I’m working on my own projects to get a better job, but it’s burning me out

As a creative, I am always making things after work hours. What is a pro tip on balancing this and avoiding burnout? It is hard to “turn off” and I often find myself not doing enough. I know there isn’t an absolute answer, but I think in a culture where content is king on social media, it feels like burnout is always on the horizon.

I work in a field I do not have formal education in, so I try to prove my credibility by pumping as much work out as possible. A lot of the work are just personal projects, and work doesn’t see them. My current job is not my ideal one and not where I want to be in 10 years; it’s 10-20% design work, and 80-90% project management. I want to do work where it is a bit more even and there is more variety. I work on powerpoint reports and that is very limiting in what is possible. The personal work is to learn and develop my style, I do not have formal education so I try my best to learn and practice on my own time.

I know your question is about burn out, and I’ll get to that, but I think the more important thing to focus on here is to consider what your career goals are and develop a specific plan to reach them. Posting to social media probably won’t get you anywhere; I know there are lots of designers on Instagram that just post cool work all day, have tens of thousands of followers and appear to have a lot of success. But for the majority of us, social media fame (or as close as we can get to it) won’t change our careers. A high follower count won’t get you a job offer at a great agency. So don’t pressure yourself to be constantly posting, because it likely isn’t the right strategy to get you where you want to be (even if being famous on social media were the best way to find a job, there are more effective marketing strategies than posting constantly to achieve that).

There are a number of different jobs you can get as a designer at a variety of places, so think about what you would like in a design role. What kind of things do you want to focus on, or learn? I will say that project management isn’t usually part of a designer’s job in studios or agencies; there are usually Project Managers who do that. But it’s not totally unheard of if you work client-side for responsibilities to be mixed.

I understand it can be intimidating to move into a field that you don’t have formal education in, but a lot of designers didn’t go to school for design, so don’t let that discourage you! Something I’ve heard from people who came to design the “non-traditional” way was that it took them a while to figure out that design isn’t just about pretty images: there are rules about visual communication to follow, and research is very important. Look online for courses that teach design principles and the creative process (you can access lynda.com for free with your Toronto Library card). This is the kind of thinking that Creative Directors look for when hiring, especially if you want a job where you come up with creative concepts. An internship can also be helpful; I understand doing an unpaid internship isn’t possible for a lot of people (there are a few paid ones out there!), but it can be a great place to learn and ask questions in a working environment with less pressure than if you were working as a junior designer. Portfolio Review Nights are also a great chance to have your work reviewed, get tips on how to improve, and meet other professional designers. You don’t know what you don’t know, so when learning something new it’s best to refer to people who do know, to cover all your bases. You’ll learn more if you take your time to think ideas over, rework them, and really do the brainstorming and research to determine that your design is the best visual solution for the problem. I’m going to bet you aren’t doing much of that if you post something new every day. Focus on the quality of your ideas, not the quantity.

As to your initial question of burn out: I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to take a break. There are weeks sometimes when I don’t post to the TDD social channels, ‘cause I don’t have anything important to say, and that’s okay! I would rather post content that’s relevant and timely than post boring, generic, or cliche filler just for the sake of posting. Doing your own side projects to beef up your portfolio can be helpful, especially if your current job isn’t giving you portfolio-worthy stuff, but those should be projects that take at least a few weeks of development to complete, where you’ve done thoughtful research, gone through multiple creative options, and conducted thorough tests. It’s not the kind of thing you quickly pump out, and the thoughtful work is what Creative Directors will be interested in.

So take your time. You can afford to slow down and really think about the personal work you’re doing – that should help you avoid burnout. Take a break. Relax. There’s no rush. Go for a walk so you aren’t tempted to open Photoshop, and listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music so your mind can rest. Create stuff when you feel inclined, and stop when you don’t. Reading, watching, and listening to non-design stuff can even help your creative process and brainstorming, and expose you to new ideas. We’re all much better off for having rested, both physically and mentally; there are no prizes for having the highest output.

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