11 Ways to Avoid Burnout for Designers

Most everyone has likely felt the effects of burnout. What was once a passion starts feeling monotonous. We begin to lose interest, and our work feels like a dreadful chore. Nobody wants to experience those feelings, yet it can happen to even hard-working, passionate and successful people at times. The most important thing you can do is recognize symptoms of burnout and react proactively before they build and you lose all interest and desire before achieving your dreams.

A bit dramatic? Perhaps. But I think you get the picture. And I think it happens more often than we’d like to admit. I’d like to share a story that might help others avoid burnout.

Wearing the wet, heavy Midwest humidity, I sunk into the well-worn vintage college dorm couch and sighed. I’d just moved everything I owned into my new bedroom on the 12 story of a century-old building. It was 2007 in Detroit, Michigan, my freshman year at CCS (the 3 best school for designers in the U.S. according to LinkedIn), the school where I’d earn a B.F.A. in Product Design. Fortunately, my college experience was fantastic. I slaved away with my classmates waging war against impossible amounts of homework, suffering from sleep depravation, forgetting to eat for days, and trying to outdo each other with every new project assigned. My classmates could be divided into two major groups: those familiar with design (often having one or more family members as designers) and the neophytes. I fell into the latter group.

Being familiar with design before entering design school gives students a distinct advantage. I’ll explain why later.

As I entered my senior year, naturally I became more practiced and educated as a designer. I served as president of my school’s IDSA student chapter, organized fundraising so more than a dozen students could attend a design conference, and both my grades and work continued to improve each semester. Ironically, I achieved this by spending less time and energy on my school projects. This is because I chose to spend a majority of my time on my hobbies. I began weight training, rock climbing, and mostly riding and building bikes. I built bicycles for friends at school, and I eventually became a sponsored fixed gear rider.

Flash forward to three months after graduation when I landed a job designing at Felt Bicycles in Orange County, California.

There were times as a student then, and times as a freelancer now where I’ve felt the threatening presence of burnout, but I’ve found some ways to keep burnout at bay. Without further ado:

11 ways to avoid burnout for designers:

  1. Have a plan broken into several milestones
    This is huge. By knowing where you hope to end up and breaking your goal down into steps, you won’t get lost in a sea of distractions. Also, each little accomplishment taking you closer to your big goal is fuel for the fire and will keep you moving forward. When I said some of my classmates were very familiar with design and some of us weren’t, I meant that because some classmates knew one or more designers, they understood the kind of work designers did and what a portfolio should look like. These students stayed on track and made the best use of their four years of college. Although I made decent use of my time, if I would have known where I wanted to end up rather than simply graduating college, I would have left school more prepared and might have had more opportunities once I graduated.
  2. Find a mentor
    This is something I wish I did while in school. Find somebody who’s successful at doing what you hope to be paid for some day. Get in touch with this person and try to build a rapport. Don’t overwhelm him with questions because we’re all busy, but stay in touch with him. Having a mentor allows you to remain inspired, ask questions, and it opens doors.
  3. Study the greats
    I don’t care if it’s Richard BransonLewis Howes, Jony Ive, Scott RobertsonNoah Kagan or a family member. Because technology allows us to contact anyone in the world, I’ve reached out to everyone I admire, including Richard Branson. You should do the same, and study how other people achieve success. Try to find patterns and see how those patterns can fit into your life.
  4. Have a hobby
    Make sure you have hobbies outside of work or study. Too much of anything can become a bad thing. For me, it was staying active, rock climbing, caring for bonsai trees and riding bikes. Taking brief breaks to get lost in a hobby (and not think about work) is very healthy. It provides a mental reset. Don’t underestimate the value of a half-hour break. If it’ll make you work more effectively for the next three hours, you can afford a half hour break.
  5. Stay healthy
    This may seem obvious, but students don’t always understand this. Those with poor health often are less happy than those with good health. Maintaining a diet of minimally processed foods, minimizing refined sugars and staying hydrated are incredibly important. And although alcohol and tobacco products are often used socially, they are harmful and unhealthy and should be avoided.
  6. Sleep
    My junior year in college, I made a promise to myself that I’d get a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night. I’ve never felt more immediate improvement in nearly every aspect of my studies, health and work than when I began sleeping enough. I also chose to go to bed earlier and wake earlier. My senior year, I’d go to bed just after 8:00 pm and wake between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. and do the remainder of my class work before going to class. Best decision ever.
  7. Make a compliments folder
    This is new for me, but has been really great. Every time I get a good tweet, text, or email from a client or anyone else, I save it. So far, I’ve only saved compliments that are reactions to my work. This serves two purposes. First, when I’m feeling defeated, I’ll pull those out and remember that I’m making a huge difference in others’ lives and that they’re paying me for my skills and services. This feeling of accomplishment is very important because it helps me carry on when I have a down day. Second, work-related compliments serve as wonderful testimonials giving you an advantage when you’re being considered for as a new hire.
  8. Participate in communities
    Instagram, Facebook, PinterestBehance, Dribble and other networks are full of people in various niches. Chose a network that you like and pour yourself into it. Use it as a micro-blogging platform and keep people informed of what you’re doing. Also, take genuine interest in others who are producing work that you admire or respect and let them know you feel that way. Everybody likes a compliment and will likely be happy to interact with other like-minded designers. These communities are very supportive and often will lead to more opportunities.
  9. Take advantage of resources
    I should have done more of this in college. As a student, you pay tons of money for your education. In a golden age of technology, more and more people are self-educating by using the internet. With a lot of desire and discipline, anyone can get a college education for about one tenth the cost of attending a university. At a college however, you’ve access to invaluable, unique resources that can’t be gained when self-educating on a computer. Had I began by making a list of resources I had access to while at college my freshman year, I’d have known how to connect the dots and use those resources to help me attain my main goal, (which I wasn’t entirely clear on at the time either). Even if you’re not a student, don’t overlook what resources you have access to now, and use them.
  10. Change your perspective
    Sometimes a radically different approach to solving a problem will be a refreshing and energizing experience. Try giving yourself an additional constraint while working on a new project. Maybe remove a tool you often lean on to design with, or design for a different manufacturing method. Changing your perspective helps combat monotony.
  11. Find what works, ignore what doesn’t
    Look at your latest successes and identify why it was a success. Was it the way you managed a project, executed a design, presented a sketch, or gave a speech? Maybe you found a more efficient way to accomplish a task. Once you find out what you’ve done well at or found a process that works for you, stick with it. Keep improving it and make it your signature. People tend to get too hung up on their weak suits because those are insecurities surfacing. If you know you lack skill in an area, it means anyone with that skill is a threat to you or potential competition. Rather than pouring time into what you’re not good at, pour time into what you’re great at and become the best at it. If you’re not good at a particular task or don’t like doing it, that’s fine. Outsource it or leave it up to someone else!

After devoting yourself to work, regardless of how much you love what you do, keep in mind the many ways to avoid getting burnt out. Indulging in hobbies, staying healthy, remaining active and seeking guidance and inspiration can allow you to avoid burnout. Having a clear direction, perfecting your craft and participating in communities will also help you remain happy and give you a sense of accomplishment. Have you ever gotten burnt out while working or studying? Have I missed any tips or tricks? Finally, if you know anyone who might benefit from this article, please share it with him or her!