Are you feeling burnt out?
Or, are you wondering what it looks like in real life?
One thing I will say upfront is that burnout is real, and it can happen to anyone.
With that in mind, it doesn’t ever need to reach a point where your health or life is compromised or threatened. When that happens, it's usually because you've neglected it for too long.
But it can still be hard to know where to draw the line and keep your life in balance.
Here are some thoughts on how to avoid burnout as a musician and why it even happens.
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What Does Burnout Look Like?
Burnout means different things to different people, so it’s important that we spend some time defining it, just so we’re on the same page.
If you haven’t slept much because you’ve had a string of late nights, chances are you aren’t burned out. You just need a day or two to unwind and get some solid sleep.
If you’ve been pushing hard all week and you have no energy during the weekends, but you’re able to bounce back by Monday, again, you’re probably not burned out.
I can share some concrete examples of burnout so you can self-diagnose (but ultimately, it's best to seek the help of a healthcare practitioner).
In the early 2000s, I started attending college. Guitar lessons were offered as part of the program I’d chosen for myself, so I took them up on it.
I had only been playing guitar for about a year and a half at the time, but I was passionate about it and had progressed quickly enough to where I felt relatively competent on the instrument.
I could already do most of what I wanted to be able to do on the guitar, which seems like a positive thing. But I found myself in a bit of a rut and I didn’t like it one bit.
In retrospect I can see that getting to the next level of playing meant overcoming some major hurdles. I just had no idea what that would look like or what to do next.
This is what I’ll simply call being burned out on your instrument.
In 2011, my focus had shifted from music to business.
By 2014, I had lost a sizable digital marketing contract and had temporarily stopped teaching guitar. My financial situation was a bit dire.
I remember going to open mics and other musical events at the time, but I would often find myself feeling underwhelmed with the experience.
My friends would sometimes ask me what music I liked, and my calloused answer was, “honestly, I don’t even know if I like music anymore.”
For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I could offer a straight answer.
This is what being burned out on music looks like.
In 2017, I had reached a personal limit. I had taken on some big projects in the spring and by the time summer had rolled around, I had been feeling lethargic.
I managed to keep the exhaustion and fatigue at bay by spending more time in nature, but ultimately it was too little too late.
Before leaving for vacation in late October 2017, I was a shell of a man.
Work that I’d normally be able to finish in a matter of 45 minutes was taking me ages, and I even ended up having to abandon some projects because I couldn’t mentally or emotionally handle it.
I call this physical burnout, because it’s usually a physical condition as much as it is a mental or emotional state.
At this stage, your body has started shutting down, leaving you lethargic and exhausted and it's not about to get better in a hurry.
So, the key thing to understand here is that burnout can take a few different forms.
Practical Things You Can Do To Avoid Burnout
If you’re burned out on your instrument or if you’re burned out on music, trust me when I say it’s likely a temporary state.
There’s no telling how long it will last. But it’s fair to say you’re probably going through something that has taken your focus away from music (and you might be overlooking or avoiding it).
From heartbreak to financial crisis, there are a variety of circumstances that can show up in our lives. This is not wrong or right. It’s just what it means to be human.
So, if you’re burned out on your instrument or music, just take some time to look at what’s taking up the most mind space in your life and deal with it.
“Dealing with it” might include going to see a counselor or expert, sharing your circumstances with loved ones, taking on a new project, going on vacation or otherwise.
If you’re physically, mentally or emotionally burnt out, however, it means you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for too long and it needs to be addressed urgently.
You could easily spend weeks or even months recovering, which may not be what you want to hear, but if you can’t take two or three weeks off in the immediate future, you can expect it to last even longer.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to reduce the effects of burnout, and if you’re consistent (which will be hard, because you won’t want to do anything), you may even be able to make full recovery without taking time off.
Get Plenty Of Rest & Sleep
Stop working long days, eating junk food and sleeping late. Your body has had it and your willpower is beyond depleted.
It’s time to take care of yourself. As your first order of business, start taking more breaks and ensure you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
I would even recommend clearing an hour in your schedule daily. This is your me time. It’s non-negotiable and you must use it for rest, light exercise or a relaxing hobby.
And, as we all know, laughter truly is the best medicine, so spend some time watching your favorite comedies.
Get Into The Meditation Habit
When I was emotionally burnt out in 2018, I turned to meditation as my solution.
