Burnout is a topic I’ve been meaning to cover for some time on the Creative Introvert podcast, but I’ve been slightly cautious about it because I wanted to make sure I don’t in any way glamorise it. This is something I’ve seen hints of in the online business world, with the entrepreneurs, infopreneurs or whatever-preneurs they want to call themselves. People acting like it’s some sort of honour to work so hard you don’t sleep or take care of yourself. To then have to take some sort of glamorous retreat in Bali or something, just to get their shit back together.
Well, hopefully that’s NOT what this podcast will be about. I want to explain a bit about burnout (which is more tricksy than I had thought prior to researching this) and of course, some practical tips for avoiding burnout and how to un-burn yourself.
Like I mentioned, burnout is a little bit tricksy because I think for many of us, we expect the symptoms to be as extreme as fainting or falling asleep at the wheel or something. Of course, it can get to that point. If you get so exhausted you can’t hold yourself upright, I can see that happening.
But extreme exhaustion is just one of the symptoms of burnout. It can manifest in many different ways. Lack of focus is another way it can show up. Overwhelm. Indecision. Anxiety. Headaches. Sleeplessness (even if you feel sleepy.) Outbursts of anger over little things. Apathy, feeling uninspired or unmotivated.
See how varied these symptoms are?
I’ll quickly note that Adrenal Fatigue is something more specific, and also something to watch out for. Currently, mainstream science doesn’t really accept it as a thing: it seems to be more commonly diagnosed by naturopaths and alternative health practitioners. Personally, I’m open to it being real, if anything because I’ve heard about so many people who’ve experienced these symptoms and they seem to go away with some proper rest, good food and self-care – which isn’t commonly recommended by a standard GP, at least not in my country.
The symptoms sound a lot like burnout (which is also not an official medical condition either): extreme fatigue, brain fog, unexplained weight gain, unexplained weight loss, hair loss, irritability, sleep disturbances, lack of sex drive and skin problems. Not fun.
Either way, it seems clear that the impact that prolonged stress (mental, emotional or physical stress), lack of sleep and a crappy diet leads to a host of symptoms, and whether you call it burnout, adrenal fatigue or if your doctor tells you you’re fine – I’d like to suggest that if you’re having these kind of miserable symptoms it’s worth staying tuned to see what can be done about it.
Although us humans have an awful lot in common, especially creative introverts, it seems that we all have slightly different limits, different needs, different strengths and blindspots. What this means is that burnout is likely going to affect some of us more than others, and the solution will also vary. I’ll do my best to give you a range of options here.
First I’ll tell you a bit about my burnout story. Now many listeners will already know my story: how I worked at a lovely little digital design agency for 3 years, but despite it’s loveliness I was totally miserable and actually, in hindsight I can see that I was suffering from burnout.
I had all the symptoms. I couldn’t sleep, but I was exhausted. My face looked grey – I can see it in photos now. I was seriously moody, I’d snap at anyone and could burst into tears over spilled milk. I’m pretty sure I did. Nothing inspired me and at times, life felt like I was in some kind of fog of misery. It SUCKED.
Now I don’t want to confuse this for actual clinical depression, which I was never diagnosed with, and is not the focus of this episode. I actually think my symptoms were entirely situational and they could – and would – be solved with simple(ish) lifestyle changes.
DISCLAIMER: if you ARE suffering from these symptoms, or worse, I definitely recommend going to an actual doctor! I’m not one of those, not by a long shot. I also recommend reading Lost Connections by Johann Hari for a much deeper look into depression and it’s causes.
OK. Back to me. You likely know the rest of the story, ultimately I quit my job, spent a few weeks in Japan and even though freelancing has it’s ups and downs, I felt a whole lot better and can safely say that the years since then have been completely different.
Now, the cause and solution to my burnout was clearly something to do with my work environment, but it also had many other factors. I was working out a lot, I was going out and partying a lot (neither of these things suit me) and I also was in a bit of post-university malaise. I really feel for anyone going from school to work, because it can be a really tough transition. But naturally, some people will thrive when they’re out of academia and love their first job. You might even love your open plan office environment, even if you’re an introvert. We all have different needs and limits.
I do have a theory, a hair-brained theory at that, as to why creative introverts in particular may experience burnout.
