Creativity feedback loops (and their impact on mental health)

Raise your hand if you feel like you’re burned out.

Yeah, me too.

Burnout, as defined by the WHO, is when chronic workplace and occupational stress leads to energy depletion and exhaustion, negativity, and reduced productivity. But when you’re a full-time creator (or side hustling hard), there is no separation between your life and your occupation. There is no vacation or sick time to fall back on.

Today, 52% of millennials say they’re burned out. “It’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives,” wrote cultural expert Anne Helen Petersen in her 2019 viral article for Buzzfeed.

It’s time to break the cycle of hustle culture:

The creative feedback loop is relentless

There’s so much pressure to keep creating and to constantly do your best work.

This relentless feedback cycle—during “unprecedented times”—is nothing new. Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece King Lear during the black plague. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity came out of his time in quarantine. Frida Kahlo painted her first self-portrait after months of bed rest from contracting polio.

The list goes on.

Expectations have never been higher, even as the world around us gets more challenging to navigate.

That’s exactly the kind of pressure Leah Rocketto, a writer and full-time marketer at the Healthy Living Foundation, feels on a regular basis. “I manage editorial services educating and advocating for people with various chronic illnesses after spending the last decade in traditional media,” says Rocketto. “Mental health is something I’ve struggled with since I was 13 years old, and especially the last year, dealing with the pandemic, the politics, and the racial reckoning our country is dealing with, you have to acknowledge that we’re going through a lot right now.”

leah rocketto
Image via Leah Rocketto.

Even if there wasn’t a news cycle that just won’t quit, it’s impossible to be creative and hustle 100% of the time. It just doesn’t work like that. “One has to be sacrificed,” says Rocketto. “Working in a hustle, go-go-go environment, you can’t do both simultaneously. The beauty of writing was the whole reason I got into journalism.”

With creators, intellectual burnout is just as challenging as the physical exhaustion often associated with burnout. If you’ve ever felt like smoke is coming out of your brain after a long day trying to get a piece right, you know what it feels like.

“We have this idea that we reward people for working nonstop. For several years I was very much in that mindset that, I just have to be the first one there, I have to be the last one to leave, I have to take my work home with me. And that’s unsustainable,” says Rocketto. “As a writer, it just invites typos and grammar issues to come up when you’re working so fast. If you wanted clean copy and a great story and you want it all done in an hour, well, I’m only human.”

If you want to break the cycle, you have to be confident in your skills and give yourself the time you need.

…and the bills have to be paid

Caitlin Kelly

For award-winning journalist and author Caitlin Kelly, balancing creativity with keeping the lights on is the hardest part of battling burnout. Creators—especially entrepreneurs and freelancers—face an uphill fight through a system that won’t provide a social safety net. “There’s no paid vacations, there’s no paid sick days, and we put $20,000 a year into health insurance. That’s a big overhead to carry as a freelancer,” says Kelly.

Creatives often shy away from treating their business for what it is—a business. For Kelly, that was the first step in understanding the time/money equation so she can step away when needed, but still pay the bills. “It’s basic economics,” she says. “You want to work as little as possible and have the lowest overhead possible, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to stop working constantly to pay your bills.”

Part of that is realizing that 100% of what you do won’t always be cool or awesome. Don’t let hustle culture trick you into believing that working to pay the bills isn’t worth it, or that you’re not following your dreams.

The amount you earn doesn’t define who you are. If you want to be making six or seven figures, buy a house, have a fancy car…go for it. But if that doesn’t resonate with you, don’t let anyone else define success.

“We’re in this culture that’s so focused on appearance, and that you have to look a certain way to be considered successful,” says Kelly. “That puts tremendous pressure, especially on women, to have this or have that. You have to get really tough with yourself on what matters. You won’t always have your best year ever. As a creative person, if you can’t withstand peer pressure on consumption, appearance, or status, you’re screwed.”

Ask yourself what it is you really want

Ask yourself seriously, why did you go into business in the first place? What’s the “point” of all this? If you’re a writer or artist, it’s probably not the business part.

