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Avoiding creative burnout (In-depth guide)

Avoiding creative burnout (In-depth guide) Avoiding creative burnout (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    You sit down to write and nothing comes out. We’ve all been there. It’s easy to just call it writer’s block and wait for it to clear, but the phenomenon we know as writer’s block isn’t just one thing. We lump all kinds of problems into this category, and thinking more carefully about what might be affecting you is the first step in clearing it out of the way.

    Demystifying writer's block

    Basic needs

    Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? It sounds silly, but if your brain feels like sludge, it might be because you’re overtired or hungry. Taking care of yourself is an essential part of the writing process. Your body is just as involved in writing as your mind is, and if your body is tapped out, you’re not going to get very far.

    Tip: Keep a special snack you like a lot that you only use for writing time. It’ll keep you fueled and help you build positive associations with your scheduled writing time, even if it feels difficult at first. If you struggle to remember to take breaks or stay hydrated, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to have some water and stretch. 

    Life stress

    If you have a big deadline at school or work, or your kids are taking up all your time, or you’re dealing with a family emergency, it can be really hard to focus on writing. In situations like these, it’s vital to protect your rest time and your non-writing me-time.

    Tip: If you’re too tired or drained to write during your set writing time, just close your eyes and think about your story. Maybe listen to a playlist that evokes the mood you’re going for. Soak in the vibes and let your mind wander. See what happens. If you have a good idea, make a note of it, but don’t chase it or try to force yourself to produce something. Let your story be a place where you can rest, and let your creativity nourish you in times when life feels difficult. 

    What happens next?

    Sometimes we genuinely hit a block in our writing where we just can’t think up what happens next. A great starting point for this feeling is asking yourself, “What does my character want in this scene?” Digging into your character’s motivation is usually a way into the next step. This is also a great time to hit the Creator Education Resources to help shake something loose.

    Tip: If you struggle with this a lot, make sure you end your writing session before you get to the end of the idea you’re working on. Stop yourself while you still feel like you have something to say. Maybe make a short note if you’re worried about forgetting your idea, but don’t dig into it. This sets up a launch pad for your next writing session so you can more easily slip into the flow. If you find yourself really stuck, try to avoid ending your session on that stuck feeling. See if you can squeak out even 1 more sentence before ending so that when you come back next time, you’re not staring down the same problem. 

    Perfectionism and anxiety

    If every word you try to put down feels inadequate, wrong, or not as good as other people’s–that’s perfectionism and impostor syndrome rearing their heads again. Judgment and perfectionism are the opposite of creativity, which requires the ability to make mistakes. The more worried you are about getting it perfect, the less you’re going to be able to write anything at all.

    Tip: Try giving yourself permission to write the worst possible version of the scene. Go all out on all the ideas you think are bad, boring, cliched, or not what your readers want. Even just for half an hour, try to create a judgment-free zone for yourself and see how it feels. Once you’ve written the worst possible version, try to find something nice to say about it. Maybe you liked a turn of phrase or a bit of dialogue, or maybe your characters felt more lively. Is there something in there you can integrate into your story?

    The habit of inspiration

    Inspiration is a beautiful feeling: the sense that your story has opened itself up to you without any effort on your part, laid out for you to transcribe.

    But waiting for the butterfly of inspiration to alight on your keyboard means you’re more likely to not write than to write brilliantly. When we think of inspiration as a random event, it’s impossible to predict; all we can do is respond. But what if we thought of inspiration as a habit? Let’s return to the butterfly on the keyboard: if you plant and tend a butterfly garden, you’ll find you suddenly have a lot more butterflies around.

    Habits are the seeds we plant and tend in our lives. Building strong creativity habits is a way of making a commitment to yourself and your writing. Returning to the same practice of writing over and over again, dedicating your time and effort to it, is a way of building the planter beds and digging the rows for your butterfly garden. Pull up the weeds of self-doubt, perfectionism, and comparison. Even if you don’t see the seeds growing, returning day after day to water them and care for them is how you give them the ability to grow. 

