why did you become a designer? If you are having a rough week, write something to remind you on a sticky note and put it somewhere, you will see it all day. Why do you enjoy the process of design or services in general? 

Personally, I find it affirming to stay in touch with what got me here. Maintaining a love what we do can come from continuing to explore what we enjoyed when we were young. As a kid, I loved: drawing cars and drums kits and new logos for the band Kiss, designing entire towns and roads systems in the dirt for Matchbox cars, charting the results of and scoring fantasy games I invented with Topps baseball and football cards. Maybe you were into skateboarding, dancing or sports? Perhaps creativity manifested in music as mixtapes or playing an instrument.  There have been times when I’ve gotten so busy I forgot why I started down the path. Remembering what inspired me as a kid helps keep me in touch with my Why.

Below is a list of ideas to help break you out of a funk or, hopefully, avoid burnout all-together.


Diversify your projects/schedule. 

It’s easy to burn out if you are in a situation where you have to put a fresh face on the same old deliverable. If you work for a company with few assets or have a single client, try to switch up media types. What time of day are you most creative? What time of day are you best able to focus on production or menial tasks? See if you can help other teams or move delivery dates around to change things up. 


Journal or Blog

Write about your feelings and your work. Write about the challenges, especially at night, as a way to find closure. If you wake in the middle of the night with an idea or solution, write it down. Simply getting your thoughts on paper can help relieve the stress you are feeling.

It doesn’t have to be blogging; it can be as simple as a 5-minute journal. That’s what I do. It keeps me in touch with gratitude. 

Burnout can sprout rapidly out of negativity. I try to stay grounded in why, document my gratitude and never, ever, blame the client for anything. It might seem a little fruity but I’m going there anyway: feedback isn’t positive or negative. It’s just data from which you can improve both yourself and the work. 


Teach & Learn

Teaching is one of the best ways to continue learning. Learning keeps our minds challenged and engaged. It’s a critical element of our growth! This is especially true when we’re alone at the top of the org chart. Every person around us can teach us something. They don’t know what to give you until you have given them something first. So, for me, I’m always teaching. I think we all are. You're teaching even when you’re not talking. You don't even have to be interacting with someone. How you conduct yourself reverberates throughout the entire org in subtle ways. 


Engage People With Empathy

Design requires empathy in order to be successful. In that way, designing for projects and designing a team is the same. Unfortunately, unlike graphic design, you can work hard at leadership and find some success without much empathy. We've all worked for that asshole once. For sustained success, don't be that asshole. Be where you are. Be with your team. Deploy empathy and foster an environment that repels burnout

I know this doesn’t seem like an Avoiding Burnout tip, but it’s essential. I make an effort to engage, to hear and understand someone's situation. Being an active listener creates the empathy necessary to learn something.  

Again, it's hard to feel burned out when you are learning.


Deploy Gratitude

List the things you’ve finished or accomplished in the past year. It’s probably a longer list than you think. Create two more lists; one with the people associated with those projects and a second with only the new people. Look at those names. I’m sure there are people on that list you genuinely love. I bet they care about you too. In fact, I bet they are grateful for you. Build upon your gratitude for them.  Think of something simple one of them does that you love. Now, do something that reciprocates. A phone call or email to tell that person you liked the last thing they did, the mug they sent you or that you loved their Netflix suggestion. Give good feels and watch how good it makes you feel. 

I’ve found gratitude journaling every day helps a lot. I use a mobile app called 5 Min Journal. Check it out. Just remember to keep it simple. There is nothing wrong with being grateful for a good cup of coffee or a song.


Take A Break

Being busy, feeling busy, is your choice. Communicate and set expectations clearly for everyone. Take some time off. Step away. Sometimes it helps just to change your environment. Book a conference room for an hour or work from a coffee shop or your couch for an afternoon. 

Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower and I’m not alone. I think most people know it’s true that downtime is just as valuable as time spent on work. We don’t always allow ourselves to accept it. Think about how you would advise a friend who feels burnt-out and feel worthy of applying your advice to yourself. We often hold ourselves to different, more rigorous standards. Step away for a day; you are so worth it.


Take Care Of Yourself

Sleep, diet, and exercise are critical to thinking clearly. Like the safety briefing at the start of every flight (the one you always ignore), put on your own mask before turning to help others.

Getting enough sleep is critical to being “on” as a creative professional. It’s easy to burn out if you’re struggling to reason your way through a project and doing that requires getting enough sleep so that your mind is ready for the day’s challenges. 

Make time to exercise. There is no other way to build the stamina to consistently make it through a week of handling all of the stress with a clear mind. If you think you have a good idea while indisposed in the shower, wait until your running or at the gym! 


Other Passions

It might be charity work or a side hustle, but passion projects are great. They are something to look forward too and can be incredibly rewarding. Giving back to a community feels great. Side work is an opportunity to learn aspects of the industry you can't execute on at work. (Note: be wise and never do anything remotely competitive.)

Wayne Pelletier