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I Used to Think Burnout was Inevitable, a ‘Dying for the Art’ Narrative

Taking steps in the journey to conquer burnout

Burnout. We’ve all had it. Big or small – past, present, and future – the aforementioned is as fluid to our livelihood as a cup of coffee in the morning. It varies person to person and to the human writing this (me) burnout is an overwhelming feeling of defeat. It comes from living at the cusp of my wits. I am a recent graduate of architecture school grappling with the my on-again off-again romance with burnout.

So far in this tender young life of mine, no year has been the same. No consistent city, no consistent love, no consistent job or schooling. That’s common and that’s ok, it also means in each new phase I need to readdress my relationship with burnout. The issue doesn’t cookie cut itself from one situation to the next, nor one person to another. Each person’s evolution and journey with burnout is uniquely theirs.

After attending a recent talk given by Arianna Huffington on the subject, I was intrigued. I think I love burnout – I have to – it is an integral part of my way of life as a creative. I value the process of pushing myself and my ideas to their extremes, yet despite my ‘love,’ as I look back through the years, I have taken active steps to reduce burnout’s presence in my life.

This leads me to the question: is burnout inevitable for someone like me? My journey with burnout, like any young toxic love, has evolved with age. As a youth beginning my first year of architecture school, not sleeping was not an option, it was expected. No pity and no progress was given to those who valued shutting their eyes. The highest performing students drank the most coffee and worked the hardest and the longest. What is working “smart” anyways in a creative iterative career? I still don’t know.

I hate sleeping. Sleep is the enemy of progress and despite what my peers or researchers say, I don’t like it. Call me immature and I’ll tell you it’s true. I am a 23-year-old strong-willed woman who has just started her professional journey through adulthood. I am not an expert in this and I am not telling you sleep isn’t important, but after 5 years of architecture school – and 5 years of sleepless nights – I know my sleep well. We’ve danced with one another, we’ve fought each other, we’ve suppressed one another, and the lack of sleep did lead to burnout. Not resting is the fastest way to run yourself into the ground, but eight hours of sleep might not be the solution either.

I lived off very little sleep for my first two years of architecture school before switching things up. Coming back from a summer in Europe studying in Denmark I had a fresh outlook on the year to come. Copenhagen gives a burnout lover like me, a rude awakening that maybe there is another way. Maybe you can have it all without killing your mind and your body. But how?

I turned to Caitlyn Moran’s talk about the key to creativity in “Inappropriate Advice for Creatives.” Her advice to writers was to read, read your rivals and your idols, read the past and the present, read as many and as varied sources as you can. Curate your own unique list of precedents to draw from. That was good advice, but when coupled with a professor’s recommendation to read “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey, it became my next step to conquering burnout. “Daily Rituals” contained the daily schedules of various writers, painters, architects, and other creatives. As I worked on my projects I would play the book cassette. I noticed there was a common thread that many preferred to start their days early over staying awake extraordinarily late. This intrigued me – besides, I wasn’t my best self at 3am and I was tired of suppressing the feeling of nausea that would come every night at fifteen past four.

So instead of all-nighters, I would go to bed at 12 or 2 and wake up at 4 or 6. The act of ending my day and starting a new one psychologically played a huge role in my productivity and mental health. In addition to changing my sleep patterns, I began to take time for myself. I wouldn’t wake up and immediately go into my work. As the sun rose I would get a coffee and do 15-30 minutes of pleasure reading. The slow start to the day gave me peace before my manic mind fully awoke.

The summer following my mini-awakening, I began my first internship in New York. I kept up my early morning routine, but with extra intensity. New York City is my greatest catalyst. Its energy fuels me and when I am there each step I take feels like an extra beat of my heart. This transpired into a morning routine that looked like this:

6:15 am – wake up

6:20 am – run to the Hudson and back

6:41 am – shower and grab laptop

7:00 am – go to coffee shop

7:07 am – get coffee, sit, write an article

8:05 am – drop off laptop

8:30 am – head to work

9:00 am – walk into office

I regimented my mornings with military precision so once I got to work I could break my routine and handle anything that came my way. Not only did that make me a better employee, but as soon as I stepped into the office I had already accomplished something for myself that day.

In addition to my militant morning routines, I made a concerted effort to give myself mental health breaks throughout the day. That meant taking my full one-hour lunch break outside the office every day to refresh my mind. It meant making multiple trips to the kitchen to make coffee in the hopes of small-talk with a colleague. It meant making plans after work with friends and going to the galleries every Thursday night. All of this let a late night at the office, or a lunch I had to work through, or a weekend I needed to spend in the office ok.

I
used to think burnout was inevitable, a ‘dying for the art’ narrative, but I’ve
found the more I value myself and my mental well-being, the less time and space
I have to fall apart. No one’s journey in life replicates another, and burnout
can show up in various ways. I don’t know where this next year will lead – what
job I’ll have or what city I will live in – but I know conquering burnout is a
journey, and I’m ready and equipped for whatever this new chapter has in store.

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