We’ve all been there. I know I have. I open up my word processor or pick up my camera. And then put them away again. It’s not writer’s block or whatever the photographic equivalent is. It’s burnout. I don’t feel like creating. I’ve lost the spark. The magic is gone.
But it’s not magic, is it?
There’s nothing magical about creativity. It’s a job like any other. If you’ve been pushing too hard for too long, maybe it’s burnout. Maybe it’s something else.
Maybe you’re just bored.
But regardless of the cause, the effect is you’re not producing. But like most any other problem, each symptom has a cure. But isn’t it better to prevent a symptom than cure it? Whether it’s boredom, apathy, or burnout, the key is to stop it from happening.
One summer in high school, I worked in a warehouse of a business that sold binding materials; covers, binders, notebooks, that sort of thing. They sold those little plastic binders that you see on many presentation materials. They came in standard lengths, but they also offered custom sizes.
So every day, I spent hours at a machine that cut those binder spines. They were tiny, thin strips of plastic, but the machine looked like it could cut a tree in half. They warned me when I started to be very careful as many had become injured by letting their hand get in the cutting mechanism. I’m thinking, what kind of idiot would do that?
A bored idiot, that’s who.
Doing the same thing hour after hour, day after day, leads to boredom and inattention to details. It could have gotten me killed back then, and it can kill your creative process now.
The answer to this is so obvious, yet we ignore it. Whether you are a product or portrait photographer, or a writer in a particular niche, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing the same thing every day. This leads to boredom, which will lead to putting out crap work or not working at all.
So why not just stop doing that?
Make a Change
Change it up. If you shoot products all day, spend a week outdoors shooting landscapes. If you are a writer in a particular niche, write about something you never have before. Do things differently, if even for just a little while will refresh your creativity.
As a photographer, I will frequently use a lens I haven’t shot with for a while, or go out and photograph some theme I haven’t pursued before. I remember one time; I spent a week looking for and photographing benches. I have many lenses in my arsenal, but sometimes, I go out with a single prime lens and shoot with nothing else all day. It changes my perspective and reboots my creativity.
Here’s a trick I’ve used for years to come up with fresh things to write about. We all know that half of writing is the research. You come up with an idea for an article, research it, then write it. But what about switching the order around?
I thought about all the time I spent researching something, not to write about, but because I was curious about it, or needed the information for something I wanted to do. We all do it every day. Research refrigerators because we need a new one. Look into a particular destination because we are traveling there soon. Investigate anything we are thinking about or need to do.
Well, guess what? You’ve already done the research, why not take the next step and write the article? If you are curious about it, other people will be as well. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t have gotten thousands of hits on your search topic. You’ve done the hard work. Organize it, write it up, and use it. It’s almost certainly something you haven’t written about before, otherwise, you wouldn’t have needed to research it.
This is tough. You get up in the morning, have your cup of coffee or tea, and proceed to ‘get creative.’ Like it’s a switch you can turn on. Usually, you don’t actually need to flip the switch. Ideas flow and creativity happens. But sometimes when it doesn’t, it’s because you just don’t care.
How do you fix apathy?
I don’t care.
Just kidding. The long answer is to determine the reason behind your apathy and take care of it. Is there something else in your life that is pressing you and causing you not to care about your creativity? Did you just have a monumental failure in a creative project and you feel like giving up? Or maybe you’re just having a bad day and hopefully, you’ll get over it.
But this is a job. You can’t just wait for your mood to change. The plumber won’t say, “Sorry, I just can’t get into leaks today. Put a bucket under it and I’ll see if I feel better about it in a day or two.”
Whether it’s apathy, or grief, or anger, or any other emotion, you can’t let it take over your creative life. But how do you get started? How can you put the emotion, or lack of emotion aside long enough to create something? Nike answered that for us 40 years ago.
Just do it.
You don’t need to commit to an entire photo campaign. You don’t need to write an entire book, or the next chapter, or even a whole page. Just start. Take one picture. Write a sentence. Then you know what you have to do next? Do one more. Take one step. Do one thing. And then do another. Go through the motions.
Fake it till you make it.
Finally. A thousand words later, he finally gets back to it. I’m glad I didn’t get burned out first.
Going back to the ancient times before computers, I’ve kept a to-do list. I was a big fan of the original DayTimer, and later, one called Day Runner. I’ve gone through dozens on the computer. And I’m one of those guilty of switching apps twice a year. Hopefully, now, I’ve found the right one.
But throughout all that history with productivity systems, I’ve always been guilty of the same thing. I keep adding stuff to my list until it implodes. The result?
I stop. I break. I don’t produce.
In the past, that’s one of the times I would switch systems. Blame the tool, not the craftsman. But now, after forty-something years of repeating the same mistake, I finally learned a lesson. Reboot. Ctrl-Alt-Del.
I never said I was a fast learner.
When I start to feel burnout, preferably even before that, I sit down with my to-do list. I bring up the day, then the week, and then the month. I look at each task and identify all of them that I absolutely have to do.
This is about 5% of them.
There are many I want to do. There are more that I probably need to do. But have to do? Not so much. Then, I delete every one of the non-critical tasks. It’s extremely liberating.
Imagine you are a firefighter. You have three hours’ worth of tasks on your list for the next hour.
- Wash the trucks
- Make lunch
- Put out a fire
Obviously, you can’t do all three, so you delete two of them and leave only the most important.
Make lunch. You gotta eat.
Now I have an almost clean slate. It is likely that I wake up tomorrow with nothing on my list. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is. One day like that can completely erase burnout. I play. I walk. I probably don’t stop and smell the roses, but you could.
Then, little by little, as things come up, I put them back on the list. But now, some of the things on the list are planned downtimes. For several months now, my most refreshing, burnout-busting change is to take a one-minute break every twenty minutes. Every twenty minutes. No matter what I am doing. I took a break before finishing that last sentence. It still got finished, didn’t it?
Burnout isn’t like depression or anxiety. Burnout is completely self-inflicted. It is avoidable. Stop it. Just stop. Reboot.