Are You Making Any of the 10 Mistakes That Boost Burnout for Artists?
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Air traffic controllers and stockbrokers burnout—but artists?
“Burnout is rarely associated with creatives, but it should be,” said LCSW Gale Nienhuis (heartsourcetherapy.com).
“Artists and writers work hard to produce large amounts of original, creative material often on very short, multiple deadlines.
And as Nienhuis notes, unlike salaried 9-5 types, artists often endure long, stressful gaps between paychecks.
“This pressure combo can leave artists especially vulnerable to a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion known as burnout.”
Causes of burnout vary among creatives. But the following are ten general behaviors that artists, art business coaches and therapists I spoke with agreed, pave the way to work-related weariness.
How To Burn Out
1. Work Really Hard on The Wrong Things
“You get burnout when you work really hard on the wrong things, said entrepreneurial mentor Donna Maria Coles Johnson .
The “wrong things” are pursuits not directly connected to your most important goals. The “wrong things” often involve social media marketing.
“I did the wrong thing really hard for a long time and I got nowhere,” said Johnson who suggests makers instead try to work smarter not harder.
“Let’s say you want to be in these 3 specific galleries. Nine times out of ten, success leaves clues. Look for them. Who are the 100 artists who’ve been at those galleries of yours and what did they do to get there? Go find out and do that.”
Block in time on your calendar for work that will get you closer to your top-ranked emotional and financial goal.
Overwhelmed trying to market on a bunch of social media outlets at once?
I say pick one you actually enjoy working on, and put the rest into cyber sleep.
If Facebook is making you break into hives these days, and you only love doing Pinterest— just do Pinterest.
And if that venue isn’t getting you closer to your goals, “86” it too.
Get your butt back in the studio and spend your precious time improving and enjoying your art.
Darren Rouse, founder of Problogger and Digital Photograghy.Com suggests we invest the bulk of our online marketing time on the platform we own anyway. Like our own website, blog or mini online gallery.
Why invest the bulk of marketing hours on our own sites and our own email lists?
Rouse thinks it’s the only platform we invest time in that we control. No authority will suddenly be changing the algorithms or rules on your site or your list to alter who sees your work.
2. Don’t Ask For Feedback
“In 1987 I was in the 6th year of a financially successful pastel on paper series that used lots of gorgeous colors,” said artist Nancy Louise Jones (nancylouisejones.com).
“But one morning, in March of that year, I was outside the door of my studio ready to go to work and it hit me: I hadn’t noticed spring had happened. I walked into the studio, stood in the middle of the room and couldn’t move.
My whole body said, ‘I can’t do this. Not one more. I have to find something else to say. But for now, I’m worn out.’”
After Jones’ pastel burnout she brought in friends and mentors to look at her lifetime body of work.
One mentor suggested she restrict herself to a black and white palette and eventually add color back in.
That proved to be sound advice. Jones is now in the midst of a series of mythology-based watercolors, which give her great pleasure.
If your burnout seems centered around a temporary artistic dead-end, ask for help from older artists, hire an art coach you truly resonate with, or consider creating your own mastermind group to brainstorm new directions for your work.
3. Ignore Change
“Burnout is a sign something has changed which is going to force you to adjust,” said Johnson.
“The hardest thing to do is to become self-aware and check under your own hood to see what is really going on.”
Maybe you’ve changed. The market may have changed. Maybe technology has changed.
“One big sign of burnout is that you hate getting up in the morning.”
The making isn’t fun anymore; it’s somehow become just business.
“The easiest thing to do is just to put the needle on the record and do the same thing over and over again, until you drop,” said Johnson.
If your motivation is fading fast Johnson suggests four actions:
2. Admit you are exhausted.
3. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to be unexhausted?”
4. Face the answers.
“When I did this for myself it wasn’t easy. I had to change the idea of what I thought my life would be like and I had to grieve that, but if you don’t stop and question, you just perpetuate your agony,” said Johnson.
Answering your own tough questions also clears the debris off the bridge that blocks the way to a new, more satisfying life.
4. Fail To Notice You Have a Physical Body
Sometimes even if you have managed to force yourself to stay strapped to your work treadmill, your body presses the auto-eject button, and out you fly.
“The incident a few years ago with my back, the MRI’s and the back brace, taught me my work may relax my mind, but it doesn’t relax my body,” said architectural miniature room box artist Robert Off (miniaturerooms.com.)
“When you love your work as much as I do, you don’t readily think of it as being physical. But as I came to find out, it is physical.
Now I make myself get up every 15 or 20 minutes and walk around.
