The Learning Network is now live

Home  /  Stories  / 

Managing The Burnout Balancing Act

08 Apr 2024

Anxiety and burnout are on the rise for creative industry professionals - here are six achievable steps to help manage multiple projects sustainably.

Most working artists do not have a “regular day” at the office. 

No two days are the same, and multiple projects often collide, making for long working hours and tight deadlines. 

The effect on mental health is profound. Reports of moderate to severe anxiety in the entertainment industry are 10 times higher than in the general population. Often left without a working nine-to-five and a human resources department that provides routines and boundaries, those in the creative industries are left managing multiple creative projects and are at severe risk of burning out.

Balancing multiple projects is not about time management alone, but about approaching a working lifestyle with an understanding of personal boundaries and priorities. ArtsHub has compiled six tips for crafting a busy, profitable working life that won’t drain you.

The art of priorities

It’s a simple enough concept: prioritise your projects depending on their importance. In practice, this is much harder than it sounds, as every project can appear necessary.

Many creatives commit to triaging projects rather than prioritising them. That is, they treat their projects like patients in an emergency room. Whoever is bleeding the most (whichever project has the closest impending deadline) gets the attention first. This is the quickest path to burnout, jumping from project to project, everything always needing urgent attention.

In reality, prioritising projects is easy, but it means making other projects on your plate a lower priority. That’s where many artists struggle. 

As it becomes clear that some projects are more immediately urgent than others, communicate with your stakeholders. Take “time off” from projects that are a lower priority, and let them know you’ll return at a specific date. Tell them you won’t be answering emails, texts or phone calls about the project until then. 

Make sure you stick to these boundaries and negotiate with stakeholders if they express concern.

Tried and true time management techniques

Reading books about time management techniques and productivity is an excellent way to soak up a lot of time. The most effective methods have remained in vogue for several decades and leverage the concept of working smarter, not harder. Here are a few:

  • One mission a day from Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. This simple idea eliminates your gigantic to-do list into one single, straightforward task once a day. This “mission critical” item should hold your focus and make the day successful if completed. 
  • The Five-Minute Rule is from YouTube productivity guru Ali Abdaal. If you’re procrastinating from doing a task or something you dread doing, give yourself the ‘five-minute rule’. You only need to commit five minutes to the task. The trick is that once you start, you will probably find it easier to keep going, and you’ll be over the initial hump of effort.
  • The Pomodoro Technique, first developed by Francesco Cirillo almost 40 years ago, remains one of the most popular time management techniques. It involves working for 25-minute intervals, separated by five-minute breaks. Special Pomodoro timers are available everywhere, and many YouTube videos are set up to measure the time mixed with ambient noise or gentle music. Compartmentalising your time into designated “work” and “rest” zones avoids one bleeding into the other.

Setting deadlines and checking them

Like prioritising, setting deadlines should be a no-brainer, but many of us find it difficult. 

Setting appropriate deadlines requires a substantial amount of preparation and planning. In the early stages of a project, inserting major milestones into your calendar will help track unfortunate bottlenecks where multiple projects have deadlines at the same time.

Asking for assistance in these situations is critical. Resist the urge to dismiss busy periods as easily manageable with some elbow grease. These times can be habit-forming and often don’t have enough recovery time following them.

Instead, be generous with yourself and ask stakeholders to adjust deadlines if other projects are due simultaneously. If deadlines are immovable, or there are particular seasons of busy time, you may negotiate a higher fee or consider hiring assistance.

Check deadlines regularly. Weekly check-ins with a robust and reliable calendar can save time and energy.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries

Did we mention boundaries?

Freelance creatives - or anyone running a small business - may find it hard to maintain regular hours and a healthy work/life balance. Here are a few practical tips for setting boundaries to ensure you have time to rest and recover away from work.

  • Get strict with your phone. Consider turning your phone off at a designated time and storing it in a drawer. If that causes too many problems, consider a second phone for after-hours use. Remove email and work-associated messaging platforms, and keep only what you need for personal use. 
  • Define an office space in your home. Our laptops and tablets can follow us to the dining room table, onto the couch and into bed. Establish a strict home office space. Establishing rituals for starting the day and closing the space down at the end of the day will also help with psychological boundaries.
  • Reinvest in hobbies. You’re more likely to take time out for yourself if the activities waiting for you are enticing. Are you having fun regularly? Many creatives’ social lives include their colleagues from work, which doesn’t help. Plan social events built around an activity, not work. If necessary, place a “we don’t talk about work” rule.

Saying ‘no’ and delegating

In any project, problems are going to come up. 

Our instinct may be to solve these problems ourselves, even if it means unexpected work. Engaging in conversations with your colleagues to solve a problem together or split a workload into smaller chunks means more people have more ownership over the project. Delegation between your colleagues and team is vital.

More broadly, it is very important to feel confident saying “no” to extra work. Ensure that a written agreement is established between you and the stakeholders at the beginning of the project. If work falls outside the scope of that agreement, you’re entitled to say “no”. 

Provided you didn’t cause an error or problem that has triggered this extra work, you can move forward with confidence.

Taking burnout seriously

When you recognise signs of burnout or becoming overwhelmed in your body or mental state, it’s essential to take it seriously. 

Leaving a project before it is complete is not a cataclysmic disaster. Communicate with your stakeholders as early as possible and suggest replacements for your skills. Alternatively, propose a model where your workload is reduced, with other tasks distributed among a pre-existing team or to additional contractors.

Rest is essential in tackling burnout. Connect with your social group, check in with your physical health and prioritise nourishing sleep. 

When burnout is ignored, it perpetuates itself, rendering an unsustainable career that will eventually mean you cannot work. Although it can be painful to admit you need extra assistance or time on a project, it may be more costly to wait until you collapse.

Remember, no project is worth the cost to your health and wellbeing. 


This article was originally published by our friends at ArtsHub Australia.

Written by David Burton.