I didn’t see any tangible results at first. But as I committed myself to the practice and kept at it, eventually I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I recovered.
Now, just so you know, you don’t need a book or a course or a seminar to tell you how to meditate. How ridiculous.
Go to YouTube, put on some meditation music, close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Don’t worry about your thoughts – they will come and go. It’s human.
Change Your Diet
If possible, cut out sugar, alcohol and caffeine. Even better if you can get away from breads and nightshades (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc.).
Some say to minimize fruit consumption as well, with the worst offenders being common fruits like apple, banana and citrus.
So, that means no fast food, no desserts and no chocolate, no coffee or energy drinks… you get the idea.
Now, I’m not a healthcare practitioner, so if you’re wondering about anything I’ve said here, I advise checking with your physician or doctor first.
And, by the way, getting diagnosed by an expert can also help you identify the culprit of your burnout. Just make sure you get more than one opinion, preferably from different expert sources.
Changing your diet may not give you an immediate increase in energy. But it should help your body start to repair itself.
Just don’t go too hard too fast. Stick to light exercise, like walking or light jogging, unless you find your body can take more.
Whatever you can do outdoors is probably best. Even in parts of the world where people get plenty of exposure to the sun, vitamin D deficiencies are common.
We all need vitamin D. It’s fundamental to human existence. So, get some time in the sun.
Massage is another valuable tool when you’re burned out.
Again, it’s not a “one and done” situation where you can get one massage and be on your merry way.
But if you make several appointments (maybe once per month, as I know it can be hard on the wallet) and keep at it, you’ll eventually bounce back.
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Health related websites list a variety of reasons for fatigue and honestly, I think most of them are a sham.
Logically, yes, lack of sleep, not eating enough, sadness (or depression, I prefer the term “sadness”), caffeine overload and dehydration can all be factors.
And, I’m not saying that health conditions have nothing to do with exhaustion. It’s always possible that you have an undiagnosed or underlying contributing condition.
But as some astute spiritual leaders have pointed out, energy has nothing to do with sleep.
After all, if you were reunited with a long-lost lover who you’d been pining after for years, you’d drop everything to go and be with them, right? You’d feel energized, wouldn’t you?
I honestly think the leading cause of burnout is putting other people first without taking care of yourself.
Unless you’re in the habit of scheduling in me time weekly or even daily, there’s a good chance you haven’t done much for yourself in ages. You’re running around trying to make other people’s lives better.
To escape this cycle, you’re going to need to be far more vigilant than you currently are. Your need to people please probably runs deeper than you even know, and it might be with you for a lifetime.
That means you must keep it in check. Set boundaries. Communicate your needs. Seek out support where you need it. Try not to do too much out of a sense of duty and obligation.
Addiction expert, speaker and bestselling author Dr. Gabor Maté found that there’s a strong connection between autoimmune disorders and people who are self-sacrificing.
It sounds reasonable and even right to me, but Dr. Maté has been ridiculed for his conclusions.
Again, I don’t pretend to be a healthcare professional, so it would be wise to seek expert advice on this matter.
But having burnt out multiple times, these are some of the things I’ve discovered and contemplated.
And, the moment I know I'm going on vacation, I find I need to be even more vigilant about saying “no” to last-minute requests. Even if people know your condition, they sometimes end up asking for more.
Another common reason burnout happens is because your goals are going unfulfilled. You’re not getting your desired level of success and you’re starting to question your direction.
If this is what you’re going through, it’s important to examine your approach and your purpose.
Many musicians are happy making music regardless of the outcome. If that doesn’t describe you, then it may be time to rethink your reasons for being involved in music.
I’m not saying you should quit. I’m saying you should find joy in music once more. If there’s no joy, there’s no fulfillment.
And, if you stay in that cycle for too long, you will be miserable.
Rest assured, there is joy in the act of creating.
But if you’re unhappy with where you are in your career, you may need to focus on something else, like how your music satisfies your needs to create, or even making others smile.
Final Thoughts; Tips For Avoiding Burnout As An Independent Musician
Burnout isn’t much fun, which is why it’s best to focus on staying healthy all the time instead of trying to play catchup when you’re not feeling great.
But if you’re experiencing burnout right now, know that you aren’t alone. Know that in most cases it’s not beyond repair. You can restore your health.
So, don’t be discouraged. Hang in there, do the right things, tap into your support network and stay diligent. Keep recovery in your crosshairs.