When you’re on the brink of burnout, and you see other people publishing, launching, getting distribution deals, it’s understandable if you think, “Those people clearly have it all together. They must be totally unlike me.”
But the truth is that most creative pros—even those who have visible success—struggle to feel in control of their time and careers. You’re not alone if you can feel yourself headed towards creative burnout.
Why? Well, we never really learned how. Most of us start out relying on pure youthful stamina and lack of other commitments to make it possible to cram out projects in a panic at the last minute. I certainly did.
Late nights, working weekends, angsting over projects that never get finished, feeling guilty when you’re not working (and guilty and resentful about neglecting all the non-work things in your life when you ARE working), feeling like you’ll never get it all done…it’s the most common situation in the world for creatives.
They get better at what they do, and more opportunities come along, and it gets worse.
And by that time, most people are at a stage in life where they’re building families and complex adult lives full of commitments.
They’re on a collision course.
This is what incipient creative burnout looks like.
Success courts burnout
When I met Swedish film director André Hedetoft in early 2018, he had already released a feature film (Origin), and was juggling freelancing as a commercial director, getting geared up for the graphic novel/TV series Space Pirates, while facing a deadline mere weeks off for a working script for his next feature film, Ever Girls…which was already in sight of casting the leads.
He’s also father to three ridiculously adorable little girls, all under 5, and he wants to truly be there for them.
All good things, but whichever way you slice it, it’s a LOT.
Is it any surprise he saw a crash on the horizon? Burnout was imminent.
I felt a lot of frustration, because I’ve always been the kind of person that has a lot of ideas. I can get inspired by everything and anything. And usually, early on in the project, I have huge momentum and I’m getting a lot of stuff done, because I love that kind of process.
And then, of course, reality sets in. And you find that you don’t have the time you need to turn it from that initial state into something real.
Or you get sick, or your kids get sick, or you’re overloaded with other work or things you are required to do, and the project and that inspiration and momentum kind of dies out.
And then you’re left with a whole bunch of really exciting, potentially awesome projects, that are in the same state, with nothing really finished.
I work on things and I work on things and I work on things, and if it was up to me, I would never actually deliver them because I love the process of working on them. But not so much the process of finishing.
If you’re headed towards burnout, it’s not because you lack passion
What André had realized is that when too many projects split your focus, nothing gets done—at least they don’t get done without a panicked scramble, cramming in extra work on evenings and weekends, when what he wanted to do is be present as a father.
As painful as it can feel, choosing one project (what we call the “One Goal to Rule Them All“) that you’ll give your full energy to is about more than making progress because you’re simply spending more time on it. Having One Goal is an accelerant for ideas, creates space for serendipity, and gives you a sense of purpose. As a bonus, it’s great for mitigating burnout.
When I started the Creative Focus Workshop, I had three or four really competing projects, and I still love all of them.
But what One Goal does for you is it makes you say, not to anyone else, but to yourself, that this is the thing I’m going to focus on for the next few weeks.
Once he really looked at his list strategically, André could see that one project stood out above all the rest as demanding his attention.
The film I’m currently working on is called Ever Girls. It’s usually described as Scandinavia’s answer to Stranger Things. So it’s a bit scary. There are some superhero, supernatural elements to it.
It’s takes place on Christmas Eve here in Sweden, and all of the adults get sick with this unknown virus. For some reason it only infects adults, and it turns all the adults into some sort of zombie. Only the kids are left.
In Ever Girls, we follow four girls living in the same high rise, who meet during all of this chaos. Each of them has a weakness inside of themselves, and they team up and try to get out of the high rise to save their parents. And on their way, they have to discover that the thing they think is a weakness inside themselves is really their true superpower.
What One Goal did for me is to say, all right, Ever Girls, you’ve got my attention, let’s make you happen before anything else. And that made all the difference for me.
Finishing takes focus
And, as André discovered, having One Goal (at a time!) doesn’t mean the other things you want to do disappear. It means that, when you get to them, you’ll get to have the same level of focus and engagement.
And it doesn’t say forget about everything else, but for this period of time, try to clear the table to work on this one goal. And for me, in hindsight, it sounds very obvious but for me that made a huge difference.
This was a make-or-break issue for André. He was already workshopping Ever Girls with a group of hand-picked kids who were up for the lead roles. His writing process involved directing rehearsals of the scenes with the girls, almost as if he were creating theater, and building the character arcs together.
And I think and hope that for the actors—the four girls who are in between 9 and 15 in the film—I hope it gives them a way to work with their characters in a film, so once we start shooting it, it’s almost like theater. It’s as if we’ve been doing this film a couple of times over.
