How to Deal with Multipotentialite Burnout
Photo courtesy of Phil and Pam Gradwell.

How to Deal with Multipotentialite Burnout

Written by Emilie

Topics: Productivity

It’s a collapse.

Complete mental exhaustion.

While most people experience burnout from time to time, multipotentialites are prone to hitting this point more frequently and more intensely. It makes sense, considering how passionately curious we are, and how easy it is for us to lose ourselves in our projects.

Now don’t get me wrong, the multipotentialite tendency to jump into a new interest immediately and go hard is one of our greatest strengths. Our fiery passion means that we learn at lighting speeds and acquire new skills much faster than most people. It also means that we can inspire others more deeply, since this kind of enthusiasm is very infectious.

But at the extreme, even strengths can become liabilities…

Since our projects are just so much fun, it’s easy to push ourselves too far– to sort of O.D. on them. A new activity that was once a blast, can quickly become crushing if you allow it trample over all of your other projects.

Or maybe you’ve been on a learning kick, embracing all of these new “HELL YEAH!” projects, and you suddenly look up and realize that you have a million new commitments in your life. Wuh oh

The saddest part about hitting burnout, is that the same projects that fired you up days earlier, are now a source of pain.

When burnout happens, you are no longer able to harness and use your multipotentiality as fuel for brilliant work. It sort of runs wild, unrestrained, and begins controlling you instead.

The Burnout Cycle

The good news is that, if you’re looking out for it, you can spot burnout coming and prevent it before it arrives. Lets take a look at the typical multipotentialite creative cycle:

  1. Excitement over a new interest, or several new interests: It feels like falling in looove!
  2. You begin spending more and more time on your projects because it’s just so damn fun.
  3. You’ve built up momentum, and the work feels like it’s happening on it’s own. You’ve gotten past the initial resistance, and you’re making amazing progress. Up until this point, it’s all totally healthy. (In other words, stop here!)
  4. You begin pushing even harder, riding that momentum unconsciously, and you start forgetting about your other priorities and values (like your relationships, health, or even other multipotentialite projects).
  5. And then it hits… Overwhelm. Panic. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve taken on too much, too quickly. (For some reason, this tends to hit at the three week mark for me.)
  6. Burnout: you can’t move, you can’t think, all you want to do is curl up and sob.

The key is to recognize when you get to stage 3, and not push yourself any further, no matter how much that voice inside is cheering you on (or telling you that you should be getting more done).

Unfortunately, we sometimes get so wrapped up in that momentum, that we don’t stop. Everything feels right, and so we keep our heads down, and continue pushing harder until…

How to Get Back Up after Hitting Burnout

Here are some tips for recovering from burnout and jumping back in the game:

  1. Take some time to cry it out, metaphorically or otherwise.
  2. Take a break. It could be a day, a week, or longer. My burnout rebound time is usually 1-3 days. During your break, be good to yourself. Try setting a rule that you will not think about your project(s). It’s just off the table for now. Do something physical, sleep for a while, or use Michelle‘s approach and go read some fiction. The key is to get out of your head.
  3. Once you’re done escaping, get back in touch with your priorities, goals, and values. Hopefully you wrote these down a long time ago, and you can pull out that sheet of paper (or glance up at your wall). But even if you didn’t, it’s never too late to start delineating what matters to you and where you want to go in life. Disconnect from other peoples’ opinions, go for a walk, pull out a notebook, and reflect on what truly matters.
  4. Once you’ve come out of burnout hibernation and you’re feeling purged, it’s time to regroup. Draw up with a plan and go slowly this time. Slow and steady.

I want to hear from you. How do you deal with multipotentialite burnout?

50 Comments

  1. Kimberly says:

    Funny, I was feeling this way last night.

    Here are 2 things I did literally just 12 hours ago:

    1. Reached out to someone who I thought would make a good multipotentialite mentor (in addition to you, of course!). This person was excited to play that role in my life, as per her email last night. (Score!) The cool thing is that we’re in the same field (therapy, writing and blogging), so I know she’ll be giving me tips that are very specific to my needs, including burnout.

