How I Fight Burnout as a Designer

Burnout doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care about your level of experience, what role you play in the design ecosystem or what design title you hold. Burnout is just simply another part of the challenge that we face as designers. If not dealt with correctly, burnout can have a drastic effect on your creativity and growth as a designer. I hope that after you read this lesson you will have a better understanding of burnout and how you can overcome it.

My Experience:

Like I mentioned to you in my Open Letter, everything that you’ll read in this series has been inspired by my own personal experiences as a designer. To be completely honest with you battling burnout is something I have to work on constantly.

However, it never used to be that way. I never really thought I’d have to deal with it. When I was a student in college, our senior class had the honor to participate in a video conference with legendary designer Milton Glaser. It was amazing to learn about his award-winning projects, hear his story and get a sneak peek at some of his recent work. Although I learned a great deal about design during that video conference what fascinated me the most was how Milton was still designing in his 70’s. Hearing him talk about his lengthy career inspired me. I graduated with the goal to design into my 70’s.

As I fast forward to today, I’m even more impressed. Milton is still designing in his 80’s. I often think about how hard it is to stay relevant and motivated in such a competitive industry. I’ve overcome burnout so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve been so frustrated with myself as a designer that I’ve often felt like I should be focusing that time elsewhere in my life. However, what I’ve learned through this entire process is that burnout is just natural. Staying relevant and battling burnout is the unspoken physical challenge of being a designer. The secret is to learn how to accept burnout and overcome it quickly so that you can give yourself a chance to design into your 80’s just like Milton.

So, do I still feel the desire to design into my 80’s? Not exactly, I know that the older I get my value is not in how well I can physically design or use the latest design software, but instead it’s in how well I can strategize and develop solutions that generate results. I’ve excepted the fact that I don’t have to be the guy who’s actually designing the solution, but I would still like to be a part of the design process. However, in order to make that possible, I need to keep my burnout at bay. I’m not immune to burnout, and neither is Milton, but below are some tips that I incorporate into my routine to ensure that I stay motivated as a designer.

What I’ve Learned about Burnout:

  • You need to diversify what you’re working on: One of the easiest ways to become burnt out as a designer is by constantly producing results for the same project or client. You simply only have some many designs in the tank. To ensure you can stay fresh you need to change things up from time to time. If you work for a company, ask to see if you can work on another project or join another team. If you are a freelancer, consider outsourcing a few projects for a while to allow you to focus on something new. Diversifying what you’re working on, doesn't just keep you motivated, but it also allows you to challenge yourself and try on a few different hats in the process.
  • Change your environment from time to time: Looking at the same four walls or seeing the office from the same point of view is simply uninspiring. Whenever I find myself getting a tad uninspired or board, I change my scenery. I may work from a coffee shop one day (ironically as I write this lesson, I’m actually hanging out at Sister’s Coffee in Portland), a co-working space the next or, simply move my desk to a different part of the office. You’d be surprised, it doesn't take a ton of effort to give yourself a tiny little jump start.
  • Take more time off: I’m not good at this. In fact most designers I talk to aren’t. To avoid burnout try to be aware of how long it has been since you have taken some time off. Too much work will simply burn you out. As designers we work an average of 54 hours a week. No wonder we get burnout right? My brother likes to use the phrase “resetting his bearings.” I use to laugh at it, but it’s true. Whenever I choose to step away and reset my mind, I immediately become more excited to take on new challenges and knock out my to-do list.
  • Do more of what inspires you: Depending on how severe your burnout is, you may have to re-focus your attention away from design and focus on what inspires you. Once you find out what inspires you, do more of it. By doing so you’ll jump start your creativity and quickly find out how much you actually miss design. My outlet is playing guitar and songwriting, so I built a community around that.
  • Get more sleep: Along with not taking enough time off, most designers don’t get enough sleep. How you perform the next day is truly determined by the amount of sleep you get the night before. When you don’t get the proper sleep it’s hard to rationalize things and you’ll simply find your day far less productive. You just won't have the energy to design. Getting the proper sleep can be a challenge for me. I really prefer to work at night. However, I’ve found it doesn't really pay off the next day and I also don’t want to get caught sleeping at my desk again.
  • Eat well and exercise: Just like sleeping, I used to never make time to workout. However, working out is simply now a part of my weekly routine. I’m not big into going to the gym, but I do really like to run. Running allows me to clear my mind. Whenever I feel like I need some inspiration, I run outdoors. Running slows me down, allows me to see the world around me and gives me a great way to burn off excess stress and gain clarity on my ideas. In fact this whole design series was envisioned while on a small three mile jog one evening after work.
  • Invest some extra time on a side project: I feel like you can attribute a part of burnout to the lack of being able to focus on your own ideas and see them through until the end. However, as you've learned feedback is just the name of the game in the design industry. By having a side project it allows you to stay in control. You play the role of designer and client. Having a side project, is not just a great way to learn and make some extra cash, but if you’re having a horrible day at work you can always count on your side project to allow you to stay grounded.
  • Step away from your desk: As designers we spend a ton of time at our computers. It’s just one of those unfortunate aspects of the industry, but you can limit that time. Unfortunately, I used to be a smoker. I can’t say I really loved smoking, but if there ever was a benefit from it, it was that it forced me to move away from my desk every couple hours. The best thing about that little break is that it would allow me to work through a design challenge. There’s something cool that happens when you step away from the desk. Ideas just click. As I mentioned, I have quit smoking, but I still try to take little breaks every now and then.
  • Don't sweat the small things: With client expectations, budgets and the desire to do our best work, some days as a designer it can feel like the whole world is sitting on our shoulders. Stress can cause you to shut down. If you find yourself being stressed out take a second to stop and put things into perspective. Yes, design is important, but it really is just a small piece of the big picture. We’re truly not saving babies as designers, we’re just problem-solving. Try writing down your thoughts and successes and soon you’ll realize how small that one little client change really matters to the bigger snap shot of your career.
  • Attend a conference or network: Whenever I attend a networking event or conference I'm always left feeling super motivated. I truly think the biggest benefit of a conference is what happens afterwards. I try to attend two conferences a year and multiple networking events. This allows me to swap stories and meet other great talented people. A conference and networking event is full of  positivity. All of that positivity can help you with burnout. Yes, I learn a ton from the speakers, but it's the conversations with others that help me realize like I'm not alone with any of my struggles.

My Takeaway:

There’s no one-size-fits all approach to beating burnout. What works for some may not work for others. Burnout can last just a few days or even a few months. I've found the best way to handle burnout is to ensure it doesnt happen in the first place. Try to build a routine that incorporates many of the above. Rather than just one vacation a year, take advantage of long weekends. Break up your surroundings and work away from your office. Always surround yourself with positive people and continue to educate yourself to stay inspired. Never lose sight of the end goal. Your frustrations today are just temporary and they will pass. Inspiration is all around us, so if you find yourself in a rut and feeling burnt out, stop and slow down. Diagnose what may be causing your burnout and then go back to your desk and knock out the biggest item on your to-do list. You’ll feel recharged and the rest of the list will be much easier to knock out.

Communication and feedback is important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you all on Twitter. How have you learned to manage burnout as a designer?

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