I also get a massage once a week—which let me tell you for a W.A.S.P. who by design dislikes being touched by strangers, is no easy concession.”
An at-home YouTube yoga practice can work wonders for getting and keeping artists and writers present and flexible. Read my post on it here.
5. Always Say Yes
“I was extremely burnt out years back and finally figured out the cause,” said artist Renée Stout.
“I was saying yes to every show I was offered, and doing everything for everybody. In my early forties I reached a turning point.
If I wanted to be a calm person, a peaceful person, I had to protect myself.
I decided to no longer agree to do every little show just because somebody asked me.
It may sound snobby, but really it isn’t—I was one person with no assistants, and I couldn’t keep doing that anymore, or I was going to kill myself in the process.
I almost got ill physically. That’s how I learned to say no,” said Stout.
6. Do Not Hire Anyone— Ever
Are you an artist who consistently sells your art but has only fleeting bits of personal time to spend with the people you love?
The hour may have come to buy time to spend with friends and family by hiring outside help to do a chunk of your non-art related work. (Work, which if you were honest with yourself, you probably aren’t doing such a bang up job on.)
You can find reasonable prices and good people on Upwork (upwork.com), Guru (guru.com) or Freelancer.com.
Hire people to spruce up important blog posts, refresh your web design, or professionally photograph your art.
Or your Calvary might come in the form of a referral from a friend for a trustworthy accountant for bookkeeping and billing, or a part-time studio assistant for prep, packaging and social media monitoring.
7. Isolate Yourself and Forgo Balance
“When you start to make your living from your artwork, even though you love your process, you’re very aware that this is the thing your income is based on, so there’s that aspect of it that becomes a job,” said Stout.
“So what I had to do was find an activity that took me far away from creating art and got me out to socialize.”
Stout discovered roller-skating three times a week shielded her from deep burn out. “When I first started back to roller skating it hit me that I was just flying around the rink.
“Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world. Skating creates this balance for me. I’m getting out of my studio—it’s my social time, it’s physical exercise and just all around a way for me to escape.”
What’s your escape?
Where do you find balance?
8. Endure Unhealthy Relationships
The problem isn’t always at work.
Sometimes there is an area of your personal life that needs changing in order to get your energy back.
“I thought the problem was my business, until I changed an unhealthy relationship I thought I was stuck in,” said Johnson who added:
“Sometimes it’s not business that’s burning you out, the biggest stress may be the people in your life.”
9. Believe Suffering = Good Work
Have you let joy sneak out of your studio? Is there something you create for fun that people respond to, that you don’t dare sell because it’s not “serious?”
Years ago Robert Off was asked to head a committee to put together a calendar featuring 12 local artists for a Cincinnati non-profit.
“One of the artists we all agreed to include was a nice, workaholic guy named Jack who painted countless, dark (and frankly not very interesting) Canadian landscapes in oil.”
When Robert Off entered the artist’s studio for the calendar inclusion viewing, he was shocked to find Jack creating a striking, lush, loosely rendered work from a live model.
He was using turpentine, and orange and pink oil sticks on a huge piece of inexpensive white paper, thumb tracked to the wall.
“I asked him Jack if we could use it for the calendar. ‘No! Those are just quick sketches I use to loosen up. They only take me one or two minutes to make.’”
“That’s OK, I said. It’ll be our little secret.”
“Jack ended up becoming one of the most well-known painters in our city. And eventually his “warm-up work” went on to be carried in Chicago galleries. Unfortunately Jack died a few years ago,” said Off.
“But I smile when I picture all those old landscapes piled up somewhere, probably gathering dust.”
10. Never Do Nothing
“There are some days I allow myself to do absolutely nothing,” said Stout. “I piddle. Maybe have a nice coffee. I might get on the Internet. Maybe read some magazines. I think that what happens is when I take days like that, in some weird way on some subconscious level I’m getting ideas for artwork just looking at magazines.
Before it used to be ‘you’ve got to be doing something.’ Now I don’t feel like every day has to be about that.”
Vacations help (if you can afford them), yet they don’t necessarily keep burnout at bay if you live stressed out for the other 358 days of year that you are not on vacation.
Permit yourself “non-productive” moments in the middle of each workday to catch a moonrise or let yourself just drool into a cup if necessary.
Serious tasks like rewriting your business plan help prevent burnout to a degree, but believe it or not:
“Allowing for the regular experiencing of small joys like time spent journaling, or walking in nature, or doing nothing—may be the best way to clear your head, open your heart and have burnout eating your dust,” said Nienhuis.
This post is based on a piece by Thea Fiore-Bloom published in the Dec 2016 issue of Professional Artist Magazine.