    2. Adjusted the due dates for when projects should be completed, and then forgave myself for doing so. For the project that’s giving me the biggest headache (recording my album of original music), I gave myself a closer due date. That seems counter-intuitive when we’re talking about avoiding burnout, but what I’m trying to do is give myself a time limit that reduces my perfectionism, frustration, and anxiety as opposed to prolonging it, which pushing back the due date would do. For me it’s about release despite imperfections. Whatever my album sounds like in May is how it’s gonna sound!

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Kimberly,

      Those are two fantastic suggestions: taking action (bonus points when that action involves doing something that scares you), and adjusting due dates. I too like to set deadlines to curb the perfectionism and force myself to work. Big fan of that.

      Thanks for sharing (and I look forward to hearing more. :)

      • >bonus points when that action involves doing something that scares you

        Love this philosophy. My life grew a hundredfold since I learnt to follow the fear.

        >deadlines to curb the perfectionism
        I’m currently trying to curb myself by proactive calendar management, by which I mean putting a lot of things in my upcoming calendar to stop me from overloading on a preferred project. The problem is, I’m starting to spend a lot of time loading up my calendar.

  2. Adam says:

    Emilie,

    I crashed hard yesterday. I have been going nonstop working on my site for a few months now: brainstorming, creating, and getting involved in community. It was going well. Then yesterday I reaching into the tank and….nothing. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you want to write but can’t. I couldn’t even muster up the desire. I felt really guilty. I wanted to give up. Part of that has to do with my traffic stats plummeting (I know I know…stats aren’t everything) and part of it has to do with burnout. I went for a run, which was awesome, but even today I’m burnt. I got nothing. I honestly feel that I haven’t done anything worthwhile. Maybe this is just a metaphorical cry session I’m having right now. Pity party. I guess I need a break.

    • Emilie says:

      Wow to be honest, 4 months is pretty impressive! I’d say you’re due for a good burnout. And yeah, decreasing stats is disappointing, I totally understand that. But remember, it’s the big picture that matters. Do you have more subscribers now than you did 4 months ago? (I’m guessing that’s a yes.)

      Also, I like your blog post today. :)

      • Adam says:

        Thanks Emilie,

        You’re absolutely right. It’s a shock that I went so long without one.

        And thanks for the compliment! In fact I did go through all the steps and felt much better.

        • Laura-F says:

          Hi Adam- checked out your site – that’s an AWESOME idea for a blog focus and one I think a lot of people can identify with. I will definitely be reading round and checking back. I haven’t come across the concept of a process blog before but it makes a lot of sense.

        • Layla says:

          Yeah, great blog Adam!!

          Remember Thoreau and some others didn’t initially have that much readers but they went BIG!! :)

          And it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the QUALITY and enthusiasm and making a difference in someone’s world!!

          /Big bands played for audience of 5 or less sometimes initially!! and made just as much effort – and sometimes those gigs could be even more FUN!! haha/

  3. Shanna Mann says:

    This was me last week. I had been feeling overstimulated– when I go I tend to burst into tears like a toddler. “But I’m having so much fun!” I wail. “And I made these commitments!”

    Personally, the only way I can check out on projects is to have a bath and dive into a some light fiction (The Dresden Files, at the moment). And sleep. Sleep helps you cope with the stress associated with learning and creativity because while you’re napping the newly-forged pathways have a chance to consolidate and settle in, making them less work to access even 20 short minutes of shut-eye later.

    This week I’ve backburnered several projects in order to get some stuff off my plate. Like Kimberley ^ I had to adjust some timelines, which is painful, but not as painful as working myself sick.

    • Emilie says:

      “But I’m having so much fun!” I wail. “And I made these commitments!”

      LOL, that’s exactly it.

      Yeah, I agree. adjusting deadlines can be tough, but I usually find that I feel much more in control afterwards. Always glad that I faced the truth about what’s realistic.

  4. Haha, I have just this minute told my friends that I’m taking a break from writing as I’ve been immersed in this particular story for a year now. I usually take a break from a story for months and do something else entirely. Other things I take a break for a week or so.

