If you experience any level of success as a creative, you will eventually hit burnout. The trouble is, while there are many resources for preventing burnout, there are few (if any) on recovering from it.
I recently experienced burnout when my business and personal life became overwhelmed at the same time.
In my business, I had scaled some of my offerings to meet demand; I was wrapping up long-overdue projects; and I was gearing up toward a much-anticipated launch.
In my personal life, I was having perpetual car troubles, taking care of loved ones in the hospital, and trying desperately to keep up with all the tedious parts of normal adult life—laundry, dishes, preparing healthy meals (in light of recent weight gain and digestive issues), and getting enough sleep (which was hard, considering the car troubles, loved ones in the hospital, and launch details that kept popping into my head to write down).
There came a point when every time I’d stop to rest, I simply couldn’t, because for weeks at every stopping point I had remembered one more thing that had to be done, and it had caused my anxiety to spike—so now even thinking of resting caused my anxiety to spike!
This is the very definition of burnout—giving so much of yourself that there’s nothing left.
So what do you do when that happens?
Most of us will just keep plowing through, especially if our deadlines are scattered or we desperately need money. Most of us won’t realize that we are the ones with the power to grant permission to ourselves to stop—that with just a little intentionality, we can organize our time in under a month such that we can, in fact, take a break.
Since rest is essential for our cognitive function, our immune systems, our emotional health and more, I’m offering a “10-Step” guide to beating burnout today. Use it as a template to recover from your latest burnout, as well as prevent it in the future!
Step #1: Set a deadline to cease work and take a break
There will always be “just one more thing” that needs to get done—rest is the dangling carrot for the creative entrepreneur, always just a few inches out of reach. So if you want to take a break, you have to claim it.
Set a date on your calendar, chosen based on step #2, at which point you will allow yourself to cease working (including taking client calls and emails) and take a break. See step #4 for how to plan this time wisely!
Step #2: Wrap up what is essential to get done before your period of rest
Realistically, most of us can’t stop right this second to take a break—it’s why so many of us keep working well past the point of burnout. Clients and customers are counting on us.
However, when we stand back, we’ll usually see that there are only 2-3 items that are urgent on our ever-long list of to-do’s—meaning, they’re overdue, or on a delivery timeline within the next week. These are the things that will haunt us if we try to take a break too abruptly.
Knowing the deadline you’ve set yourself for rest, plot out your time before then so that these must-do items get completed. Remind yourself that the other tasks on your list can wait, and you will be able to enter your break with much more ease.
Step #3: Turn on your email auto-responder to let clients know you are away
Most email providers have an auto-responder function, particularly if you have a business account. If you don’t know how to turn it on, run a search on Google or YouTube.
Type up a friendly response to emails that will inevitably come in while you’re on your break, such as, “Thanks for reaching out! After a series of intense projects, I’m taking a much-needed break. I’ll be back at my desk on November 14. I look forward to connecting with you then!” and set it to automatically turn off the day you return to work.
NOTE: Try to avoid putting in any caveats (“If it’s urgent, feel free to text me” might feel like a tempting thing to say, but don’t do it unless you have to!). You don’t want to be worried that someone will try to interrupt your resting period. Keep your message friendly and firm.
Step #4: Take at least 3 days of rest, but preferably 4 or 5
Studies show that people need approximately a day and a half to acclimate to a new environment or daily pattern, and the same amount of time to mentally prepare for returning to a previous environment or pattern.
Why does this matter? If you only give yourself a day or two off from work, your brain won’t actually wind down enough to fully rest or enjoy the break.
You’ll want at least one full day to rest and enjoy your break, and in order to accomplish that, you’ll need about 4 days off. 5 is preferable, considering step #6—so if you can, take 5 whole days!
Step #5: Sleep, meditate, go outside, and clean your living space
Anxious people sleep less.
This is due in part to restless sleep, but it can also be due to a fervent sense that if we go to sleep, we might be forgetting to do something important. This subconscious worry robs us of productivity hours and restful, deep sleep.
Consider adding a few drops of lavender oil (from a reputable brand, such as doTERRA) to a glass of water and drinking it before bed. Stop looking at screens for at least 30 minutes before sleep; instead, turn on an audiobook (nothing work-related) or white noise machine and settle into a freshly-made bed, which will allow your brain to relax and offer you better sleep.
During the day, work on quieting your mind by getting outside and sitting still somewhere in the woods or by the water. Don’t work so hard on meditating if it’s new for you, but instead, when you feel your mind starting to get busy and your muscles starting to tense, breathe deeply and focus on your five senses: What do you feel on your skin, smell in the air, hear nearby? This will pull you into the present, and separate you from your work worries.
In the early evening before the sun has set, pick one or two small projects (nothing that would take more than 30 minutes) that will improve your living space. Wash all the dishes, organize the top of your desk, clear clutter from your living room. Sit down in the newly-cleared space and drink a glass of wine or cup of herbal tea.
