Have you ever burned out when working on a project? This might be because you didn’t consider effort and reward as part of the planning stage.
Managing effort and reward is key to avoiding burnout in any creative endeavor. It’s important to think about the different ways you can invest effort. Then consider how those efforts lead to a reward.
Even if you have a clearly articulated goal, you may fall short in motivation for achieving that goal. Unless you’re incredibly disciplined, the temptation to call it quits when things go wrong is easy to succumb to. Also, you may occasionally find that there’s a project you’re working on that ought to be called off. Knowing what to expect going in is key to managing your workload and making your efforts pay off.
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout is a natural response to putting a lot of time and energy into something that doesn’t feel rewarding. There are lots of problems that can lead to burnout, but they all center around these two central issues.
Burnout is a term that gets thrown around a lot, so it’s important to talk about what burnout isn’t.
Burnout isn’t just writer’s block. That can happen when you don’t have ideas to work with on a particular project, but still feel like working on it.
Burnout isn’t just getting overwhelmed, either. Getting overwhelmed is a function of over-commitment that leads to distress. Burnout can happen even with a sensible workload.
You could think of burnout as depleting batteries. It’s a major issue in the workplace, but it’s something that can also impact creatives.
Things that cause burnout in the workplace include poor directions, micromanagement, and unfair treatment, but these have parallels for a writer or artist.
The three things that I’ll discuss in this series are effort and reward issues, vision issues, and dealing with comparisons with other creators. There are other contributors to burnout, but these seem most clearly analogous and most prevalent in what I’ve seen others go through. Today we’ll focus on effort and reward.
Effort is the time and energy you pour into your project.
One thing that is important to remember here is that these are finite resources. No matter the level of output you can produce versus the amount of invested resources, at some point your activities will become costly to you.
Having a clear idea of exactly how much effort you put in is important because it’s easy to over-invest, especially if you’re writing as a hobbyist. When I write, I often separate different types of writing based on how difficult they are. I can work on a game for an hour and come away with 300 words. When I write fiction, I can often double that writing rate. When I write a blog post like this, I can hit twice that again.
You don’t need to go to spreadsheets and strict accounting methods to pay attention to the effort you’re applying to your work. But it is something to consider by keeping logs of your work and glancing over them occasionally. For instance, as part of my Year of a Million Words effort, I’ve been doing over three thousand words a day on average. That means that I’ve been putting three or four hours into writing daily at a bare minimum. This is fine because I’m a full-time student studying writing, but if I were working a 9-to-5 on the side it might force me to question what I’m missing out on because of focusing my efforts so heavily on this one thing.
One thing to consider when working on a project is whether you have financial overheads associated with it. Hiring a cover artist and an editor for a self-published work can cost an additional chunk of money, which you need to get somehow.
While this is part and parcel of doing a good job, it might also be something that adds a strain to your life. When I worked on my games, I financed my freelance budget from my pay as a school-teacher, which meant a lot less opportunity to take time off and relax and more of an effort toward figuring out ways to keep my personal budget comfortable.
Another question with efforts is opportunity cost, which is the idea that whenever you’re spending time and energy doing something you’re not using those resources for other things.
The opportunity cost of a creative endeavor that you do as leisure is low. But once it becomes a serious effort, you’re going to see that creative endeavor become costly labor as opposed to leisure. This is the psychological phenomenon behind artists who fall out of love with their craft. When it’s a hobby, there’s no requirement to perform at a certain level. Talent suffices to reach a point where positive feedback and even limited financial rewards can be had.
Going professional is a life-style. It’s hours a day, months at a time, and it’s something which eventually becomes restrictive.
If you’re making a higher commitment than you think you are (e.g. the hobbyist who works four hours a day on their writing), you might cross the threshold from leisure activity into demanding labor without realizing it.
The Theory of Psychic Cost
Psychic cost is the counterpart to psychic profit, an idea in economics that could be summed up as the amount of satisfaction one takes from an action that doesn’t tie into money.
One of the great things about being a creative is that it gives an opportunity to express oneself. If you have the right personality aspects, as I do, it’s rewarding. Heck, there’s even a certain reptile-brain “numbers go up” phenomenon at play that seems more or less universal among humans.
But it’s important to consider that not all writing is equal. When you consider opportunity costs in particular, this can be a one-stop shop for burnout. Don’t give up things you need to pursue a goal, because the end is that you wind up with neither. For me, I often work instead of socializing, which makes me grumpy and hurts my ability to network since I cut social engagements with strangers present first.