  5. Mary says:

    Hi Emilie,

    This usually happens to me about once a month, but until I read this post, I hadn’t given it that much thought and didn’t realize it for what it is – burnout! Since I can’t devote my full day to my passions due to my day job, I usually start to feel overwhelmed when my side projects (including a freelance gig that I am obligated to prioritize over my passion projects> and my other responsibilities collide. I start to think about everything I have to do and get so depressed that I can’t even move off the couch to start any of it. I usually cry it out, play with my puppy, and then go to bed early, hoping for a fresh start in the morning. I have given up trying to talk to my husband about it, because he just tells me that I’m being stupid when I really just need time to cope. Before I go to bed, I usually make a list of everything that needs to get done, and schedule it on my calendar. Once I see how much time I really have, I can push back the things that aren’t as immediate. Then I can sleep in peace.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Mary,

      Sounds like you handle your burnout pretty well. Maybe you can start anticipating it the next time you’re getting close.

      Also, maybe tell your husband that the next time you’re in that state, it would help if he just listened to you rant/cry and then give you a hug and say “yeah, I understand. That must be tough.” Often that’s all we need to hear. Certainly, calling you stupid isn’t very helpful…

      Also, what kind of puppy do you have?! I’m preparing to get a schnauzer puppy! (I’ve been writing about that a lot on the blog and in emails lately… Heh.)

      • Mary says:

        Let’s hope I can anticipate it, now that I know what it is!

        We have a pretty balanced relationship, he supports my passions and wants to help me run my store one day. He’s not a multipotentialite at all, so he doesn’t quite understand having a passion beyond one thing – his would be sports! Last time I had the burnout, I told him how I wanted him to respond so that he would know in the future. Often he works out of town during the week, so I have the space to deal with it on my own, which is sometimes best.

        I have read your posts about getting a puppy, that’s so exciting! We have a 1 year old Jack Russell/Shi Tzu mix named Cody. He’s adorable, but quite the whiner, which makes it difficult to work on projects at home! We are working with him on it though. Make sure your puppy knows who’s boss and you won’t have the same problem :)

  6. Thea says:

    AHA! Now I know what that idiotic cycle is! Seriously, this just explained six years of my life. I’d get excited about something and be doing really well with it when -wham! Everything would feel like crap. It used to freak me out because I have this tendency to get dramatic with myself when I’m upset, and everything would seem worse than it really was because of it, and then the burnout would last for weeks. Afterwards, I’d be a little nervous about continuing with the project that had excited me so much, because I was afraid of more burnout. This is what I did to combat all that:

    1) I realize that sometimes I just feel like crap and it’s not the end of the world if I do

    2) When it happens, I tell myself to relax and let it pass, that it always passes, and that freaking out about it makes it worse and being calm about it lets it go

    3) While I’m listening to myself and actually following my own advice, I then tell myself that I’ll be able to get back to what I was working on after the emotional wonkiness has passed

    4) Once the emotional wonkiness has passed, I acknowledge this so that I can use the memory of its absence to prove to my emotional self in the future that it really does happen (I don’t need to do so much of this anymore, the neurons are rewiring well)

    Weirdly enough, now that I know that all of this is just burnout, it’s immediately become a billion times less drastic in my mind. Next time it happens, I’ll say to myself: “It’s okay, Thea, it’s just burnout. Take a break.” I’ll also pay more attention to that step just before things get nuts and cement it into my brain what that feels like so that I can stay there instead of riding the emotional roller coaster. :)

    • Emilie says:

      Haha that’s awesome, Thea. I’m glad to help diffuse your burnout monster. And nope, you’re not a unique snowflake (in this regard only. :)

      It is amazing though, how becoming aware of something takes a lot of the power out of it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. jennifer says:

    YUP!! I think burnout is the biggest downside to being a Multipotentialite. I always go hard on my projects and then suddenly I’ll feel overwhelmed and like I have WAY too much on my plate (b/c I always do). Then I’ll start to do the opposite and take no action at all on anything and spend 2-3 months hating myself for not working on the stuff that matters to me, and yet not feeling like it anymore. I wil ldefinitely try some of your tips. Thanks Emilie!

