There was a time in my life where I would pack my schedule so full that I barely had time to breathe. Making money was always top of mind so I was constantly adding to my workload. My creative work was what I did in my “free time.” Only I didn’t have free time and so I was always having to choose between making my art and other necessities like sleep, eating, and exercise. Needless to say, this approach to my creative practice was unsustainable and eventually my body shut down—in a big way—so it could finally rest.
One of the benefits of hitting burnout at such a young age—I was 25—is that I’ve become hyper-sensitive to the edges of what I’m able to give my work, creative or otherwise. Whereas my previous approach to making was to jam it all in, this stopped being available to me after I ended up under the knife. The surgeons spent hours digging around in my guts looking for the problem but resurfaced with inconclusive results. Even the specialists I saw afterwards couldn’t tell me what had happened. It would take me years to realize that burnout is what happened.
This past weekend, I started to feel that stretch again. The stretch of not having a ton of wiggle room in my schedule. The stretch of feeling anxious about upcoming social commitments because I have so much to do—so much that I want to be doing—that I’m unsure of how I’ll fit it all in. In many ways, this is a good problem to have. I am privileged enough that I’m able to focus on doing the work that matters to me. At the same time, I have a history of overdoing it that I don’t want to repeat.
One of the most frustrating things about having limited resources—whether that’s money or time—to pour into your creative work is that things will take a minute to unfold. This is especially true if your creative practice is not something you can put all your resources into right now. So it’s understandable if you feel the urgent need to push harder; to let your creative practice bleed into the other parts of your life that you also need to be well. And while I don’t subscribe to the industrial model of human organization, I do think it’s important you know what your limits are.
More and more I have been using my body as a way to gauge where I am in relation to my limits. Beyond simply making time to feed myself and practicing self-care, I am checking for how much energy I have on a daily basis. I’m checking for whether my drive is coming from a place of focus and determination or from a place of anxiety and/or panic. And while I don’t expect to feel super inspired all the time, I do need regular doses of inspiration to keep me going. If I am waking up tired and dragging my feet then I know something needs to shift.
Despite living in a culture that rewards busyness—both the productive and the unproductive kind—and that likes to squeeze every last bit of work out of us, you don’t have to follow that script. You and your body know better than anything what you need to do to be well. You get to decide when you’re at capacity. Which might mean that you start saying no to other commitments and it might mean that you also let go of commitments you’ve currently got in your calendar. Whatever you need is reason enough to make those shifts.
So, how do you know when you’re at creative capacity?