About 3 years ago, I worked myself into a creative burnout that lasted for almost four months. I didn’t just feel exhausted and ill, I felt like every last drop of creativity was just gone.
I got there by being a person who just enjoys being busy and by being a person who sucks at saying ‘no.’
It’s a woeful combination of personality traits when it comes to being a freelancer.
Every project that came along was a quick ‘yes!’ for a few reasons.
Because I didn’t want to ruin my streak of consistent illustration projects for fear that the universe would somehow punish me by never delivering another illustration project. Yeah, that sounds extra ridiculous when I type it out, but it felt so real at the time. Getting started as a freelancer is tough and I was terrified of having to start all over again.
Because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Even though there are obviously many other illustrators on this earth. I’m certainly not the only option available to art directors. Again, that sounds extra silly when I type it out, but I tend to feel deeply guilty if I can’t help someone.
And because I wanted to hit my six figure financial goal and knew I needed to work every available hour in order to do it. Certainly not a healthy approach. Definitely why I recommend having a balance career path with multiple income streams, including passive ones. It’s a rare illustrator who can make a six figure (or higher) income from doing just one thing.
Pair the ‘yes’ habit with that deep down love of staying busy and before I knew it, I was working 50 and 60 hour weeks and not taking any days off for almost 2 years.
Gee, Steph, why did you end up feeling burned out for a few months?
After going through the burnout and wondering if I would ever feel creative again, I set about adjusting my mindset which is how I could conquer my bad work habits.
My new mantra became ‘do less with more heart.’
It was a constant reminder that a) I didn’t need to accept every project that came along and b) that I do my best, most fulfilling work when I’m not rushing through projects.
When you’re working 50-hour weeks and just jumping from one project to the next with no space between, you know you aren’t creating your best. You know you aren’t giving your best. And you know that doesn’t feel good.
For me, embracing the ‘do less with more heart’ life has happened in tiny increments. Even after I recognized my unhealthy work habits, it wasn’t easy to break them.
I started by setting boundaries and making rules for which projects I would accept. And with that I had little pockets of free time here and there, which I used to “stay busy” by exploring art making in new ways.
It didn’t feel like much at first, but I knew I was sowing the seeds for a happier, healthier and more successful future Steph.
And then, 2020 came along! 2020 has actually helped me fully embrace this ‘do less with more heart’ mindset shift.
Thanks, 2020, for giving at least one thing that didn’t totally suck.
The constant low-level anxiety of 2020 forced me to define what is most important in my illustration business. Working long hours and taking every project isn’t feasible anymore because I no longer have the creative energy available for it.
Right now, it’s all about essentials.
What are my business goals and how do I get there? Preferably while maintaining a shred of sanity.
What projects make the most sense for where I want to take my illustration career?
What is the bottom line for me when it comes to fees and timelines?
Why the heck does an illustration career have to be such a slog? How can I embrace what I truly love and hit my business goals?
Last year, I tiptoed into the ‘do less with more heart’ mindset and this year I pretty much tripped and fell right into it.
And here’s what happened:
There’s more time for creative exploration now and that’s led me down unexpected and exciting paths.
Giving space to work fully on each project has led to better results. That makes me and my bank account pretty happy.
There’s time to invest in myself and my business, things that are going to lead to personal and business growth. And it just feels good.
There’s less guilt when I say ‘no’ to a project or an idea. The more I practice saying ‘no, thanks’ the easier to gets to say it without feeling guilty.
No matter where you’re at in life or career, you can easily fall into saying ‘yes’ to everything from work projects to family life. Are you a person who defaults to being busy, like me? Remember that being busy doesn’t equal being productive or successful or healthy.
If you’re feeling the drain of an approaching burnout or the insistent wail of a breakdown on the horizon, here are a few ways to embrace the ‘do less with more heart’ life:
Define what’s essential and what you’re just doing out of habit or because you feel like you should be doing it. You know what your goals are. What are the things that will lead you there?
What are your boundaries? What is the minimum fee you’ll accept for an illustration project? What’s the minimum timeline? How many hours per week are you committing to your illustration career? Are you scheduling yourself beyond that number? Set some guidelines and stick with them.
What kinds projects would you like to start saying ‘no’ to? What no longer aligns with your career vision?
What are you passionate about? What projects are worth pursuing? What aligns with your overall vision of yourself and your illustration career?
Making space for ourselves feels counterintuitive, especially when we are running a business, but only when we give ourselves space can we truly stretch and grow.
If you’re a little flower, yeah, you might be able to bloom in the midst of weeds, but you will struggle for every touch of sunlight and every drop of rain.
Pull the weeds and now the little flower has, not just sunshine and rain, but space to grow and really blossom!
Give yourself that space to grow.
Do less with more heart.