    • Emilie says:

      Totally! And maybe you can even anticipate it and diffuse before it arrives. I’ve been experimenting with this (when I remember to do so). Heh.

  8. Reading fiction has been my new saviour! But it is SO hard for me not to switch to the Non Fiction book about my new obsession haha.

    I just finished The Hunger Games and now I’m reading a murder mystery!

    I have experienced this burnout SO MANY TIMES and its definitely an exercise you have to practice over and over again to avoid it and to control it! Great post and great resource em! WORDS OF WISDOM right here.

    - Laur

    • Emilie says:

      Dude, my roommate is OBSESSED with the Hunger Games! It’s all I hear about around here.

      I also like having one fiction book on the go (among about 8 partially finished non-fictions). Multipotentialite reading habits has got to be a whole other post…

      • Mary says:

        I love the Hunger Games – reading the second one now! The reading habits would be an awesome post. My Goodreads “currently-reading” list was getting VERY long so I had to make a second “half-read” list to keep up with them all! It’s so difficult to read JUST ONE book…

  9. Vina says:

    Awesome post! It’s only recently that i started to realize I need to work in cycles and allow myself total chillax time before i hit burnout, which usually happens once a month around that womanly cycle….so i indulge in TV, books, comfort food and just plain “laziness” and then i’m ready to tackle whatever it is that’s been consuming me.

    I think it’s important to realize when burn out is creeping in before it becomes total burn out…it’s just easier to ease out of it than when it’s full throttle.

    easier said than done but giving myself that monthly margin (after observing that my energy tends to dip low around that time) has been super helpful!

    • Emilie says:

      Absolutely. I’ve also noticed the “womanly cycle” correlation, and was tempted to throw that into the post, but didn’t. Lol.

      I’ve started forcing myself to take one day off each week. It’s actually really hard for me, because I love my work so much. But I’ve found that it really helps prevent full burnout before it arrives.

      Thanks for the comment, Vina.

      • Layla says:

        lol I was meaning to suggest the monthly cycle might have something to do with it too… :)

        sometimes it can roll over several months though, yeah – or just ‘implode’ under certain circumstances…
        it can be a combination of things, I guess :)

  10. Gaetane says:

    Emily, Excellent desciption of the cycle. I’ve been reading Martha Beck (www.marthabeck.com) lately, and she calls it the Play/Rest cycle. We just have to give ourselves a chance to rest amongst all that multi-potentialite play!

    Keep rocking it Emilie, you are an inspiration. Feel the fear…and do it anyway!

  11. I have a cycle of 18 months with major projects before I burnout. 6 months of intense learning and experience, 6 months of cruising and performing, reaping the dividends of my previous hard work and 6 months of slowly becoming bored and disinterested as the learning curve wanes to a flatline. Before I recognized this cycle (and stopped beating myself up about it) I’d languish frustrated trying to reboot myself but now I’ve learned to go with it and accept the mini and major burnouts as they come. I go with the flow of intensity and just know that down the road will come disengagement when I’ve learned all I need to learn.

    • Emilie says:

      I wonder if this is burnout, or if it’s just a “multipotentialite end point” to your project. Do you usually start the project up again or do you move on to something new? Maybe you got what you came for.

  12. Denise says:

    2 suggestions you mentioned is what I do – get sleep, and separate myself from opinions.

    I’m not sure why, but I tend to deprive myself of sleep when I’m in the zone creatively, so sleep and rest is a good one.

    And staying away from social media – not necessarily completely, but significantly less than normal, because it helps get rid of some of the noise, chatter, & advice that can add stress to the burnout.

    • Emilie says:

      Totally agree. When I’m in a state of burnout, I often hear other peoples “voices” (not in a mental illness sort of way. Lol.) It’s like I lose what I really think and want. All I think about is other people’s expectations. Disconnecting is key.

  13. It usually takes me 2-3 days to recover. I had never thought of stopping after stage #3 but it totally makes sense because the few times I’ve stopped for whatever reason, then I’ve been able to keep my interest and momentum for a longer period.

