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Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.
Image: Austin Chan

Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.

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I would wake up, and it was there. I went about my day, and it was there. I would let my head hit the pillow in exhaustion at the end of the day, and it was still accompanying me. This low-level, ominous feeling had been following me around for months — contaminating every loud and quiet corner of my life. I even avoided counting the number of months that I consciously knew it was there. It started out as just feeling a little “off” or a little more worn out and wearied after each day of normal life-in-music tasks. Then, that dark cloud began to make its grim presence more known. I couldn’t shut it out because it was tied to everything that I loved. That feeling whispered to me in the darkness, “You’re not enough. Nothing you do matters. But don’t tell anybody that you feel this way because they won’t trust you with their projects.” I tried to do everything I knew to recharge: I cut out drinking, worked out more often, ate tons of vegetables, actively practiced self-care, and – most importantly – doubled-down on my work. My heritage is so full of that Midwestern, Protestant work ethic that it seeps from every pore. That tradition taught me, “If you’re feeling dull or distressed, just work harder.”

I started to get nervous. It wasn’t working. That dark cloud was getting darker. The fog was creeping into my practice and performance. It was creeping into my teaching. It was making it difficult to write and to record podcasts. I went to conferences and felt elated only to come home and feel even more defeated. I had to admit it: I was in total burnout.

I felt so sure. Now I don’t know…

“I can’t be burned-out,” I cried to myself. “My identity is built around being productive. I am a person who gets shit done.” Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting stuff done. I was not being productive. I needed to find that part of myself again. I needed to find the part of myself that created more energy by practicing, teaching, and writing. How do you create that energy? How do you reconnect with the ambition that drives you with greater productivity? Was it lost for good? Was this the moment that I begin to slip away slowly from my lifelong passion?

Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

“I don’t know what singing even looks like in my thirties,” I confided to a friend. “I felt really sure about what it looked like in my twenties. It looked like taking every job and getting lots of experience. It looked like a perpetually full calendar.” She asked, “Well, what do you want it to look like?” I whispered, “I don’t know.” I should have realized then that this would be the key to reconnecting with my productivity. Clarity. Clarity is the key. I had stopped dreaming up my audacious goals and had gotten stuck in the minutiae of “getting things done.” Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

Planning for a remarkable life

In an early 2017 episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss interviewed Debbie Millman, the incredible designer and founder/host of Design Matters, who described an exercise she calls “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” Millman recalled this exercise that she completed in a very early class session with Milton Glaser and that she now teaches her own students. He asked his students to write a detailed description that lists what their life would look like ten years from now. Then, he instructed them to read their essay every year. Millman also reminisced about finding her own essay from that class many years after she wrote it while moving house. She realized just how many goals she had planned for herself in that exercise that came to fruition.

You may be thinking, “A goal-setting exercise, Megan? Really? How mind-blowing…” But, stick with me. Remember that dark ominous cloud from earlier in this post? It wasn’t the vegetables, bubble baths, or motivational Pinterest quotes that helped me escape its path and rediscover my productivity mojo. It was this.

Working backwards from your major milestones

I started teaching a goal-setting exercise in my “Make It Rain” music business workshops before I stumbled across the Debbie Millman episode. However, this exercise shares some very similar points. The most important takeaway is to, “imagine yourself in the future.” For my goal-setting exercise, we start 20 years in the future. It is, at the time of this writing, the end of 2017, and 2018 is just around the corner. Let’s imagine you’re using this goal-setting exercise as a stand-in for your run-of-the-mill New Year’s resolutions. I like to plot this out on a timeline, an example of which you can see below. But you should pick the visual representation you like best.

career milestone timeline

First, look twenty years into the future. In 2038, who do you want to be? It is time to dream big. Think about where you will be in your life and career. What are the seemingly impossible goals that you would like to have accomplished? Then, the ten-year point on the timeline is a mixture of seemingly impossible and “highlights of a career” goals. This is the part in which you think about “what kind of legacy do I want to leave in my field or for my family?” Before we get to this goal-setting exercise in my workshops, I teach participants about what I consider the four levels of a career: generalist, specialist, expert, authority. We discuss how to strategically level-up from each one of those categories. The difference between your ten-year goals and your goals twenty years in the future is the difference between your goals as an expert in your field and your goals as an authority. An expert has a solid track record in handling complex, higher risk/higher profile projects and usually works with industry-leading clients. Let this help you brainstorm goals that have to do with complex projects and industry-leading collaborators. An authority receives honors and awards by professional peers for contribution to thought leadership. This could help you brainstorm goals that would fundamentally change your industry. Experts author seminal books on industry-related topics, perform (or speak) at leading national and international festivals/conferences, and influence a large fan/supporter base. An expert is also able to pick and choose work and enjoys “celeb status.” The easiest way I find to explain this is that an expert is someone who a reporter “inside the field” turns to for their opinion. An authority is someone who a reporter “outside the field” asks to comment on their general domain. You can hear it now, “Hmmm, I want to write a piece about opera. I’ll ask Renée Fleming…”

I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore.

