Burnout is an interesting state of being. I feel myself surfing the wave of it pretty often in a variety of contexts. There is an element of my personality that creates burnout more often than in most people. I like to go too hard. I like extremes, I like discomfort, I like when I’ve had too much. Why, I couldn’t tell you. I have no insight into the underlying mechanics of the process. I just do it. Over and over again. I am getting healthier but I still seek it.
There is a difference between burnout, disinterest, boredom or depression. However, it can be hard to separate. When you are young to the world or to a state of being, they can feel the same. All you know is you don’t feel right. You don’t feel super happy, you don’t feel fulfilled. This thing that had before brought you such joy, now brings you sadness. But it’s hard to disentangle everything. You just feel sad and you do the thing you have been doing and you probably don’t make a connection.
It is important for any artist to understand burnout and to separate it from disinterest or depression. If you want to express in a certain medium for your entire life, or even for any long amount of time, you must understand this mechanic. If you feel bad, that is too broad a characteristic to even bother stating. You must understand the inputs that are creating these bad feelings and not assign a single, general vocabulary word. Words are a strong reflection of reality and specific understanding needs a specific word.
It is best to not read burnout. Like any injured state, once you go full over into dysfunction, recovery time becomes exponentially greater. It’s best to be aware of how you’re feeling and catch overwork or overproduction much earlier. When you aren’t the happiest you’ve been you can recognize that and step outside of it and move on.
But that’s, of course, easier said than done. First you must understand what burnout is and how it isn’t depression, but perhaps could cause it. A process that leads up to it is disinterest — this is the first stage of the process that leads to burnout. If you push through this disinterest without developing a new direction or feeling, or giving yourself time to digest, you will bump into burnout. This is that feeling of “I don’t care,” or “Why bother,” that sometimes infects your work and your process. Disinterest is a message from your brain. “I need time to think.”
If you ignore that message from your brain, it will intensify. You will begin to rebel not just on conscious levels but on unconscious. This is when it becomes inseparable from depression. You are depressed — but there is a cause. It is burnout. Leave the creative furnace alone for awhile and the fuel you need to keep it running will stockpile again and you’ll be back to running hot and banging on metal.
Unless, of course, you’re me. At that point you’ll start chopping down trees from beyond the clearcut you’ve already creating. Starting the fires again, because hell, I can find stuff to burn. Burn it all. If you do this the fire will be bright and hot but it won’t last long. Soon you’ll be depressed again. Even then, if you’re like me, you won’t be able to understand what’s going on — despite the fact that you’ve seen it before.
Now, to beat this, cultivate awareness. Meditate. Meditation is a powerful tool for any artist because it sets you outside of all of this nonsense, all of this noise. It gives you time to listen to your mania and find a place for it. To get past the words your brain endlessly throws at you–the smoke–and find the fire that is creating them. And perhaps, if you keep at it with a minimum of ego, find a way to put even a cold forge to use.
You have to find a structure that supports repetition long term. You have to find a way to rate-limit your creation of art. But don’t stop — that’s the fear that perhaps makes me heavier on the side of burnout. I’m scared I’ll stop. Let go of that fear. Build something for yourself that keeps you going using some higher level interest, but makes scheduling or availability of imaging a control of how much you can photograph. Make it social, make it organized. It’s nice to be bored and go make some art to fill that time, but sometimes you just need to let yourself be bored. Or do something else.
With this understanding, keep going. Create a structure and build it so far into the future that you can’t see the end of it. Don’t do too much at once, but do it so long that you step above what “too much” is, when you compare it to the timescale of how long you’ve been doing just the right amount.