Artist Burnout: Why It Happens and How to Beat It

“Artist” and “burnout” are words that are very good friends with each other lately.

We lose momentum, we lose our fire, we lose our direction, and we simply stop working on the things that we care about.

Burnout can happen to anyone at any time. This article comes from my experience in artist burnout, but the guidance I’ll be giving will be designed to help anyone in any circumstance. It’s going to be a long article to address everything I’d like to address, but I hope it’s a worthwhile read for you.

There’s a lot that goes into the question of how you get to burnout, and a lot that goes into answering the question of getting out of burnout. There’s complex factors in each person’s situation both when it comes to getting stuck in burnout and getting out of burnout, but most burnout is categorically similar in this way:

Artist burnout happens as a result of misspent energy.

artist burnout
I did this illustration once as a gift for Sean McCabe.
I hope he’s doing okay.

How exactly you misspend your energy is unique to your situation and mindset, but the fact remains that you misspent your energy.

  • You worked too hard, period.
  • You worked at the wrong season of your life.
  • You worked without taking care of enough of your needs.
  • You worked on something that you really don’t believe in.
  • You worked on projects that don’t give you anything back.
  • You worked without acquiring the correct amount of knowledge.
  • You worked without understanding what you want out of your work.

You misspent too much energy for too much time, and now you’re injured. You hate doing stuff you cared about, and you can’t bring yourself to do much more than thumb away hours on your phone, computer, television, or video games.

You aren’t creating, you aren’t studying, you aren’t making your life better, you’re not making anyone else’s life better. In fact, you’re only making your own life worse because you don’t know how to get out from under the crushing weight of burning out.

There’s a way out, though. It can be a slow process, and you may not come out with the same goals, or even as the same person you were, but burnout is not a permanent condition.

Recovery from artist burnout (and all burnout, really) starts with pause.

You have to get mentally far enough away from your circumstances to understand why you burnt out in the first place. Artist burnout and regular burnout both happen when you’re too deep, too far, and too weak.

In many cases, your first step is going to be to stop as much activity as possible to make mental space for assessment. You need to reduce your activity to the level necessary for survival. Clear out all appointments, and make every effort to reduce your effort in order to be able to wrap your mind back around your circumstances.

  • Remove distractions.
  • Clear your appointments.
  • Pause unnecessary travel.
  • Get your financial needs met.
    • This includes bills and food, paying off small debt, and getting large debt under control.
    • I cannot stress this enough. I have no college debt, no car payment, and no house payment, but even just a couple thousand dollars of debt is enough to wig me out. I can’t fathom what 5 and 10 thousands will do to people.
  • Breathe.

Now, it’s not going to be possible to create perfect circumstances for mental recovery, but you most likely have a lot of agency if you have the ability to look for self-help material on the internet.

If you can pause, you can figure out where you need to go.

Recovery proceeds through understanding.

Now that you’ve taken enough of a break to quiet down the static in your mind, you can assess what happened that led you to burnout.

If you don’t know what went wrong, you won’t know what you need to fix.

It’s time to ask yourself some questions, and I recommend that you work through this assessment by writing down both the questions and the answers. You get out of artist burnout by really getting your head around these things:

  • What do I believe in?
  • What do I want in life?
  • Why do I want what I want in life?
  • What do I need to get what I want in life?
  • Is what I was doing aligned with what I want in life?
  • Why was I doing what I was doing, and is it right to keep doing it?
  • What do I need to do next, and why do I need to do it?

Why these questions, though? What are you supposed to learn through them?

What do I believe in?

This is the foundation of everything you do as a person.

This is your values. This is what you hold to be the highest good in your heart when it comes to people, culture, work. This is your philosophy as a person, and as a result, your philosophy as an artist.

What you do as an artist has to have its roots in what you believe as a person.

If you violate your beliefs, you are misspending your energy, and you will burn out.

What do I want in life?

This is your goals as defined by your values.

  • What kind of family do you want?
  • What do you want to spend your time on?
  • What kind of health do you want to be in?
  • What kind of relationships do you want to have?
  • What kind of art are you trying to create and why?
  • How do you want your work and your life to balance?
  • What do you want to happen in the world as a result of your effort in life?

You need to know what you want in life so you can shape your decisions about how you spend your time. What kind of work you ought to do (or ought not to do) is going to be based on what you want in life.

If you do things that take you further away from what you want in life instead of closer to what you want in life, you are misspending your energy, and you will burn out.

Why do I want what I want in life?

This one is basically taking the things you say you want in life and grounding them down into your beliefs.

It’s forging the connection between what you are doing with your life and what in life is important to you.

If you don’t anchor your choices in your work down to what you believe in and what’s important to you, you are more likely to misspend your energy and burn out.

What do I need to get what I want in life?

This one is framing your goals and dreams into reality.

It’s profoundly important to have high dreams and high expectations of yourself, but what you want in life has to happen as a result of real things that you do in the real world.