As a personal note, when I returned to this exercise feeling utterly defeated by burn-out, this was the most difficult part of the exercise to do. I had pages of notes for things that needed to happen in the next few months. But thinking about my twenty-year goals? I was left with a big blank. I had lost sight of my biggest vision. I had lost sight of who I wanted to be in the farther future for the sake of the dopamine high of crossing off a to-do list in the now. In fact, I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore. If you haven’t been in that place, I hope you never have to experience it. If you have, please take even more time to dream up the most unbelievable, extraordinary, and astounding goals for your life. I want you to skip past the step in which others would say, “Who do you think you are?!” and march right on through to the point at which they might just faint in astonishment.

The halfway point

The five-to-six-year point of the goal timeline is where we identify the halfway point to those larger goals. When I have workshop participants complete this part of the exercise, we try to pinpoint the halfway milestones to big goals. For example, I will have some students suggest that they want to win a Grammy Award in ten to twenty years. We will often discuss that it is more likely to be considered for a Grammy when you have had a decent amount of recording experience in your history. But just recording regularly doesn’t make you magically ready to take home some hardware from the ceremony. Some of the things we also discuss include: writing/playing works about which you are deeply passionate, increasing your technical skills to be recording ready, finding a recording engineer you trust, working with a label, becoming a voting member or getting sponsored by two voting members, programming with a strong vision that still falls within the guidelines, and much more.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

What are the halfway points to your seemingly impossible goals? Can you achieve even more clarity on the most desired aspects of those goals? What I mean here is, is it important to you to win a Grammy because you love recording music? Or, do you want to win for different reasons? If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

Two-year goal actualization

You can take as many “business of music” courses as your heart desires, but nothing will be useful to you unless you know the trajectory you want to take. That is why we start at the farther end of the goal timeline. It’s the big goals that help us plan the course along the way. Now, our two-year goals are where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Your five-to-six-year goals hopefully began to look a little more realistic or timely to you. That’s a good sign.

If you’re like me, the two-year goals are where motivation starts to kick back in after I’ve scared the beejezus out of myself with the wildly ambitious goals. These begin to look like actual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. I had a student reveal to me that one of her big, audacious goals was to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT is an acronym for “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards.) We talked about how her two-year goal actualization would be full of auditioning and gaining experience in all four of those areas. It’s a rare honor to receive all four of those awards. To do so, you need to be undeniable in all of those arenas. You can’t avoid learning about how television gets made and focus all of your energy on stage acting if your big goal is to be an EGOT winner. Take a moment, now, to outline your two-year goals in alignment with your overarching “Who do you think you are?” career-spanning goals.

Quarterly goals with metrics

Finally, we’re getting closer to the here and now. Take your journal, or piece of paper, and sketch out the quarters between this moment and your two-year goals. In each one of those quadrants, give yourself a handful of assignments that you know will help you achieve the two-year goal(s) you wrote down. Remember our students who wanted to win Grammy awards? Maybe their quarterly goals include:

  • Make a repertoire plan that will progressively work toward the type of repertoire to be recorded.
  • Do an internship in a recording studio to learn more about the process.
  • Make a professional studio recording of a specific upcoming performance/recital.
  • Network (make sure to identify a specific place, specific event, or specific people) with audio/video recording professionals to learn more about who to have on my recording team in the future.
  • Record every practice session or performance to get used to listening to myself on recordings.
  • Listen to those recordings on the first weekend of every month.
  • Make a plan to post new recordings after the listening session.
  • Sit in on an editing session with specific friends or mentors to learn the process.
  • Ask specific friends or mentors for advice on working with labels, producers, and engineers.

None of these quarterly goals seem particularly difficult or challenging when we write them out like that. But, surely, you can think back to a time when you were dragging your feet because you just didn’t know where to start on a big project or a specific action didn’t make it onto your calendar. You had the big end goal in mind, but you didn’t know how to strategically plan out the micro-actions to get yourself there.

Busyness is no longer my currency

I scroll through social media and can see that I was never alone in these challenges. I find that many of my colleagues are suffering burnout. Their dark clouds are stifling all of the positive feelings they initially brought to their music careers. The signs are jumping out at me through the screen. There are many Type-A, workaholic, checklist-or-die types in our field. We wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We lament our low wages, lack of sleep, and wearing of seventeen hats even as we glorify this martyrdom in ourselves and others. Achievement for the sake of achievement is a chimera. Instead of slowly drifting away from the field, I found a way to recommit to my larger vision and passion again. I hope that you’ll do this exercise many times. I hope that you’ll do this exercise to keep you clear and sane. Finally, I hope you’ll do this exercise well before you desperately need it.


“The revelation of the evening was the performance of Salvatore Sciarrino’s odd one-woman operatic drama, Infinito Nero. Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen gave a mesmerizing dramatic and musical account of the strange mystic, Saint Mary Magadelen de Pazzi,” with SONAR new music ensemble in February 2014. Megan is a tireless promoter of contemporary classical music for the voice. She was invited as the only voice fellow to Fifth House Ensemble’s Fresh Inc. program in 2013 as well as at the 2012 Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. Her performance of... Read more »


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