You carefully plan out your practice time, declare your practice space sacred, build a routine and follow it faithfully. You get into a good groove, things are clicking for you, you feel adequately challenged and invigorated by your work. Good work! This is a good place to be! However, what happens if it doesn’t feel this way? Perhaps you used to eat sleep and breathe music, but now, all of a sudden, you find yourself physically exhausted even thinking about touching your instrument. You may even feel depressed–like something is wrong with you, that it shouldn’t be so hard. What happened? Chances are, if you’ve been putting in only a gazillion practice hours a day for a long time, you’ve landed yourself in The Magical Land Of Burnout.
So what is burnout, exactly?
Burnout is a lovely little place we can find ourselves in sometimes when we’ve been working too many hours, making too many demands of ourselves, or maybe even by working towards the wrong thing altogether. Our bodies might then decide that they’ve had it with the madness and start to manifest funny and interesting things like:
- Digestive upset
- Tremendous fatigue
- Exquisite irritability
The list goes on! You may then start finding yourself not caring about your work as much as you used to. Subsequently, your practice dwindles, and your performances suffer, adding to the spiral of feeling simply awful about everything. Good heavens! How do we avoid that, and, if we happen to already be there, how do we get out of it..? First, we need to understand some things:
A word on how we develop skill:
As human animals, we do not actually learn in a steady, visible climb. Really, progress shows up as a series of jumps. Check out this graph adapted from George Leonard’s book “Mastery”:
As seen on this graph, we appear to stay on one track for a long time, then suddenly hop up with a sudden well-placed breakthrough. If we don’t understand that this breakthrough could take a long time to occur, however, we may start to get worried. Our practice might get stale, or we’ll start putting in too many hours to force it to come sooner. If we’ve got nothing but an intense need to get better, sitting on one of these longer plateaus could feel like pure, unfettered agony. The trick here is to keep going even if you feel like all is lost, and learn to love the process, not just the projected outcome. This doesn’t mean doing the same ‘ol thing that landed you in this mess in the first place! We can think of the event of burnout as a sort of gift- something that makes us slow the heck down for a minute and evaluate what it is, exactly, that we are trying to accomplish here.
What am I even doing?
Do you remember why you decided to pursue music? What was it that made you dedicate yourself to this art? Now might be the time to take a minute and evaluate whether or not what you are doing truly lines up with what you want. Is this happening on your terms, or are you doing something that you feel is expected of you? If you do find that this isn’t the right thing for you to do, what is? Do you need to change instruments? Musical styles? It would be ideal for you to take a break at this point and do a little searching to see what it is that truly makes you jump up and say ‘yeah!’ (Even if it’s weird! Especially if it’s weird…).
Re-evaluate Your Routine.
If you find yourself in that wonderful little toasty rut of burnout, you may want to evaluate what your routine is like. Perhaps part of the issue is that your practice has just become very stale and isn’t grabbing your attention anymore. One way to shake things up is to change the way you practice. If you’re constantly practicing too far above or below your current ability, you will experience feelings of frustration/boredom, and you’ll likely want to give up. You want to entertain your abilities as they are now while stretching them just enough to keep yourself at the edge of your ability. See this quote from the Talent Code, written by Daniel Coyle: “The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.” Practicing in this space will make for more engaged practice. See this post for more on practicing.
Even if you don’t feel like it, let’s face it: if you want to be a musician, you have to play music. Even while you’re teetering on the edge of burnout! You may just need to retool your process and end goals to keep yourself afloat. It’s good to have goals in mind, but don’t let them run your life either, or else you’ll get squashed under expectations and miss the journey completely. Instead, try taking it one day at a time, focusing only on trying to do it at least a little better than you did before. Compete only with yourself! To help you keep motivated, try taking Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to skill building. This will give you visual confirmation that you’re moving forward and a breakthrough is just around the corner. Don’t break the chain!
Know when to take a break!
Finally, if you’ve absolutely had it and you’re close to quitting music forever and ever (and ever!), your health is suffering and you feel like you could actually explode, consider putting yourself on hiatus, or at least making sure you’re taking enough breaks. Perhaps the best thing for you now is time away from your instrument to give yourself a minute to breathe and let the fires die down. If you’ve got some time to think, you’ll give your body a chance to rest, and you may end up with new insights.
How about you?
How about you? Are you experiencing this now, or have you experienced it in the past? What was your outcome? Leave a comment below with your own experiences, we’d love to hear about your journey and what you learned about yourself!