ADHD Burnout tips for creatives

Hey friends, Jen here!

Some of you may have heard me talk about this, but I ran into some serious burnout this year.

I had to set timers to make myself finish some knitting projects, committing to just ten minutes at a time. I wandered through the job descriptions for accountants (my past life is as a nonprofit CPA), and I quilted for like, 6 hours per night. I think I made Bess real nervous that I might wander off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Not good signs.

It's a LOVELY quilt! But totally abandoning knitting and writing to work on it? For me, a sign of ADHD burnout.

Burnout…

For me, burnout looked like a complete and total disinterest in knitting. Also, anything that I felt like I “should” be doing.

I set too many unrealistic expectations for myself, was working too many hours, and wasn’t leaving any time for creativity. One of the tough things about design work is that you come up with the ideas, swatches, sketches (all the fun stuff) - and then you set things in motion for the future. Sometimes it’s months until I work on a project I have planned. So by the time I get to it? It’s just a job - something I have to finish, and there’s nothing but the (much less fun) work of jockeying spreadsheets, writing, and project management left.

… and ADHD

Sometimes you know something, but you don’t know it know it. I always felt like I’d been able to handle or work around the ways my brain is.. a bit of an unreliable partner. I have some experience with neurodiversity from a close family member, so I figured I had my brain all figured out.

Until I got burned out. Then I was totally underwater. The final straw was when my brain was so melted I couldn’t parse sounds correctly. I went out and got myself a brand-new, super-official diagnosis, just to make sure I was on the right track. And then? I dumped my whole life into a pile in the middle of the floor (figuratively! I can hear your skin crawling! not literally!) and got started sorting it out.

"I know! I can fix burnout by obsessively taking on a new hobby and then becoming immediately frustrated that I'm not good at it on my second day!"

My path to recovering from ADHD burnout

What did I change? Uh, everything. I needed to change my expectations and how I functioned. Among other things, that included:

  • Measuring how much time I actually had available to work and play (turns out I’m extremely time blind),
  • Developing a system for saying “no” to things (every thought that pops into my head feels extremely urgent and important and if I don’t act on it NOW, it might disappear into the ether - a legitimate concern when most of your thoughts do, in fact, disappear into the ether),
  • Changing my life to restore creativity both to my work and my downtime,
  • Develop approximately one billion systems, checklists, and backups to the systems and checklists.

Has traditional work-life / anti-burnout advice worked for you? 

Everyone wants to talk about work-life balance: the ebb and flow between the demands of our personal, work, home, and creative lives.

Balance is more than just "work" and "life"

See what I did there? It’s not just work and personal lives! Our creative lives deserve equal importance, even when they don’t get equal time. I also labeled home life, because one of the things that really set me back was not having a visceral sense of how much time it takes to do all of my household administrative tasks.

But solving ADHD burnout is so personal. Soutions are not one-size-fits all, and the articles I read didn’t feel relevant to me. “Carve out five minutes to sit peacefully with a cup of coffee in the morning” made me feel like day-old hotel chicken just thinking about it. I don’t want five minutes to sit, I want 32 extra hours per day to do cool shit! I want more action!

I needed concrete, sustainable, big-sky changes. I’m sharing them with you in case they help you, too.

Tools for fighting ADHD burnout for creatives

These are the tools that put creativity and joy back into my work and personal crafting practices. Whether or not you identify as neurodiverse OR burned out, maybe something in here will spark a new practice for you.

Set reasonable goals for how much you have to accomplish in a day

I never felt like I could sit down and relish my crafting time - I always felt like there was more I needed to do, one more email to respond to, one more sticky door frame to wipe. Because I never had clear priorities for what to focus on, I would get to the end of the day and not have a sense of “having done enough.” If I sat down to craft with all those unwiped stickies, I would just feel stressed and guilty.

Now, I start my day by writing down what I need to accomplish, and a concrete time at which I will actually, literally, stop. If I go from 9 - 7:30 and give it my all and that’s still not enough to time? It was too big of a plan. When the jobs are done or the time is up, I’ve punched enough clock for the day.

Real talk about setting goals and tracking progress

Figuring out what my priorities are and what needs to get done is easier said than done. It takes TIME. It takes time on the weekend to wrangle everything and sort it into priorities, and then time each morning to refocus and make sure things are relevant. Then it takes discipline to trust the list I made and stick to it.

Acknowledging that I need to give myself extra support to manage my priorities and tasks, and recognizing that the process takes extra time that doesn’t come out of thin air and must be accounted for? That's what makes it all work.

Assess your relationship to social media

Do you lose, ahem, unexpected hours to scrolling? Your smartphone probably has a “digital health” tool. This tool can tell you how much time you spend on specific apps. If you check out this number and feel good about it, no action required.

If, like me, you see that you’re spending three hours a day on socials and feel like you’d prefer to move that over to your creative practice, you have choices. Set a timer to turn the app off after a set time, or just (gasp) uninstall it. We all say we want more time in our lives, I found a way to add some.