For one, if you ARE like me and get overstimulated in busy environments, loud environments, lots of people and bright lights and looking at a screen 8-12 hours a day… then you might also be a highly sensitive introvert (google: highly sensitive person) and the problem really might be in your environment.
I know not everyone can change their job or go freelance, but it could be an option for you at least in the future. All I can say is that it suited me, and whilst it was a gamble, it worked out. I gave myself a 6 month trial period, after which I would try to get another job if it didn’t work out, and I didn’t have to do that, thankfully. Though I’ve come close MANY times.
I want to make that clear. It’s not that my life got easier after I left my 9-5, in some ways I work more and have a lifestyle that would stress others out.
But it works for me. This is the one message I want you to take from this: there IS something that will work for you, you just need to find it! It might mean kissing a lot of proverbial frogs, but I will bet my little finger that you will find it.
Another cause for burnout is lack of stimulation. Weird eh? That the other cause would almost be the exact opposite to the first one? But we’re weird like that, us humans. Anyway, stimulation is also key to being a happy creative introvert, especially if you’re also a high sensation seeker.
I personally think we all need a balance between low sensation environments, places where we can be where we feel calm and peaceful like a walk by the sea or in a forest – but we also need to switch things up. Trying to work on the same thing every damn hour of every damn day, is naturally exhausting!
Multipassionate creatives – those of us who are always looking for the next shiny object (a blessing and a curse) genuinely have a need for change. I even found some internet science to back it up. This study showed that the dopamine pathways in the brain light up when we’re witness to something completely new and novel. Dopamine makes you feel good, so novelty makes us feel good, basically.
Actually, it’s a little more complex than that. Dopamine is really the thing that gives us motivation to seek reward – to seek the good feeling thing. So when we’re exposed to something new and novel, we’re actually motivated to act. How cool is that? Novelty motivates us.
What I take from this is that it’s important for us to mix it up. So let’s say you are stuck in your office job, and bloody hate that environment, what if you could make time to walk to a new part of the city or town on your lunch break? Take a different route to work? I remember feeling much happier when I started riding the bus to work, happier still when I cycled.
It might be as simple as cleaning your desk, removing the old stimuli and replacing it with something new and novel.
If you are working for yourself, then it’s even easier to shake it up. Work from a new coffee shop. Switch up your morning routine.
And something we can all dabble with: learn something new. I create new content each week, which isn’t just for your benefit – it’s for mine. As soon as I start feeling bored with a topic, I make damn sure to switch it up.
1) Admit it
Oh my goodness isn’t this always the first step to anything?
I still can’t believe how long it took me to realise that the way I felt every day was NOT OK!
To just accept that your life is miserable is not OK. Unless in accepting that you become less miserable.
Sure, maybe life is suffering, but could it be possible we could suffer a bit LESS?
Admit that the way you feel is not OK and from there, see if you’re up for changing that. You can’t change what you don’t admit to knowing.
2) Determine the stressors
This is where some detective work comes in. Stressors could be your lifestyle: so how much exercise you get, whether you’re over-doing it or under-doing it, what you’re eating, drinking, when you’re going to bed (or at least attempting to), who you’re spending time with, and so on. Then there’s your environment, which we touched on. Where do you spend most of your day? If you’re miserable there, what’s bugging you? What do you think you’d prefer?
You don’t have to know all the answers, but it is worth listing out all possible stressors, and seeing where you get. Of course some things, you simply can’t change. You have no control over some life events, and they just suck. That’s it.
But what can you change? There’s always something, even if it seems insignificant. In fact, just proving to myself what I could change gave me a greater sense of autonomy even before the bigger life circumstances could change. That really helps, and not in insignificant ways.
Brainstorm possible stressors, cross out the ones you literally cannot change, and think of ways to change the others. That’s my version of the serenity prayer.
3) Work out the absolute minimum you need to get by
This step mostly applies to monetary matters, because this is largely based on my experience – but it can apply elsewhere too.
Before quitting my job, I had to work out the minimum I would need financially to live on. I was lucky enough to have options like: moving back home with my parents IF I couldn’t make rent, but on the whole I was strongly averse to that option and had enough incentive to make sure that wasn’t the case. (Even though, I have stayed with them a couple of times since them for months at a time, and it really wasn’t bad at all, so don’t poo-poo that option IF you have it.)