    Another important thing I’ve learnt is that after recovering I can go back to the previous activity.
    Months ago I used to simply give up. Like after exhaustion, going back to the activity was not an option.
    Now I push myself a little bit more and generally I am able to keep doing whatever I was doing.

  14. Patti Moed says:

    Hi Emilie.

    I usually crash-and-burn by getting sick, which forces me to spend time on the couch, watching movies and reading. Fiction is my escape (and my passion). Ironically, it’s what brings me back to life.

  15. Debi says:

    I’m crashing at the moment — nice to know it’s “not just me”. My regular day job has me pretty strung out and then I’m trying to put together something so I can be self-employed and it’s just not getting done. The overwhelm of it all sucks. Thanks for a really timely post.

  16. I used to handle crashes by plugging myself into violent computer games while I was low. Since that’s not a very productive use of time, I’ve replaced video games with learning the didgeridoo, which is meditative, relaxing, and tends to curb the lows pretty well. Unfortunately, the noise is not appreciated by those around me.

    • Layla says:

      lol! Can you learn the piano/synth? With earphones? Or any other more quiet instrument? :) Depending on your neighbors and if they might have hyperacusis or not?

  17. erin says:

    i love this!!! ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, i am not alone.

  18. Gülçin says:

    Great advice! I thought I was the only one experiencing this sort of a vicious trend in my productivity circle and felt rather alone and clueless on how to proceed. thank you very much!

  19. Martina says:

    Wow! I’m so happy to have stumbled onto your site. At 50 I’ve reinvented myself many times over my working life. The fact that I couldn’t stick to one thing and be happy I really thought meant there was something wrong with me. “I’m such a flake” would be a good example of my self talk. I’ve even had a period in my life where I was on anti depressants because I just couldn’t figure out what I should be doing. Why wasn’t I happy? I had two son’s to support but hated the unrewarding work I was doing to accomplish that. I felt like a bad mom. I was making a good living so what the f*** was my problem? But…Maybe I didn’t have a problem? Maybe I’m just happiest being a lifelong learner? I’m at a point now where I’m looking for work. What’s been holding me back is that I really don’t want a job doing something I’ve already done. I know I’d be way happier with a new challenge. An opportunity to grow and learn new skills. Reading articles on your site has made me feel so much better about feeling this way. It’s OK to say “Been there done that – don’t wannna do it anymore – bring on the next challenge”!!! Thanks Emilie!

    • Debi says:

      I know the feeling. At 50+ when I divorced a few years ago, I found myself frustrated and trying to figure out “what I wanted to be when I grew up”. I felt like a failure as I hadn’t found the ONE thing I was supposed to do with my life. I do know that I want to get folks around me to stop asking kids that question — what a bunch of bull sh*t and look at all the stress it creates. We don’t have to grow up which implies seriousness and drugery, we just need to be responsible citizen and we don’t have to do ONE thing. For some folks, that’s OK … but for a lot of us — one thing is BORING. I’ve heard many times that when the student is ready the teacher will be there. Obviously now is the time for me to learn this and Emilie is a great teacher. Thanks Emilie.

  20. DepDan says:

    Okay, this is me totally. I’ve hit this point several times in the past six months. But what do you do if some of the projects are beyond your control? I have my job, college comaputer teacher, so I always seem to be in a state of “updating,” which is why I enjoyed the job to begin with. Plus I’ve had my hidden passion (writing) which I haven’t been able to do because of time due to other commitments. The other commitments, a son diagnosed with Asperger’s and a daughter diagnosed with severa ADHD (twice what was need to qualify) within a month of each last summer, and a husband who put his head in the sand thinking they will grow out of it. So the past several months have been filled with doctor’s, labs, therapy, testing, more doctors, in addition to my normal workload, mother and wife duties, plus my father having health issues. My doctor’s concerned because of the stress level, but he can’t figure out where I can cut anything. The breakdowns help for a few weeks, but then it all builds back up again. I’ll take any suggestions to see if they will help.