They know who their characters are. They know the journey of the film. So once we’re shooting it, it’s basically like a live performance of the film, which is always great.
It’s an incredibly challenging and deep way to co-create a story, but it also meant that André had exceptionally tight deadlines for producing a shooting script so the film can go into production.
It was a great moment to see if I can, through this workshop, actually find some tools, and a way for me to get rid of that inner critic and actually get my butt in my chair every day, writing, which will turn into weeks, and which will turn into a finished screenplay, and eventually a finished film.
What got you to this point will not get you to the next level
As a working film director and writer, André obviously knew something about getting things done by hook or by crook. If that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t have been able to get as far as he had. But his essential methodology was to make all the lists and try to cram more in to any given week.
Unsurprisingly, now that his career was taking off, this method was no longer working, and burnout was looming.
I’ve always been very keen on making to-do lists. I’ve done them for as long as I can remember. But before this workshop, my to-do list was basically a series of things. Some were of major importance, some were really quick and not required to do at this moment.
It was basically a wishlist, purely based on my hunch of not what I could do in a week, but more of what I wish I could do in a week.
And more often than not I found myself—it’s Friday afternoon, I’m looking at my weekly to-do list, and there’s maybe 2 tasks done of 15. And what that does to you, or what it did to me, is you always feel that you’re left behind. You never get the sense of accomplishment that you actually finished those two tasks. You feel that you have to catch up on things and that you couldn’t plan your week right. And then the weekend comes and you have to try to catch up on weekends.
Sound familiar? Leaving items on your list, day after day, staring at you, adds to your mental load.
Not finishing makes you feel like a loser. It also sucks all the pride and joy out of the things you did finish. That prolonged stress is a major contributor to burnout.
The simple but not easy answer to avoiding creative burnout
While the answer to this problem turns out to be pretty straightforward, actually implementing it is far from easy.
A major eye opener for me was to plan everything by the calendar. It sounds really obvious, and you can read it as many times as you like. But it’s not before you actually sit down and do the work, like I did in the workshop, that you see the change.
And now each week, I’m very keen on planning everything by the calendar. I plan the writing first, and that time is non-negotiable. Obviously, sometimes that’s negotiable time, but the first thing I do is plan the writing time and then put everything else around that. Because that’s the most important thing I’m doing each week, to get the script done.
And all the other stuff, if it doesn’t fit, it won’t happen in that week.
However much I wish it did, it just won’t, because the week is my reality.
The key for André was not just the eureka moment of realizing he needed to live by his calendar, but the fortitude to see through the hard labor of then implementing that solution, facing all the attendant difficult decisions about what is actually a priority and what doesn’t make the cut.
Because I’ve found if I just read the books or the newsletters, I didn’t actually sit down and take them seriously enough for them to be able to make a difference.
There’s a huge difference between just reading and taking notes—which I do—and actually doing the homework required to turn that information into something that works for you.
But once you sign up for something, and with your wonderful accountability system built into the Workshop, I found that I actually did the assignments every week. And through each assignment that I did, something changed within me.
Setting up a plan at the beginning of each week and minimizing his to do list until it consisted only of things that would fit on his calendar was a game-changer.
I actually sat down every morning and wrote, before anything else. Before mail. I paid myself first, even if it was just for 25 minutes, even if it was less than I would have liked or even planned for. That’s a huge win for me. Focus on becoming the kind of person who writes first thing every morning. Then I can build from there.
Having done the hard and frustrating work of prioritizing the calendar beforehand paid off as I didn’t feel guilty for not getting done the stuff that’s not on the calendar, which I usually do.
Focus in, results out
Mere months later, André’s situation was completely different:
I’m insanely happy to announce that just before Christmas we finished a brand new kick-ass film script, graphic novel outline, and the casting of the four fantastic Ever Girls. We have all the ingredients needed to make true magic. We’re currently having discussions with a couple of international production companies and are eyeing a film shoot early summer, aiming for a release next Christmas.
Meanwhile, I’ve already gotten going on the next One Goal: writing the pilot episode of the Space Pirates TV series.
Creative burnout: averted.
More about André Hedetoft
André Hedetoft is the visionary Swedish director of Ever Girls and Space Pirates who, inspired by his three daughters, has become best known for his strong focus on extraordinary female characters blended with his vivid and playful imagination in high concept films and TV series for a young audience. (via Vimeo)
Andre at Cannes, in Swedish. Thanks Google Translate!