Avoiding burnout by balancing input with output

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Most artists and creative people in general are likely to be familiar with the sensation of ‘creative block’. This can happen when we feel as though we have no inspiration and so can not progress with our creating. It can be very frustrating for any person who values productivity to feel as though they’re stuck behind this invisible barrier. It can also be a little bit frightening, especially for those who earn their keep through their creativity.

The concept of ‘inspiration’ is one which is often misunderstood. It’s thought of as being a special gift that is bestowed upon the artist through some type of magic; it has supernatural connotations around it. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed that there were nine goddesses presiding over the arts who were responsible for handing down inspiration to those they deemed worthy.

Fortunately for most of us, it doesn’t really work that way. When we are involved in the creative process, we’re not actually drawing from some mystical, endless supply of innate creative energy.   

The inspiration we need to create is generally evolved and developed from our own understandings and observations of the things around us. We take that very raw material from the outside world, process it in our own ways, filter it through other experiences we’ve had and beliefs we hold, and add it to the inner fuel tanks that drive us to create.

‘Inspiration strikes’ when something from our well of information speaks to us loudly enough to build some type of personal expression around it. The things we create are our own, personal interpretations of all the information we have accumulated and processed through our days of living on this earth.

With highly productive and creative people, output is usually very high. We derive a lot of joy and satisfaction from being able to produce a lot of material; artists very often pride themselves in creating an impressive body of work.

But it comes at a personal cost. Every time we draw upon our inspiration to create something new, the reserve of raw materials that we’ve accumulated is drained a bit. The more we create, the faster we are likely to find ourselves dealing with an empty tank.

Obviously, it is vital to find ways to refill the tank at a rate equal to or greater than how quickly we’re taking material out of it. So we need to ensure we’re giving the brain input – new material to process and assimilate – to balance our output. Thankfully, with a practice of mindfulness and awareness, this is a fairly simple thing to achieve.

The first very important step is to take time off from the type of creating you normally engage in. You need to do this regularly, just as you might regularly stop driving to refill the gas tank of your vehicle to avoid running out of fuel. It may feel counterintuitive for you to stop working. You may actually have to force yourself to walk away from your work table, but taking rest is invaluable to the creative process.

 

Different things work better for different people when it comes to refilling the tank. You may respond well to reading, watching movies, viewing other people’s art, speaking and interacting with people, participating in various activities, seeking out changes of scenery, interacting with nature or something completely different. Especially as you take time away from your work, be very mindful of the things that happening around you, as well as in your thought process.

Don’t get stuck trying to translate raw experience directly into material for your art. Your brain has its own way of processing things and usually does this work on its own (subconsciously).

Let your focus during this down time be on totally immersing yourself into whatever you’re doing. Experience deeply, mull things over, feel and recognise any emotions that arise for you. Your only work during this time away from work is basically just to live and fully experience life as a human being on Planet Earth — whatever that means to you.

Be aware that if you’ve habitually ignored your empty tank, thinking that your needs would just disappear on their own, it may take you some time to recover. It is similar to going on vacation sometimes in that, when vacation is over, it can be hard to get back into your work.

This is a key reason why you need to fit time off into your schedule on a regular basis – so that you know that your next bit of downtime is not too far off. And have some grace for yourself when you do return to work. You will get back into it, it may just take a little time and some extra self-patience.

Know that taking time off from your work actually tends to increase overall productivity by helping you to stay energised and motivated. It can also help you to realign your perspective of your work by providing a little distance.

I schedule in my rest periods by working in my main creative fields (sculpture and writing) from Monday through to Saturday and taking Sunday to do other things (relaxing, doing crafts I enjoy such as crochet). I also take every seventh week completely off of sculpture-related activities and writing blog material, and will generally immerse myself into other types of projects during that time off. These will be things that I’m interested in but don’t usually have time for while I’m in a working period.

Sometimes an ongoing commitment, say to a daily writing practice, means you still need to show up to the table in some respect. In this case, you might consider switching up the type of work you do. For example, if you usually write essays in your daily writing practice, you could take your week off to write simple journal entries or even fiction as a refreshing change of pace.

You may find another work/time off rhythm that works better for you than the one I’ve outlined here. The important thing to take away from this is that it is vital to break from your main types of work in order to create space for you to refill the tank. And of course, it goes without saying that often we don’t have control over our day jobs and can not just take a week off every two months to go do something else. You can still take the principles of this article and apply them in a way that benefits and works for you.

 

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