Often when I go through a rough patch of writing I can trace it back to giving up on something I value and increasing the cost of writing in my own unconscious estimation. I haven’t gathered data rigorously enough to confirm that this is a rule for other people, but I suspect it’s a general trend.
Reward is the counter-part to effort. It is the measurable or intangible outcomes from an action. It’s also the positive side of a dichotomy, with the alternative being the negatively oriented consequences.
Although it is possible for people to suffer consequences for creating things, the outcome is positive more often than not. This doesn’t mean that the effort rises above the reward, though.
The problem is that the outcome is hard to predict. Many writers have dreams of fame and wealth, but the actual viability of working on a creative project varies depending on the market and quality of the work. People vary their assessments as they work, too, either as they gather additional information or as they reflect on the potential value of their efforts.
This often plays out in creative burnout when someone starts a project with a goal of producing something that seems very cool to them in the moment, but then seems to take more effort and offer less reward than initially expected.
Because most rewards come on completion, it’s hard to manage longer projects beyond just re-evaluation of initial expectations. Working on a novel which might require several drafts and a lengthy pitch and rejection process before it finally gets published is an obvious example of a process that can take literal years to complete and fail to deliver significant rewards.
One issue with burnout is that it can be something that comes slowly and then accrues a cascading factor. A few negative experiences can quickly lead to the re-evaluation issue, but it’s also something unconscious.
Our brains are wired to keep us alive, and one consequence of that is time preference. We like things now, not later. Dealing with a significant lack of return on investments leads to both anxiety and impatience. Before agriculture, refrigeration, and electric lighting, this was a viable strategy in certain contexts.
But almost anything that requires great effort will take a lot of time to unfold. Inventing a new machine or creating the next great American novel doesn’t just happen. It’s a process that unfolds over years or even an entire lifetime.
The problem is that the reward comes at the end of the effort. During that entire time in the middle, there’s lack.
And lack kills drive.
Entrepreneurs exist precisely to overcome this; they buy things before they exist for the sake of bringing them to fruition. The creator gets paid for their effort, and the reward goes to the entrepreneur who usually repeats the process.
That’s not something that all creatives can tap into, but it is something that can be a font of inspiration for dealing with burnout.
A secret to dealing with lack is to set clear milestones and reward yourself for your efforts. Since most of the natural rewards come at the end of a project, it’s something that requires artificial intervention.
First, think about finding a community of writers to support you. I have a local writing group that is currently meeting online, and I use them all the time as a place to commiserate and seek encouragement. Share your work with people who earnestly desire the best for you and who will provide you with reminders of how far you’ve come.
Then think about the ways you can pay yourself for your effort. This can be tied to self-development in other ways. I’ve got a mean sweet-tooth, but I only let myself have things like that when I’ve been hitting my goals. This keeps me from resorting to the candy bowl on a rough day because I’m left with two choices:
- Get my butt in gear and write to earn my reward.
- Let myself have a rough day, but don’t enjoy the prize that I would have had on a good day.
The result from this is usually quite positive, both in the sense that I eat healthier and in the sense that I give myself more of an incentive to keep on top of my planned efforts.
Another thing to do is to look back at what you’ve achieved and appreciate it for what it is. You don’t have to be perfect to look back on things and see that you’ve accomplished something great. I’ve written two novels now, and I hope to have two more and two non-fiction books written by the end of the year. They’re not ready to publish yet, of course, because they need more eyes on them and I want to refine them to be a true best effort before they get out the door.
But how many people can honestly say they wrote a novel? Get into the club and celebrate being there!
Burnout is a complex phenomenon. It’s something that we can recognize, but it comes from several separate unconscious processes that are prone to interact with each other in ways that can fly under the radar.
One problem usually isn’t enough to cause major issues. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s a testament to our endurance as a species that we’ve been able to keep going as long as we have.
But if you don’t address problems, they eventually build up and a single problem gets replaced by ten or fifteen and the entire situation becomes a disaster.
By monitoring effort and reward inputs as you work, you can nip your unconscious concerns surrounding your work in the bud. That doesn’t mean that you’ll never start something that you should give up on. But it means that you can figure out whether to give up, which is the first part of the battle against burnout.
The tough truth behind burnout is that sometimes the negative assessments that lead to it are true. The problem is that failing to deal with the reasons for that is more common than taking care of issues and fixing the underlying malfunction.