How to Fight Creative Burnout in a World of Increasing Demands

Filed in Boost Creativity by on December 4, 2017 • views: 997

I think of myself as a pretty “mindful” person.

I’ve studied mindfulness for years as a part of my health writing, and I make it a point to try to be present in my life. I practice focusing in on what I’m doing, and have gotten pretty good at overcoming the child mind’s desire to do something else when I need to get my work (usually writing) done.

A little while ago, though, I had an experience that showed me just how much I still have to learn, particularly when it comes to getting away and allowing the creative self a little restoration. I share this with you in case you, too, may need to rethink the amount of space you’re giving your mind and soul to refresh itself.

Are you truly doing what you need to do to avoid creative and personal exhaustion? Many writers—apparently including myself—are not.

Monkey Mind Has Its Way

I gave myself a few days to get out of town and forget about work for a while. I’m always recommending that we writers do this more often, but I have to admit that I find it difficult myself to get away as much as I’d like to.

My first day I escaped to a hiking trail I’m familiar with. I was really looking forward to it as I hadn’t been able to do much hiking for about a year, and the weather turned out to be perfect for it.

It was about sixty degrees, sunny, and calm. Not too cold or too warm for hiking. The trail provided alternating views of dense forest and vast ocean vistas. The higher I went, the more ocean I could see.

Back and forth. Dense trees with a soft dirt trail and so quiet you could feel almost like you were invisible, Sitka spruce and hemlocks and all sizes of ferns. Then around the corner the ocean spreading out all the way to the end of the world.


Yet my brain kept vacating the premises.

First it noodled over the projects I’ve got going on in my freelance business, listing the ones I had waiting for me upon my return and dropping in on new clients that I’ve just started working with. Then it reviewed which clients have turned out to be great over the past year, and what assignments I enjoy most and least.

Stop it! I’d think. Look where you are! Stop thinking about work!

I directed my attention back to where I was, nearly alone on this beautiful trail though I did pass other hikers now and then, gradually climbing up a steep cape and peeking out to take a glimpse of the ever expanding ocean below me.

I’m getting a little hungry. I should have brought some lunch with me. I thought the visitor’s center would have something but surprisingly they didn’t, not even trail mix or granola bars…

Quit! I had to shut my brain up again. BE HERE.

It worked…for a while. Then my brain started wandering again, wondering about how my parents were doing, and whether my brothers might all make it home for Christmas this year.

I started getting really frustrated with myself. It was the perfect day in so many ways: gorgeous weather, astounding scenery, lovely trail, the feeling of my muscles working, which is so lovely when you’re used to sitting (or standing) at the computer all the time.

It was the kind of day I fantasize about when I’m slaving away on article number twenty for the week, yet here I was experiencing it and having a heck of a time getting my brain to relax and just enjoy it.

Granted, this was the first day off I’d had in ages. It often does take me a few days to really de-stress and get into the input mode instead of the constant output that usually takes up most of my regular days.

But still, I thought I’d be better at it than I was!

Is Our Modern World Destroying Our Ability to Creatively Refuel?

As I thought about my day and how many times I had to bring my mind back to the present moment (be here, be here), I began to wonder if the world we’re living in now—with our brains rewired to respond to computers, tablets, and smartphones—is making it even harder than usual to get into a mindful state.

I’ve heard the term “monkey mind” used often in meditative circles, but I have to say this is one of the few times I’ve experienced it running away with me when I had every reason to be focused on the present moment.

“Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly,” author B. J. Gallagher writes in Forbes. “We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention.”

What exactly is monkey mind? It’s our tendency to jump from one thought to the next, which takes the mind out of the present moment and puts it on whatever we’re thinking about. Lawyer and entrepreneur Marelisa Fabrega describes it well when she says:

“Typical mind chatter sounds like the following:

  • Your mind reading off a laundry list of to-do items.
  • Your mind listing its fears, both real and imaginary.
  • Your mind recalling hurtful things that have happened in the past.
  • Your mind judging the present.
  • Your mind creating catastrophic “what-if” scenarios of the future.”

I don’t identify as a Buddhist, per se, but I appreciate many of the teachings, and this one definitely makes sense to me. It seems to be even more of an issue now that we’re all thinking about emails, text messages, and social media feeds along with all the other things we have going on, like work, family, and community activities.

Writers and other artists are also thinking about blogging, marketing, submitting, and more, to the point where it seems like a mind that chatters all the time is the norm, and perhaps even a good thing when it comes to tackling our growing to-do lists.

