How to Budget Energy for Creatives

An article in The Washington Post caused a stir this week by pushing back against Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy. The author, Rosa Brooks, argues that instead, women should fight for the right to Lean Back:

“Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.

We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”

As much as I enjoy leaning back and relaxing myself, this hardly seems like a recipe for success unless your only measurement of success is how many books you read.

For those of us who aspire to do a little more, those of us with ambitions and creative passions, leaning back will never cut it. Because for most of us, art is something we do on the side. It is work on top of the other work we do to support ourselves and our families. Pursuing passions is the opposite of Leaning Back. (Tweet this)

As Brooks rightly points out in her article, living this kind of life takes a toll. When Brooks tried the “Lean In” philosophy, she says,

“Soon, the rewards of leaning in doubled.

Then they quadrupled. Then they began to increase exponentially.

I leaned in some more. I ate protein bars and made important telephone calls during my morning commute. I stopped reading novels so I could write more articles and memos and make more handicrafts to contribute to the school auction. I put in extra hours at work. When I came home, I did radio interviews over Skype from my living room while supervising the children’s math homework.

And I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg.

Because, of course, I was miserable. I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in.”

So how do you navigate it in a way that won’t burn you out?

Well. You don’t do what Brooks did. Don’t volunteer for everything. Instead, you need to learn to budget your energy—much as you would your money and your time.

How do you budget energy? Glad you asked. I have four tactics (Tweet this):

1. Know What Matters to You
You can’t save your energy for what matters to you if you don’t know what those things are. If you’re a creative with a passion, one of these things should already be obvious—your art. But what about at your work? Your home life? Your values? Clearly defined priorities in every area of your life will help guide you to step up for the projects that give you energy.

2. Say No to Things That Don’t
When you volunteer for opportunities and demonstrate passion for your work and do that work well, more opportunities come your way. Brooks noticed this herself. This is great, but as Brooks found out, if you take every single one of them, it can also be a problem. (I’ve written about this before, check it out.)

Don’t let other people shove off their priorities onto you, and don’t worry that if you turn down one opportunity you’ll lose out on others. In my experience it’s just the opposite—it’s when I’m clear about my interests, skills, and time that the opportunities that best match my goals come to me.

3. Build Boundaries
Sometimes you agree to take on one piece of a project, but then that piece starts to magically expand into new areas you could never predict, and never would have agreed to if you’d been asked directly.

But always remember, you have the right to speak up for yourself—in fact, you’re the only one who will. It’s never too late to remind a group or individual of what you originally agreed to take on, and tell them as much as you enjoy supporting the overall effort, you simply are not able to take on other pieces.

In the workplace this isn’t always an option, but I see this most in volunteer situations—volunteer vampirism. Just say no to energy suckers.

4. Mindful monitoring.
There are some things that suck your energy that you can’t avoid. For me, riding the metro during rush hour is a big one—it’s chaotic and loud and overcrowded. Even if I feel fine when I leave my office in the evening, I can feel completely out of sorts by the time I reach home. But hey, I gotta get to and from work.

For these situations I use mindful self-monitoring to reduce the energy they steal from me. This starts with being aware of your energy levels and what builds and drains them—pay attention to how you feel over the course of your day. Then, it’s taking steps to preserve and restore your energy.

For me, this means I carry a book with me for metro reading, and I pay extra attention to my feeling and energy while navigating my route to and from work. When I catch myself expending energy on stupid things like being angry at that super slow walker in front of me on the escalator, I’m able to rein it back in. And I’ve learned that when I get home from work, I shouldn’t feel guilty about “wasting” an hour or so watching TV—it lets me recharge so that when I get back to some writing later in the evening, I’m reenergized and can focus better.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pressures and demands placed on us each day. But you don’t have to let life happen to you—you have more control over how you expend your energy than you might think (Tweet this). By knowing your priorities, setting boundaries and monitoring your energy, you can stop your life from overrunning you.

When you do, you might be surprised to find that you have a clearer mind, get more time for what you truly care about, and even better opportunities come your way.

How do you protect your energy?

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6 thoughts on “How to Budget Energy for Creatives

    • Glad to hear it Suzanne! Energy seems to be a resource that gets forgotten in our society, with the assumption that we can always do just one more thing. But we shouldn’t have to live like that!

  1. So. Needed. This. I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out to how to strive and achieve without burning out. You’ve provided a nice middle ground between kicking back and leaning in. Thank you so much!

    • Thanks Karen, so glad you found this helpful. My philosophy is, do what you love, forget everything else. Mentally, physically, emotionally, I’m just not a person who can do everything, and I finally learned to accept it these last few years. It’s made me more focused and happier–I wish you the same!

  2. Great post Emily, I couldn’t agree more with the point that sometimes you just have to say no. Over stretching yourself is a dangerous game, and in the long run just as destructive as leaning back all the time.

    I think Brooks totally misunderstood the point of Sandberg’s “Lean In” (or she took away points from it I missed) – for me that book was all about not holding back on your work/professional ambitions because of non-work related aspirations, like having a family one day. Very few men seem to factor in the desire to have a family when they take on an opportunity they really want, but I’ve seen women do it a lot. Even when they’re not even in a relationship…

    I should add I loved Sandberg’s book so may be biased; it definitely made me review my life priorities and has had a role in me prioritising my health and writing outside of work hours. But I still make sure I book in downtime, to do whatever I want, even if it’s nothing at all!

    • Thanks Alexa, I agree–I don’t remember anywhere in Lean In that Ms. Sandberg advocated for committing to everything equally. As I get older I’ve gotten better at identifying what I care about and what I don’t, and it makes it so much easier to put up those boundaries when you have clear projects you are passionate about that you want that time for!

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