You have to decide what’s best for you, and what’s going to make you happy. You need to know what you want and how to define success before you can start making changes to get yourself there—and to break the cycle of hustle.

“If you wake up on January 1 and say, I want 30% more income, or I want to reduce my expenses by 43%, or win a residency or fellowship, how are you going to do that? Setting goals is great, but they can be a one-way ticket to burnout, because they’re so competitive,” says Kelly. “For me, I try to get to at least half of what I’m doing makes me feel good. You want to look at what you’re producing and say, ‘I’m so proud of this. I love this.’”

The key is finding balance between paying bills, running your business, and doing what you’re passionate about. But only you can determine what that balance is, and what it feels like. It’s fine to set exciting, ambitious revenue goals, but consider setting process-based goals, too. Think about setting goals around:

  • How much time you’re taking off each month, either weekends or vacation time
  • Whether or not you’re able to unplug when you’re not working — or shut down altogether at 5 PM (or whenever you like to stop working)
  • Your overall stress level at the end of each week
  • The percentage of work you’re doing that makes you feel excited, challenged, or proud
  • How many family dinners you attend/nights out with friends/kid’s sporting events/”leisure time” of your choice

One important thing to remember? Your business will not cease to exist if you press pause.

“It’s ok to have off days,” says Rocketto. “The internet is still going to exist. I tell my team, we’re not firefighters, we’re not doctors. Our work is important, but it’s ok to take a break. Your life and your wellbeing is so much more important to me than hitting our pageviews for the day.”

Negative space is what gives you room for creativity

Ideas are your currency as a creator, and it’s investing in your business to give yourself the space to have those ideas.

“On days off, even on weekends, I delete any work-related apps from my phone,” says Rocketto. “It’s just too easy to communicate and be in touch with people these days. I think that’s especially true with remote work blending work and home into one.”

Burnout can’t be solved by a vacation alone. What you need is negative space in your regular routine to give your brain room to breathe. That’s where the magic happens. “Taking breaks during your day is so crucial,” adds Rocketto. “Not only does that give you space not to think about work, but that’s exactly what can help you break through those creative blocks.”

Taking a break isn’t just for self-care. It’s what’s going to give you that next breakthrough. Kelly wouldn’t have had her next big business idea without taking a break. “I went to the new TWA Hotel [at JFK airport in New York] for my wedding anniversary,” she says. “I’m a plane spotter, so it was really the perfect weekend. But I also came away with a potentially really interesting business idea that has nothing to do with writing. When you allow yourself some intellectual meandering, you really are allowing your creativity to move in different directions.”

Build negative space by automating, delegating, and eliminating

Rather than trying to hustle harder and do more, try doing less. The single greatest thing you can do to combat burnout is to just say no. After all, you’re the boss.

If you’re feeling burnout creep in, look at how you can say no more by automating tasks, delegating and outsourcing, or eliminating unnecessary steps to give you more time back in your day. As a solo creator, you really have three factors that you’re trying to optimize: time, effort, and creativity. Saving time, reducing effort, and finding ways to enhance your creativity is what’s going to build safeguards into your regular work week to keep you from burning out.

“This sounds so corny, but you sometimes have to be your biggest cheerleader,” says Rocketto. “You’re not always going to have a manager that gives you what you need. You have to do it for yourself. Be the boss you want, not the boss you used to have.”

convertkit automations

In ConvertKit, that might look like:

  • Automating your monthly newsletter or setting up automatic nurture flows rather than sending out an email manually every month
  • You can also use templates or batch your content ahead of time, scheduling sends out for the rest of the year.
  • Repurpose existing content, like using the same imagery for your newsletter and on Instagram or social media postings
  • Build passive income by selling creative products quickly and easily

How will you manage your burnout?

Burnout is a part of life as a creator—but the good news is: you’re the boss.

“Part of burnout is you have to save yourself,” says Kelly. “That way you’re not constantly spinning on the same hamster wheel.”

So take a deep breath, ground yourself, and slowly, take one step at a time and find what you need you to break the cycle of burnout in your life.

The post Creativity feedback loops (and their impact on mental health) appeared first on ConvertKit.

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