Ever been in that dilemma? When you have this insane allergy, but if you took an antihistamine, you’d get all sleepy, and you CAN’T get all sleepy because you have to work? Being burnt out, but unable to take time off is kind of like that.
Obviously, time off to decompress is the ultimate solution to the kind of chronic fatigue syndrome artists have, but there are times when there simply is no ‘next time’. Either you paint (or create) it now, or never. Well, maybe not never, ever, but, sometimes there’s just no moving a deadline and you have to make some hard choices.
Mind, this isn’t just me: I recently came across this article about how holidays, however much needed, just aren’t an option, sometimes for burnt-out professionals in the workplace.
So taking off from last month’s post about having ABS (not washboard but more like washout), I’ve got 10 suggestions that might help to tide you over. That is, until all the work is finished and ready for your (hopefully) adoring public.
1. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of a piece you can get so bogged down by the details of the here and now that you lose sight of the long term and the end goal. This is the part when you picture what it’s going to be like when you’re done, and remind yourself why you are doing this.
If you’re like me, you might start taking a ‘glass half-full’ view of the situation (versus a ‘glass half-empty’). Say you have 10 canvases to complete, and you’ve already done six. Burnout strikes during all the detail work on the seventh—this is the part where you look at how much you’ve accomplished or how far you’ve come, instead of how much further you have to go.
Or, if there isn’t much farther to go or much more to do, you can focus on that, e.g. just one more canvas and I’m done. Or, just a couple more weeks and I’ll be ready to ingress. (I mean, what’s a couple more weeks in the face of several months, right?)
2. Keep your eyes beyond the prize.
While it helps to stay focused on the end goal, it also helps a lot to have something to look forward to after you’ve reached it—the end goal is not the end, after all. You could, for instance, think of what you’ll do to celebrate (as Sherlock puts it) the ‘triumphant issue of your labours’.
Of course, it’s essential for you to not get so caught up in thinking about the future as to neglect the present. But I reckon there’s no harm in daydreaming about taking a little trip out of town or hibernating in a hotel or something after the show opens.
3. Take care of yourself.
Self-care is usually first out the window when the pressure mounts and the deadline looms. This forever favourite quote of mine by Dumas has become my mantra since the first time I read it some 10 odd years ago:
‘…I accomplished the most astonishing deeds, and which, more than once, showed me that the too great care we take of our bodies is the only obstacle to the success of those projects which require rapid decision, and vigorous and determined execution. In reality, when you have once devoted your life to your enterprises, you are no longer the equal of other men, or, rather, other men are no longer your equals, and whosoever has taken this resolution, feels his strength and resources doubled.’
You can blame it on where I went to school but I’ve always believed that health, well-being or whatever is always secondary or subordinate to whatever it is you have to do. I still do. After all, making something a ‘priority’ means putting whatever that is, first. And that sometimes, the work couldn’t care less if you had a cold, a concussion or catalepsy—as long as it gets done.
It used to annoy the living Jingo (as Carruthers put it) out of me whenever ‘friends’ or whoever would tell me to lay off the wake-up juice (as jillamonsters put it) whilst in painting factory mode. Because though I would like to believe their intent was purely humanitarian, it invariably, primarily struck me as an implication that my work wasn’t ‘worth dying for’.
To be honest, I still find these ‘amiable admonitions’ rather irksome at times. But, count on me to learn things the hard way or, more accurately, to learn by doing. Taking a little extra care of yourself, i.e. sleeping a little longer, remembering to eat or cutting back on the Bull—makes it possible for you to ‘last longer’ and delay the ‘final fizzling out’. It’s as simple as that.
Plus, like I always say (on my way to another that’s-why-I’m-fat snack), ’I always work better when I’m fed’. (This was funny when I used to actually have a boss named Fed, but it still holds water, now.)
4. Protect yourself emotionally.
Taking care of yourself doesn’t just mean your hardware, but your software + operating system, as well—indeed, this kind of self-care is arguably far more crucial. That said, now would definitely not be the time to expose yourself unnecessarily to haters, drama, super stressors or anything else that might act as an ‘emotional vampire’.
You know that thing bakers have, about not baking anything when they’re in a bad mood, or the brownies are gonna taste bad, too? It’s kind of like that.
5. Stick to your schedule.
If you recall, I did say something once about sticking to a schedule as a facet of the kind of discipline that artists need to create great paintings. As the months (or even years) go by and time seems (or starts) to run short, it can be tempting to start skipping out on certain things in order to ‘save time’.
I’m talking about micro, not macro schedules—the day-to-day routine, which might include little blocks of time for cleaning your gear, cleaning your studio space, and mixing or materials prep. This routine usually covers self-care stuff like eating, sleeping, basic hygiene and exercise. If you’re one of us who has a parallel ‘normal people job’, your day-to-day likely includes that, too.
