Creative for the Long Haul – Building Sustainable Practices
by Taylor Slattery | December 20, 2021
When you make the decision to pursue a career doing something you love, you run a serious risk—falling out of love. It’s possible for the thing that once brought you an immense amount of joy, and in which you sought refuge from the rest of life’s worries to lose its magic and become stale, or worse, even become the source of your stress.
On top of the risk of losing something you love to the soul-crushing monotony of a nine-to-five, you also run the risk of burnout. Despite the bright, vibrant images of young twenty-somethings engaged in lively whiteboard sessions portrayed in stock photography—the likes of which often accompany these articles—creative work can be just as demanding and stressful as any other job, and in some cases, even more so. Finding solutions that appease all parties involved can be challenging enough, but add problematic clients and tight deadlines to the mix and you’ve got all the ingredients for a burnout waiting to happen.
When you’re constantly putting out fires, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision. The minutiae of responding to emails and slack mentions can keep us so wrapped up in the present, we forget to look to the future and the goals we had when we first set out on this journey. You likely had big plans. Maybe you were going to start an agency and make a name for yourself, or travel the world while working from your laptop. If you’re always stuck playing catchup, you’re likely to find yourself in the same place in five years, having made little headway toward your goals.
Somewhere between the minutiae of the present moment and the foggy vagueness of the distant future, you need to strike a balance. It may not seem like it now, but the journey is longer than you can imagine. If you think you’ll be able to fight off burnout and creative blocks through vigilance alone, or are waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself before you make a move toward your goals, you’re unlikely to succeed. Your inbox will never be empty and you’ll never be closer to your dreams. If this is something you truly plan on doing for the long haul, you need to offload some of that burden by creating systems to help you avoid these pitfalls along the way.
The first, and most crucial behavior to establish is to make a regular habit out of organizing your thoughts. You can use any means you’re most comfortable with, whether that be pen and paper, or a note-taking app like Notion. When you’ve got a million things you’re trying to keep track of just floating around your head—projects, to-do lists, and everything else that comes with life—things can quickly start to get away from you.
The simplest thing you can do to stay on the ball is to put these things down on paper, literally or figuratively. In a notebook or an app like Notion, take some time to allow yourself to just purge any thoughts that are floating around in your head. Without worrying about how to organize them yet, just let everything out. Transferring your thoughts from your head to the page allows you to see them more objectively and this distance will help you to make better decisions. Once you’ve got everything down, now you can begin to organize.
Look for the big groups or common trends amongst what you’ve written and begin to categorize them. Maybe you’ve got some important dates coming up or some skills you’ve been wanting to learn but haven’t found the time. Seeing everything laid out in front of you can provide the clarity you need to start finding connections and fitting things together like puzzle pieces. That After Effects course you bought but haven’t gotten around to watching yet—looks like you’ve got a 20-minute window on Tuesdays and Thursdays, let’s slot it in there. Been meaning to meditate, but it feels like a big to-do? You’ve got ten minutes every morning while you wait for your coffee, why not knock it out then?
Use this space to design a system for yourself where you can track goals, tasks, appointments, and anything else that’s been weighing on your mind. Your system can be as simple or complex as you need it to be, just so long as it provides you with enough clarity to keep you on track. Make note not only of your big, career-related goals, but of all the things you’ve wanted to do but have put on the backburner. For bonus points, break them into smaller, sub-goals that can be accomplished more easily. This way you’re more likely to get started and keep the ball rolling once you’ve built up some momentum.
Notion has powerful, flexible tables that can be adapted to anything from tracking your progress towards goals to keeping track of dentist appointments, but any method works, so long as you’re able to be consistent. Whether that’s a big red x drawn daily on a calendar or tally marks carved into your desk—anything you can do to reduce the energy used by your brain to remember the little things will benefit your work. Additionally, keeping your goals in a location where you can regularly revisit them can help you to stay positive during tough times. Remembering the reason why you’re working so hard and the future you’re working toward can keep things in perspective the next time your client asks you to make the typography more “cerebral”.
If you can manage to make a habit out of updating your tracker on at least a weekly basis, you’ll be much closer to achieving your goals than you would be otherwise. Even if you have nothing to report, just the act of looking at your goals will keep them at the forefront of your attention. Along these same lines, reflection is another behavior closely related to organization and an absolute must for building a sustainable career. This too can be accomplished using a journal or app like Notion.
Create a space where you can write down the insights you gain during your work. While you work through projects and upon their completion, make a habit out of writing brief reflections of your successes as well as areas that need improvement. Once the project is complete, you can then troubleshoot ways to solve these problems without the pressure of a looming deadline, and put them into practice at the next given opportunity. This little bit of extra effort will keep you from making the same mistake twice and increase your output.
Once the habit is built it will take little to no effort to continually refine your workflow. You’ll build a nice list of best practices along the way and as you become faster and more efficient, you’ll free up time for other, non-work-related things. When I say non-work-related, I mean something completely unrelated to work. This is the last piece to the puzzle, and it’s an important one: maintain a life outside of your job. In your downtime, the further you can separate your mind from your work, the fresher you’ll be when you come back.
Something that often happens among those who decide to turn something they love into a career is that once they’ve successfully made that transition, they’re left with a large void to fill. Beyond just being an entertaining way to pass time and pursue interests for no other reason than simple fascination, hobbies play a functional role in our lives as well.
Hobbies provide some much-needed time to unwind, away from the stresses of work. If you’re in a position where your hobby has turned into a day job, then it’s time to find a new hobby. Start kayaking. Find a stained-glass workshop. It doesn’t matter what it is so long as it is different enough from your work so as to provide sufficient time for your mind to recover.
If you’ve got a challenge you’re grappling with at work, don’t think of this time as being a waste—your mind will simply shift to diffuse thinking and the problem solving will continue in the background. Who knows, you may find the solution you’ve been searching for spelled out in some broken sea glass. The mind works in mysterious ways and hobbies can lead to some unexpected insights and perspectives.
Creative work, for all of the excitement it offers, is still work—and it can be demanding. We’re invested in the outcome of our work not just because we want to make our clients happy, but because we care on a personal level. Our work is a reflection of ourselves and we chose this field because we wanted to share that. For this same reason, failures can feel all the more bitter.
Learning to manage expectations, forgive ourselves, and be realistic about the trajectory of our growth are all things we need to learn to do to ensure the longevity of our careers. When we focus on all the little things we end up taking things so seriously that we forget why we got into this in the first place. Building systems allows us to focus on the task at hand knowing that the rest is taken care of—that way we can take it easy and enjoy the ride.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.