Lessons learned from overcoming burnout

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A personal story on finding new love for design, trying a new skill, and learning to fail with grace.

8 min read

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It started as a little tickle in the back of my brain.

“I don’t want to do that.”

And then it went from a tickle to an all-out itch.

“I’m not going to do that today. Maybe tomorrow.”

It was design burnout. It took me too long to figure it out, but resulted in a career pivot that made me a better designer, better coworker, and maybe even a better person.

The burnout

I’d been designing newspapers–yes, my first career was in print–and slowly started to lose the love for it. The stories journalists were telling were still amazing, but the design work had become mundane.

The industry was shifting to more automated design and templated pages and didn’t leave a lot of room for creative ideas.

I didn’t feel challenged or appreciated, and slowly fell into the black hole of just getting things done. As I lost pride in my work, I stopped sharing it on social media.

I also did things I wasn’t proud of: I missed work, procrastinated on projects, made stupid mistakes too frequently, and argued the merits of visuals that weren’t worth fighting over. There wasn’t anything to get fired over, but I wasn’t employee of the month either. These are all classic signs of burnout.

The Mayo Clinic suggests asking yourself the following questions to determine if you are burned out professionally. Answering yes to any of them can indicate some degree of burnout:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?

  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?

  • Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

  • Have your sleep habits changed?

  • Are you troubled by headaches, stomach problems, or other physical complaints?

I could answer yes to almost every one of the questions on the list, but, moreover, I’d simply lost the passion for design work. I’m not sure why or what did it, and that seems to be a common theme with designers who do burn out.

Maybe I’d drawn the same page too many times. Maybe my visual style had been second-guessed too many times.

Regardless of the why, the result was the same: My heart wasn’t in it anymore.

Two women talking in office with plants around them

Realizing that was the first step to reinventing myself and my career. You’ll find tips everywhere about how to do this, but the fact is you have to want it, and it’s not easy. I had to work hard, fail some, and keep working in a job I was beginning to hate. But I didn’t let the burnout get the best of me.

First, I took a vacation. I didn’t think about work or design or what I was going to do with my career.

When I returned, I made a commitment to myself to find something I was passionate about–whether it was design or not–and carry that rejuvenated feeling from being away into everyday life.

Honestly, this moment was terrifying. My job, my career, was so much of who I was and what I identified with. It’s a big life change to knowingly decide that has to change.

And I really had no idea what I was going to do next.

Shifting careers

Beating burnout started with a series of new ideas. I’m a big picture person and constant learner.

So I did what every other burned-out worker in the 2000s did: I started a blog.

Admittedly, the blog was pretty bad. Thankfully, it’s not living online to shame me anymore. The blog helped me do something new: I started writing about design.

It was a rambling of thoughts (as many blogs are), and I didn’t know it at the time, but it slowly evolved into something that would help propel a new career path. Looking back, the biggest lesson from that early blog was that good design is good design; the medium doesn’t matter. The concepts and principles and usability goals are the same; the path to creating it is just a little different.

I kept working as a newspaper designer while I wrote online. The fulfilment I wasn’t finding by drawing boxes in InDesign was now coming from another source.