I did work out the minimum I needed to make rent, pay bills, buy food etc. And that was massively comforting because it meant I knew how long I could support myself even if I couldn’t get freelance clients or sell my pet portraits. Having this knowledge instantly took some of the stress off me, and freed my mind up to focus on more productive things.
Worrying is really taxing on the brain. I don’t recommend it! Another tool that might help is keeping a worry journal. I also recommend gratitude journals, writing down what you’re grateful for, but sometimes it takes a while to even get to a place where you can feel grateful for anything. been there too.
Writing your worries down, last thing at night (or during the night if you wake up) is so, so helpful for me and I highly recommend it. You don’t need to even try to solve them: just write them all down, get ’em out and shut the book. Then see how you sleep.
If you have other stressors, like taking care of kids, keeping a household running and still trying to work out – again, I recommend having a think about the minimum you need to get by. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting neglecting your kids or whatever, but it can be a useful thought experiment to remember: the world won’t end because you sleep in or have to get a babysitter. Many of us introverts are especially hard on ourselves, and pile an awful lot onto our plates.
Of course it’s honourable and good to take responsibility, but we can only carry a burden for so long. Just have a play with what the minimum you need to get by is.
4) Ask for HELP!
This is the big one! Don’t end on the last step – I strongly recommend following up that last thought experiment very quickly with this one: ask for help.
If you can identify some ways others can support you whether it’s sending an email out to some old colleagues or friends and asking if they know anyone who needs the service you offer, or has a job opening, do it. Send that email, and leave your ego at the door.
Same with household matters. Is there someone in your life who can give you more support? Time to fess up and tell them what you’re going through, and how they can help, if they want to. Don’t just assume people are shit because they’re not giving you the help you need. We all have our own issues, and most of us just don’t realise how we can help someone else. If they say no, then you can be mad. But you can’t be mad unless you ask!
I’d also strongly recommend reaching out to others in your industry. I created the League of Creative Introverts for this very reason. Introverts get lonely too, and I didn’t bring this up yet but loneliness is a big factor in burnout. When you feel the weight of the world is on your shoulders and no one else is around you either to help or just to walk this miserable path with you – life is understandably tough.
But, just knowing you’ve got someone – maybe even an entire community – of folk who have been there, done that or even going through it too – well, that’s when things can shift, believe me.
For those of you who haven’t experience the depths of burnout, or maybe like me, you’re past the worst of it but for the love of god do NOT want to experience it again, here are some tips that I’m following and hopefully they can help you avoid burnout too:
1) Make sure you’re connecting with others
Yes, dear introvert: even if you think you’re perfectly content on your lonesome, I strongly recommend making time for true connection with other people. It might be one person, your partner, your mum, dad, sister, best bud.
Or maybe it’s someone not that close to you: a friend at a creative meetup group or someone you met online in a forum, on Twitter or Instagram.
I recommend the face-to-face option, but take what you can get. Just talking about things that light you up with someone else, even if you’re struggling to make things happen in the way you want or have other challenges in life: that in itself can be hugely beneficial to our mood and relieve stress.
2) Practice saying ‘No’
For many of us, the road to burnout begins with saying yes to too many things. Hence, why we need to practice saying NO! If you’re the person who people just assume will say yes to every thing – it can be hard at first. Breaking people’s expectations is genuinely difficult, and no one wants to be a disappointment.
But the sooner you start shaking up their opinion of you the better. Over time, they’ll stop assuming you’ll do everything they say, and that you have boundaries around your time. This applies to loved ones, friends, family, employers, employees and everything in between.
3) Get clear on your vision
I talk about finding your True North a lot in my book, The Creative Introvert: How to Build a Business You Love on Your Terms, but in short: you need to work out what you value in life as well as what your mission is that will help you live by those values and achieve those feelings you want to feel, and make the difference you want to make.
Knowing why you’re doing something can be enough motivation to either power through a burnout but it can also help you realise whats worth your energy, and what AIN’T. I realised I was spending 80% of my day doing something I didn’t give a monkeys about, so it was a no brainer to switch that up.