Hyperfocus is billed as a neurodivergence superpower, and it can be

...but when you’re hiding from not feeling like you got enough done and not wanting to do what you’re supposed to be doing and a quick, habitual social scroll turns into a time warp that leaves you more stressed out? That’s hyperfocus too.

I found I needed to "me-proof" my best intentions to limit my IG time (I’m really excellent at ignoring timers, alarms, and clicking ‘add more time’ without even registering that I’m doing it), and I had to take the drastic step of uninstalling it.

I reinstall it when I need it for work, which yes, is tedious and time-consuming. But less tedious and time-consuming than throwing away hours of my life every day!

Your brain is a fountain of never ending ideas - a blessing and a curse

Does your brain generate more great ideas than you can reasonably act on? Are you constantly “one more thing-ing” yourself? In any aspect of our lives, our enthusiasm can run us over.

For me, it looks like this: I could write an article about that! I could cast this on! I could reorganize my laundry room shelves! I could turn that corner of the yard into a productive mini-garden! I could pull out the fridge and sweep back there! I could start going to the farmer’s market regularly on Wednesdays, which would mean changing my meal planning routine! I could start a new capsule wardrobe for fall now, so it’s ready in October! I’ve been meaning to create a great visual resource for bust darts! What if I planned a summer badge activity for the girl scouts in my daughter’s troop?

Whew. If you read that as an overly-enthusiastic run-on sentence, then you read it right 😅

Give your coulds a place to live and treat them with honor and respect.

That means acting on them when you can give them your full attention, when you can relish them, and when your life is right to give them space. I recommend wrangling them into single location you can browse through frequently, not something that's the equivalent of the back of a drawer.

Tending my garden of coulds helps me combat ADHD burnout because it helps me manage my impulsivity, ameliorate the reality that my thoughts will go into the ether if I don’t act on them immediately, while still treating my creative nature with respect. 

I store my coulds in Notion (my new ride-or-die) tasks database, with a status of “idea”. If I’m not at my computer, they go to a sticky note and go right on my ADHD Station (a little desk I set up in my living room that no one is allowed to put anything on).

It seems like kind of a lot of real estate to dedicate to holding sticky notes, writing a grocery list, or leaving a note for kiddo hand-off in the morning, I know. But those are tasks I need to do in a distraction-free zone or I'll accidentally start making the guest list for my 75th birthday party instead.

Often, within a day or two I realize “I don’t have time for that!” or “I’ll like doing that project better if I build up a budget for it” or “that will be more fun if I don’t feel guilty for sticking my current WIP in the back of the closet” or “I love that idea, but I love these other ideas more.”

So - give your ideas a home. They’re great ideas, and you shouldn’t lose them. But make them feel more like a delicious menu of things you could do when you truly have the bandwidth to enjoy them.

My Notion databases aren't beautiful, but they work. I created a very simple template that you could use to tend your own garden of coulds, and you can find that here.

Run a time audit

Use Toggl to combat time blindness

This is a quickie - I use a free app called toggl to periodically audit my time. There, I can see that I’m spending 15 hours per week on household tasks like making appointments, planning for, shopping for, and making meals, processing returns, calling repair guys, re-writing my to-do-list.

Suddenly it’s really clear why I don’t have time! Figuring out where your time goes can make all the previous suggestions possible. It’s hard to plan a reasonable amount of work for the day when you don’t know how long things take. It’s hard to know whether your relationship with social media is healthy if you don’t know how much time you spend on it. Get some data.

Keep it simple

If you’re like me, you’ll be excited to set up bunches of categories. Don’t do it. Identify the 2-4 most important for a two-week audit and keep it simple so you’ll stick to it. If you have ADHD and your new system requires you to remember to open an app on your phone every ten minutes, it’s probably doomed. Hell, I don’t even know where my phone is most of the day.

Store and organize your WIPs in an ADHD-friendly way

ADHD burnout makes sensory overload more unbearable

I found myself reluctant to go into my craft and workspaces partly because they were FULL of visual noise, which stressed me out and made it hard to focus. Not clutter, trash, or things that weren’t put away, just too much stuff.

What was all that stuff? Projects I didn’t want to forget. We all know that out of sight is out of mind, and once something goes in a WIP basket on a shelf? It ceases to exist for me, almost literally.

Don't even get me started on what it's like to come back 6 months - 8 years later and wonder where I left off, whether these are the same needles I was knitting with or if I swapped them for a placeholder at some point, what size I'm making, etc.

Remember that time I put my project down just for two weeks and managed to skip the bust darts and had to do major surgery?

I love the projects I’m working on, and don’t want to consign them to a crammed basket because I know that once I can’t see them, I’m going to move on to the next thing and the idea of getting back into them will be too overwhelming to overcome. So naturally, I leave them out, as part of my personal commitment and expression of love for them!

For about three weeks, my crafting table was full of these doll parts and quilt squares. So full, in fact, that I couldn't work on either project. I needed to free up space, but didn't want to lose my momentum.

Give those WIPs a lovely way to stay in your visual life. Clear drawers placed neatly on a shelf, flat drawers with large labels you can easily draw on or otherwise customize, baskets that open into the room so you can arrange your projects in a way that’s tidy and visible. Or, consider using your wips as decor.

