Avoiding Burnout and Staying Creative in an 'Always On' Culture

5 tips for the constantly overwhelmed

The pursuit of work/life balance usually feels more like—to paraphrase Rihanna—work work work work work/life balance. And it's a real problem.

In this industry particularly, achieving balance is not just hard, it's damn near impossible—and there are some who argue that maybe it should be. If our job is creativity, inspired by every aspect of what we see in the world, how does a creative mind draw a line between what's work and what isn't? Maybe we can't.

This is a conversation I've been having with my friends in the business a lot lately. It seems we all have "a problem" with work/life balance. In advertising, and many other industries, our watch never ends. And it can be exhausting, the mental overload of it all. 

Staying creative while being overwhelmed is not easy. In fact, the struggle is so real that burnout is a now diagnosable medical condition. So how do we make space to allow for the creation of work that is both inspiring and effective? 

We all know the basics: Get sleep, hydrate, exercise. But sometimes these things are out of our control. Sometimes the call time is 6 a.m., so we can't exercise that day and that's OK. Sometimes the shoot is 16 hours, and they're serving only cheese tortillas and cold Chicken McNuggets. And so that is what we shall have, Universe. 

How can we actively fight burnout to stay creative powerhouses? Here are some appropriately creative ways we can help ourselves and each other. 


Compassion and patience have taken a front seat in my work/life balance lately. I can't be perfect, but I can be kind to myself. No, I can't always land the Goop.com routine and regimen. It's not a personal failure; it just doesn't align with my career schedule at the moment, and that's OK. Being kind to myself allows space for new ideas. It gently wills new ideas rather than demands them. Stress-induced creativity is not a long-term strategy. 

Do Nothing

Shutting down is huge. After long trips or crazy schedules, I book a solid week of no plans. Sorry! Can't make those drinks or that event because I have plans to have no plans. And in those times, I actively do nothing. I sit, I light candles, I sit on the deck, in silence. I look at the trees. I do things that don't involve people or phones or TV sets or internet connections. And it's glorious. This physical space allows for mental space. Doing nothing is when ideas have a chance to speak to you and you have a chance to actually listen. 


I sleep. I sleep for ungodly amounts of time. A lot of studies show that sleep is cumulative, so if you get three or four hours every night for a week, you can stock up with a lux 12 hours of weekend sleep fest and it will equalize. Maybe "balance" is cumulative, too. That's my latest perspective, at least. Also, beautiful connectivity happens in your brain during rest cycles. Sleep feeds new ideas and helps us cope with the stress of waking hours.

Focus, Then Bounce

Maybe it's OK to be hyper-focused on a project for a few weeks but then be really clear on boundaries after that project has shipped. Like, hey team, I know it's noon on a Tuesday but we just worked for three weeks and weekends so I'm leaving the office to get a manicure—cool? (This hasn't been fully tested yet—still in beta, but I'm hopeful about the outcome.) We all deserve breaks sometimes. This is not laziness. This is human. Assert yourself and own your downtime.

Don't Shame

I just caught myself being guilty of this. A co-worker asked me about taking time off and I was like, "Well, that's a lot of time off." Jeez, Bevan. What was I responding to? That's not my inner belief. I should have said, "Take it! We only live once! Rediscover yourself! Move through the woods, lose your birth name, go bare, speak with the animals, connect with your original nature!"

Let us not vacation shame. It should be a commandment. Be the change you want to see in the world, or something like that. Be the vacation-supporting co-worker you want to see in the office. We all need and deserve downtime. It makes us more creative, happier and healthier human beings. A lot of studies show that companies that have mandatory vacation days have happier, more productive employees. So we know it works (as if we needed a reason). 

The bottom line is, we have crazy schedules. We can't control them sometimes. This whole self-care revolution puts extra pressure on us to be balanced gurus. So make time to do nothing, take your unlimited vacation time, sleep. 

No, it might not be perfect work/life balance. And that's OK, because there's less chance you'll burn out if you're good to yourself and other people. Accepting imperfection is a part of the process. Now, go. Shine bright like a diamond.

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Bevan Mahaney
Bevan Mahaney is creative director at Grey West.

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