But it’s not like it’s been smooth sailing since. There have been dozens of times over the past 7 years I’ve had to reassess what the heck it is I want to do, switch gear and often it means stopping doing what doesn’t bring me joy or meaning. And at times, it’s been tough. It can rattle you to think: shit – have I been wasting my time with this? It’s like realising you’ve fallen out of love with someone, it isn’t exactly an easy thing to come to terms with.
But once you have, you can start putting together a plan that is meaningful and which actually energises you.
4) Make a plan
Which brings me to: planning. Oh how I love a plan. But I know you don’t all love the planning stage. Fair enough, it’s not for everyone to love. But it is for everyone to have: I do believe everyone needs a plan, even if it a very very vague one.
The best plan is a simple one: it’s one that can tell you the answer to this ONE question:
“What do I do next?”
That’s it. If your plan can tell you that answer, you’re golden. I recommend attempting to answer that question every day, ideally first thing in the morning. When you have your answer (which is ideally in line with your True North) then I suggest doing nothing but that thing, until it’s done.
It doesn’t mean you don’t do anything else. Pay the bills, shower, walk the dog etc. But when you sit down to get that thing done: that’s all you’re doing. This is how I recommend anyone who wants to quit their job and start a creative business to begin. Baby steps, taken every day. Deliberate steps: steps that you know will move the needle.
If you need help in figuring that out, The Creative Introvert Academy (which is freely available to members of the League of Creative Introverts) has a Masterclass to help with that. I also ask the Leaguers every Monday what their goal is for the week for this very reason. If they only achieve this one thing this week, what would that be? I know it helps with keeping me accountable too.
5) Stay in your own lane
So let’s say you’ve got your mojo going, you’ve got a plan, you’re getting it done… and then you go for a scroll on Instagram.
BAM. That’s you falling from your happy introvert zone, and landing with a thud in the land of… Comparisonitis. Ugh.
Comparing ourselves to someone else’s highlight reel, is of course, bad news. It doesn’t feel good to see someone who is clearly kind of like us but evidently doing so much better than us.
Of course the reality is usually that they’re living a life that has it’s own problems, and they’re much more similar to us in many ways. If you lived a day in their shoes, theirs a good chance you’d be gagging to get back to your own shoes by 5pm.
Feeling like I was once step behind all of these other creatives online only served to fuel my lack of self-belief, and made it harder to get shit done. It distracted me from my true beliefs, desires, needs and personality. Since spending less time consuming media, and more time creating, I’m measurably happier.
This doesn’t mean you don’t use social media: I still post, I reply to direct messages, I just don’t spend too long scrolling through or watching stories – unless I’m in a kind of bulletproof mood. Until you feel resilient enough to do that (and trust me I don’t all the time) then take a break from looking over your virtual neighbour’s fence.
6) Eat, Sleep, Move
There have been times, particularly when money is tight, where my dietary habits have been far from ideal. I’d swing from a monk-like diet of lentils and rice to a toddler trying to comfort themselves with enough cookies and chocolate ice cream to give me the sugar shakes.
In short: I wasn’t prioritising my health. It’s amazing how food literally impacts our mood, and this is NOT pseudo-science. See what happens when you increase your fresh veggie intake, eat some decent quality protein and take your time to eat a nice meal, with nice tablewear. Yeah, that was another thing I stopped doing: eating out of sad tupperware boxes. If you need to take a packed lunch to work, buy a cute lunch box, dammit. Buy glass tupperware or a neat Japanese bento box. Eat without looking at your phone. Ideally, eat with another human being.
I know the tendency for this introvert is to isolate myself when I’m feeling on the verge of burnout, but I know from enough of these crashes is that it’s the last thing I need. Find a lunch buddy, at least once a week.
The next thing is sleep. This deserves a podcast in itself, but I’ll quickly share my sleep formula:
Finally, Move. One of my issues with burnout way back was that I was trying to get in a silly amount of exercise before or after work. That was just stressing me out. Since then, I’ve dramatically cut back on formal exercise, and in the last year or two I’ve realised I just don’t care about having 6-pack abs anymore, which is nice. It also means I can do the things that bring me joy which are simple: yoga and walking. That’s it.
You could need more or less, but it’s really worth getting something in. Since being in the States on my travels I realise how hard it must be for some of you to find a place to walk – seriously, the lack of sidewalks in some places is shocking. Plus, everything’s so far apart you have to drive everywhere, so just walking into town to meet a friend becomes much harder. That said, you’ve got some insane places to go hiking, and your backyards are often bigger than some English parks – so go nuts in those, if you can.