Once you realise, ‘Ah shoot, I only have X number of weeks (or months) left’, you may tend to start ‘borrowing’, reallocating or cutting back on the time spent on some of the stuff in your routine. You might even do away with these things altogether to increase your actual painting or production (or rehearsal) time.
To be super honest, this sort of thing works? But it can also backfire. Like maybe it’ll work for a while, but if you have a long way to go, this isn’t highly likely to see you through, long term—especially if you’ve already ‘trained’ yourself to stick to this regimen for a good, long while.
Remember, I said something about making hard choices when there’s a deadline that can’t be moved and resources (i.e. time and energy in particular) are limited? This is one of them, and only you can figure out the best use of your resources in your particular situation. But personally, I would recommend sticking more or less or in general to your existing routine.
6. Pace yourself.
Think, ‘one day at a time’. LOTR readers may recall how the armies of Rohan had to ride all the way to Gondor and still have enough strength left to actually kill the invaders when they got there—it’s kind of like that. Try to husband your strength to last over the time you have left and not fizzle out mid-way.
To paraphrase what G told F, because ‘if you don’t finish the paintings, no one will.’
7. Go for the minimum viable action.
This ties in with pacing yourself: Naturally and especially when time’s running out, you want to get as much done in one day as you possibly can. But when you start burning out, ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. So, what you might do is to compromise by doing the least possible amount of work while still remaining on schedule.
That amount should be little enough to allow you to get over the ‘weakness of your flesh’, but not so much as to slow you down, overall.
8. Reward yourself sometimes.
Celebrating short-term victories can go a long way towards keeping you going and keeping your spirits up, especially when the end is still a long way off. Say you have 32 canvases to complete (or chapters, or concertos), and you have, this day, finished 16—or even four. Surely, that’s cause to celebrate, n’est ce pas?
The more obsessive compulsive ones of us might even mark down short-term goals in advance and plan these little rewards ahead, e.g. cupcake for every four / six / eight pieces.
9. Stop taking on more work.
Believe me when I say I know how tempting it can be to take on other commissions or so on even with everything you already have in the pipeline. Or, maybe you’d already committed to them before you took on your ongoing magnum opus—maybe you didn’t know how much time or energy it would take and thought you could handle it at the time.
Point is, you’ve got to be straight with yourself—if you really, truly know that you’re already maxed out, then please do yourself a solid and put all possible else on hold, and that includes incoming or potential projects. Be realistic about the resources you have and figure out whether taking on more work is feasible.
Another way to interpret this would be to let go of current, concurrent things, if you can, particularly if you find your resources running low. It’s all about making the best use of what you’ve got left and making sure you don’t run out of fuel before you reach the finish line.
It’s also all about getting your priorities straight (which I also went into in that post I wrote on discipline). Try asking yourself: Is that new gig more important than what I’m doing now? Can I actually afford to divert or divide my remaining resources between this new project, if I take it on, and the omega amount of work I’m doing now (and absolutely mean to get done)?
10. Get a little ‘molar’ support.
We used to say this as a joke when I was a kid, but growing up I’ve gotten rather attached to it. On top of the obvious, I’ve come to interpret it as the kind of support that makes you smile so big you can see your back teeth (think, the way Muppets smile (even though most Muppets have no actual teeth).
Though most people will probably (never) understand exactly what you’re going through (unless most of the people you frequently fraternise with have the same curse—erm, I mean, are artists themselves), a few, friendly words of encouragement generally come naturally. Of course, how sincere the support you get is, is something else, altogether.
Personally, I think this kind of external support (spelt correctly or otherwise) may be dispensed with, or is a kind of extra—icing on the cake rather than the cake, itself. If you can get it, great. But if you don’t have access to such a support system, prefer to avoid dependence on it or wish to wean yourself from it, well, there are nine other ways for beating burnout, aren’t there?
Having opened this piece with the conundrum of ‘to antihistamine or not to antihistamine’, let me end it by pointing out how some logicians might say that it could be well-nigh impossible to work with an ‘allergy’, anyway.
So forcing yourself to work when you’re spent actually isn’t advisable and all one can really do is rest before putting your nose to the grindstone, again. Well, these philosophers aren’t wrong and I have neither the will nor the wherewithal to gainsay them.
I would venture to suggest, however that it is possible for some of us to have their cake and eat it, too. Though that pastry may be more like the proverbial pill, there are ways of making that pill a little easier to swallow. That’s what I’m doing now, and if you’re just about ready to admit you can’t go on for sheer exhaustion, I’ll be happy to do what I can to help you out.