Jennifer Shiman had the dream career for so many creatives.
She created a popular series of animations (30-Second Bunnies Theatre: where animated bunnies reenact famous films in 30 seconds).
Corporate clients came calling.
She made a good living from her work.
She was, for 10 solid years, the rarest of unicorns: a successful one-woman animation shop.
Then she burned out.
Why? Because, while on the outside she seemed to have it all figured out, behind the scenes she was keeping on top of things only by working crazy hours, filling every available moment with more work.
Workaholism will get you results up to a point, but it’s not sustainable work process. And it risks causing you hate what you used to love so much.
“My system…was outdated for my reality.”
After she had her daughter, Jennifer took a few years’ hiatus. What else could she do? Her success depended on her being able to work every waking hour. That wasn’t going to fly with a newborn. In any case, what’s the point of having children if you’re going to be working whenever they’re awake?
After a few years, she had finally recovered enough resiliency to want to return to animation.
But returning to the grind she’d escaped…?
When I started to do the Bunnies again, I felt panicky.
Because working on the bunnies for so long—and it was really was one title after another, with a six to seven week turnaround—it was all I had time to do.
I could be at the desk 20 hours a day if I wanted to. I could finish. The flexibility was maximum.
It was a pretty relentless work schedule, and I got really burned out. That was a big impetus behind taking the hiatus.
I was exhausted and just didn’t want to continue down that path.
Now, in addition to the childcare component and having an additional human in the family, physically, it’s just too taxing, and literally, there’s just no more time.
I’m always thinking about productivity. Having to crank out an animated short a month for 10 years—and doing it myself—you have to have a good system.
And my system…was outdated for my reality.
Building in margin leads to a sustainable work process that will prevent burnout
Jennifer’s work habits while she was a full-time pro made her leery of going back to being a full-time pro. Yet, animation is the work she most wanted to do.
What was the missing ingredient?
Margin. Time and space to dive deep and discover how she wanted to design a sustainable creative life.
Jennifer needed to allow herself to examine her work process and design something that would support her creativity AND her humanity…long term.
Figuring that out takes time, and it’s hard work. So she came to the Creative Focus Workshop to get the support she needed.
This is an opportunity to really create not only a sustainable way to earn a living, but a sustainable work process, which is necessary for my health.
This is the project now, and it feels really good. I know that it feels right.
And I may not have known that without having had the tools and the road map from the Creative Focus Workshop.
What it looks like to implement a new, sustainable work process
But even as Jennifer implemented her new work process, many issues hung on from the past. Even if she’d wanted to work in the same burnout-producing crunch-time style as before—and obviously she didn’t—she had a new life now, more complicated, and with less free time.
And she was not happy with those restrictions.
A key insight from the Creative Focus Workshop is accepting the amount of time you really have, and working with what you have.
That was a big, big game changer for me. Because I have a lot of resentment—ha ha—about my lack of extra time now.
I might create a calendar where I’ve cordoned off certain amounts of time to work on the project.
Then we went through the process, in the workshop, of comparing what I had planned to what really happened.
That was very hard, but very necessary.
And then I have to accept the fact that yes, life happened, it was hard, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to.
Once I can accept that, then I can stop using time to just rage and utilize those little pockets to just keep getting the work done.
Whereas before I might feel discouraged and put it off more…
…this time I would feel discouraged and then try again to recalibrate. Which was a change for me.
Next week. How can I make this work with my reality?
Key insight: It’s not your fault
It’s not just a matter of accepting external circumstances. The key insight is that those circumstances felt like they were Jennifer’s fault, like she was the failure point. Which led to painful self-blame (and not incidentally, further delay, exacerbating the problem).
In Jessica’s workshop I was able to pinpoint something I had not seen. I could not see it because I was so close to it.
I was feeling discouraged and like it was an issue with my own skill or time management rather than just accepting that now this is a different reality than it was.
That’s been a big change for the positive for me.
And that is a piece that I did not have in any prior productivity system.
The emotional work of facing what’s stopping you
A common misconception is that putting in place systems to support sustainable creative productivity should be mechanical, just a lot of list-making, tactics, and checking boxes.
But in fact, it’s highly emotional to realize—and accept on a deep level—that the life I think I have is not the life I actually have, that they just don’t line up.
Even when you haven’t faced it, that fact is already painful. You face that realization that things aren’t lining up daily, and it’s the source of enormous anxiety and guilt, even shame.
What can you do about it? You can’t (well, probably shouldn’t, anyway) radically simplify your life by cutting out family, friends, paid work. That’s not really an option.
Radical acceptance of your objective reality
What you can do is take control of your decisions about where and how to spend the time you do have available.
Making these decisions yourself and not allowing them to be made for you by default, is empowering.
Even if the decision you make is not what you’d prefer and you’re not super happy about it, at least you’re the one making it. This is the key to building a sustainable work process (believe it or not).
The acceptance component just seems like it’s a no-brainer. But that’s not true.
It’s emotional and it is something that causes real delays. The emotional delays of feeling very blocked, and Why can’t I get these things done? I hate this.
It often leads to paralysis, in my case.
I’ve found that trying to get comfortable with the idea—This is the new normal. How can we work within the new normal?—that shifting that way is a practice, I find.
More and more I experience those moments of, Okay, I get it. This is how it is. How can I make this chunk of time work?
That really helped me finish the Ombudsman animation.
Get help to take the sting out of the hard work
This emotional process is not easy in any case. And it’s especially not easy to face it alone. That’s why Jennifer was so glad she could rely on her cohort of committed creative people in the Creative Focus Workshop. (And whether you join the Workshop or not—get support for this process.)
It’s pretty important to be all in for the Creative Focus Workshop, for one’s own process and one’s own journey. Because it was really helpful. And in order for it to be that helpful, I had to be plugged into it.
I was ready to do the hard work. Because it was hard work.
Necessary work. But it was hard.
After the cohort ended, I was really lonely! It was weird. I don’t do a lot of online workshops, and I wouldn’t think that doing an online workshop would merit feeling sad when it was over!
I found it very supportive to be part of a group in the workshop that was able to talk about what that was happening.
And in that process I was able to understand—and I think not only understand intellectually, but understand… somewhere else, on a psychic basis, or spiritual—that it was OK to run out of time in the day, and just move on to the next day.
And then things can continue to get done.
Check out the Creative Focus Workshop, and get support to make the big changes you need to build a sustainable and productive creative life.
About Jennifer Shiman:
Jennifer Shiman is the creator of 30-Second Bunnies Theatre. Since 2004, she’s created and produced over 90 short cartoons with bunnies re-enacting movies in (approximately) 30 seconds. The award-winning shorts have appeared on broadcast TV, on demand, online, and in a global ad campaign for Volkswagen Fox. In 2018 she launched a Patreon campaign to help fund six new bunny titles. Find Jennifer on Twitter, and the Bunnies on Facebook.