My new solution for WIPs is to store them in shallow drawers with visual clues on the drawer fronts. It works for me because:

  • Easily changed tags mean I can quickly customize the drawer labels (I used stick-on business card holders). Extra tags are close at hand so I can also update a drawer's contents without making a special trip.
  • Clothes pins give me a cute snapshot of the textiles I'm using and all of the benefit of seeing the whole project.
  • Closed, solid-color drawers keep all these projects from being as visually "noisy" as they would be if the whole thing was out.
  • Shallow drawers means nothing to hide or get lost, and no opportunity to just "cram one more thing in there." One - two projects per drawer, that's it.

Just like that, the Little Girls have their own enticing space. This is their home and it's a pleasure to access it and use it.

    Knitting WIPs 

    My knitting WIPs get a similar treatment. Because yarn tends to look good on display, even if a project is just all balled up, these projects are allowed counter space. These baskets live on my built-in shelves.

    Staying organized means good documentation

    I love documentation. So I created tracking sheets that stay with my WIPs. They give me a place to capture broad project details, what I did last, and what's up next. I laminated the sheets so I can leave fresh notes every time I check a WIP back into storage.

    Want to download the printables for your own use? I'm happy to share a freebie! You can get yours here - there's a sewing page and a knitting page. Prefer to use mine as a starting point? Here it is in Canva - just make a duplicate and customize it 😊

    Most makers like us are highly visual people (I feel confident fabricating this internet-fact because there’s a well-socialized statistic that 65% of learners are visual learners, and I just kind of feel like visual artists have the lion’s share).

    That means we need to SEE things. So if you’re leaving your projects out because you’re afraid you’re going to do them dirty, own it, and make them contribute to your visual landscape instead of detracting from it.

    Tiny bites, my friend

    A few months ago, I downloaded an app designed to help build habits. The first three days, the only thing it wants you to do is wake up and drink a glass of water.

    I HATE water when I first wake up. Coffee, please. But I figured hey, this app is from brain scientists, I’ll give it a go.

    I felt so impatient, all the excitement of a new thing fizzling out over the first three days. I wanted to channel a bunch of New-Me-New-Life-New-Person-with-Good-Habits-Who-Has-It-Together energy into this one app, like some kind of faith, and the fact I couldn’t start adding MORE new habits was like sand in my salad.

    But I got up and drank my water for three days. And then on the fourth day, I got up and drank my water. On the fifth day, I actually wanted to drink that water. I haven’t missed a day since.

    I learned two things - one, if a step is small enough, any habit can be made. That’s the takeaway they planned for me, and sure enough, I get it.

    The other takeaway was more transformative though: New-Life energy is actually toxic. It persuades me to put way too much energy into something, to become temporarily obsessive, to make too many changes too fast, to believe that I have to be a zealot to be effective. It promotes all-or-nothing thinking, which is my fast-track to more ADHD burnout.

    So here’s my last tip. Take tiny bites. Whether it’s decluttering your craft room, planning a website overhaul, reaching the fabled inbox-zero, or knitting a new sweater - don’t overdo it. Leave yourself wanting the next bite, and walk away.

    Will your share your thoughts about preventing and recovering from ADHD burnout?

    I hope that this (way more personal than usual!) article is helpful if you’re feeling stuck somewhere in the way you approach fighting ADHD burnout as a creative. Or if you just want more time, or ideas, or even if you just can't stop asking "what you got in that room 🎶😂"


    I'm new to this! Kind of. I've had my own diagnosis for about five weeks, but I have some other experience that directly applies. In other words, I have a great framework for putting my new perspective into action. But in terms of living a brand new life? That's new. I know a lot of you are also ND and have some great tools to share with each me and with each other - so please feel free to share your experiences and tips in the comments!

    XOX,
    Jen

     

    An adhd-friendly sewing workspace with well-labeled drawers and supplies organized by color.
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    4 comments

    Leaving my WIPs out because otherwise they will cease to exist…that’s me 1000%! I love all of your concrete suggestions. I could previously never imagine why anyone would want such shallow drawers, but your system of keeping it limited in scope makes so much sense. I set a monthly reminder to review my WIPs (not just my knitting projects, but also life pursuits such as “learn a new language”) and check in with myself if they still feel aligned with what I want to put my energy towards. And if the juice is no longer worth the squeeze, I let myself drop that project because I have more worthy things to work on!

    Tonya

    Menopause has made me the poster child for adult adhd and I’ve been struggling to work out ways to manage my brain now that oestrogen isn’t supporting exec function anymore and these visual organising hints are SO GOOD. Thanks for sharing

    Kelly

    So much great information for anyone with any kind of burnout. My takeaway is that our beautiful creative brains really do come up with the best and most fun things to do and we need to acknowledge them and give them the right place to live and marinate until we can give them the properattention. Way better than listening to them all scream at once and we run wildly from one thing to the next and our house and family life burns down around us.

    Sarah

    Yes! So much good stuff here! Thank you for sharing! I implement a few of this ideas in one way or another, but I really appreciate everything you had to share.

    Chelsie

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