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You’re Not Burnt Out, You’re Just Crispy


TL;DR: You can wake up your brain from creative fatigue by establishing new patterns through bite-sized achievable tasks with incremental and measurable progress.

Today finds me under gray, drizzly skies nursing my third cup of coffee in a desperate attempt to shake off my sleepiness and get some fire underneath me for the workday.

Because of my phone’s settings, I’m receiving no less than 10 buzzes, bings, and chimes notifying me to awaiting text messages, Facebook notifications, and missed calls.

I’ve added every conceivable extension to Google Chrome to provide me with up-to-the-second alerts to emails received and emails to follow-up on; pop-ups remind me to track my time for the 18 projects I have on my work roster.  A to-do list program beckons me to remember my laundry and to pick up olive oil with my groceries for this Sunday’s family meal I’m cooking for a group of friends.

My laptop has been open for  a grand total of 40 minutes this morning and I’m already feeling crispy.  That’s not to say that I haven’t already been working since rolling over and reaching for my cell phone, then extending the “barely awake work party of one” to my iPad as I drank the first cup of coffee.

Normally, I’m leaping from bed around 7:30am or so, ready to hit the ground running and tackle those to-do lists with gusto.  I’m posting on Facebook for myself, scheduling content for clients, and setting up meetings for the week well before I’m through the first-and last-cup of joe.

But lately I’ve been experiencing a touch of the blahs that has since been upgraded to a full-blown case of the crisp.

Friends, I’ll just say it:   I’m feeling that creative fatigue.

What Up, Infrastructure?


As many of you know, infrastructure is my jam, my war cry, and my way of life.  I believe very firmly in creating the foundation in work and life needed to build well, and build big.  And for me, there’s no excuse to feel anything less than awesome when I start my day.  I should have the infrastructure in place to counteract the mental fatigue that comes with the level of work that I perform and the intensity in which I work.

At this point, we’ve all read the readymade articles geared towards working professionals, career warriors, and freelancing fiends to prevent “burnt out”:  Wake up on a schedule.  Eat breakfast.  Go for a walk.  Have routine.  Journal your thoughts.  Meditate.  Talk to a friend.  Go for a hike.   Bareback unicorn rides into the sunset.  Hot air balloons.  Bubble baths.

And then there’s those of us who can barely scrape together enough time in our hectic entrepreneurial schedule to slurp down a protein shake between meetings, let alone purchase and prepare the ingredients for an organic meal.  There’s also those of us who start art projects to relieve stress and then spend the next week tripping over spray paint cans in their domicile.

Sound familiar?  Join me on the journey on taking thy brain from crispy to spongy.

“Pimp My Brain”


I have recently been reading up on all kinds of life-hackey tips and tricks to disrupt the stress response and revitalize the creative parts of the brain.

One of the more interesting articles I read was written by neurologist Judy Willis, MD.  In her article, she explains why the brain responds to stress in the way that it does, citing that “neurons that fire together, wire together” and prolonged stress can send your head on a one way trip to survival mode:

“As you internalize your thwarted efforts to achieve your goals and interpret them as personal failure, your self-doubt and stress activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. As these circuits become the automatic go-to networks, the brain is less successful in problem-solving and emotional control. When problems arise that previously would have been evaluated by the higher brain’s reasoning, the dominant networks in the lower brain usurp control.”

In other words, if you fatigue your brain to the point of operating on auto-pilot, it’s going to default to less productive parts of your brain for problem-solving.  More stress, less productivity.

Dr. Willis proposes rewiring your headspace through a series of simple repetition that does not necessarily require hiking boots, yoga mats, or farm-t0-table meals:

“You can activate the same neuroplasticity that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state to construct a new, stronger default response. With more successful experiences achieving goals, you can reset the circuits that will direct your brain to access its highest cognitive resources for creative problem-solving. You can build up new, improved circuitry, switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE!”

And the best part is that creating new patterns for your tired brain is based on the video game model.  I personally am ecstatic about this discovery, because it justifies my need to rewind with Xbox 360 and kickback at Barcade Jersey City on the Ms. Pac-Man machine.

Happy Brains Hinder Burn Out


You don’t have to commandeer your kid’s Playstation or invest 80 hours in Gears of War just yet (Although I would totally support you if you did).  The video game model refers to a creating a pattern of task completion that enables your brain to build up the good chemicals that increase creativity, motivation, and curiosity:

“The plan to guide you comes from the video game model that works because of three components: buy-in, achievable challenges, and frequent awareness of incremental progress en route to the final goal.

Just as you work through board levels, mini-challenges, side quests and bosses before you beat a video game, work and life present much in the same way.  The video game model advocates that you clearly define and commit to a larger goal (The Buy-In) and establish smaller, more enjoyable but readily achievable tasks that will enable you to keep track of your progress and stay motivated and engaged to get to your end goal.  Repetition of task completion will increase your satisfaction, and this will establish a new brain pattern.

“…You’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition feedback of incremental progress. You should set your “rewiring” goals by their desirability and by the goals’ suitability to be broken down into clear segments. This way, you can chart your goal progress as you achieve each stepwise challenge. The pleasure burst of intrinsic motivation that will accompany your recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep your brain motivated to persevere.”

How To Deal With Burnout and Cure Creative Brownouts 

With this information in hand, we can create our own personal roadmap from fried to restored.  I’m sure many of you employ these tactics on the daily, but it’s good to have these concepts reinforced from the perspective of preventing and fixing burnout and brain fatigue:

  1. Clearly define end goal (Buy-In)
  2. Create a series of smaller, more easily achieved and enjoyable tasks
  3. Measure and track your progress
  4. Celebrate the end goal

To-do lists and visual reminders of your end goal can prove most helpful in this process.

Create Your Burnout-Proof “Game” Plan

Need a jumpstart? The video game model can be applied to creative professionals and entrepreneurs in a number of relevant applications:

  • Identify & Learn a Skill For Your Small Business:  Want to learn how to create your own podcast or start a video series?  Don’t become overwhelmed by all of the options.  Define your goal (“I want to create and upload my first podcast episode by May”) and then begin planning your next steps in bite-sized tasks, from guest curation to planned message.  I personally like to start planning backwards with the goal first and then condense all the tasks down to the very first step.
  • Expand Your Network:  Want to rub shoulders with other creative professionals, artists, and entrepreneurs?  Think about what you hope to gain from networking:  More clients/customers/collectors?  More money?  More connections?  Now start thinking about where this type of network resides, online or off.  It could be a professional group within your community, an online forum, or even an area lounge that hosts art exhibition or event after-parties.  Clearly define who you want to meet, what you hope to achieve in expanding your network, and how you plan on sustaining your efforts.  You can then begin planning your dance card for new introductions and networking.

Continued Reading:  How to Rewire Your Burned-Out Brain: Tips from a Neurologist”, Edutopia

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