    How can you create habits that support your creativity? In what small or large ways can you give yourself more space to be creative? Maybe this looks like ten minutes of daily journaling when you wake up, dedicating your commuting time to listening to your writing playlist or setting a weekly writing date for yourself. Integrating these practices into your daily life and repeatedly returning to them helps you deepen your creative well. Rather than using up all your creativity on your journal pages, you’ll likely find that you have more creative energy than you did before. Inspiration may start to come a little easier and more frequently: flashes of insight in line at the grocery store, or while you’re prepping dinner. Rather than sitting at a keyboard waiting for inspiration to come to you, cultivating creative habits invites inspiration to emerge from the stuff of our lives. 

    The importance of rest

    We live in a world that says that the only way to achieve your dreams, to “make something of yourself,” and to even be a worthwhile person, is to work as hard as possible for as long as possible.

    But what if that wasn’t true?

    While consistently committing to your art is the best way to improve, this isn’t about hustling as hard as possible or adjusting your #grindset. Instead of setting your alarm an extra half hour early to get in a writing sprint, what if you let yourself sleep in, or daydreamed before getting up? How might that change the trajectory of your day, and of your writing practice?

    Rest is as integral to the creative process as practice is. Habit building is about protecting and nurturing your off-time just as much as it’s about prioritizing your writing time. Humans are not machines, and we cannot produce endlessly. This is especially true for creative work, which is both intellectually and emotionally intensive. So much of creative work relies on things happening outside of our conscious awareness: random thoughts, what-ifs, chance encounters, and a sense of wonder are all crucial parts of the creative process, even if they don’t look “productive” at first glance. Without time to let those things percolate, our creative output can quickly start to feel rote, draining, or uninspired.

    If you’re dealing with a ton of writer’s block and your story just isn’t coming, you might be a little creatively tapped out. This might necessitate a longer period of rest. But just as your body can’t function without sleep, your creative mind can’t function without downtime. 

    Exercise: Supportive habits

    The purpose of this exercise is to help you think through what your most supportive habits might be based on how you’re feeling in any given phase of your life. We all have highs and lows, times when we need more rest, and times when we are able to write more easily. These questions are designed to help you figure out where you are and what you might need right now.

    🟢 GREEN ZONE:

    Everything is going great. It’s easy to commit to a writing schedule, and writing sessions feel doable, even if I’m not always getting big word counts. External life stressors aren’t intruding too much on writing, and things overall feel balanced. When I encounter rough patches with my story or stuck places, I know I can work through them.

    • What habits help me write when I am in the green zone?
    • What commitments am I able to make from this zone?
    • What does my rest routine look like in this zone?
    • What do I need to do to stay in this zone?

    🟡 YELLOW ZONE:

    Things feel a little hard. I’m finding it hard to stay with my writing schedule, and sessions sometimes feel draining. But when I do write, I can sometimes find a groove. External life stressors are pressing on me, but I  am able to hold them at bay enough to write some of the time. Rough patches or stuck places in my story feel hard to work through, but it takes me a while. 

    • What habits help me write when I am in the yellow zone?
    • What commitments am I able to make from this zone?
    • What does my rest routine look like in this zone?
    • What do I need to do to stay in this zone?
    • What do I need to do or what needs to change so I can climb back into the green zone? 

    🔴 RED ZONE:

    Things feel REALLY hard. I can’t commit to a writing schedule. When I try, I stare at a blank page. I feel exhausted and tapped out. External life stressors are overwhelming me. Everything is one big rough patch. I don’t know what to do next. 

    • What does creativity look like for me in the red zone? How can I nurture it even when things feel hard?
    • What does my rest routine look like in this zone?
    • What are my rest needs beyond my regular rest routine?
    • What do I need to do or what needs to change so I can climb back into the yellow zone?
    • How can I be gentle with myself as I exist in this zone? 
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