Artists Share Their Advice on Preventing Burnout
The word burnout has a certain desperation about it—conjuring images of a broken-down car, or a computer with fried circuitry. But for us humans, it’s simply a way to describe a sort of psychic collapse. “Burnout is the experience of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, yet still somehow worried you’re not doing enough,” said Amelia Nagoski, co-author, with her sister Emily, of a recent book on the subject. For artists and other creatives—those for whom the line between work and play, career and passion, is often nonexistent—the threat of burnout is especially dire. What happens when the thing that has brought you so much joy becomes a source of stress and anxiety?
There’s no simple solution. A spontaneous month-long yoga retreat in Tulum might sound like just the ticket, but that’s certainly not an option for most working artists, who depend on their time in the studio to pay the bills. Still, creatives can adopt certain tactics to avoid burnout—and to bounce back if and when they’ve hit that wall of stress. Below, we share insights from artists and experts on how to avoid the dread of burnout.
Give yourself a break
Taking time away from your art, or other creative obligations, might seem irresponsible. But in the long run, allowing yourself some breathing room can help avoid burnout, and ultimately make you more productive. The artist and curator C. Finley described feeling “physically and emotionally” exhausted in the midst of organizing her Every Woman Biennial in 2019, coupled with “back-to-back solo shows, various art-fair curatorial projects, and huge mural and commercial jobs.”
Her solution when burnout is on the horizon? “I take three full days between each project, in a beautiful place, to reconnect with myself and nature in the desert, mountains, or near the sea,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s a simple retreat, sometimes a decadent extravaganza. I fully check out—no devices, phone, or internet—and it restores my body, mind, and soul.” The money you spend on what might seem like an indulgence could actually be a sound investment in your career’s longevity.
Don’t hibernate, however tempting it is
Sophia Narrett’s elaborate sewn tapestries are impossibly detailed and very, very labor-intensive. She describes herself as an introvert, someone who cherishes the solitary space of the studio, but notes that the temptation to hide out during a major project can risk burnout. “I’ve learned that if I let three or four days go by without doing anything social—which can be tempting, depending on how a piece is coming along—a certain amount of anxiety is inevitable,” she said. “For years, it would sneak up on me. There aren’t really warnings, but the timing was always pretty consistent. Maintaining a life outside of the studio, regardless of how obsessed I am with a project, keeps this at bay.”
Do something creative, but not related to your practice
Jamian Juliano-Villani’s career has been on overdrive for the past few years. She started out as an assistant to the painter Erik Parker, making her own work in a cramped Brooklyn bedroom. Now, she’s a veritable star, showing in buzzy group shows at the Whitney and having solo exhibitions at JTT and Massimo de Carlo. Success increases demand, of course—and feeling compelled to produce more and more new work can be a swift road to burnout. “I’m really high energy and need to be doing shit constantly,” the artist said. “My brain works faster than my hands, so I’ll try to do something really stupid—like making Easter baskets, or friendship bracelets.” Anything works, she said, provided it’s “remedial, and not in your scheme of art.”
Maybe whimsical creative hobbies just aren’t your thing. In that case, Juliano-Villani has some more offbeat suggestions to avoid burnout, ranging from vigorous apartment-cleaning sessions to a visit to the zoo. She’s also been trawling eBay and purchasing found VHS tapes from strangers. “It’s usually a boring Christmas video, or a birthday,” she admitted, “but sometimes you find a gem. Other peoples’ lives and circumstances are a great way to get out of your own head and think differently about things.”
Distract and inspire yourself with the creativity of others
The French painter Bernard Frize is a busy man; this year alone, he has staged solo shows at Perrotin’s outposts in New York, Tokyo, and Paris, not to mention a major exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. But don’t think Frize is immune to burnout. Certain types of demanding commissions can leave him feeling “suffocated, even claustrophobic,” he admitted. Frize’s solution is simply to temporarily shift his focus, almost as a way of tricking himself back into the mindset needed to paint. He might take a deep dive into a related field. “My studies are motivated by my interest in ethnology,” he explained, noting a fascination with the early crafts of the indigenous people of Taiwan.
“Indirectly, my research is a way of thinking about my work,” he said. “I’m passionate about exploring objects that have nothing to do with myself, and that already exist.” Case in point: a pair of 19th-century chairs Frize owns, created by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Heinrich Vogeler. “I enjoy looking at them and trying to uncover their mysteries; and while I am far from my own paintings, I am close to other painters who, like me, think that living with objects is not always a vain occupation,” he said. “And then, after exploring other topics, I get my courage back. Moving away from the studio does not take me away from my concerns, but sometimes, in inventions of the past, I discover what I missed when stress obscured my vision and diminished my love for painting.”
Realize that art might be a job—and that’s okay
Amelia Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, noted that a confusing thing can happen when artmaking goes from being a personal passion to a viable career. After all, she said, artists are often driven to create in order to deal with anxiety, to “keep the overwhelm at bay.”
So what happens when artmaking itself, and its professional demands, becomes its own source of stress? “When art starts to put food on the table, it often stops feeding our soul, and then we’re worried we’ve lost inspiration or run out of ideas,” she said. “But it’s not true. It’s just that your relationship with the work has changed. Instead of being purely an outlet for self-expression, it becomes other things, too. And that’s fine. It’s normal. But you don’t have to give up that first early feeling of what it was like to make something out of yourself for its own sake: You can explore new disciplines, take up a hobby, be an amateur. Not only will this give you that feeling of self-expression again, it will renew your capacity for expression in your primary discipline.”
Don’t fall for the romantic myth of the tortured artist
Art history is full of anguished souls whose brilliant work seemed to spring from the disaster of their lives. “We think suffering is good for our work, that the suffering caused the art to be good,” said Nagoski, discussing her own creative life as a musician. “It’s not true. I learned this the hard way—I was hospitalized twice for stress-induced illness, and when I was deep in that pit, I understood Bach and Brahms and especially Mendelssohn like I never had before. I thought, ‘Ugh, is this what it takes to know this music?’ Now that I’m well, I know the answer is no.…When I’m not in physical or emotional pain, I have more ready access to any of the feelings I need to express. More of me is present in the moment of creation. I can be more generous because not only do I have more to give, I also have less fear of losing it and never regenerating.” The recipe for your next masterpiece doesn’t include falling prey to stress, despair, or overwork—burnout only ensures that you’ll be too spent to put your brilliant ideas into practice.