Going for a quick walk can be all I need at times to turn burnout around, and I wish I’d done this more when I worked in the office. I actually know my employer would have been happy for me to take a 20 minute walk around the block to get past an afternoon slump, had I just ASKED. So do think about that – don’t assume your employer won’t let you take a walking break unless you’ve asked.
7) Minimise decision-making
Since being on the road I’ve also noticed how important my morning routine is to me. When I skip it, and just get straight into people time or start on someone else’s schedule, I notice how rushed and cranky I can feel by noon.
However, just getting up a bit earlier to carve out some Cat time, and I feel ready for just about anything. Unless you’ve experienced the joys of a morning routine, I don’t expect you to believe me. I won’t preach about what I think your morning routine should consist of (I’ve written about mine before) but having something you can do that requires NO decision making, is ideal.
That way, when you wake up you aren’t looking at your phone to take orders from someone else, or wasting brain energy (and willpower) trying to decide what to do next. You already know.
Other ways you can minimise decision making – which honesty saves so much energy and stress – is deciding a work uniform, unless you already have one. Even if you work from home, having a set of go-to clothes is a big time saver. And make sure they’re ones you feel good in too – again, this boosts self-confidence and makes you feel a bit more badass.
You can also save decision making with how you schedule your day, what you eat and so on. Just deciding this stuff in advance is super empowering, at least I’ve found.
8) Change something in your environment
All that being said, you don’t want too much routine, right? We’ve discussed the importance in shaking up your environment and so on, and your daily life will really benefit from having some elements of randomness in them especially if you’re feeling the boredom or apathy end of the burnout spectrum.
I’m very liable to this, I seem to have the attention span of a gnat most days, so I really have to treat myself like a small child who you need to keep entertained.
I’ve found a great solution to that this year through travel, but it’s definitely not the only thing you can do to change things up. What about spring cleaning a small area? It could be one room in your house, or one area of one room? Like I mentioned earlier, you could jazz your desk space up.
I remember one of my colleagues took great pride over his desk space, he kept it clean and always had cute toys to entertain us on it. I really should have taken a leaf from his book, it could have bought be another 6 months at in that environment.
So have a think about how you can create change in your environment, and make a date with yourself regularly to change things up.
9) Learn something new
In addition to creating change outside of you, you can also try creating inner change. Learning something new is an incredibly powerful way to stimulate that dopamine pathway, and I can’t recommend it enough. Oh and it’s no big deal if you don’t become an expert in whatever you learn, or you start learning one thing, change your mind and learn something else. Who gives a rats ass? This isn’t school, this is life!
Learn what you can, where you can, when you can. Dabble. I’ve dabbled in learning languages, crochet, yoga, origami, shodo and god knows what else. My Year of Fun was pretty great for keeping me accountable for this.
And there are tonnes of options to learn online. I add a new Masterclass every month to the Creative Introvert Academy, and encourage the Leaguers to keep learning. I hope they appreciate it, and don’t find my enthusiasm too annoying…
In short, learn something new.
10) Create ‘Do Not Disturb’ time each week
Finally! My last tip to preventing burnout is to create Do Not Disturb time for yourself each week. What you do with this time, I couldn’t care less. Actually, I’d love to know, I’m that nosey, but I’m really just trying to encourage you to do whatever YOU want. Don’t worry about those lists online of ways to practice self-care or whatever: if you don’t want a bubble bath, don’t take one!
Maybe make a list of the things you’d love to have time for, but don’t feel like you do. See what you can push aside to make happen. Again, when I was on my Year of Fun I really prioritise this time, and I was amazed at what I could get done, and how something as small as buying a magazine could make me feel alive again.
It’s also worth setting an auto-responder on your email client that tells people, kindly, that you aren’t going to be answering emails for 24 hours or whatever the time you allow yourself is. That way you don’t feel any need to keep checking your phone or computer.
OK I’ve rambled on for long enough! I think that’s a wrap for my advice on burnout. Let me know what you think, find me on Instagram and Twitter @creativeintro and you can find the show notes to this episode and all the others at thecreativeintrovert.com
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