    • Debi says:

      My heart goes out to you. I think I waited almost 8 years to get to a point where someone else could be the strong one for a while — mom died, dad might as well be missing as he can’t cope, moved, couldn’t find work, full time student with part time job, daughter in jail (bipolar, addict, armed robbery), husband (alcoholic) in denial, moved, working, daughter in rehab and on house arrest, divorced, moved, daughter missing, lost job, daughter back but pregnant, new job, blood pressure meds, hospitalized (wasn’t my heart but rather stress/anxiety), son out of work and back home, ex avoiding court ordered payments — there’s more, but … I finally had a chance to melt down with my boyfriend a week or so ago (took a long time to get there as he is Asperger’s and he needed to be in a “place” to understand). He talked to me (and held me while I cried) and insisted I talk to the kids. If you need someone in your corner, let me know. Hot soaking bath with candles and mood music for an hour of “me” time might help some. I did learn that, for the most part, nobody takes care of “mom” so I have to take time for me even when I don’t think I can.

  21. Amy V says:

    Oh dear, this sounds so familiar it’s almost funny! It is something that I deal with either personally or professionally with clients almost daily. Thanks so much for the insight and I’m looking forward to future blog posts!

  22. Layla says:

    Love you Emilie!! :)

    You always know just what to post!! :))

    Sometimes it can help to get back to ‘previous’ passions, re-discover the wonder of almost-forgotten ones! Or just opt for ‘something completely new – and unrelated! (And without any obligations!! :))
    Or fiction, yeah!! haha (writing or reading it!)

    Focus back on the health, walks, bike ride… can help too… or relationships with people – basically the neglected areas!

    Or decluttering. Yeah. Sometimes stress can come from too much ‘stuff’ or ‘paper’ around and just putting it in pretty folders or its rightful place can HELP. Big Time.
    (The trick is to do it weekly yikes!! lol!)

  23. Rick Wolff says:

    I found a while ago that that cycle was so painful, I now avoid getting too excited about anything. I gave up plunging myself too deeply into what I do. Sorry that’s so negative, but it’s true.

  24. Distrakt says:

    I never thought so many people can have burnouts. I finally realize how many projects I had taken up and now I think I’m stressed out. I’m mentally drained from all my projects. I have 3 big projects and I’m just starting on 2 more. I am the type of person to commit to business, but now I’m feeling the burnout. Thank you for this article, I definitely need a break.

    -distrakt

  25. kim says:

    haha! I do this a lot! Well maybe not always an extreme case of burnout… but still burnout nonetheless. Most of the time, I just “take a break”. This break could be a couple days… or even a couple months. I’ve always got some type of thing to keep me occupied that putting the thing off for a bit is never really a problem.

    The only time I’ve ever had a problem with this is when I’m doing whatever new idea I’ve come up with to be “self employed”. I’m always coming up with ways to make money, but I always seem to burnout on it before I get anywhere. I just take it as those things not being the things meant to last. I’m still trying to find a way to combine things and find/create a niche for myself that will accommodate for changing interests… but hey, I’m new to puttylike… I’m stil absorbing!

  26. Danzier says:

    Hmm. This does sound like me. I go about six weeks, though, and then crash for two, during which I tend to develop a slightly paranoid fear of going back to whatever, and end up taking a solid month off.

    This is really, really bad for my schoolwork.

    I have to take multiple classes so I can get funding, but I have to take fewer so I don’t burn out, and then I burn out anyway. Outside stress that I can do nothing about (i.e. deaths in the family) doesn’t help… Is there any way other than the day off here and there that could help stave off the burn out?

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Danzier,

      You might look into a daily practice to help deal with stress. Some people swear by meditation. Even just taking time off every day to do something fun with friends can help.

  27. Marie says:

    Wow, I so recognize this. I thought it was just me! It feels so good to be high on action! Man, it’s hard to stop in time, when I read that, my first impulse was ‘Noooo, that’s the best part!’ But you have a point. I should use my “Leave when it’s the funnest moment”-principle that I use when I’m out dancing for work too. Hmmm, have to get used to the idea.

    What I do with the burn out is disconnect from all people, listen to music, sleep A LOT, wander around aimlessly, be cranky, whine, wonder what’s wrong with me, eat too much, do deep relaxing, spend time in water. Some work well, some not so much.

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