These intentional measures will remind you of what you have to be grateful for, as well as remind you that there is more to life than work.
Step #6: On the last day before returning to work, really evaluate the return on every task you do in your business
We don’t get burned out for no reason. We get burned out by saying “yes” to too much, whether that’s too many client projects, too many personal commitments, too many discount requests (so we have to work twice as hard to make the same amount of money), or too many marketing efforts.
Take one of your client-free days to analyze all the things you’re doing in your business. Are you on too many social channels? Are you working toward too many personal goals? Are you bearing more than your share of the weight of housework?
Look for items that deplete your energy, sap your joy, or don’t yield a direct return, whether that’s fiscally in your business or emotionally at home. Earmark the ones that require more investment from you than they return, and then proceed to step #7.
Step #7: Nix or outsource what is non-essential for you to be doing (and fire problem clients)
Pick a few regular tasks from your routine—maybe 3-5 altogether—that you can eliminate from your day-to-day activity, or outsource to someone else cheaply.
Can someone else manage your social media or SEO? Do you have to live stream once a week? Do you spend hours in your inbox first thing in the morning and feel completely tapped before lunch?
Or, on a seemingly un-related note: Would a housekeeper coming in once or twice a week decrease your stress and workload for an affordable rate so that you can focus on what brings in revenue?
Get creative with this step! You don’t have to do everything—and if you can’t afford help, it might be time to raise your prices. Watch this video on how to know when it’s time to raise your prices, and how to do it gracefully.
Lastly, really analyze your current client roster. Is there anyone who is costing you more emotionally and financially than they’re worth? Think of people who communicate during late hours, always mark their emails “urgent,” or who repeatedly ask for renditions on work that has already fulfilled the promises made in contract.
These are clients you want to fire. As long as you’re working with them, you have fewer hours to give to more deserving clients who would light you up, sing your praises, and respect your personal life.
For email templates on dealing with difficult clients, refer to this post.
Step #8: Set boundaries (like days and times clients can reach you)
Before you return to work, add a line to all your contracts that details the days and times clients can expect to reach you, and which means to do so are appropriate (email, call, or text, for instance).
This step won’t affect open contracts, but it will help you moving forward to avoid the pressure of responding to messages late at night, on weekends, or when you’re on vacation. You may still get messages, but you can rest easy knowing you’ve already told your clients, “I don’t respond after 5pm weekdays or on weekends,” or something similar.
Also consider any ways in which you feel clients “take advantage.” If they expect endless revisions, do you need to add a line to your contracts like, “No more than one round of minor revisions may requested and performed, at Artist’s discretion, if submitted by Client within 14 days of delivery”? If a client keeps putting off a delivery date, do you need to add late fees?
Set new standards moving forward to protect yourself, and prevent future burnout.
Step #9 (Optional): Start working on a passive revenue stream
This can be a monster project, so only embark on this journey if you’ve already got an idea and it’s a simple one, or you’re part-way through a passive income project and just need to finish it.
The idea behind passive revenue is that it gives you something to offer when you are reaching a place of burnout, so you can slow down—for example, something to offer a “flash sale” on in order to bolster your income while you take a break.
Passive revenue streams can be anything from audio series to online courses to e-books, and they can range from plain and simple to multi-tier and expansive. A 15-page e-book could sell for $19.99; a 5-part audio series could go for $49.99; an online program could list anywhere from $89 to $1500.
The trick to a successful passive revenue stream is planning it and launching it well before you need the income. People can smell a desperate, last-minute project a mile away, and it will never sell well—so build the revenue stream when you’re rested, you’ve done the market research, and you have money coming in. Then sell it when you need that “something extra.”
If you start a project during this period of rest, opt for something simple, like a video training you record on your iPhone, or a short e-book that contains your best tips for your target market. Don’t go too big, or you’ll burn yourself out again!
Step #10: Return to work refreshed
All rest comes to an end. If you’ve been burned out for a while, returning to work might prompt immediate resistance—meaning, on the very first day, before you even return to work, you’ll feel as exhausted as before your period of rest.
If this happens, do two things:
Take a moment to write down at least 10 reasons you are grateful for your creative career—reasons you genuinely love what you do more than you would love any other career path.
Pick one productive work task that you actually enjoy doing, and do that first. Maybe that’s an Instagram post, maybe it’s a pro-bono project; whatever it is, it should be something that you know will revive your sense of purpose in your work.
And then push through the hard part of going back to work, and just get it done. No job is perfect, and we all experience moments of frustration.
Having taken a period of rest—of true rest—you should find that your ability to solve problems, respond kindly to employees and clients, enjoy your work, and manage your time is vastly restored.
Come back and share your results with me in the comments! And as always, pin this article so you never lose it. Someone else needs to hear this information today, so if you can, share it on one of your public Pinterest boards!
Hello! My name is Alexis.
Coffee lover, day dreamer, foodie, and creative. Currently working and living in New Hampshire, I’m an eclectic mix of forward-looking and completely old-fashioned.