This question helps you figure out things like:

  • How much money you ought to make.
  • What kind of education or training you need.
  • Where you need to live to achieve your goals.
  • Whether you need outside professional guidance.
  • What kind of people you should be spending time with.
  • How long you may have to study or acquire work experience.

What you get in life happens as a result of the choices you make over a long span of time. You can figure out ahead of time how to handle the choices you have to make so you end up in the place you want to be.

If you don’t think through what you need to get what you want, you will make reactionary choices throughout the course of your life, and you are more likely to misspend your energy and burn out.

Is what I was doing aligned with what I want in life?

This is where you have to do a little introspection.

You have to think about what you were doing leading up to your burnout spell, and ask yourself how your actions and investments compare with what you believe in and what you want in life.

This is the part where you actually perform some troubleshooting to figure out if you were spending the right time on the right things.

If you were spending the right time on the right things, but you burnt out anyway, you need to assess if the rest of your life correctly supported the work you were doing.

If you were spending an incorrect amount of time on the right things, whether too much or too little, reprioritize. Your art isn’t going to happen if you aren’t living a full and healthy life that creatively supports your work, and your art won’t happen at all if you don’t spend enough time on it to make it happen.

If you’re spending all your time on the wrong things, stop and rethink your life right now.

Why was I doing what I was doing, and is it right to keep doing it?

This is where you think about what you were doing leading up to your burnout spell, and pick apart your thinking.

Whether you were spending your time on the right things or the wrong things, if you ran into a burnout you need to wrap your head around your reasons for your work.

You need to get into your reasoning and learn from it.

If you were doing things in opposition to your goals and values, but you had good, clear reasons for doing those things, figure out either how to get more rest, or how to spend more time on things aligned with your goals and values.

If you were doing things that aligned with your goals, but not with your values, your violation of your conscience is tormenting you and that’s why you burned out.

If you were doing things that aligned with your values, but not your goals, you probably got too comfortable and had a shell-shock when you realized you’re not moving toward the life you want. This might be true burnout, or you might just be dealing with the cognitive dissonance from not working toward your goals. There’s still misspent energy here, so just pull back off any commitments you can give up, and put into work that will meet your goals.

If you were engaged in behaviors that aligned with neither your goals nor your values, and you had no good reasons to be doing them, you are acting self-destructively and you need to rethink your life right now.

What do I need to do next, and why do I need to do it?

This is the part of the show where you lay out what your goals should be.

  • What kind of art are you going to create?
  • How is your life going to support your art?
  • Do you need a day job to make things easier?
  • What kind of day job are you going to do, if you need one?
    (Keep it categorically separate from your creative passion.)
  • How are you going to acquire the skills to create the art you want?
  • How is your art supposed to improve your life and add to the world?
  • How are you going to design a life that supports you, and gives you the room to be creative and produce work you can be proud of?

You’ve figured out what’s important to you. You’ve figured out your goals. You’ve figured out what your goals require. You’ve figured out if you should go back to what you were doing.

You have everything you need to build out a plan, and you have the reasoning to back up the steps involved in your plan. Now all you have to do is execute.

Recovery from artist burnout ends with action.

To say that recovery ends with action doesn’t mean that the healing process is perfectly accomplished once you’re able to start doing again. What I do mean is that the point of getting out of the artist burnout is to be able to resume pursuing your dreams and vision.

The end of the burnout cycle is returning to the things you love, and getting back on the path that enlivens your spirit and changes the world in ways that are important to you.

Making it out of the artist burnout cycle doesn’t mean that it will never happen again, but making it out of the cycle once means you can make it out again.

Even after all the rest and introspection and planning, you may not necessarily have the correct answer. You might have gotten everything right and you’re on the perfect track, or you might find yourself struggling a little down the line because you didn’t quite have all the answers you needed. And that’s okay.

You may have to change course again later, but just follow these two steps:

Act on your plan long enough to learn from whatever you’re about to try.

Be more attentive to yourself. If you start asking yourself, “Am I having a burnout?”, you’re in a precarious, but incredibly helpful spot. The first time you ask yourself if you’re burning out, press pause before you find yourself in the pit, not after, and assess your situation. (This incredibly helpful metric comes from my friend Sean at seanwes. You can’t find his articles anymore, but I’ve taken the good things he’s taught me to heart, and I hope to bring them back out anytime I remember his good advice.)

It’s a lot to process, and I know I might have carried on a little bit, but I’m on my second spell of artist burnout right now, and I wanted to write something to help me reorient my own mind and maybe make recovery and advancement possible for other people too.

This is basically a burnout after a 5-year stretch of reasonably productive activity and study, so maybe I’ll be looking at another good 5 years once I straighten back out.

In the meantime, if you’re wondering how to get out of your own rut, I’d love to talk with you. Hit me up on the form below.

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