Rolling out of bed naturally, I head to the bathroom, flip the light switch I’ve hit every morning for over a decade — and something feels wrong. I’m not struggling to find a switch or bumping into walls or tripping over suitcases. Today is the first normal Sunday I’ve had in weeks. It’s glorious.
There is no better feeling than the coziness of my own bed and the familiarity of my own house after weeks away.
I just returned from three weeks abroad, plus a week of driving, and a week at one of my artist retreats. I’ve been living out of a suitcase and realizing that I’ve not had a mental break in over four years. The candle has been burning at both ends, and the life of constant business, events, shows, columns, and running a company had me lost, burned out, and even a little unenthusiastic.
Yet this week, I’m a new man, refreshed and filled with ideas and the excitement to implement them. Problems and challenges bounce off my chest like bullets off Superman. I no longer have to fight through miles of spiderwebs in my brain. My burnout is gone.
Funny thing — I did not know I was burned out. Like all of us, I just keep plowing forward, doing what I need to do to survive. But there have been clues. Ideas were harder to come by, especially fresh ones. And I caught myself being a little grumpy in some tough moments in meetings. Very unlike the normal me. It was time for a break, but work had other plans for me.
The reality is that I went for four years without a break. Most of us did. When Covid hit, I launched a YouTube show called Art School Live. I did it because I knew everyone was lost and freaking out, and they needed someone to be there for them. I went live every day, seven days a week at 12 noon, for seven solid months. Then, because it was so hard on me and my staff, doubling our workload, I cut down from seven days a week to five days a week. Then last year I started replaying some old shows a couple of days a week and only doing three days live. Though I loved doing the show, I needed a break.
That natural break came when we made our first Fine Art Trip to Europe in four years. This was our 11th trip to see museums and art behind the scenes. And though it was fun and not especially challenging work, it’s not like I can sleep in or skip a day. And you can’t completely relax or let your hair down because you’re with customers all day for a couple of weeks.
But following the two weeks of art touring, and being around amazing art every day, I needed a vacation. So we took one. Five days in Majorca. No art, just being tourists, eating lots of gelato and tapas and being absorbed in the local culture.
But here’s the trick that worked so beautifully to give me a refreshed attitude, new ideas, and enthusiasm about getting back … and it’s a great way to overcome burnout.
You have to disappear from the world, bury your head in the sand, and ignore everything.
Here’s what I mean.
Once we started our official vacation, I set up a security net around my brain.
- No reality. I was in Spain to escape reality. I wanted to pretend I lived there. Thankfully my wife speaks Spanish fluently. So we tried to avoid using English whenever possible. I didn’t want to see or hear anything about America. I didn’t want to eat American food, or deal with other Americans. Being in another country is a great way to escape.
- No news. My wife is pretty good about keeping me posted about the world. But I asked her not to tell me anything about the news. No war, no conflict, no crisis. I told her she could tell me anything once we landed in America. I avoided all TV news in any language, and I refused to look at headlines on the newspapers as I walked by. I simply did not want to know and assumed I could do nothing about it anyway.
- No social media. I took the entire week away from social media. Though I did occasionally check messages for practical reasons, I did not open them if they were not relevant to a need on a trip. It was hard. My addiction to social media means always picking up my phone. It was hard to overcome, but I stayed off all social media feeds for an entire week. Of course social media tends to get newsy and political too. So it was another filter from the news.
- No English-language media. I love watching TV in foreign countries. It’s fun to see new products, shows we’ve never seen, in a language I can’t speak. And it’s a good way to learn some words. But I would not watch anything in English. Flipping through the channels, I avoided CNN, BBC, and even things like Discovery, if they were in English. Avoiding English has been a mental break.
- No e-mail. I refused to check e-mail, and I asked my assistant to deal with it all. She knows not to call or text me for any reason unless it’s critical. The only communication we had was about flights.
- No texting. I made the mistake of checking texts one day early in the week, and because a colleague had sent me a note about something, I got stressed out and I laid awake all night ruminating about a particular problem. It’s my own fault; I allowed it to bother me. But I should have not checked. So I did not text or check text the rest of the week.
I never really consider myself stressed out, but I realized from this experience just how much stress there is in my life. I don’t mind it; I thrive on solving problems or facing challenges. But I think the key to living among stress is the ability to escape it and separate yourself from it.
Now, after my little weekly experiment, I plan to spend weekends off of social media, e-mail, and texting. Nothing can be that important, right?
On a typical night before bed, I’m on social media for a couple of hours, just doom scrolling. That ends now. I’ll replace it with painting time or hobby time. Let’s see if I can do it.
We tell ourselves that we can go on vacation and stay in touch on e-mail. That’s a mistake, and I tell my employees not to do it, to avoid work 100 percent. You may think the world will fall apart without you, but you need an escape. And a week without any business e-mail will do more good than you realize.
What about you? What are you stressing about?
Do you need an escape?
We can’t always go to a foreign country, or travel at all, but we can take reality breaks from media and social media for a weekend or even a week.
The end result is you’ll be happier, you’ll have to find other things to replace all that scrolling time, and you’ll grow from the experience.
If you can’t put your phone down to enjoy a conversation at dinner, your addiction is impacting your life and relationships, whether you realize it or not. My kids were always pointing it out to me. So I need to stop the addiction. I’m not sure if I could leave my phone at home, but it’s worth a try.
At Thanksgiving, just around the corner, friends tell me all phones go into a basket for dinner. Otherwise everyone is always looking at their phone and missing everything that’s going on.
What did we do before we became addicted to our phones, social media, and the news?
Happily I have my hobbies of painting and woodworking to escape to. If you don’t have anything, find something. It will do you a world of good. But most importantly, try to escape. You’ll thank me later.
On my trip I met a guy, and the conversation went like this….
Me: What do you do outside of work?
Him: Not much, really. I read the paper and check my investments.
Me: Do you have any hobbies or interests?
Me: What will you do when you retire?
Him: Probably die or play a lot of golf.
Me: So you play golf?
Him: Nope. But I’ll probably take it up because that’s what all my friends do.
Me: So you’re looking forward to it?
Him: Not really.
My best advice: Find something now. Don’t wait. Whether it’s bird-watching or stamp-collecting, it’s important to have something else. If for no other reason than because of what I mentioned above.
Tens of thousands of people have used our website PaintTube.tv to discover how to paint. Maybe there is something there for you.
I just finished our online Realism Live seminar yesterday. Our next one is about watercolor, in January. You can learn about it at WatercolorLive.com.