Profile picture of Carrie Cousins

8 min read

Lessons learned from overcoming burnout

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

Woman with orange shirt drawing on iPad

Illustrations by {name}

Stay informed on all things design.

Thanks for submitting!

Shaping Design is created on Editor X, the advanced web design platform for professionals. Create your next project on Editor X. 

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.

Woman working on laptop in office

Creative writing wasn’t what got me going. It was what went into creating the blog–learning HTML, figuring out how to write for online readers, pulling together images, and making sure it was all easy to understand.

Many websites weren’t super visual at this time, but, if I was going to write about design, the design had to be good. I dove in hard and learned everything I could about how to take the visual skills and tools I had from print and apply them to this new medium.

And I loved every minute of it.

A line of code would bust, and I would dig for answers. I designed and redesigned.

I still do that today.

That silly blog was my first step into rediscovering my career. And it eventually led to a new career. During a time when newspapers were beginning to downsize, I broadened my skill set and shifted into online content creation.

Because of all the time I’d put in with my side project, I was able to get a job doing more of that kind of work full-time. I was able to write and design and do research into what makes users tick (the early stages of website analytics).

The transition from tinkering with my own blog to leaving my job with a new idea of what I wanted to do in mind took about a year. That can seem like a long time when you are burned out, and it was.

Getting past the burnout is a lot of work. Failing helped. Failing gracefully helped even more.

While the journey was worth it, there were definite transition pains. I lost a lot of sleep. I had more days than I’d like to admit that I was ready to throw in the towel. I probably wasn’t all that nice at times.

None of this was who I am. It was the burnout gnawing at me.

I shifted my day and started on side projects before my work day to pull that positive energy into things I wasn’t excited about. I had a silent mantra: No one wants to work in negativity. I repeated it to myself when I started slipping.

It wasn’t always easy, but it was just what I needed.

This career shift provided me with the opportunity to keep designing, but the creative elements changed constantly. I worked on print projects, some product design, and a lot of digital. I took on every new kind of project I could. Shamelessly. Fearlessly.

If I didn’t know how to do something, I found someone to teach me. Somehow, I was energized by not knowing and by learning. The burnout was gone.

The comeback

I changed a lot of things in a short period of time to beat burnout. I changed jobs and careers. I went from being the person with the most knowledge in the room to the least.

I began to think of my professional identity differently: writer and designer. This was an important moment because the terminology was print/digital/product-agnostic. I am a writer and designer. The medium doesn’t matter.

I believe that as much today as I did the first time I typed it on my LinkedIn profile.

Woman working on laptop with plants in the background

Today, my portfolio is a little all over the place. Mostly because of that self-identifier of “writer and designer.”

I learned to split my career into two things that I love and use them together to stay fresh and keep projects exciting. Of course, there are days when making a business card, poster, or simple website are less than enthralling, but then I can flip to the other part of my professional identity and find new energy.

I changed my thought process from “how can I finish this design” to “how can I solve this problem?”

Good design is a lot like a complex mathematical equation (as best I can determine from my limited math skills). Every x impacts y; every piece of the design connects to other elements; and all of it needs to be easy for the end user.

Burnout is a lot like that. You have to figure out how x (your work) impacts y (that feeling of burnout). Then fight it by doing things or solving problems in a way that works with the way you think.

A lot of people doubted that I could pivot from newspaper designer to writer and designer to where I am today. I still think of myself as a writer and designer, but I also like to think I’m a digital problem solver, helping clients figure out how to best use design, writing, and digital tools to talk to their audiences.

Now, most people are even a little taken aback when they find out where my professional journey started. I see that as a testament to how far I have come.

Learn to fail gracefully

Remember, I said getting past the burnout is a lot of work.

Failing helped.

Failing gracefully helped even more.

Every time I failed, the web of my experience and network grew. Some of these failures were public–a blog post with a grammatical mistake or a website design with a fatal error–but most were tiny failures that sparked continued curiosity.