Creative expression is one of the most sacred rituals in my life, and it’s nearly impossible to remember a time when I didn’t prioritize my constant pursuit of hobbies—which currently include crocheting, painting, sewing, quilting, jewelry and metalsmithing, and mapping out plans for my first dollhouse project. These hobbies are all things I come back to time and time again, especially in times of uncertainty or stress, and they have played an instrumental role in helping me navigate severe job burnout and one of the most difficult years of my life.
Through therapy and dedicating more time to creativity, I reached the other side of job burnout and learned to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs. But, a couple of years later, it felt as if the pendulum swung too far to the other side, and those feelings of exhaustion began to creep back in—only this time, it was connected to my favorite pastimes. I felt overwhelmed and drained and soon lacked inspiration and desire to do the things that once brought me so much joy and relief. It was burnout all over again, but for my hobbies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon caused by “chronic workplace stress,” and that’s how it’s been broadly understood and discussed in our popular lexicon. But Alana Carvalho, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor, says it’s entirely possible to burn out from non-work related causes, including hobbies. “This may likely occur if there’s a lack of balance between the hobby and other areas of life,” she explains. “Also, if someone puts high standards on themselves around the hobby, it may create stress that leads to burnout.”
This is exactly what happened to me. Because my hobbies were so essential to reversing my job burnout, I began putting more and more emphasis on these pursuits, and spent every second I could on my creative expression. Diving headfirst into my crafts initially felt so indulgent, and brought me back to myself. But the more I created, the more pressure I put on myself to perfect my work and learn more skills to expand my abilities. Soon enough, I was right back in the thick of burnout.
“Hobbies are meant to be fun—when you’ve stopped having fun with a hobby, it’s okay to move on.” —Alana Carvalho, LMHC
The irony of this situation, of course, is that hobbies are meant to be outlets for self-expression, free from societal pressures of perfection. But since American society conditions us to strive for unrealistic expectations—part of a larger issue with how we view success and performance—even our hobbies can get clouded with the woes of perfectionism.
In my situation, I also wanted to reverse job burnout so badly that I ended up dedicating way too much time to my hobbies. It’s one thing to carve out time daily for creative expression; it’s another to cancel yoga classes, ditch the dishes, and put pretty much all other daily activities on pause for more time spent tinkering away at my crafts.
“It’s important to be mindful about how much time you spend on a hobby,” says Carvalho. “If you see that it’s beginning to take a toll on you or take away from other important areas of life, it’s probably time to put some boundaries around the hobby, including how much time you’re devoting to it.”
How do you overcome burnout with a hobby?
Like addressing other forms of burnout, finding balance and recharging your creative battery is an essential place to start. To work through feelings of hobby burnout—or avoid it altogether—Valerie Ott, the editorial director at JOANN, says to take breaks from your work and seek out inspiration. “Going for walks around your neighborhood or on a nature trail can clear the cobwebs, and you might even find inspiration by observing the light, colors, or designs and patterns you encounter,” she says. “Finding inspiration in the works of others by perusing through magazines, books, or going to museums is another way to boost your own creativity and ward off burnout.”
Ott says “dabbling” in hobbies (i.e. jumping from one to another) is fairly common. While there’s nothing wrong with trying new things, this can lead to an overwhelming amount of inspiration that, albeit exciting, can act as a fast track to hobby burnout. “To avoid this, organize your ideas into Pinterest boards or in a creative journal and devote a period of time to dive into a new skill truly,” she suggests. By mapping out your interests and dedicating time to specific mediums, you can try the things you want to try without starting too many projects and feeling a lack of accomplishment from all the unfinished work.
One way to keep things organized is to dedicate each month to a new theme. So, if you really want to learn how to oil paint, Ott says you can dedicate a specific month to oil painting, where you spend your creative time researching, learning, and practicing methods. By giving yourself the time to learn something new, you not only limit the amount of unfinished projects and overwhelm of jumping back and forth, but you also promote balance by giving yourself enough time for one creative hobby instead of trying to squeeze all of your creative hobbies into a shorter time frame.
You can also set other limits for yourself that ensure you stick to your boundaries. “Set a budget for yourself so you don’t go buying supplies you won’t get around to using if you tend to jump from thing to thing—that way, your craft room won’t overwhelm you with craft guilt,” suggests Ott as an example.
Regaining motivation for my hobbies
When I began experiencing hobby burnout, I quickly tried to recalibrate. I knew that all of my interests and unfinished projects contributed to my feeling overwhelmed. I also knew that the excess time I spent on my hobbies created an imbalance in my life and added stress because I didn’t have the time to clean, exercise, or honestly just sit on the couch and watch a TV show without moving my hands.
To find motivation again, I first took a step back and looked at the times I like to craft, which is usually early morning and in the evening after dinner. I then allotted myself time to spend morning and night on my hobbies and added hobby dates to my calendar to keep track of my time limits. From there, I created a project tracker spreadsheet so that I could note my progress and have a place to store my research, project patterns, supplies list, and more. Doing this felt a little rigid at first, but it also allowed me to clear my mind and immediately gave me a sense of relief.
Through this process, I also assessed my interests and made note of the hobbies that bring me joy and the ones that I tried but didn’t feel connected to. “Hobbies are meant to be fun—when you’ve stopped having fun with a hobby, it’s okay to move on,” says Carvahlo. I didn’t realize it, but some of my works in progress were weighing me down, so ditching them helped me feel lighter and freer, with much more time to spend on accomplishing the projects I really wanted to finish.
Once I had some structure and balance in place, I slowly began to feel less overwhelmed and more inspired by my creative process. And, as it turns out, limiting the time spent on creating actually helped me feel more motivated to make.