In early 2021 I experienced creative burnout. I noticed that I was having less fun in what I was doing. I was getting involved in creative discussions not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I had to draw up extra energy to even have simple conversations with my team and was taking more hours to complete work than ever before. This new state confused me because I had always enjoyed my work and secondly, I never expected something like this to happen to me. I tried looking for answers by watching videos on productivity and procrastination. I wondered what led to this state in life.
There were many reasons for this, some professional and few personal; it’s difficult to identify which factors contributed most. Stress and anxiety don’t hit suddenly. They creep up on you slowly. There had been signs of stress due to work since 2019 but there was enough work on the table, new experience design problems to solve, workshops to prepare for, or travels to plan; that kept me busy (or ignorant to my condition).
When the Covid curfews were enforced in India, I started working from my parents’ home in Pune, which notoriously became the city worst affected by Covid in India. The uncertainty, changing rules and restrictions, vaccine politics, and media led to despair on the home front. In the sudden second wave that hit India in March-April 2021, twenty-one members of my family got Covid almost at the same time. All survived, but my mind was occupied with concern in the time that they were recovering. I buried myself in work thinking that it would distract me and help me cope. I was gravely mistaken. My then organization's inability to provide the necessary psychological safety aggravated the feeling of being constantly under pressure.
I buried myself in work thinking that it would distract me and help me cope. I was gravely mistaken.
It’s pre-emptive then that this ballooning frustration and exhaustion ended up consuming my mind-space so much that I lost the joy of doing anything creative. I'd drive and hike almost every weekend–despite covid restrictions–so that I could recover from the mental exhaustion I felt during the week. It was effective only for a little while. In May 2021, I reached the tipping point and decided to quit work, not take up any other job, and ceased communication with people whom I perceived as harmful.
In May 2021, I reached the tipping point and decided to quit work.
In the following few days, I’d just eat, sleep and watch videos to fill my day. In a few weeks after my break began, I started feeling useless. I felt guilt about not doing anything constructive in my free time. I kept wondering if it was laziness, incompetence, my environment, or the pandemic, that I wasn't able to apply my mind to anything.
To escape the overthinking, I spent an unhealthy amount of time on social media, where people were showcasing their creative culinary and drawing skills, or they were celebrating new jobs or achievements. I compared my life to theirs and felt jealous that I wasn’t living that life. My relatives and friends kept asking me about what I planned to do next, I would unconvincingly mumble something because I had no plan. In a global crisis, I was expected to have a plan. I wondered if our competitive culture and upbringing had a role to play in this burnout.
In a global crisis, I was expected to have a plan.
So, one day I woke up and told myself that I needed to get out of this pitiful state.
Since creative work was no longer floating my boat, I needed something else to keep me excited. I decided to look for pleasure in completely mundane activities. In the next few days, I forced myself to tear away from the screen. I rearranged my wardrobe and found my childhood stamp collection, recounting the places from where I’d sourced them. On another day, I spent a whole morning cleaning my book cupboard and reading passages from some golden oldens. Sometimes I did calligraphy - it was quite terrible, but I enjoyed dipping brushes and nib in ink and applying it on paper without a fixed outcome. Sometimes I'd go walking down streets I'd never been in before. I decided to maintain a diary of all the activities that I did since day one of my break. Even if I didn’t do anything, I would note it as a day of doing nothing. This record helped me celebrate small things in a day and to plan tasks ahead. It made me look forward to doing something new every day. Of course, things were still not going well sometimes. For example, I enrolled at a swimming club for a month but ended up going for only 2 days. In another instance, I paid for groceries and forgot to take back change worth a few hundred rupees; attributed to brain fog. Anyhow, I decided to not be hard on myself and just accept whatever comes my way.
Then I started doing things that would replace my social media addiction. I started hanging out with my cousins and friends almost once or twice every week; where we would play board games, smoke shisha, or have light conversations. I started using travel platforms and communities to make friends and we made a couple of trips nearby. I started listening to new genres of music and podcasts about anything from geo-politics and investing to alternative culture.
I started building my own website. The progress was… slow. I got distracted easily but got back to it whenever I found the head space. It started feeling good after initial inertia since I was playing with color, fonts, images, spaces, etc., a world that I loved.
When Covid restrictions relaxed for a bit, I decided to travel. Going on adventures truly makes me happy, but my motivation to travel solo was low. So, with the help of a travel operator, I booked a trip to Ladakh. (I enjoy planning my own travel, so booking through an operator is proof of how mind-f**ked I had been). I travelled aggressively for a whole month. I went from Ladakh to Kashmir to Jaipur to Delhi and back to Pune–experiencing different climates, terrain, food, and meeting so many new people from so many different walks of life–it helped me feel alive again. I began to 'see and associate' things in a manner that is so characteristic of me. I found that I had so much around that inspires me, it was just that I had been too mentally exhausted to acknowledge it.
I began to 'see and associate' things in a manner that is so characteristic of me.
Meanwhile, past collaborators, friends, clients, and recruiters were reaching out with some amazing opportunities with great responsibilities. It was so difficult to turn them down. Not having the strength to reveal to them that I was going through burnout led to awkward conversations and rejections of some fine opportunities. To those whom I might have come across as unprofessional or disinterested, I sincerely apologize. The decision to not take up big responsibilities was guided by my inner compass prioritizing my mental health. Instead, I started looking for gigs that had ‘simpler’ problems to solve, fewer interactions with people and offered flexible work hours.
I started consulting young startup founders, took up a part-time Design residency, and got more actively involved in volunteering. I stumbled here too, made mistakes, had uncomfortable moments, and still had pangs of insecurity but over time, I was able to pick myself up and find the confidence and energy to feel ready to take up grander challenges in professional work.
In hindsight, deciding to not take up new work, not set any goals nor define a deadline, and cutting myself off from my professional peers helped considerably.
Even though I feel much more relaxed now and am steadily handling large projects, there are times when I still need to overcome the feeling of not being creative enough. A burnout originates from a seed that gradually grows roots that affect an equilibrium state of mind. I realized that I was looking for validation or recognition for my work from the wrong people. They never saw value and I never felt satisfied. I was on a path of appeasement rather than respecting how I design intuitively. This exhausted me. Everyone lost.
So, when I chose to get back to work full-time, I knew that I needed to assert my creative autonomy and more importantly, choose to work with people who honor creativity, liberal thought, and individuality. Physical wounds take some time to heal. A blow to our complicated minds, that surely must take more time?
Physical wounds take some time to heal. A blow to our complicated minds, that surely must take more time?
I’m still figuring out how I want to play next. I might end up growing my career at an organization, starting my own practice, or something else but while I’m on that journey, I’m happy that I can once again find joy in creative activities.
Revisiting this topic has not been easy. I am not someone who easily pours my heart out to others, so doing this as an article already feels like a triumph. Even though the first draft was ready in early December 2021, I never posted it because I was not ready to share what I considered a personal defeat at that time. Time heals all wounds, as they say, and I started forgiving myself and others. I'm grateful to all my friends and well-wishers who were patient with my discouraged attitude, moodiness and rants. Their steady encouragement has led to this text that may serve as a reflection and guide to others. I no longer consider my burnout as a collapse but as a transition from competitive to comfortable, from superfast to deliberately unhurried.
To those who feel like they've lost interest in their craft or are going through tough times at work, I hope these words help you acknowledge that burnout can happen to anyone and that taking time to recover at a pace best suited to you is necessary. Feel free to reach out to me here or on Linkedin if you ever feel like talking about this. I'll try to do my best to support you. If it helps you recognize and avoid burnout in the first place, sharing this very personal story will have been worth it. 🙏