I know that I’ve had to become more efficient over the past several years to be able to balance my freelance business along with this website and my publishing projects. I’ve been pleased with my progress in managing it all, but now I’m wondering…has it come at the expense of my ability to slow down and be present in the moment?

Writers Need to Create Space in the Brain

I’d have to say “no” for the most part, simply because I see that I have no problem being present when communicating with others, doing my work, or writing my own projects. But when I took some time off to go “refill the well,” so to speak, it was a different story.

I think part of the reason is that there was no other “thing” to focus on—no other person, activity, or task that required my attention. I was free to focus on my surroundings only, and to allow my brain the space it needed to relax.

Relax. Maybe that’s the key word. It’s something we need so badly as writers and creative artists—time to relax and let the brain empty itself of everything we have going on so we can give it a chance to fill up again on new creative ideas.

Without this space and time to relax, the brain eventually suffers overload, or creative exhaustion.

Smart writers schedule regular time away to allow the brain this refueling process. That’s one thing this experience has taught me—I need times like this more often throughout the year.

But I’m thinking something else too—that our modern world may require that we take, at the very least, four days for each getaway. Why?

Because by day three, when I went on my second beautiful hike, my brain relaxed into the moment a lot more easily than it had the first time.

I had to remind myself to be here only once. Compared to the first day, that was a vast improvement! And it showed me once again that it takes time to shed the pace of one’s regular world and take on the new pace of relaxing and allowing what will be to be.

The other magical thing that comes with this process is that the creative ideas start to bubble up, and I find my fingers itching for the keyboard. By the third day, I was taking profuse notes by hand in my spiral notebook, and had nearly finished an outline for a new book.

I’ve had this happen before (have you?), and I love how it works. Usually after about a week’s time of being away, I get a year’s worth of ideas and outlines that will keep me busy until my next vacation. A worthwhile result to be sure!

But even just a little time away to forget about work and responsibilities and “the next thing” gives way to a healthier and more productive brain ready to give you what you need in terms of creative insights.

So why don’t we do it more often?

Why Writers May Easily Burnout

Yes, we go to visit family. We go to writer’s conferences. We go to this and that. But how often do we take time to just get away and be?

My feeling is that for most of us, it’s not enough, and now I’m thinking that because of the following reasons, writers need this kind of time even more than we used to:

  • We’re constantly barraged with information coming at us from all angles, and it can be difficult to absorb it and process it all.
  • We have to do more than we used to if we want to stay active as writers.
  • Many of us are self-published and run our own publishing businesses in addition to writing, marketing our work, presenting, speaking, etc.
  • We’re feeling the market pressure to write faster and produce more often.
  • The realities of the writing life include the fact that most of us must keep our day jobs, too.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all is that we must create, create, create at a very high level. We are constantly doing, achieving, and producing, with very little (if any) time to just be, which leaves the creative process incomplete.

We must create more stories faster, more blogs, more social media posts, more guest blogs, more interviews, more podcasts, more graphics to go with everything, etc. I have a feeling that with all this, we’re placing greater demands on our creative brains than writers have in the past.

Yet we’re forgetting that to keep up with this pace, we must give our brains space to just relax, take in our surroundings, and restore themselves. Without this part of the process, burnout and creative exhaustion lurk around the corner for all of us. The solution can be as simple as a few days away every couple months.

My new goal for next year: two “just relax and be” vacations instead of one. (Visiting family is lovely but doesn’t count—the brain is too wrapped up in visiting to really refuel.) Plus a couple four-day breaks for creative refueling.

How about you?

Do you battle with monkey mind or creative exhaustion?

BJ Gallagher, “Buddha: How to Tame Your Monkey Mind,” Forbes, November 3, 2011,

Marelisa Fabrega, “10 Ways to Tame Your Monkey Mind and Stop Mental Chatter,” Daring to Live Fully,

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Comments (4)

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  1. JP McLean says:

    So many monkeys! Time off is no longer time off, only less time spent on the social media treadmill. Terrific post, Colleen. Something to work towards.

  2. Dave Burnham says:

    Excellent post and extremely informative. Thank you for sharing. I completely agree with the four-day breaks for creative refueling. I took six days out during the summer and came home completely recharged. My writing improved and the ideas flowed. Since then I’ve had a couple of shorter breaks (two nights, three days) and haven’t fully experienced the same “rush.”

    • Colleen says:

      Oh interesting, Dave. So you’ve experienced first-hand the difference between just a couple days and four or more. Thanks for sharing!